Rethinking Healthcare

The unmentioned costs of breastfeeding

The unmentioned costs of breastfeeding

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A new study highlights the loss of income that can accompany the time demands of breastfeeding.

Researchers have linked breastfeeding with benefits ranging from lower chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, to higher cognitive abilities, to enhanced immunity. And unlike pricey formulas, breast milk is free, right?

Only if you don't count the cost of a mother's time, says a new study in the journal American Sociological Review.

If the recent backlash over Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen's comment that stay-at-home-mom Ann Romney "has never actually worked a day in her life," taught us anything, it's to not undervalue a mother's time.

"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," the study's coauthor Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung said in a press release. "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."

Given the large number of studies published on the health benefits of breastfeeding, Rippeyoung questions why more researchers haven't tried to quantify women's loss of income while breastfeeding. "This is an important omission, given that the majority of women today work for pay, and many work in job environments incompatible with breastfeeding," her study states.

Rippeyoung and her coauthor Mary C. Noonan found that women who breastfeed for six months or longer (per pediatricians' recommendations) have significantly greater earnings losses than women who breastfeed for less time or not at all. This larger loss in earnings comes from reduced hours spent working for income.

"We see that the ability to intensively mother via long-duration breastfeeding is class-biased," Noonan says in the press release. "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."

It makes sense for the U.S. Surgeon General to encourage breast feeding because it can pay off in terms of reducing child healthcare costs. But If the government is going to continue to push for breastfeeding it also needs to push equally hard for policy towards more social and workplace support for breastfeeding women, otherwise the practice's pro-health benefits will remain in the realm of the privileged.

Photo: Hamish Darby/Flickr

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure