The economics of breastfeeding

Baby Sam is almost 6 months old, and has yet to try his first bottle of formula. While I’m certainly not the kind of mother who’s militant about breastfeeding, I was patting myself on the back the other day for having nursed him exclusively this long. One of the things I was saying to myself was “wow, think of all the money we saved not buying formula!” After all, this is one of the selling points used in a lot of the breastfeeding literature that health groups hand out.

Then, of course, I ran the calculations in my head and realized how ridiculous this was. Nursing Sam takes about 20-25 minutes each time. For the first 4 months of his life I was nursing him about 3 times during my 8am-6pm workday (I work at home, so that’s how this all computes). Now we are down to 2 times during the workday, but I would wager that over the past 6 months, I have spent at least 5 “working” hours nursing per week. Now, obviously, even if Sam were drinking bottles someone would have to feed him, and during non-work hours, that would probably be me, but during my work hours it wouldn’t.

So we are talking 25 weeks times 5 hours per week, or 125 hours. Formula (back when we were buying it for Jasper after I weaned him) costs about $27 for a large can. Let’s say we’d do about 1.5 cans per week (allowing for bottles not getting finished). This comes out to about $40/week, or $1000 for 25 weeks (and is based on the very high prices in our local grocery stores — it is less expensive buying in bulk at Target).

Taxes in New York are ridiculous, so $1000 after tax requires earning about $2000. While I try to do some editing and reading for work while nursing Sam, I’m generally not getting much done. So, if I hadn’t spent that 125 hours nursing, could I have earned another $2000? I would certainly hope so; this comes out to about $16 an hour, and I tend not to take on projects that pay that rate. If I were billing $50/hour, 125 hours comes out to $6250.

Of course, to me breastfeeding isn’t about money — it’s a worthy investment of many, many of my 168 hours because I think it’s healthier for my baby (and me). I like cuddling with Sam and the closeness nursing provides. But running this calculation reminded me that we often don’t figure the opportunity costs of time when we’re figuring out how much money we “save” by doing various things. If you drive 20 minutes out of your way to save 5 cents a gallon on gas, you’re probably not coming out ahead.

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