Breast Milk is Not Free, so Stop Saying It Is

I have heard this refrain a lot lately: “I breastfeed my baby because breast milk is free!” And while I understand what the person is trying to say, that they think breast milk costs less than formula, it’s wrong to say that breast milk is free.

Before I get started, because I know this will get brought up even though it’s not relevant, yes I breastfed my child, for 12 months. At times, I loved breastfeeding, and I kept up with it for personal reasons. But I still get so irritated when I hear people claim that breast milk is free! Because I spent a lot of money, time, and effort to be able to breastfeed, to the point where I probably should have just supplemented with formula.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that breastfeeding isn’t enjoyable or that you shouldn’t do it. You can do whatever works for you and your baby. If your baby is well-fed, that’s all that matters. Breast, bottle, or tube–however your baby gets its food is just fine. There are many factors that go into deciding what feeding method to use, if you even get a choice, and not all of them can be quantified and compared evenly. This post is not a debate on whether or not breast milk is the best choice.

First, let’s talk about the purely financial cost of breastfeeding. This misleading chart from KellyMom compares the cost of formula to the cost of breastfeeding. I’m not disputing that formula has a high monetary cost–it does. But the section on “typical cost of breastfeeding” that says “free–everything else is optional!” is wrong. I suppose all clothing is technically optional, but it’s not like you can just breastfeed while wearing a typical non-maternity bra. Nursing pads are necessary if you want to leave the house without worrying about showing wet spots through your shirt. A nursing pillow isn’t just a “nice to have” item. I tried breastfeeding using regular pillows and it hurt my back a lot. And technically, you may not need to call up a lactation consultant, but I wouldn’t call it an “optional” expense for moms like me who needed help nurturing a healthy breastfeeding relationship.

So yeah, if you never leave your house and you have flowy clothes, a lot of those clothing items are optional.

However, I am a working mom (like most moms in the United States), so I also incurred a lot of non-optional costs, just to preserve my breastfeeding relationship with my child. My health insurance covered the cost of my breast pump (thanks, Obama!), but I had to buy extra bottles and bottle accessories, extra pump flanges, and breast milk freezer bags. Using a breast pump at work meant that I also needed to buy a pumping bra (because trying to hold two flanges over your boobs for 15 minutes, three times a day, while also trying to relax and let the milk flow, is not fun). I bought a manual pump as an emergency backup (and I had to use it more than a few times!).

In the first few weeks of my child’s life, I had to buy nipple cream, nipple shields, some nipple hydrogel healing pads, and I also picked up a special nipple cold/hot back (which I never used, but I didn’t want to have to run out in the middle of the night for either). Plus, I had to pay for a lactation consultant to come to my house to help me out with my baby’s feeding issues. Insurance didn’t cover that one.

an old timey newspaper ad for beer to induce lactation

After my child was a few months old, I started to have supply issues, so even though I tried all of the tricks to stimulate more milk production (yes, I tried all of the tricks, including the one you are thinking of suggesting to me right now), I had to resort to buying supplements (milk thistle, fenugreek, etc.) and making special lactation cookies (I don’t know if those worked but at least they tasted good). Eventually, I had to use an expensive medication just to keep producing milk until the bitter end (probably because I have PCOS, which can cause low supply).

Because my baby was breastfed, I also had to buy her Vitamin D supplements, and I added in some probiotics too (which are optional, but a lot of infant formulas come with these supplements already added).

All of these things cost me at least hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, especially once I had to start using lactation-stimulating supplements. I get that not everyone needs to use those, but even without those, there are still a lot of non-optional costs, especially for working moms like me.

Now, let’s talk about the other costs of breastfeeding: time and my body. When my child was born, I had to learn how to breastfeed and all the different techniques (my personal fav was the side-lying hold, and if you get good enough, you can learn how to feed from both breasts without having to roll over). Because I only used pumped milk once my child was in daycare, that meant that at home, I had to do 100% of the feeding. With formula, at least you can divide up the feeding labor in the middle of the night.

Also, the stress of feeling like I needed to be ready at all times in case of a feeding was enough to keep me indoors most of the time. My time was no longer my own, it was entirely my baby’s (or at least that’s what it felt like). And if I wanted to ever go out and get a babysitter (which was rare, thanks to my anxiety over being a new mom), I had to make sure that there was enough pumped milk available.

Once I started working again, I had to spend a lot of time using my breast pump. I was lucky enough to be able to get enough milk out within 10 minutes, but that didn’t include the time needed to set up the pump, get my bra situation under control to attach myself to the pump, and time needed to clean the pumping accessories afterwards. Plus, time needed to get up from my desk and go use the special pumping room (which is a privilege that I’m lucky to have had, thanks to Massachusetts state laws).

graffiti of a woman breastfeeding her baby

And pumping doesn’t just take time when you’re a working mother–it also taxes your brain. I would have to come to a stopping point on whatever work I was doing, leave my desk for 20-30 minutes, and then come back and take a minute to think about what I was doing. All while I was also sleep-deprived and exhausted in general. And every day when I went to work, I would have to remember all of my pumping accessories (in addition to packing bottles for the baby and making sure I had my wallet on me), because if I missed one thing, my entire day would be ruined.

My husband also had to spend his time cleaning my pump accessories, in addition to all of the bottles. And we didn’t even spend time doing sterilization! It really takes a toll, having to hand wash so many parts and pieces, at least once every two days (longer if you have extra bottles and pump parts).

Breast milk is not free. When I was able to get a breath and reflect on the time I spent breastfeeding and pumping, I realized that I probably should have looked more seriously into supplementing with formula. The good things about breastfeeding were that it was easy to stick my baby on at night (she slept next to our bed), the poop wasn’t as smelly, and it was great bonding time. But it really took a toll on me (and my husband), physically, mentally, and financially, which was why I was mostly happy to give it up at 12 months.

By saying that breast milk is free, you are undervaluing a mother’s time, physical and mental costs, and actual financial costs to sustain breastfeeding.

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. Thank you for this very important article. This adage, like so many things, devalues the traditional work of women and I appreciate the reminder since I have certainly found myself spouting it off to expectant parents.

    A couple of things that I wanted to clarify for the uninitiated… PCOS can certainly effect milk supply in a downward manner, but it is just as likely to effect it upwards (i.e. mom’s have “too much” milk) and is more likely than either of those to have no effect at all – so please don’t assume if you have PCOS breastfeeding is going to be ridiculously hard. Also the use of Metformin seems to help with milk production for some moms who are having challenges (not saying the author didn’t try – this is info for readers).

    I personally find my non-nursing bras as easy, or easier, than nursing bras – but I also where formed cups so didn’t have the extra concerns about leakage you mentioned. Plus I could add a breastpad to either as needed. I also don’t find my wardrobe limited except for not wearing dresses many. Anything else that is two pieces is has access for nursing pumping, as do dresses that have necklines that can be brought below my breast level. Again this is a ymmv situation.

    Equally important to your reminder about acknowledging the value that women provide, though, is that this truly should be seen as a social call to action for better support for those moms who want to breastfeed – not just for them and their baby, but for all of us.

    If 90% of US families could comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States would save $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths, nearly all of which would be in infants ($10.5 billion and 741 deaths at 80% compliance).”

    Breastfeeding is of critical public health importance – including, and perhaps especially, exclusive breastfeeding. We have more and more information indicating that doing various types of mixed feedings can change the research outcomes.

    I have not seen a study with as equally quantifiable data, but we know that moms who do not breastfeed their children have higher rates of all reproductive cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes (and related), and heart disease throughout the rest of their lives (this does not seem to be linked to exclusivity, but is linked to total time – so adds up over multiple children). These are all financially costly to the public good – perhaps more so since many of these show up as we are beginning to utilize medicare and/or impact the later years of our working lives.

    So it is absolutely *not* free to breastfeed – but that does not mean that the entire cost should fall on the family, because the family is not reaping all (or even most) of the potential cost benefit. Lactation professionals should be covered at 100% as a preventive care cost (see mountains of research pointing to what is “prevented” including the study above). There should be available support for those struggling financially with adaptive equipment that some mothers need (breastfeeding pillows, bras, etc). And there should absolutely be additional workplace supports of various type – we know that this benefits employers as well

    I am sorry that for the myriad of experiences you had that were so exhausting and overwhelming – parenting in general was never intended to be a solitary experiences. Throw in all of the challenges that you mentioned and well just, wow. Again thank you for sharing.

  2. Give me a break!! Yes, breastfeeding is hard work. I do wish more people understood that. And I’m sorry for the author’s struggles. There are a number of pitfalls and obstacles that working moms especially deal with when breastfeeding exclusively. I feel so fortunate to be able to do so, though. And I can’t speak to the cost of prescription medications to promote lactation, but the rest really is optional or inexpensive. You don’t need a fancy pillow or 20 bottles. There is some inital investment. But in the end it’s mostly time and dedication – both, technically, are free.

    I know a lot of formula feeding moms who would love to swap expenses with breastfeeding moms. This just smacks too much of “woe is me” for my taste.

    1. To say that a breast-feeding mother’s time is “free” is to do exactly what Mary, in the post, notes that our cultures is guilty of doing: undervaluing (in fact, ignoring) women’s work and time.

      Women’s work and women’s time is not “free.” To claim that they are is both insulting and terrible book-keeping.


  3. The note about how forgetting breast pump supplies can ruin one’s day makes me think manual/hand expression should be more widely taught. I’d never heard of it until a friend told me she prefers it to using a pump. With her hands she can milk her breasts as quickly as a pump, using whatever container is available, and have nothing to clean afterward other than her hands. She finds it more comfortable, and she always has her hands with her 😉

    1. Hand expression can be great, but very difficult for lots of moms, as many, many moms experience wrist pain attendant to pregnancy/postpartum. Both carpal tunnel and DeQuervain’s syndrome. Not to mention you can only single “pump” and its very hard with low supply.

      So taught, yes, but as with lots of breastfeeding techniques, not advocated as a panacea.

    2. Yes!!! Getting to work and realizing you can’t pump is a complete tragedy.  One time of this happening was enough and I never took my pump parts home after that and started keeping a spare bottle at work at all times.  It does mean I have to clean them at work ( but at least I have peace of mind.

      This of course, all goes to the fact that breastfeeding is very VERY much not free, and can be quite expensive.

  4. And thanks for this article. As a reality based LC and educator I feel like I’m swimming upstream when I try to teach women to balance the expense and (often) difficulty of breastfeeding with the real value of breastmilk vs. Formula. So many women get caught up in the current “breastfeed at all costs, or your baby will be seriously disadvantaged!!” that they don’t even enjoy their baby for months.

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