The recent formula shortage has created yet another obstacle for parents, but the stakes are a bit different. This shortage affects U.S. parents of all socioeconomic class, race, and gender because everyone is vying for the same thing: food for their baby. Yet, it’s the women and in particular, the lactating mothers, who are bearing the brunt of the shortage in the form of deep criticisms. People continue to tell mothers that there is a simple solution: Breastfeed your baby. But, the act of breastfeeding is not that simple and it’s certainly not free, that is, unless we don’t value women’s time or body. It’s easy to find facts on “how much” and “how often” to feed a baby, but very little about what the mother goes through. From enduring pain, bleeding, and engorgement to sleep deprivation, tongue ties, and allergies – Breastfeeding is far from free. So, what’s it worth?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should be “exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months with continued breastfeeding along with introducing appropriate complementary foods for 1 year or longer.” However, there are several reasons why families need consistent and reliable access to formula. In most cases, it takes six to twelve weeks for a mother’s breastmilk to become established and regulated and with lack of national paid family leave, up to 25% of lactating mothers are returning to work within two weeks of giving birth, which can significantly impact milk supply. Mothers are behind and playing catchup before they even get started.
Women have long endured the responsibilities of the home and children. As progress was being made to advance women in the workforce, a crushing blow of a worldwide pandemic destroyed the myth that equity at home and work was being achieved. Nearly 3 million women had to drop out of the workforce to care for their families at home and even to date, they are still short by more than 1.8 million jobs since February 2020. This is due to the childcare crisis, lack of a federal paid family leave, overcoming the maternal wall, and women taking on the majority of unpaid labor.
In the capitalist society in which we live, people assign value to:
Providing any of these three things usually results in an exchange of funds and/or a “trade” for another thing of equal value. If a stay at home mom was paid an annual salary, she would make approximately $178,201. This includes taking on roles such as housekeeper, dietitian, day care teacher, nurse, network administrator, social media communications, and recreational therapist.
The U.S. has long relied on the unpaid labor of women to bolster the economy. So, how much is a breastfeeding woman worth in a capitalist society? Let’s break it down. In this case, we can assign values to the service provided: breastfeeding, the product: breastmilk, and the time it takes to feed the baby.
I am going to assign a baseline value of $13/hour. This was determined by the fact that I live in New Jersey and that is the current minimum wage for this state. Let’s say the typical workweek is forty hours and anything more than that is time-and-a-half for overtime wages.
But, let’s not stop there.
As a person with a particular skill set, such as the ability to lactate, value increases. In 2020, 84.1% of infants born had mothers who could offer them breastmilk. A few reasons 15.9% of infants don’t receive breastmilk are due to adoptions, medical reasons, and personal choice. There were 3,791,712 births which means that there were approximately 3,188,829 lactating mothers breastfeeding babies for some period within the first several months.
There are currently 332,682,000 people in the U.S., which means that approximately 1.1% of the US population is actually capable of producing breastmilk for infants at this moment in time. (This number doesn’t include the infants themselves and children under 11). This might seem like a harsh cutoff, but with new abortion laws being signed, it is unfortunately not unreasonable to include pubescent girls.
Feeding an infant for the first year of life is incredibly time consuming, whether breastfed or bottle fed. The first four weeks requires around-the-clock feedings every 2-3 hours with time between feedings increasing as the baby grows. If I were to be paid minimum wage with overtime to breastfeed my baby in the first 4 weeks of life, I would make $6,162. Over the course of a year, I would make $34,996. This doesn’t include overtime for federal holidays, the value of the breastmilk itself, nor the upcharge of breastfeeding being a commodity. That number is simply for my time.
When we add in the additional value of producing the milk itself, it adds another layer to women’s unpaid labor. Producing human milk requires increased calories, supplementation with post-natal vitamins, and lots and lots of hydration. Not to mention, some babies require moms to be on specific food restriction diets due to allergies. With that said, breastmilk’s market price is variable with the average being $4-$5 per ounce including milk bank processing fees. So, let’s stick on the low end of this to minimize the need for a processing fee and say the value of breastmilk, according to the U.S. market, is $4 per ounce. Although babies drink different amounts of breastmilk during different ages and stages of life in the first year, the average comes to 32.4 ounces per day. If we assume a baby is born January 1 and account for a full year of breastfeeding with the natural changes in routine due to infant growth spurts, we can calculate the yearly value of breastmilk to be $49,376.
Lastly, breastfeeding women have a very niche skillset, given only 1.1% of the U.S. population is lactating. This is a high demand role and therefore the value of this skill increases. So, in honor of the capitalist society in which we live and a need to cover costs such as lactation consultations, pump and pump parts, breastmilk storage containers, breast pads, nursing bras and clothes, vitamins, and the other various items needed to sustain breastfeeding and maintain an ample milk supply, there is a 15% service charge. This also includes an “inconvenience” fee considering babies rarely sleep through the night and breastfeed on demand, making the lactating mother’s time more valuable since she is “on call” for the baby and/or using the time to pump so that another can feed the baby at a future date and time.
Breastfeeding Bill for the year
If we value the person offering the product as essential to the role in terms of providing the service, product, and time compounded by the fact that this is a skillset only achievable by 1% of the current U.S. population, we should be paying breastfeeding mothers approximately $97,027.80. With that said, breastfeeding is not free, nor has it ever been.
Note: Some infants may eat more or less than what is reflected on the charts. This is an average based on data of breastmilk consumption for infants: quantity and frequency.