There are two things everyone know about breast-feeding: Breast milk is the “perfect food,” and breast-feeding is free. But in fact it’s not free at all. A new study finds that new moms who breastfed for six months or longer experienced a much larger and longer income loss than other news moms. As it turns out, breast-feeding is a very expensive choice.
Hanna Rosin hit on this point in her 2009 Atlantic piece “The Case Against Breast-Feeding”:
Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let’s say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That’s nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is “free,” I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It’s only free if a woman’s time is worth nothing.
Breast-feeding advocates are passionate people. Recently they’ve been lobbying to prevent hospitals from handing out free samples of baby formula to brand-new mothers because they say it discourages breast-feeding. Unsurprisingly, another recent study found that high cultural expectations around breast-feeding leave many new mothers pressured to breast-feed, and guilty if they don’t.
Meanwhile, things are getting a little better for working mothers who do decide to breast-feed. President Obama‘s health care law mandates that employers with more than 50 employees offer lactating mothers “reasonable break time” for nursing, along with “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.”
Those requirements are a good thing; no one wants to hound breast-feeding moms out of the work-place. (Well, no one except this guy.) The authors of the new study found that one of the main reason breast-feeding women dropped out of the workforce or reduced their hours was that their employers weren’t supportive. So workplace accommodations matter.
But even with all the accommodations in the world, it’s important to remember that breast-feeding is a huge time commitment. As the study’s co-author, Phyllis Ripppenyoung told ABC News, ”There are these public health prescriptions that women are being told to breastfeed or otherwise they are going to harm their baby, but if she’s going to be given these sorts of messages, she should be told to take into account earnings losses.” Breast milk may be the perfect food, but it isn’t free.