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Breastfeeding Isn't Free: Here's Why

Updated 8/2023

 “Breastfeed your baby, it’s free!” All mothers have heard this and some even subscribe to the patriarchal narrative. But, by saying that breastfeeding is free implies that there is a simple solution to “save money” in the wake of formula shortages and outright financial limitations for those who can’t afford formula. 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 my calculations, about $100,000/year. Let me explain.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants should be “exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months… Beyond 6 months, breastfeeding should be maintained along with nutritious complementary foods... [and] there are continued benefits from breastfeeding beyond 1 year, and up to 2 years especially in the mother. ” In most cases, it takes six to twelve weeks for a mother’s breastmilk to become established and regulated but, 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 their milk supply. Breastmilk is produced by supply and demand, so if a woman is back at work and not able to breastfeed or pump, her milk supply will diminish and eventually disappear. Pumping at work is essential to maintaining milk supply, especially for new mothers. Until this year, mothers would often pump under abhorrent conditions including dirty bathrooms and supply closets; anywhere they could find an outlet and a door (hopefully with a lock). Now they are protected under the PUMP Act. This means that those who want to continue feeding their children breastmilk will have legal recourse if their employer does not offer reasonable accommodations for pumping. Additionally, pumping will remain “on-the-clock.” So, although mothers may be returning to work without an established milk supply, they have a chance to continue providing breastmilk without being penalized.

Women have long endured the responsibilities of the home and children. As progress was being made to advance women in the workforce, the 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. Although women, and mothers in particular, have re-entered the workforce at rates similar to pre-pandemic participation, they are still experiencing roadblocks. This is due to the childcare crisislack of a federal paid family leave, overcoming the motherhood tax, and women taking on the majority of unpaid labor.

In the capitalist society in which we live, people assign value to: 

1. Time 

2. Products

3. Services 

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 $14.13/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. The 2022 Breastfeeding Report Card shows 83.1% of infants born in 2019 had mothers who could and wanted to offer their babies breastmilk. A few reasons 16.9% of infants don’t receive breastmilk are due to adoptions, medical reasons, and personal choice. There were 3,745,540 births, which means that there were approximately 3,112,543 lactating mothers who were breastfeeding babies for some period within the first several months. 

With 328,239,523 people in the U.S. in 2019, this means that approximately 1% of the U.S. population was actively producing breastmilk for infants. (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 $6,642.08. Over the course of a year, I would make $37,942.80This 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.

Time: Value of Breastfeeding

$14.13/hour up to 40 hours

$21.20/hour for Overtime: (1.5x hourly rate) for any time over 40 hours

1 Feeding = 1 hour

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, based on data of breastmilk consumption for infants. 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.

Product: Value of Breastmilk

Lastly, breastfeeding women have a very niche skillset, given only 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.

Breastfeeding Bill for the year

Time: $37,942.80

Product: Breastmilk, $49,376

Service Fee: Breastfeeding (15% upcharge)

TOTAL: $100,416.62

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 U.S. population at any point in time, we should be paying breastfeeding mothers approximately $100,416.62. 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.

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