Meet Kaitlin Bell Barnett, a mom and journalist covering everything from psychology and medications to women’s health and child development. She's opening up about the cost of her breastfeeding experience so far, and explaining why those costs, while frustrating, can be worth it.
Earlier this week, I published a column detailing how six months of breastfeeding has cost me about $2,000—as much as a year of formula.
I explained that I was—and still am—committed to nursing my daughter and feeding her pumped breast milk until she’s at least a year old. I believe breastfeeding has health and emotional benefits for both mother and baby, even if these may have been somewhat overstated by the pro-breastfeeding movement.
The column got a lot of people riled up. Some commenters, especially moms who had had trouble breastfeeding themselves, praised me for shedding light on a little-discussed issue.
But the majority criticized me as entitled or naive. They complained my experiences weren’t typical, and worried that these kinds of “horror stories” would discourage other women from breastfeeding. Many said I’d been snookered and paid for products and services I didn’t need.
These people seemed to have missed my point. I don’t think most women will pay as much as I did to breastfeed or feed their kids pumped milk. But I do think that women who are really committed to exclusive breastfeeding, as I am, should know it isn’t likely to be free, the way it’s often made out to be. And if they have pain and difficulty nursing and pumping, as I have, it can come with significant costs.
Are fancy nursing bras, specialty nursing clothes, breast pads and the like strictly necessary? No, but they sure make things more convenient. Back in the 80s, my mom nursed me for a year and my sister for five months and doesn’t remember having any of these products available. But she also stopped nursing my sister earlier than she wanted to because of terrible back pain: a $40 ergonomic pillow might have helped her continue.
I, for one, wanted to be able to breastfeed in public without making a huge production of it. Nursing bras and a few specialty tops helped me feed my daughter in countless restaurants, parked in my car, in parks and many other locations without taking off my bra or hiking up my shirt in cold weather. Some people would urge me just to “ free the nipple,” but I preferred not to call more attention to myself than necessary.
That’s money I chose to spend, and I don’t regret it, though it does bother me that companies seem to play off mothers’ anxieties and charge a premium for nursing clothes and gear, as they do for maternity clothes.
As for the other stuff—the nipple creams, cold packs, extra-soft nursing pads and such—my point isn’t that any of these items are necessary or that all of them deliver on their claims. In fact, I tried many of them and found they ranged from useless to only marginally helpful. But the reason these products exist is because there’s a market: women are bombarded with messages that “breast is best” and many, myself included, feel intense pressure to make breastfeeding work even when it goes poorly or causes pain.
That’s perhaps especially true for women whose babies gain weight slowly, as my daughter did when her latch began causing recurrent plugged milk ducts which were not only very painful but also reduced my milk supply.
Most women who experience as much pain and trouble as I’ve had nursing, or whose babies gain weight slower than the pediatricians think is healthy simply give up. Although more women are initiating breastfeeding and doing it longer, the majority are still falling short of their own “breastfeeding goals” and the major medical and public health groups’ recommendations that infants be fed only breast milk for the first six months, followed by a combination of breast milk and solid foods until they’re at least a year old .
Even women who stop nursing before the recommended six months to a year may well have already invested a lot of money in trying to make breastfeeding work.
If anything, my problem may have been that I tried to tough it out for too long and spent a bunch of money on stop-gap measures that proved insufficient before paying for pricier interventions, like a $650 procedure to help my daughter latch better. Breastfeeding is something women have been doing for millennia, I reasoned, why make it into an expensive medical issue?
In the end, I might have waited too long: my daughter’s latch is still shallow more often than not, and nursing and pumping are both still uncomfortable. Perhaps, as a lactation consultant friend suggests, she’s just one of those babies who prefers a shallow latch, or maybe she’d already habituated to it by the time she had surgery.
Still, I don’t feel snookered. Parenting is about doing your best under tough conditions. I knew breastfeeding might be hard. I just wish I hadn’t expected it to be free.
I do think that if governments want to truly promote breastfeeding and pumping breast milk so that women can go back to work, more costs should be subsidized and covered by insurance, and the remaining medical costs should be fully tax deductible. Six months of paid maternity leave for moms who want it would helping ease some of the stress of pumping.
Until all that happens, I don’t aim to discourage other women from breastfeeding or to encourage them to buy a bunch of gear they don’t need. But I do want them to know that breastfeeding, like parenting, can be hard, and that in their quest to make it a little bit easier, they may end up spending more than they anticipated.