Hands Off My Boobs – the Economics of Breast Milk vs Breastfeeding

Earlier this week, Mary wrote a post about the inherent fallacy of the argument that “breast milk is free”. I agree with everything that Mary said up to a point. That point being that I don’t think she went far enough and frankly, I think she was too nice to the folks who make this argument.

I am not willing to grant that “free” in this context actually means “not free, but cheaper”. If folks want to promote breast milk as cheaper and often more convenient than formula, I will buy that as an overall generalization. But it still isn’t free and I’m not going to excuse the deliberate nonsensical redefinition of a word to mean something that is actually the opposite of the generally understood meaning. That’s not good faith discussion, that’s misrepresentation.

I will certainly accept the argument that in ideal circumstances, breast milk is a great and fabulous thing for mammalian mothers to feed to mammalian babies. In theory, breast milk is naturally occurring postpartum, premixed, renewable and available based on demand. But we all know that’s just theory. For some mothers and babies, breast milk works great – mom has no production issues, mom is willing and able to not work outside the home for 6 months or more, baby latches well and isn’t a fussy feeder. All of these do occur, no one is denying that.

But breastfeeding is actually an activity distinct from biological production of breast milk. Breast milk may itself be “free” for women without significant supply issues. Breastfeeding, by which I mean the production of breast milk and feeding of same to a child directly or after pumping, on the other hand, can be low cost, but isn’t no cost for the vast majority of women, at least in the US where many women have at most 12 weeks of maternity leave of which any or all may be unpaid. There are actual and opportunity costs associated with breastfeeding and denying that is buying into the patriarchial system that wants us to devalue the worth of women’s time and physical effort.

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am not suggesting that breastfeeding is a bad thing, or  that it is economically better to use formula. The set actual cost to formula use is typically going to be significantly higher than breast milk. However, when balanced by the opportunity cost of breastfeeding, for some women exclusive formula feeding or combo feeding will be more economically feasible.

Which brings me to another, slightly tangential point, but it’s something that drives me batty as a two-time combo feeder – breast milk and formula are not mutually exclusive feeding options. Particularly if a child is going to be bottle fed breast milk while mom is at work or school or otherwise not able to be present, and absent serious maternal supply concerns, supplementing with formula is possible.

Certainly, in my case, with both of my children, using a combination of breast milk and formula meant that I could not only breastfeed longer, but at less cost to my well-being, which, to me and my family, is a pretty important investment.  


Featured image.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

Related Articles


  1. – breast milk and formula are not mutually exclusive feeding options.

    I cannot stress too much how important that line is. Having raised three Hellions through the breastfeeding period, even when The Girl was fully lactating and saving up boob juice, formula was a necessary fallback once she went back to work and keeping the kids from starving fell onto the non-lactating parents shoulders.

  2. Breastmilk is free as a woman’s time is wirth nothing.
    I breastfed, and I was lucky enough to be able to, and I even enjoyed it to a point (and at another point I really needed my bdy back, thank you, there’s a toast), but it was also part of my work as the primary care-giver of my babies. Wetnurse used to be a job for good reasons.
    And shout out for combined feeding. My oldest would have starved to deathwithout it.

    1. Breastmilk is free as a woman’s time is worth nothing.

      YES. If my billable hour rate is $150/hr and formula is only $20 a can, that math is pretty easy to do.

  3. Em – you are one of my heroes. That’s for writing this! Yes yes yes! And combo feeding allowed me to breastfeed my son months longer than my daughter. It fucking rules, even though it cost me a ton to breastfeed what I could produce with IGT, combo feeding was a great option for me.

  4. I wish I would’ve tried combo feeding but I was so afraid that my supply would go away. When we left the hospital, I requested some formula (my milk took a long time to come in) and the lactation consultant reluctantly gave it to me and made sure to say “But I really don’t want you to use this!”

    And every resource online says, “if you have low supply, don’t use formula! Try all of these things to increase your supply!” UGH.

    Feeding your baby is one of those things where you don’t know how you will act until you do it.

  5. For the longest time I didn’t want to give up an evening feed — not sure why — but when I finally let Allen give her a nightly bottle without me bothering to pump, it was fantastic! I finally had some time to myself to write and get things done.

    So many women who combo feed feel like failures, and it’s crazy! There’s so much all-or-nothing pressure with breastfeeding.

    1. “So many women who combo feed feel like failures, and it’s crazy!”

      I know! That is what is so bizarre to me. All that all-or-nothing does is result in a combination of more maternal stress and likely less breastmilk in babies.

Leave a Reply