Home Nurse income Stop saying “breastfeeding is free” amid formula shortages. This is not the case.

Stop saying “breastfeeding is free” amid formula shortages. This is not the case.


The infant formula crisis in the United States has been making headlines in recent weeks, sparking heated conversations online.

The nationwide shortage is the result of pandemic supply chain issues exacerbated by a February safety recall from Abbott, the nation’s largest infant formula maker, and the closure of its Sturgis plant, in Michigan. At least four babies have been hospitalized with bacterial infections – and two have died – after consuming formula from this facility. Abbott recently reached an agreement with the Food and Drug Administration to restart production at the Sturgis plant, provided the company fixes the unsanitary conditions that caused the shutdown.

If you’ve been following the social media rhetoric about formula shortages, you’ve seen the same useless “solutions” to the problem crop up over and over again. One of the most common and frustrating ideas – we’re looking at you, Bette Midler – is that instead of relying on formula, women should “just breastfeed” because “breastfeeding is free!”

This is obviously false: there are significant physical, mental problems and financial costs of breastfeeding that are so often overlooked.

Like Jessica Owens Youngassistant professor in the department of health studies at American University, pointed out in a now viral tweet: “The narrative ‘breastfeeding is free’ amidst a shortage of infant formula is a great example of the public ignorance of what it really takes to successfully breastfeed.

The cost of breastfeeding

The time commitment alone is monumental, especially during the newborn phase. Breastfed babies eat every two to three hours around the clock (and sometimes more frequently than that). Feeding sessions can last 30 minutes or more. A conservative estimate is that breastfeeding for a year would equate to 1,800 hours of a mother’s time. It is really a full time job.

“Breastfeeding – and the related expression of breastmilk – is not free because it consumes women’s time and resources in a way that amounts to another job besides being a mother,” said said organizational psychologist Allison S. Gabriel, a professor at Eller College of the University of Arizona. Management, told HuffPost. “It means breastfeeding is only free if we don’t value women’s time and effort to physically be the ones producing the breastmilk to feed their child.”

“Breastfeeding is only free if we don’t value women’s time.”

– Allison S. Gabriel, organizational psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona

The misconception that breastfeeding is free is tied to the belief that it “comes naturally” to mothers when it does not for many, many women.

Karrie Locher, a registered nurse, certified lactation consultant and mother of four, said many women expend considerable resources, both financially and emotionally, trying to make breastfeeding work, including herself. . Her youngest son had a lip and tongue tie when he was born, which affected his ability to latch on and breastfeed effectively. Locher detailed their journey on his Instagram account, which has nearly half a million followers.

“I spent over $1,500 on these oral ties release and visits from a lactation consultant to try and save my breastfeeding journey,” she told HuffPost. “On top of that, I spent endless amounts of time breastfeeding and then pumping to maintain my milk supply. I felt like I was being fed or tied to a pump 24 hours a day. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious, and feeling defeated. The constant worry of “is he having enough” or “am I doing enough” can be mental anguish itself.

There are also other financial expenses that people don’t consider: nursing or expression bras, breast pads, nursing pillows, nursing covers, nipple care ointment , storage bottles and bags, milk coolers, breast pumps and spare parts.

Also, “prescriptions needed for nipple cream – mine wasn’t fully covered – doctor visits and prescriptions needed for mastitis or other breast problems and breastfeeding appointments”, Locher said. “Of course, most women don’t need all of these things on their trip, but some may.”

Health insurance may cover some of the above expenses, but many plans do not.

“It’s going to vary from situation to situation and can actually be a significant cost,” Locher added.

Then there are the physical consequences of breastfeeding: exhaustion, engorged and leaky breasts, cracked nipples and the feeling that your body no longer belongs to you.

“The effort, the will, the sleepless days and nights, the mental anguish, the time, the energy, the money – it’s not ‘free’. It all comes at a cost,” added Locher.

“The effort, the will, the sleepless days and nights, the mental anguish, the time, the energy, the money – it’s not ‘free’. All of this comes at a cost.”

– Karrie Locher, nurse and lactation consultant

Gabriel, the organizational psychologist, gave birth to her daughter in March 2020, just days before the COVID-19 shutdowns began. After several weeks of breastfeeding, her daughter began to have difficulty latching on effectively. Gabriel spent three to eight hours a day breastfeeding, but she was unable to produce enough milk for her daughter, which damaged her mental health and also cost her money.

“I’ve tried everything – from lactation cookies to different nursing pillows, several lactation consultants, several types of pumps and pump parts – to produce enough breast milk for our daughter,” he said. she declared.

“Without a doubt, my breastfeeding and pumping issues contributed significantly to my issues with anxiety and postpartum depression,” she added.

There’s research to back this up: negative early breastfeeding experiences have been linked to postpartum depression (although the association between the two isn’t entirely clear). In another study, mothers who planned to breastfeed and did so successfully had a lower risk of PPD. But for those who intended to breastfeed and were unable to, the risk of PPD increased.

“I spent over $1,500…trying to salvage my breastfeeding journey.”


The ability to breastfeed is a luxury in the United States – one of the few countries in the world without national paid parental leave. A woman who must return to work weeks after giving birth must pump breast milk every two hours to maintain her supply. Under federal law, employers must give employees a break to pump during the workday and a private place, other than a bathroom, to do so. But those breaks don’t have to be paid for, which potentially means losing income. And the area doesn’t have to be a dedicated lactation area. Sometimes it’s a dusty storage closet or a room that doesn’t lock, which isn’t exactly the soothing atmosphere some women need to pump.

“Our research in 2020 found that women report spending about 45 minutes per workday during a standard 8-hour workday pumping breast milk,” Gabriel said. “That means rescheduling meetings, pumping through what should be real breaks and overall having to add greater demands to their day-to-day work.”

JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

A 2020 study found that breastfeeding women spend 45 minutes of an eight-hour workday expressing their milk.

People who don’t work in offices — like teachers and retail and food service workers — may have a harder time finding enough time and space to work at work.

Mothers should also have access to a fridge to safely store their pumped milk during the day and a way to transport it home, which may mean purchasing a cooler bag. And those traveling for work may have to pay out of pocket to ship their breast milk home if the cost isn’t covered by their company.

Saying that “breastfeeding is free” is not only wrong, it is also harmful

Caregivers of infants are stressed enough as they are right now as they scramble to ensure their babies’ nutritional needs are met during the shortage. Saying “breastfeeding is free” as if it were a solution to the problem only adds insult to injury.

“[It] dismisses the challenges people face, diminishes the reasons formula is needed, and assumes breastfeeding is an option for everyone,” Owens-Young said.

Breastfeeding is one of those things that, “no matter how badly you want it, it doesn’t always happen for you, your body, or your baby,” Gabriel said.

In addition to latch and supply issues, parents may not be able to breastfeed due to previous breast surgery, such as reduction, or because they are taking medication that is incompatible with the breast milk. breastfeeding, among many other reasons. Babies may be unable to breastfeed due to an allergy, medical condition, or premature birth.

Locher also pointed out that the “breastfeeding is free” narrative ignores reality for many parents and caregivers. Consider, for example, situations in which there are two parents who have not given birth and breastfeeding is not possible.

“And the parents who have adopted their baby? Locher said. “What about the woman with severe postpartum depression who feels even worse every time her baby doesn’t latch on?”

The shortage of infant formula is a structural problem that requires structural solutions, Owens-Young said.

“More individuals breastfeeding will not resolve the structural factors that have led to scarcity; there will always be a need for infant formula,” she said.

The crisis should be a national outrage, Gabriel said – not because women aren’t breastfeeding, “but because it’s another example of us not realizing that supporting women is ensuring that they have the support they need to thrive as mothers and employees. . Access to infant formula is one such support.