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There’s No Such Thing as Free Breastmilk

Formula shortages cannot be overlooked

Going to the grocery store over the past year has been an experience—and not a pleasant one. From inflation to supply-chain shortages that ensure my toddler will have a meltdown because I can’t find the “right” animal crackers, it’s a trip I dread every week. 

But there’s been one aisle I’ve blissfully been able to avoid—the baby formula aisle. 

Between supply-chain issues and recalls, baby formula is not only expensive, but also difficult to find. Out of curiosity, I’ve checked for the formula my kids used and have never seen it on the shelves. For parents who use formula exclusively or to supplement breastmilk, the prospect of not being able to find it is terrifying. 

The shortage isn’t trivial. In the hardest hit states, out-of-stock rates have reached more than 50 percent. Babies have been hospitalized

Some responses to the shortage illustrate how diverse people using social networks can come together to solve complex problems. I’ve seen several online mom sites where women post pictures of store inventories from Wal-Mart to Kroger to small drug stores. I’ve seen women offer to share with strangers. At a time when we’ve all been separated by politics and the pandemic, it made me feel like maybe, just maybe, humanity will be okay. 

But some people are using the shortage to pressure women into “free” breastfeeding. There have always been such zealots. But the recent shortage has brought them out in droves. Even though I breastfed my children exclusively for six months each, this pressure makes me angry.  

Claims that breastfeeding is free are awash in ignorance, the product of pernicious “lactivism.” They illustrate a critical failure to understand basic economics. 

When I had my children, nurses and “lactation consultants” told me my milk supply would “keep up with [baby’s] demand.” Now if you’re going to use economic jargon on me, you’d better come prepared. In fact, for many women, breastfeeding simply isn’t physically feasible. Despite claims to the contrary, many women find they are unable to breastfeed or make enough milk to meet their babies’ nutritional needs. If their babies’ are sensitive to dairy or other foods, another set of women may have to cut entire food groups from their own diets. It turns out that supply isn’t simple in this context, just as it isn’t simple in others. Some “factories” can’t produce, no matter the demand. 

There are other reasons why a woman might choose formula. 

I teach my economics students that everything we do has an opportunity cost, which is the value of the best alternative forgone. This means that nothing you will ever do, including breastfeeding, is free. 

For months after my children were born, I spent hours a day either feeding a baby or attached to a pump. I hauled a breast pump, containers, and bra pads to and from my office. I bought special clothes. I bought a refrigerator to keep at work so I wouldn’t have to put breastmilk in the office fridge. I bought special “lactation cookies” when my milk supply wasn’t keeping up with my ravenous baby. When planning a work trip, I had to decide if I wanted to risk the TSA hassling me or contaminating my pumped milk, or pay a company to ship it home on dry ice. Put simply, I invested a lot of time and effort in breastfeeding. It wasn’t free, not by a long shot. Not all women have that luxury. 

In an insightful article for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg presented the economic realities of breastfeeding. After pumping or breastfeeding some 1,700 times over a six-month period, she calculated how much this “free” alternative cost her by adding up the price of materials and the money value of her time. She found that if a mother nursed or pumped for six months and would have been paid for the time given up based on the median annual salary for an American woman, breastfeeding would cost a whopping $11,460. The cost would be higher for women with larger incomes. 

We can learn many things from the formula shortage. For example, perhaps it’s time to examine the FDA restrictions on imports.  But at least let’s stop treating breastfeeding as though it were free.  

Abigail R Hall, PhD, is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and an associate professor of economics at Sykes College of Business at the University of Tampa.

Abigail Hall Blanco is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
Catalyst articles by Abigail R. Hall