Connect Motherhood

Is Breastfeeding Really Cheaper than Formula?

Terri M. Huggins Hart  |  September 4, 2018

When making the decision whether or not to breastfeed, the cost isn’t always the driving factor for moms, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

I’m pregnant and expecting my first child this summer. I plan to return to work after my son is born, and I am trying to figure the costs of formula feeding versus breastfeeding. (And, yes, I’ve read the research about breastfeeding and your baby’s health, but I’m focusing on the financials for now.) I also need to consider the time spent breastfeeding pumping at home or at work, freezing and thawing your milk, and multiple middle-of-the-night feedings. It just seems like a lot to take on. They say “breast is best,” but is it really the cheapest option?

When making the decision whether or not to breastfeed, the cost isn’t always the driving factor for moms, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

On average, the cost of feeding a newborn formula for the first year of life is an estimated $1,733.75. Families who breastfeed can save between $1,200 to $1,500 in the first year alone, according to the U.S. surgeon general.

What’s more, a study from the medical journal Pediatrics found that if 90 percent of mothers exclusively breastfed their babies for the first six months, it would save the U.S. $13 billion in reduced costs of treating infant illnesses.

But breastfeeding doesn’t come without cost. Consider the cost of bottles, nipple creams, lactation supplements, lactation consultants and other necessary supplies, if your workplace doesn’t pay you for nursing breaks, and you’ve likely made quite a dent in your budget with expenses you didn’t account for — especially if you expected breastfeeding to be completely free.

When you take this into account, the line to determine which feeding method is less expensive starts to get a bit blurry. We break down what breastfeeding really costs.

The Bulk of Your Expenses

The good news is a majority of breastfeeding expenses are not necessities, and many can be classified as conveniences. However, considering a large chunk of your time will be spent nursing your child, many mothers do opt for purchasing a large number of items for their comfort.

These items include a nursing pillow, nursing bras, nursing sports bras, nursing pads, nursing tops, nursing coverups or shawls, a hands-free pumping bra, nipple cooling packs, the list goes on. And although that Netflix subscription isn’t strictly a necessity, it will likely come in handy during those nightly pumping or feeding sessions.

While you may get several of these items as gifts, you may have to purchase others out of pocket. Of course, there are women who take a more minimalist approach and end up spending much, much less.

Brooklyn, New York-based doula and breastfeeding counselor Megan Davidson suggests that her clients wait to see what they need before buying everything available.

“You don’t need everything. You can improvise some items, such as bed pillows instead of a Boppy,” she notes.

The Unavoidable Necessities

Registered dietitian and international board certified lactation consultant Janai Meyer of Ketchikan, Alaska, points out one breastfeeding expense that is rarely taken into account: nutrition.

Most breastfeeding women require an additional 500 calories per day. That means bigger appetites and an even bigger grocery bill. Breastfeeding also calls for the continuation of prenatal vitamins, which poses an additional cost.

Other necessities include bottles, bottle nipples, bottle warmers, sanitizers, and cooler bags (which, to be fair, are also used for formula-fed babies). These items all range in cost. There are also breast milk storage bags, which can be a one-time purchase of about $50, depending on how much and often you pump, as well as replacement parts for the breast pump, should you need them.

While a breast pump may likely be necessary, some insurance providers do cover the cost, so be sure to check before you shell that money out. What’s more, many mothers find that they don’t need the top-of-the-line model to pump successfully. If you won’t be pumping multiple times a day, five days a week, a more budget-friendly pump may work just as well for you — and can bring down pump costs by hundreds of dollars.

The Problematic Expenses

Nursing that bundle of joy may be the most “natural” thing to do, but it isn’t always a walk in the park for mothers. There are issues that may arise from breastfeeding, ranging from lack of supply to extremely painful infections, such as mastitis.

Resolving these issues will also cost you, as lactation consultants charge an estimated $70 per visit. Other potential fixes, such as lactation teas, cookies and bars meant to boost your milk production, can range anywhere from $3 to $30.

Make those purchases consistently, and you can spend a decent amount on just making sure you even have milk to offer a baby.

Something else to consider: Not all workplaces are legally required to pay you for nursing breaks. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Employers are not required under the FLSA to compensate nursing mothers for breaks taken for the purpose of expressing milk. However, where employers already provide compensated breaks, an employee who uses that break time to express milk must be compensated in the same way that other employees are compensated for break time.”

Other Means of Support

There are cheaper alternatives to lactation consultations should issues arise, Meyer says. Support systems, such as the international, non-profit La Leche League and other breastfeeding groups, offer free guidance to breastfeeding mothers.

As long as the breastfeeding issues aren’t extreme or medical related, there’s usually no need to seek professional advice from a lactation consultant, she says.

“Though the issues may seem extreme to the mother, a lot of times it could be something as simple as a latch issue or cradling problems,” Meyer says. “Sure, a lactation consultant can help with that, but it may not be necessary.”

Check with local hospitals, pediatric offices, and even mothers’ groups to find free and low-cost support groups to aid during the breastfeeding journey. You may even be able to score free nursing supplies at these groups. It’s not uncommon for moms to bring and exchange items they don’t need to help another mom.

Priceless Benefits

Cost aside, the benefits of breastfeeding for the recommended 12 months by the U.S. surgeon general just might make the whole process worth it.

Breastfeeding has been associated with a lower risk of ear infections, diarrhea, childhood obesity, diabetes and asthma. In mothers, it’s been linked to a lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers, so you should also consider those longer term benefits. However, recent studies have disputed the belief that breastfeeding makes kids better behaved or smarter.

Regardless of whether you choose breastfeeding or formula feeding, do your homework on the costs and benefits of both, so you can be financially prepared.

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