Along with a list of breast-feeding’s health benefits for mothers and children, pediatricians often tout an added bonus -- unlike formula, breast milk is free.
Not so fast, researchers say. Breast-feeding comes with a cost to new moms that is often overlooked, according to a new study published in the American Sociological Review. The study looked at data from 1,313 first-time mothers in the U.S. who were in their late 20s or 30s when they gave birth.
Women’s incomes dropped precipitously when they choose to breast-feed for six months or longer -- and they remained low some five years after the babies were born, says the study’s lead author, Phyllis L.F. Rippeyoung, an assistant professor of sociology and coordinator of women’s and gender studies at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
Rippeyoung’s interest in the hidden costs of breast-feeding was sparked by personal experience. When she became a mom, she was flooded with information about the benefits of breast-feeding -- including the suggestion that it would save her money.
“I thought that it was weird that they were saying it was free,” Rippeyoung remembers. “I was a grad student at the time driving back and forth between teaching and classes, and my milk was drying up since I couldn’t drive and pump at the same time. It was a very difficult thing, but I had to stop breast-feeding. If I’d continued I couldn’t have worked at the same time.”
The data for the new study came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which included information about the moms’ jobs and incomes, as well as stats on their family life, including the decision to give their babies formula or to breast-feed for a short duration (less than six months) or a long duration (six months or more).
The researchers found that on average women who breast-fed their babies for six months or longer experienced a dramatic drop in income. Five years after the birth of their babies, the women were still making about $5,000 per year less than they had before the birth of their children.
One factor that explained much of the drop in income was a reduction in hours -- and this was true even though most of the women in the long-duration group were managers or professionals and said they worked because they liked to.
Rippeyoung doesn’t think that breast-feeding needs to come at such a cost -- and she isn’t advocating that women give it up.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” she said. “If there were more ways in which women could combine breast-feeding with working you’d see less of this earnings decline."
One thing that could help is if more companies offered on-site day care and allowed women time to visit their babies during working hours, she said.
“If there’s going to be a push for women to breast-feed then we need to take into account all of the costs,” Rippeyoung said. “And the responsibility for raising the children shouldn’t be solely borne by women.”