When people promote breastfeeding they usually go through a list of the benefits and the notion that “it’s free” is always on the list. They’re right, it is free, once you get started. But the sad truth is that it costs a lot – too much – to even get properly started.
In Canada, about 85% of women initiate breastfeeding, but very few continue for the recommended periods of exclusivity and total duration. In fact, almost a quarter of those who start, have stopped again within a month. Why is this? There are always lots of reasons given, but if you look closely, they usually boil down to one common thread: money. It takes (a lot of) money to pay for access to the information, the support and the underlying health needed to make it in breastfeeding.
The women most likely to breastfeed are highly educated, partnered, urban and older. I learned myself the hard way that breastfeeding is pretty much a DIY endeavor in Canada. No one is going to help you if you don’t help yourself. In fact, you’ll usually have to fight the medical establishment to do it, not to mention society as a whole, and it takes a lot of confidence and backing to win a fight like that.
Breastfeeding should be the biological norm, free and available to any woman with breasts and a baby, but the reality is that it’s more like a private club with steep membership dues. It cost me more than $40,000 for my breastfeeding relationship. Here’s how:
University education: $30,000. Postsecondary graduates have a breastfeeding rate of 89%, versus 79% for those who attended postsecondary but didn’t graduate, and an even lower 71% for non highschool grads. Why? My six years of biology training gave me more than just an understanding that mammaries are for feeding mammalian babies. I have access to literature databases that aren’t publicly available, I know how to navigate them and how to decipher the information I find in them so I was able to be truly informed. Most of the women around me relied on popular literature, news articles or formula-sponsored propaganda that usually give incomplete or incorrect information. But beyond that, my training gave me the confidence to go to battle with health professionals when I knew they were wrong – which was often.
A decade of contraceptives: $3,000. Older mothers are more likely to breastfeed than their younger peers but believe it or not, most women these days do not stay abstinent until they decide to have a baby. You can count me into that group and it costs money to stay pregnancy-free.
Marriage: $500. This doesn’t count the big fancy wedding we had to celebrate our marriage, it’s just the bare bones costs of getting a licence and hiring an officiant. Partnered women are more likely to breastfeed because they’re more likely to have help and support (from said partner) in the postpartum period. Having my husband in my corner was invaluable because everything I knew went out the window when someone suggested to me in my moments of hormonally-induced weakness that I was starving my baby. The way he scowled at the nurse who told me to bottle feed gave me back my gumption and helped to continue doing what I knew was right.
Urban living: $6,000. It would be impossible to get a really accurate idea of how much more it costs to live in an urban centre than a rural area. So I checked rental listings in a small town about an hour from where we were living. This number is strictly the premium we paid to rent our home for a year in the city, where we had access to breastfeeding support like our Doula.
Doula: $1400. Our doula had lots of training in lactation management so she basically functioned like an LC for us after the birth. She was the
first only one to suggest to us that our problems might stem from thrush, and she was right. And, if she hadn’t been there to remind us that we weren’t obligated to do what the public health nurses said (informed consent does, after all include informed refusal) then we would have been stuffing 60mL of formula into Little Man’s 2-day old, chestnut-sized stomach every 3 hours. That much formula would have left no room for breastmilk and we would have been doomed before the week was out.
Grand total: $40,900.
That’s quite the price tag to feed my baby the ‘free’ milk that my body makes. Is it any wonder that 15% of women can’t even get in the breastfeeding door? Or that 30% get kicked out of the club again 8 short weeks later? Or that only 9% of us can pay the necessary dues to keep at it into the recommended second year? The milk may be free, but the ability to breastfeed certainly isn’t.