In the perpetual debate over breast-feeding, breast-feeding advocates make one point over and over: Breast-feeding costs a lot less than formula. Considering how much money new parents find themselves spending — baby furniture and clothes! medical bills! a higher rent or mortgage payment so baby can have her own room! — the idea of an almost-free food source is very appealing.
In a narrow sense, it's true that breast-feeding is inexpensive. But that's only true if you assume your time has no value. Once you take into account the hundreds of hours the average breast-feeding mother spends nursing and pumping, breast-feeding doesn't seem so affordable after all.
This doesn't mean breast-feeding is a bad idea. I'm breast-feeding my eight-month-old daughter and I've found the experience very rewarding. But if you're a new mother who doesn't enjoy breastfeeding, it probably doesn't make sense to do it just for the fairly modest cost savings.
Nursing costs money. Formula costs more.
Even in monetary terms, breastfeeding isn't totally free. Nursing moms need a few nursing bras (I splurged and bought three of the $50 Bravado Seamless; Target sells a similar-looking bra for $25) and may get other "accessories" of varying levels of usefulness (I used my $30 nursing pillow for about a half a day before relegating it to the closet, while the MammaBaby app I bought for $3.99 to track the baby's feedings was tremendously valuable).
Also, the mother eats extra so her body can create enough milk to feed her baby, which adds to the grocery bill.
Those are just the basics. Mothers who have trouble breast-feeding at first, as I did, may get a private session with a lactation consultant. Ours cost $280 and wasn't covered by insurance. (I could have attended a free class at my local breast-feeding center, but five days post-partum I had no desire to navigate DC traffic to get there.)
But these costs are low compared to formula. A month's supply of Similac, one of the top-selling formula brands in the US, is around $110. If the baby has allergies or digestion issues and needs a special type of formula, costs can run up to $350 a month or beyond. Plus you have to buy bottles (around $50 for enough that you're not washing bottles constantly) and maybe a bottle warmer ($30) and bottle-cleaning brush ($3 each).
Add it all up, and a family can save more than $500 by following the World Health Organization's recommendation to breast-feed a child for the first six months of his or her life. (Though a $280 lactation consultant visit cuts into those savings significantly.)
Nursing takes less money but a lot more time for the mother
In a broader sense, however, breast-feeding is quite costly. That's because breast-feeding takes time, and time has value.
In the first month after my daughter was born, she spent up to four and a half hours per day eating. That time has decreased as she's gotten older and more efficient, but even now she eats around two hours a day.
Because of the nature of breast-feeding, nursing mothers end up providing the majority of those feedings. In families that formula-feed, the father or non-nursing partner can give a few feedings per day, as can another member of the family, or a babysitter. This is not so in families that breast-feed: Nursing requires the mother to bear the time cost of feeding the baby. Those hours she spends breast-feeding the baby are hours she cannot spend doing something else, like paid work, or leisure, or household tasks.
(This is why, as this Babble post from a few years ago points out, even stay-at-home moms are affected by productivity losses associated with breast-feeding: "a baby who’s having a growth spurt and nursing around the clock isn’t gonna understand — or care — that mom was hoping to mop the floors and pay the bills that day.")
The Affordable Care Act includes provisions that help to lessen the burden of breast-feeding on women. Health insurance is now required to cover the cost of a breast pump, and many employers must provide a room in which mothers can pump and store their milk — that way, a family member or paid caregiver can feed the baby pumped breast milk while the mother is at work. These accommodations help spread out the responsibility of feeding the baby, so it's not all on the mother. But they are not cost-free, either.
For workers who are paid hourly — even at a low wage — these costs add up quickly. Suppose a new mother spends an hour per workday pumping and makes $15 per hour. That adds up to around $300 per month in lost wages, vastly more than the cost of formula, without even considering the extra time she spends nursing outside of work hours.
Even for salaried moms like me, breast-feeding has real costs
I was fortunate to have a fully paid 12-week maternity leave, so I was not missing out on wages by taking time to feed my daughter in her early months. And since I have a salary and am not paid by the hour, I don't literally lose earnings for pumping milk now that I am back at the office. But there's no question that pumping two or three times a day hampers my productivity at work.
These costs are not just theoretical. A 2012 study in the American Sociological Review by Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung and Mary C. Noonan found that mothers who breast-feed for six months or longer experience more severe and more prolonged earnings losses than mothers who formula feed or breast-feed for shorter than six months. That's because breast-feeding mothers are more likely to work part time or drop out of the workforce altogether.
"Breast-feeding is extremely time-consuming. Obviously, work is, too. It's very hard to do both simultaneously," Noonan, an associate professor at the University of Iowa, said.
Of course, we are not completely economics-driven beings. I've loved nursing my daughter in ways I'm almost embarrassed to write down because I know how corny I sound: I love feeling close to her. I love that the nourishment I was providing for her while she was in the womb is continuing now that she is outside of it.
On a more practical note, I love knowing that she is receiving some health benefits from nursing. I love how nursing made it relatively easy for me to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight. I love how easy it is to travel with her, or even to just leave the house for several hours at a time with her — no need to mix bottles of formula and lug them around with me.
But all those benefits did not come free. Considering the time it takes to breast-feed a child, and the costs associated with that time, should be part of every woman's calculations when she decides whether or not to breast-feed her baby.