The hidden costs of breastfeeding

WASHINGTON, DC, April 26, 2012 — Pediatricians and other breastfeeding advocates often encourage
new mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months of their infants’ lives based on the purported health benefits to both mothers and children. Many breastfeeding proponents also argue that
breastfeeding has financial advantages over formula-feeding—breastfeeding is free, they say. But,
according to a new study, the notion that there’s no cost associated with breastfeeding for the
recommended amount of time is patently untrue.

“Breastfeeding for six months or longer is only free if a mother’s time is worth absolutely nothing,” said
Mary C. Noonan, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa, and coauthor of the
study, “Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women,” which
appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study relies on a nationally representative sample of 1,313 first-time mothers in the United States,
who were in their 20s or 30s when they gave birth between 1980 and 1993 and who were employed in
the year before their first children were born. Noonan and Phyllis L. F. Rippeyoung, an Assistant
Professor of Sociology at Canada’s Acadia University, found that formula-feeders (i.e., mothers who
never breastfed), short-duration breastfeeders (i.e., mothers who breastfed for fewer than six months),
and long-duration breastfeeders (i.e., mothers who breastfed for six months or longer) all experienced
earnings losses after giving birth. However, on average, long-duration breastfeeders experienced much
steeper and more prolonged earnings losses than did mothers who breastfed for shorter durations or not
at all.

“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,” 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.”

According to the study, long-duration breastfeeders sacrificed considerable income after giving birth
compared to short-duration breastfeeders and formula-feeders, largely because long-duration
breastfeeders were more likely to switch to part-time work or to leave the workforce entirely.
“We see that the ability to intensively mother via long-duration breastfeeding is class-biased,” Noonan
said. “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 noted that there are extremely few datasets that consider both breastfeeding and women’s
work behaviors. “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,”
Rippeyoung said. “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.”
As for the study’s policy implications, Rippeyoung and Noonan said their research highlights the need to consider federal legislation that would more broadly protect the rights of all mothers to breastfeed at the
workplace and compensate them for the unpaid labor associated with this type of infant feeding,
especially if the government is going to continue to push for women to breastfeed. Until 2010, the authors
said, no federal legislation existed in this arena, which meant that employers were not bound by federal
law to accommodate or not discriminate against breastfeeding mothers. The Patient Protection and
Affordable Care Act of 2010 includes limited protections for breastfeeding that simply ensure women get
breaks to express their breast milk during the work day and have non-bathroom space where this activity
can take place.
“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 said. “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.”
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About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership
association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and
profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. The American
Sociological Review is the ASA’s flagship journal.

The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the
full study, contact Daniel Fowler, ASA’s Media Relations and Public Affairs Officer, at (202) 527-7885 or
pubinfo@asanet.org.

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