Maternal Tradeoffs: Economic Consequences for Mothers Who Breastfeed

Does choosing to breastfeed result in negative economic consequences for women? A study from researchers Phyllis Rippeyoung and Mary Noonan, titled “Is Breastfeeding Truly Cost Free? Income Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women,” attempts to answer this question and to determine if any such consequences disappear in the long-term. The research shows that mothers who breastfeed six months or longer experience more severe earnings losses than mothers who breastfeed for shorter durations.

The authors acknowledge the many health benefits shown to result for women and children who breastfeed. However, they note that amidst increased debate over whether “breast is best” for all women and children, one issue has been largely ignored—the economic impacts for a woman who chooses to breastfeed. To better understand this issue, the authors analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth on over 1,000 mothers who had their first child between 1980 and 1993. They tracked whether these mothers, all of whom were employed in the year before they had their child, faced changes in earnings in the years after giving birth and compared differences between mothers who breastfed and those who used formula.

To capture the nuances of how feeding choice affects women economically, the researchers divided women into three categories: those who never breastfed, those who breastfed for less than six months, and those who breastfed for six months or longer. They find that mothers who formula-fed or only breastfed for a short duration faced similar earning prospects after giving birth, while women who breastfed for six months or longer saw a significantly steeper decline in income in the five years following childbirth and were making about $5,000 less per year than they had before the birth of their child.

The authors attribute this sharp difference in economic outcomes to differences in labor supply: women who breastfed for six months or longer were about twice as likely to be unemployed as short-duration breastfeeders one year after giving birth. Those who were employed worked about 500 fewer hours per year compared to their peers after giving birth. Five years after giving birth, they still worked about 200 hours fewer than short-term breastfeeders and formula feeders. However, they admit that it is not clear why these labor differences occur. One factor may be convenience. Breastfeeding is not conducive to a job that requires frequent travel or meetings, and it also demands breaks, which may not be available to women in more labor-intensive jobs. Many women lack a place to express or store milk in the workplace. According to the authors, having a baby might change women’s attitudes toward work or there may be other unobserved variables at play.

Some of the authors’ observed impacts could be caused by differences among the women who chose to breastfeed and those that did not. Indeed, the researchers’ data show that, on average, women who breastfeed are more likely to be white, married, slightly older at the time of their first child, and tend to earn more than non-breastfeeders.

Regardless of what drives long-term breastfeeders to reduce their work hours, the authors demonstrate an important pattern. In the current conversation around whether breastfeeding or formula feeding is more beneficial, policymakers should acknowledge the economic impacts that feeding choices have on mothers.

Feature Photo: cc/Valley Image WERX'
Alex Usher
Alex Usher is the 2013-14 Executive Editor for Research Briefs and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. She is interested in education and urban social policy.

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