Breast milk is only free if you don’t value a mother’s time, health, and freedom. A breastfeeding mother is always on call. Her breasts must be available at all times, day and night. This can be physically and mentally challenging, not to mention the drain it has on her lifestyle, career, and finances. The costs soon mount up.

Finding Fault With Formula

No commercial formula can truly match breast milk in terms of nutritional value. The World Health Organization says breast is best, yet formula is sometimes an essential supplement or alternative. A mother’s health is a major factor in determining how often she is able to breastfeed (if at all). She may be malnourished due to uncontrollable circumstances. She may not have access to the nutrition or health care she needs. What’s more, medical conditions and medication—such as hypothyroidism or certain types of antidepressants—can halt her supply of milk. Formula is therefore a necessity, yet it can cost around $100 a month with an annual estimate of up to $1,300 for the first year.

Time Is Also Money

If a mom were paid for every hour she spent feeding her baby, she may not feel the financial pressure that expedites her return to work. Sadly, however, breastfeeding moms may actually extend their maternity leave beyond the statutory three months since their workplace cannot accommodate their regular need to express milk (more commonly referred to as “pumping”). The longer she spends outside of the workforce, the more challenging it becomes for her to get back in. Consequently, the time she needs to tend to her baby’s needs, or to express, may see her take a lower salaried role than she’d held prior to becoming pregnant.

Expressing milk in the workplace is, however, not entirely impossible. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), passed in the U.S. in 2010, contains two provisions that directly affect breastfeeding moms. The first requires employers to provide reasonable break time (ordinarily unpaid) and a private space to express breast milk. The ACA also requires most insurance plans to cover the cost of a breast pump and breastfeeding support services.

Sadly, however, the Trump administration continues to undermine the ACA, and so breastfeeding remains a big business. In addition to the pump, a mom also needs pump accessories, bottles, breast pads, nursing bras and shirts, and ointment for sore nipples.   

Counting Calories, Mounting Costs

Nevermind the nutritional benefits that breast milk offers babies, the pressure is on for mom to mind her nutritional intake too. In fact, a breastfeeding mom needs up to 500 extra calories a day, and not just any calories either. Healthcare providers recommend that she optimize her diet with protein-rich foods and, where possible, organic produce—which isn’t cheap.  

A daily prenatal vitamin is also recommended until baby is weaned, and vegetarians are advised to supplement both vitamin B-12 and omega-3 to compensate for the lack of natural animal fats in their diet (which aids development of baby’s brain). Supplements, of course, cost more money.  

What’s more, breastfeeding moms must moderate their caffeine and alcohol consumption, and be mindful of food allergies or consuming too much of anything (such as sugar) that would be harmful to their child. This may seem like a small sacrifice to make for the sake of their baby’s health, yet it extends the nine months of abstinence already experienced during pregnancy to a point where it might incur emotional costs. A mother may even experience guilt for feeling this way, yet tending to her own mental and physical needs can be critical to her ability to care for her baby.

The Personal Cost of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is pitched as the ultimate bonding experience for mother and baby. It triggers the release of oxytocin, the same neurotransmitter and hormone released after orgasm. Known as the “cuddle hormone,” it creates a feeling of love and intimacy that’s essential to both romantic attachment and motherhood.

Yet sometimes oxytocin may not be enough to overcome the mental strain of breastfeeding. Babies need to be nursed as many as 10 times per day, and when they do latch, the sensation might not be so tender. A baby’s mouth is strong, and a mother’s nipple is full of nerve endings. Nipples may toughen up during pregnancy, becoming stronger and stretchier, but sore nipples are a given.

The mental impact of breastfeeding can be just as challenging. If a mom is feeding many times a day, negative feelings can kick in, as research suggests. Disgust and guilt may arise simultaneously, especially if baby tweaks the nipple on the other side while feeding—this certainly isn’t helped by the cultural sexualization of breasts.

That said; the many advantages of breastfeeding are not to be overlooked. Instead they can be investigated on a case-by-case basis, since there are always two sides to one coin. It’s important to question the “breast milk is free” narrative in order to make an informed decision of your own. Only then can you truly know what’s best for you and your baby.

Featured image by Melissa Johnson

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