Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Breastfeeding
April 27, 2012

Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Breastfeeding

Connie K. Ho for

Breastfeeding has suddenly become more popular, with celebrities like music star Beyoncé, musician Gwen Stefanie, and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal doing it openly. However, how does breastfeeding add up cost-wise? Some would say that it´s free, while a new study would argue otherwise. The report, "Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women," is published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study looked at 1,313 first-time mothers who had a child between the ages of 20 and 30, but who also held a job for a year prior to the birth of the child. Researchers Mary C. Noonan, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa, and Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, saw that mothers who never breast-fed and used formula, mothers who breast-fed for less than six months, and mothers who had breast-fed for more than six months had different earning losses after having the child.

"Breastfeeding for six months or longer is only free if a mother's time is worth absolutely nothing," remarked Noonan, in a prepared statement.

Generally, though, the women who had breast-fed for more than six months had steeper and more prolonged losses earning losses than mothers who had never breast fed or mothers who had breast fed for less than six months.

"When people say breastfeeding is free, I think their perspective is that one doesn't have to buy anything to breastfeed whereas one needs to purchase formula and bottles to formula-feed," explained Rippeyoung in the statement. "But, this simplistic view doesn't take into consideration the hidden cost: the substantial income women often lose when they breastfeed for a long duration. To me, I see it as being highly related to how women's unpaid work has always been undervalued."

They found that those who breast fed over six months tended to switch to part-time jobs or just stopped working.

"We see that the ability to intensively mother via long-duration breastfeeding is class-biased," commented Noonan, who is coauthor of the study. "Women who breastfeed tend to be white, college educated, and married. Additionally, on average, women who breastfeed are more likely to be married to college-educated men, men who can financially facilitate women taking time out of the labor force."

The authors believe that there aren´t many data subsets that look at the correlations between women breastfeeding and women working in the office.

"There are some longitudinal datasets that look at breastfeeding and parenting, but we needed longitudinal data that included information on both breastfeeding and women's work behaviors," noted Rippeyoung. "Very recent data with that type of information proved difficult to come by. We hope this study will encourage people to collect newer data looking at breastfeeding and work behaviors, so that we can determine whether the trends we see from mothers who gave birth in the 1980s and early 90s still hold true today. However, there is little to make us believe the trends would be very different."

In terms of the policy implications of their study, the authors believe that it could help develop legislation to protect women´s rights to breastfeed in the workplace.

"Currently, breastfeeding promotion focuses almost exclusively on encouraging women to breastfeed–without providing adequate economic and social supports to facilitate the practice–a reality that helps reproduce gender, class, and racial inequality," Rippeyoung stated. "Legislation more supportive of breastfeeding would include paid parental leave and onsite daycares. Unless these or other policies are put in place, formula-feeding will continue to be the only realistic option for many women in the United States."