“Breastfeeding is free!” and other nonsense - Why there is no “free” way to feed a baby


In May 2022, US-based Assistant Professor Jessica Owens-Young tweeted:

“The ‘breastfeeding is free’ narrative in the midst of an infant formula shortage is a great example of public ignorance of what it actually takes to successfully breastfeed.”

There is the time, physical labour, mental load, short and long-term financial consequences of lost income, superannuation and career non-progression associated with lactation, yet there is also the direct expenses of making breastfeeding happen that people seem to ignore.

I breastfed my eldest until 2 weeks before her third birthday. I’d done the paid education, paid for a lactation consultant when supply problems arose, been to the support groups, had all the gear for pumping if needed and had oodles of experience under my belt.

Still, making it through just the first two weeks of breastfeeding my second baby has cost $400 in mastitis treatments, nipple healing products, painkillers and lactation consults. These expenses have arisen before paid parental leave kicks in, and I’m well aware not everyone can foot surprise bills like this to continue with feeding in a way they’ve told us is both “the most natural thing in the world” and “free!”

Don’t get me wrong, exclusive pumping, mixed breastfeeding/formula feeding and exclusive formula feeding are expensive too and this is the point I’m trying to make:

There is no “free” way to feed your baby, and the way that feels like the best investment in your collective health and parent-child relationship according to your individual situation is the way to go.

Some will feel like breastfeeding is a cornerstone of their mother-baby relationship. Others will feel like it is an anvil weighing so heavily it prevents enjoyment of their baby. Some will feel something completely different. Almost all however will experience ambivalence, holding simultaneous and conflicting feelings about the way they feed their babies.

I say this knowing there will be people reading who are hating breastfeeding and feel they can’t stop due to internal and external pressures, and also those using formula who would prefer to have breastfed if the support was there.

Instead of people (including health professionals) giving us BS lines like “breastfeeding is free” or “fed is best”, we need to recognise that not everyone’s cost/benefit ratio is the same, and offer the support they need to make the best possible investment in their family’s overall health - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and financial.

We need to invest in the health of mothers, parents and babies in proactive, sensitive and holistically-minded ways, rather than handing them “feeding your baby” flyers in pregnancy and sending them on their way.

We need to acknowledge baby sleep and feeding, and in turn maternal sleep and mental health, are connected, and that the way you feed your baby isn’t the cause of sleep deprivation so much as a dire lack of social support for new parents.

We need to reinstate the knowledge sharing regarding breastfeeding and milk sharing practices that have been lost in recent centuries, and to acknowledge that supplemental infant feeding methods have been employed for thousands of years.

We need to reduce societal stigma about exposed breasts for non-sexual purposes, and to reduce judgement around choosing bottles.

Breastfeeding requires significant physical, mental and financial investment. Making exclusive pumping, mixed feeding and exclusive formula feeding work does too. There is no “free” way to feed your baby, and no one better placed to decide the best way forward than you.

Whatever path you take, babies are a major investment. Lucky they’re so lovely.


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