The percentage of American mothers who breastfeed their babies has risen over the past decade, but it remains far below the rate public health officials would like to see. Newly published research provides one possible reason why.
It turns out all that healthy, nutritious milk comes at a surprisingly high cost.
A study of 1,313 American women who gave birth between 1980 and 1993 finds those who breastfed for six months or more suffered “more severe and more prolonged earnings losses” than mothers who breastfed for a shorter amount of time, or not at all.
“Our results suggest that breastfeeding, at least for six months or longer, is not free in an economic sense,” write sociologists Phyllis Rippeyoung and Mary Noonan. Their findings are published in the American Sociological Review.
According to the most recent government statistics, 74.6 percent of mothers report they breastfed their babies. But only 44.3 percent were still breastfeeding at six months, and 23.8 percent at one year, the minimum cutoff age recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In an attempt to find out why, Rippeyoung and Noonan studied data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, an annual survey of a large group of Americans born between 1957 and 1964. They specifically looked at how childbirth and subsequent breast feeding impacted a woman’s earnings over the following years.
“We found that after childbirth, short-duration breastfeeders (those who stopped before the baby was 6 months old) and formula-feeders experienced similar earnings penalties,” the researchers write. “By contrast, women who breastfed for long durations experienced a much steeper decline in earned income over the first five years of their children’s lives.”
The cause of this gap is clear enough: “Long-duration breastfeeders are more likely to be non-employed in the years following childbirth, and they work fewer hours when they are employed.” This may reflect a shift in priorities — or a lack of options.
“The reasons why long-duration breast feeders exit the labor force at higher rates than other mothers is difficult to tease out,” Rippeyoung and Noonan write. “They may leave work because of their own personal desires or cultural pressure, or they may be pushed out because of the incompatibility of breastfeeding in the workplace.”
They note that women who choose long-term breastfeeding are more likely to work in managerial or professional occupations, and more likely to be married to college-educated men who make enough money to support the family while the wife takes a leave of absence.
The unfortunate result of this class divide, the researchers write, is that “less-privileged women are less likely to be seen as good mothers,” since they often have no choice but to go back to work — usually in settings where breastfeeding is problematic.
“Rather than continuing to pressure women to breastfeed for their children’s well-being while providing no provisions for the sacrifices women make to do so,” they conclude, “an alternative solution would be to pass a federal law protecting women’s rights to breastfeed at work.”
(They note that the 2010 health care reform act mandates break time for nursing mothers, but argue that far greater reforms are needed.)
The researchers also suggest rethinking “roles for men and women within the family may ease the burden associated with breastfeeding and working — a burden that is currently placed solely on mothers."
“Partners should be encouraged and supported to carry out other domestic duties that would support breastfeeding and relieve women’s double burden,” they write.
In other words, it’s not enough to simply tell mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding. Real changes need to be made in both the home and at the workplace to make it feasible for more women to simultaneously earn a living and nourish their baby.
Breast milk is undoubtedly a precious fluid, but it shouldn’t be this expensive.