Breastfeeding Not Free, Costs Women Plenty in Lost Income

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Although she enjoys nursing her 4½-month-old daughter and believes breastfeeding is best for her baby, K.M. fears she may soon have to stop.

Her employer has provided a separate pumping room, as federal law mandates, but K.M. said it's difficult for her to leave her desk during the work day to pump milk. K.M., who didn't want to divulge her real name or her employer's out of fear of reprisal, said she had a large case load and numerous meetings throughout the day and that she could use her time more efficiently by staying at her desk to pump. And that's what she tried to do.

"I was covered up and faced away from everyone, so my co-workers didn't mind, but after about a month, it came to my attention that somebody complained and HR asked me not to do it," she said.

Her employer, K.M. said, recently changed its policy and now prohibits pumping outside the designated area.

"I'm really at a crossroads now. Is this the universe telling me that I need to make a change? My priority is my family, but in order to make my family a priority, I need to work," she said.

Since cutting back to part-time work or leaving the work force entirely is not financially possible for K.M. or her family, the only option for her may be to stop breastfeeding altogether. K.M. still hopes to work something out with her employer that would allow her to continue to work full-time and still breastfeed, but so far, no compromise.

K.M. is just one of many mothers facing this dilemma: Quit breastfeeding, or face the economic consequences of lost income. While breastfeeding, unlike bottle-feeding, doesn't require a cash outlay for formula and bottles, a new study suggests that many nursing mothers pay a much bigger financial price in terms of lost income.

Evaluating a range of data from a U.S. national database, researchers found that while all first-time mothers lost income after giving birth, mothers who breastfed for six months or longer experienced a much bigger and lengthier loss of earnings compared to mothers who breastfed for shorter periods of time, or not at all.

"Studies say that one of the reasons women choose to breastfeed is because it's free, but is it really free? It takes time, and women's time is worth money," said co-author Mary Noonan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

One of the main reasons for the lost income, the authors said, is women often leave the work force entirely or scale back their hours, and one of the main reasons for that decision is many workplaces don't provide a supportive environment for nursing mothers. The law only applies to workplaces with more than 50 employees, the authors said, and even in cases when it does apply, many women still feel stigmatized.

"If it's not a supportive workplace and women choose to breastfeed for six months or longer, these women are more likely to leave their jobs if they have the means to do so," said Phyllis Rippeyoung, a co-author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.

The authors take pains to emphasize that their study does not suggest that women should not breastfeed because of worry over balancing work and family responsibilties. Their message, Rippeyoung said, is that women should be made aware of the potential economic consequences of breastfeeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization recommend that breast milk should be the only source of nutrition until the age of 6 months.

"There are these public health prescriptions that women are being told to breastfeed or otherwise they are going to harm their baby, but if she's going to be given these sorts of messages, she should be told to take into account earnings losses," she said.

The study also found that long-term breastfeeders were also more financially able to leave the work force. These women were more likely to be married to men who could provide support if their wives needed to leave the labor force.

Elizabeth Hoffmann, an associate professor of sociology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., has also conducted research on breastfeeding and the workplace. She found while talking to working mothers that long-term breastfeeders were also more likely to have jobs that allowed for flexibility and privacy for pumping milk, meaning they could continue working.

"Flexible schedules and private offices are critical for successful long-term breastfeeders," Hoffmann said. "If they don't have these privileges, it's hard for them to pump."

The study authors also said that despite the increasing numbers of mothers who breastfed, workplaces had not caught up with the demands of lactating women, even with the federal law in place.

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