Increased Rates of Breastfeeding May Negatively Impact Women’s Economic Prospects

A new study by researchers at the University of Georgia and Florida State University finds that state hospital regulations aimed to encourage breastfeeding, such as requiring a lactation consultant on staff, increased the likelihood that new mothers would start breastfeeding by almost 4 percent. The regulations also increased the probability that the women continued breastfeeding through the first year of their children’s lives by as much as 7 percent.

However, mothers who chose to breastfeed significantly increased their time spent on child care, leading many to reduce their work hours, reduce their positions to part-time or leave the workforce entirely. And that may cause substantially lower wages and earnings down the line.

“The bigger picture is that the U.S. has really focused on pushing breastfeeding as a goal, but we have done that without thinking through all of the relative costs of that decision,” notes Emily Lawler, an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-author of the study.

Breastmilk is considered the gold standard of infant feeding by most, if not all, health organizations. “When you dig into the evidence about the health benefits of breastfeeding versus a high-quality formula, it’s really, really sparse,” Dr. Lawler said. “In general, women who breastfeed look different from those who don’t. They tend to be higher educated, have higher incomes and can invest in their children in a way that non-breastfeeding women may not be able to.” Those factors, the researchers argue, make it hard to determine whether the health benefits attributed to breastfeeding are purely due to breast milk and not some other confounding factors.

“I don’t think we should view these findings as a signal that breastfeeding is not worth it because it has these costs,” Dr. Lawler said. “But these costs are important to acknowledge and to take into account when we’re thinking about implementing policies like paid parental leave.”

The full study, “The Effect of Hospital Postpartum Care Regulations on Breastfeeding and Maternal Time Allocation,” was published in the American Economics Journal: Applied Economics. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/Study


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