New Study: Breastfeeding Isn’t Free

According to the new study “Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women,” which appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, breastfeeding isn’t really free. The study followed 1,313 first-time mothers who breastfed during the first year of their babies’ lives between 1980-1993. All had been employed at least a year prior to the births of their children and all experienced an earnings loss during the period in which they were breastfeeding. The longer the duration of breastfeeding, the steeper the earnings loss.

According to the release from the American Sociological Association regarding the study:

“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,” [co-author Phyllis L. F.] Rippeyoung said. “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.”

The study revealed that long-term breastfeeding women sacrificed substantial income after giving birth, especially when compared to short-term breastfeeders and formula-feeders. This was due to the fact that long-term breastfeeders were likelier to switch to part-time work, or to leave the workforce entirely.

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit.

Not to be snarky, but anyone who’s ever breastfed knows it’s pretty much full-time work. Babies need to eat frequently, it can take them a long time to do it, and a woman’s body needs significant resources to keep up with demand. Even a mom who goes back to work and pumps instead of nursing in-person has to take chunks of time out of her day to find a private spot, set up her pump, express milk, clean the pump, store the milk, and get back to her own workspace afterwards. It’s not like stepping out to the restroom.

The Affordable Care Act has put some protections in place for nursing moms in terms of the time and space employers must offer to accommodate pumping, but the breaks are not required to be paid if they aren’t concurrent with existing mandated breaks. The result can be purchasing formula to supplement, dropping back to part-time work, or leaving the working world altogether, with serious financial repercussions.

And don’t get me started on daycare providers who aren’t well-trained in handling breast milk — or the time and effort it can take for a mom to educate her provider and get a good system of providing expressed milk to her baby going. My first daycare provider thought that carrying a day’s worth of bottles in a small cooler with an ice-pack all day (in DC … in June) that she kept on the go was the appropriate way of handling expressed milk. That, among other things, led me to abruptly switch providers, which ended up requiring me to unexpectedly work from home for almost two weeks while I waited until a slot in another daycare center opened up.

Karen, a lawyer from Georgia, had a provider who threw away unused breastmilk at the end of every day even though the Georgia Department of Health’s website states that breastmilk can be stored for 4-8 days. “When my toddler was an infant, I wanted him to have breastmilk even at daycare. So I pumped like my life depended on it. At first, I took in extra because you just never knew how much he’d want to eat. But I had to stop taking in extra once I realized my daycare was pouring out the extra bottle or leaving it on the counter, unrefrigerated for periods of time. They just wouldn’t make a distinction between breastmilk, which COULD be stored, and formula which could not. To say that I was frustrated, angry, and often felt defeated was a serious understatement.”

In fact, a 2011 study of daycare centers in Cincinnati showed that only 12% of infants were receiving breastmilk at daycare, and one of the biggest stumbling blocks was inadequate refrigeration accommodations for breastmilk. (If you’re having trouble with a licensed provider about breastmilk storage and handling, please check with the state licensing board for child care. There should be policies on the books for proper breastmilk handling.)

Even if a job isn’t a factor, SAHMs can feel a productivity hit, as well. Moms who are staying at home with a baby for the full duration of breastfeeding can experience the loss of entire days of productivity. Because 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.

Breastfeeding isn’t free. It costs time, focus, energy, and yes, money and opportunity for many women. Some parts of that can’t be avoided (3 a.m. feedings are never going away) but the decision to breastfeed shouldn’t undermine a woman’s ability to earn money to support her family.

We all need to realize the value of what nursing moms do and find ways to support them. Ideally, our government would step up and make paid parental leave a reality. The U.S. is one of the only nations in the developed world that requires employers to offer absolutely no paid parental leave (under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employers do have to offer up to twelve weeks leave for employees who have been there for over a year, but that time isn’t necessarily paid). Giving mothers more time to stay home and nurse, without losing their entire income in the process, is good for moms and good for babies. Barring laws to financially support working mothers in the early months of breastfeeding, employers who wish to retain good employees once they become parents need to understand the time and space needs of a pumping mom and work out personalized plans for pumping milk. A meeting with the mom and HR should be all that’s required to establish a plan that benefits the company, the mom, and the baby.

Read more from Rebekah at Mom-in-a-Million, The DC MomsThe Broad Side
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