You hear it all the time: one of the reasons to choose breastfeeding over formula, in addition to all the well-known health advantages, is that it’s free. No need to stockpile expensive formula, bottles, and so forth. You can meet your baby’s nutritional needs, for the first six months at least, with zero economic outlay. Just think of how much more you can deposit into junior’s college fund!
But if breastfeeding’s so cheap, why do so many women spend so much money doing it? Between the lactation consultants, nursing bras and tanks, Boppy pillows with vintage cloth covers from Etsy, and a hospital-grade breast pump for when mama goes back to work, a nursing mother can end up spending a small fortune. And that’s not even counting the financial hit involved in taking time away from work or negotiating a schedule that allows for nursing or pump breaks. Every mother is different, and so is every baby. So it’s impossible to quantify the expenses of the average nursing or bottle-feeding mother: and many, many women do both. But a little research and a handy chart can provide ballpark figures for just how much each option costs.
Certainly, the decision to breastfeed is a very personal one, but there has to be a reason why the women most likely to initiate breastfeeding and most likely to continue for the full year recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics are those inhabiting the highest income brackets.
Here’s the breakdown of real-world bottle versus breast costs. It’s a far cry from the “free vs. thousands” quote we usually hear.
The breastfeeding mother who stays home the entire first year with her baby and successfully nurses on demand can get away with spending literally no money on her child’s nutrition until she introduces solids (and then, if she follows the dictates of the baby-led-weaning movement she will spend no more than she’s already spending on the family’s meals). This mom requires no formula, no bottles, no pump, no lactation consultant, no Boppy. If you allow for a few nice nursing bras or tanks, you can figure her expenditures for baby’s first year at around $100. Of course, she can’t be away from her baby for long, which means she probably needs to be able to survive without a job. This kind of breastfeeding is pretty much the exclusive province of women who are independently wealthy or who have partners who make enough to support the family.
Some women desperately want to breastfeed their children, and have nothing but trouble along the way. In the worst-case scenario, this can add up to a very expensive, not to mention heartbreaking and exhausting, situation. Between lactation consultants, breast pumps, special herbs and tinctures and even prescription medication, the cost of breastmilk can be high indeed.
Some babies get formula in bottles right from the start, and their parents never look back. But there are bottles and there are bottles. For the truly needy, formula and other bottle-feeding supplies can be obtained free of charge from WIC (the federal nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children). (According to the Washington Post, the WIC program purchases nearly 60% of the infant formula purchased in this country, despite official government policies to promote breastfeeding.) For the rest, there are free bottles to be had from pediatricians and hospitals at the beginning, and coupons available from the major formula companies for months to come. And given federal regulations mandating strict guidelines for infant formula nutrition, there’s no real reason to buy anything but the store brands from Target, Wal-Mart, or Costco, which clock in at under half the price of their name-brand twins.
For those whose children have special nutritional requirements, such as prematurity or food allergies (as well as those who’d rather not feed their babies the same formula poor people use), there are some truly pricey options out there, from soy to organic to hypoallergenic formulas. Add in glass bottles and all the nicest accessories, and you could send your nanny to Disneyworld for less.
Although there are plenty of women who will find themselves in one of the categories above, many if not most will experience some combination. A typical scenario goes like this:
The real bottom line, of course, is that breastmilk is the best food for babies and, all things being equal, should be the first choice.
Click to view chart. Middle-class women with professional jobs tend to get a short but significant maternity leave; it’s long enough to establish nursing but short enough that a return to work comes months before the introduction of solids, and many months before the AAP’s recommended one-year mark. For these women, breastfeeding a baby is almost always a several-stage affair: months 0-3 are spent exclusively breastfeeding, months 3-6 are a blur of working and pumping, and after that, as supplies almost inevitably go down, most end up supplementing with formula, if they haven’t already.
The real bottom line, of course, is that breastmilk is the best food for babies and, all things being equal, should be the first choice. But let’s be frank about the financial reality. When economists write about the cost-benefit analysis of breastfeeding, they compile data from huge populations in determining that breast is cheaper than bottle. When it comes to individual families, the financial advantage isn’t so clear-cut. If we want to make sustained breastfeeding easier for women, we need to make sure they have the financial support they need. And that means acknowledging that unless their work life is fully flexible and they have no complications, they’ll probably spend at least some money on the “free” option.
Photo Credit: Sheri Reed