The economics of breastfeeding

10 Jul

The title of this post may seem counter-intuitive. Because breastfeeding is free compared to buying formula and bottles, right? So it should be the cheapest and easiest option for women to feed their babies. But if anything, my two-week struggle to get our baby on the boob has encouraged me to reflect on how my own economic and class privilege is allowing me to persevere, with many excellent resources at my disposal. According to Statistics Canada, 87.5% of mothers attempted to breastfeed their babies in 2009, if only for a very short time. But the disparities are more apparent when you dig deeper into what the numbers tell us:

  • Women with a postsecondary diploma or degree were more likely to begin breastfeeding their babies than those without a postsecondary diploma or degree (90.4% compared with 81.9%).
  • Of the 12.5% of new mothers who did not attempt to breastfeed, 28.4% cited medical factors (e.g., C–section, premature birth, multiple birth, or medical condition of mother or baby) as the main reason for not breastfeeding.
  • Of those who did begin to breastfeed, 6.9% stopped after less than one week and by one month 21.4% had stopped. However, in terms of those who continued to breastfeed, 53.9% who initiated breastfeeding continued for six months or longer; 15.9% breastfed for more than a year.

This all makes sense to me. Without a rock-solid support network, an involved and attentive co-parenting partner and a significant financial outlay, I don’t know if I would still be working so hard to get Daphne to nurse.

I am passionate about breast feeding, because I have read the research. I know that breast milk is the best possible food for my baby, tailor-made to her physical and neurological development. I am a married middle class Caucasian woman with a  graduate degree, a mortgage and a full-time job with excellent benefits. My employer is topping up my government maternity benefits to 93% of my full salary. I am literally being paid to parent, so I am not terribly concerned if I spend most of the next few weeks teaching my baby this crucial skill.

I also shelled out a significant amount of money over the last two weeks, to help facilitate Daphne’s breast feeding ability. Here’s a list of what we did and what it cost:

  • Two chiropractic appointments: $130 (will be covered by workplace health benefits)
  • Tongue tie laser surgery: $500 (will be covered by workplace dental benefits)
  • Two sessions with a lactation consultant — one in a group setting, one at home: $150 (not covered by insurance)
  • Rental of hospital-grade breast pump: $75, plus $50 worth of bottles and non-reusable parts (not covered by insurance)

Total financial outlay: $905 — so by no means free.

In reality, there are many free breast feeding resources in the city I live in, including daily drop-ins at community health centres in lots of different neighbourhoods. Some of these centres also lend out breast pumps for free. But I only heard of this after the fact, through word-of-mouth. And accessing these free resources means having to leave the house in the very early postpartum days. It also means that you need to have access to a car or be willing to take the bus with a three-day old baby. I would hazard to guess that by the time most new moms are ready to leave the house, the precious window for establishing a solid latch and an adequate milk supply have probably passed.

Also: I can tell you that if Daphne’s birth story had ended in a c-section. I cannot imagine that I would be persevering. I am convinced that I largely avoided a c-section because I was under the care of midwives (there is a shortage in Ontario) and because our amazing doula helped me hold off on getting an epidural for as long as possible.

Thanks to all of the (expensive) professional resources that we accessed in the first two weeks of Daphne’s life, I am now happy to report that she is nursing — finally! We are using a nipple shield for now and it seems to be an excellent tool to transition her off of the bottle. I don’t plant to use it forever, but it seems to be doing the trick to help kick-start her mouth reflex. Two weeks and $900 later, we finally have a baby that sucks.

Our baby does suck!

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8 Responses to “The economics of breastfeeding”

  1. Emma July 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    It’s a bit disingenuous to title the post ‘the economics of breastfeeding’. I am doubtful that your experience is typical of most new parents. I for one could never have afforded a doula, a private lactation consultant, state-of-the-art pump, laser surgery on a tongue tie. We had difficulties establishing breastfeeding at the start too. My public health nurse snipped my son’s tongue tie with her fingernail. I got a second hand pump for free. I got a lovely La Leche League member to come to my home for free. She brought with her another pump, shields, kindness and muffins.

    Breastfeeding can be challenging at the start, but you do not have to be wealthy to access support services – most of them are there for free.

    Good post though, it’s worthwhile highlighting some of the resources parents-to-be should have in place prior to the birth in case breastfeeding does not go smoothly.

    • Queer Femme Mama July 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

      You are absolutely right! I just wanted to point out that I was able to access these services because of a certain amount of economic privilege. There are lots of free community resources available too, they are just not always as easy to access (and the same ones aren’t accessible in every city). Many women are lucky and their babies are able to nurse from day one. But since sharing my story, I have heard from so many who had a rough start and needed help. I published the numbers out of a desire to be transparent about the services I accessed in the first two weeks of our daughter’s life. There is also a definite correlation between education level, class privilege and extended breastfeeding.

  2. j July 10, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    I want to recognize and honour that you are talking about your experience, and that you are the only person who can judge whether you would have persevered with nursing if you had a c-section.

    As someone who had a c-section though, I want to interrupt what feels like a pervasive cultural narrative that if you have a c-section, nursing will be hard. I know that this is individual, and relational, and different for every pair, but so often it feels like people who have c-sections are discouraged from nursing, and people are told not to get c-sections because it will mean the baby will be too drugged and too floppy to latch right away. My own experience was that we started nursing as soon as I was out of surgery. By the time we left the hospital three days later, the baby was above birth weight. I had a c-section, and we nursed, and in many ways being able to nurse easily felt restorative after a unplanned surgical birth.

    I really appreciate you naming your privilege in this, and I remain in total envy of your benefits. But again, I want to offer a different narrative. Not because it contradicts yours, but because different stories can co-exist. Economically we did not have the advantages you have, and for us, nursing was an economic choice. When our baby was born, I was eligible for nothing other than a year of unpaid leave. No medical benefits, no paid time off, nothing. I nursed because it was free, and I was fortunate that for us it was simple. We’d been given a Madella pump and style pump from a friend, and when I returned to work five weeks after the birth, the pump came too. I nursed, and I pumped, and other people fed the baby pumped milk when I was not there, and the only cost was the storage bags for the milk. When I compare to people who bought formula, we saved thousands of dollars.

    I wrote a paper earlier this year about how much gilt and shame are used in pro-breast feeding campeigns by both governments and NGOs. I also looked at the images about who nurses, and in the materials I looked at the nursing women were almost always white, always in their nightgowns, and always in comfortable domestic settings gazing adoringly at their infants. Let me know if you would like me to share more of this.

    • Queer Femme Mama July 11, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      I’d love to read your paper! And I clarified some of my thoughts in a new post that I just put up. Thanks for sharing your story.

      • sugarmommaless July 11, 2012 at 8:07 am #

        I’d love to read it too.

    • sugarmommaless July 11, 2012 at 8:07 am #

      I had very similar breastfeeding post-c-section success to what you mention, J. I personally credit my success with spending a lot of time with breastfeeding women (at La Leche League and in my midwifery school setting) prior to the birth *and* to a good combination of anatomies (my baby’s mouth + my breasts = the perfect match.) I have a benefits plan but no income for the next 2 years as I’m a full time student and I also happen to be a single parent. I chose breastfeeding because of its immunological and nutritive benefits plus the parenting/attachment benefits, but I am also fully aware that it is the smartest economic choice for me and that it will likely reduce the number of sick days off school/daycare that my baby and I will need in the next couple years while we continue to nurse.

      I have a lot of good post-c-section nursing role models in my life whi have great success bonding and nursing with their infant immediately after the birth. I also have people in my close circle who were separated from their infant for 2 hours to 24h after highly interventive and traumatic births and many of those people had breastfeeding challenges that can clearly be linked to a traumatic start. The challenges of nursing when the mum/baby are traumatised are one of the reasons to aviod c-sections, but clearly a c-section can be a life saving surgery and a well timed and necessary c-section should not be avoided because of worries of how it’ll affect nursing. Mothers and babies are strong and they can persevere — with support.

  3. 127000 July 14, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    When I had my daughter Pippa I said I had the “million dollar nipples” because I had bought every cream, service, treatment, etc. to get my nipples to stop bleeding and to end the excruciating pain I was in every time I breastfed. I spent well over $900 and we worked it out. But I agree, without the money to fund my “million dollar nipples” I’m not sure where we’d have ended up.

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  1. More on nursing and economic privilege | Queer Femme Mama - July 11, 2012

    […] Queer Femme Mama Parenting is political Skip to content HomeAbout ← The economics of breastfeeding […]

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