The High Cost Of Low Breastfeeding Rates

A new cost analysis of the long-term impacts of breastfeeding found that lower-than-recommended breastfeeding rates among U.S. mothers “may cause as many as 5,000 cases of breast cancer, nearly 54,000 cases of hypertension, and almost 14,000 heart attacks each year.” The study, led by a researcher at Harvard Medical School and published today in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology also found that the economic toll associated with such “sub-optimal” breastfeeding practices reaches into the billions annually.


The study’s lead author, Melissa Bartick, M.D., an assistant professor of internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance says via email that the bottom line of the analysis is this: “Women need to be supported to be able to breastfeed each child for at least a year — their health, and our economy depend on it.” She adds: “The CDC has found that 60% of women do not even reach their personal breastfeeding goals. Now we know this has a real cost, with thousands of women suffering needless disease and premature death.”

(Bartick also happens to be founder of the “Ban The Bags” campaign, a pro-breastfeeding advocacy group working to stop the common hospital practice of handing over free infant formula samples, or gift bags, to new moms after they give birth.)

Here’s more detail on the breastfeeding study from the Cambridge Health Alliance news release:

The analysis used sophisticated models to compare the effect of current breastfeeding rates in a simulated group of nearly two million U.S. women who turned 15 in 2002. The authors modeled this cohort of women across their lifetimes and estimated cumulative costs. They then compared these results to what would be expected if 90% of the women followed medical recommendations to breastfeed each child for one year. Currently, only about 25% of US children are still breastfeeding at one year of age.

The economic costs to society of premature death total $17.4 billion a year, due to an increase in heart attacks, hypertension, breast cancer, premenopausal ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes in women who breastfeed less than recommended. In the study, premature death is defined as before age 70, or more than 10 years before the average U.S. woman is expected to die. The authors also found the increased burden of disease from suboptimal breastfeeding increased medical costs, incurring $734 million in direct costs and $126 million in indirect costs. The costs result from the increased rates of breast cancer, hypertension, and heart attacks, which are seen in women who breastfeed less than recommended…

Dr. Bartick previously led a similar cost analysis on the cost of excess pediatric disease due to low breastfeeding rates, which was published in 2010. That study showed that suboptimal breastfeeding cost the U.S. economy $13 billion a year, including the costs of 911 excess deaths in children per year.

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  • Foluso

    Could you kindly cite the article so we can read the whole research article?

  • mplo

    From what I understand, however, breast feeding is not only beneficial for the mother, but for the baby as well, because it helps produce the hormoney called oxytocin, which facilitates the various bonding and communication processes in both humans and animals alike. Since I was born at a time when they didn’t believe in breastfeeding, I often wonder if the fact that I wasn’t breastfed at all contributed to my communication/socialization problems.

  • Lilee

    I remember several years back the pediatric doctors association was going to put out a bunch of PSA’s on the benefits of breastfeeding and then the formula folks threatened them with taking away their speaking engagements or whatever it was and they backed right off and promoted formula again. Money rules.

    It is hard to breast feed and if you are failing there is no wet nurse these days to help you out until you can figure it out. I breast fed both my kids but only because my infant got sick and I spent days in the hospital getting tips from nurses. Had I gone home as planned I never would have gotten it. It’s not ‘‘natural’’–in fact at first it’s toe curling (literally) painful. My second was much easier I think because I was just better at it.

    I also want to say that ‘‘figuring it out’’ isn’t like a puzzle. One day the baby just starts to latch and I honestly don’t know why–but the baby can’t go long without food so that’s why so many go back to formula.

    I pumped in the bathroom at work. My breasts would explode with pain at malls and the only place to feed was in the bathroom where the smells are terrible. And at the time talk radio was screaming about how improper it was for women to breastfeed in public. (Obviously none of them felt that ‘‘full’’ pain in their breasts and had a screaming infant with them at a public place. The need to breastfeed for both mom and infant, who become timed together, comes on like any biological function and with about as much notice.)

    And there is the militant pro-breast people who are fought off by the feminists who feel that imposing breastfeeding limits a woman’s options–which it does.

    So there’s the influence of the formula companies, the lack of coaching, the lack of cultural space to breast feed in public places, lack of support at work and the very real concerns of advocates and feminists who both I think in the end want to support women, all weighing on the already exhausted, nervous mom.

    My advice would be to know you are a good mother either way. Pay no attention to others. Breastfeed when you need to. (I just sat on a bench and covered as best I could and didn’t care. I was in agony and I was going to feed my hungry baby.) Breastfeeding is really hard at the start. If you get past that initial phase the baby starts to latch. That toe curling pain does go away. My most peaceful moments, perhaps in my life, was when my infant was latched on Sunday mornings, my husband asleep, and the baby just suckled until content. I think it was the only rest I got for the first three years of both my kids lives!

  • Barbara

    “simulated group of nearly 2 million women”? This report is pseudoscience at best, which is really a shame because it doesn’t get at the central issue at all.

    You can’t shame-on-you people into doing what you want nor can you do-what-I-want-or-you’ll-die people into compliance. There are myriad reasons for breastfeeding rates to be low in the US – many of which are outlined in the comments before mine.

    Pseudoscientific bunk like this distracts us from addressing the real sources of this issue.

  • Mommy in MA

    This article does NOT address those mothers like myself who tried DESPERATELY to breast feed and could not. My body did NOT cooperate, despite every attempt made. There is NO support for moms who try and can’t. You are made to feel
    like a failure by the people who are encouraging you to breast feed, and
    get no emotional support (at what is arguably an extremely emotional
    time) from the la lechue league if you are struggling. In their
    opinion, you are not trying hard enough. My oldest child almost starved and got mild jaundice because I fought so hard to breast feed that he was slowly starving. As a first time mom it sucked.

    • Barb G.

      Yes, that happened to me as well. I had decided to breastfeed for two years and instead could not at all and my daughter was starving. There was no support in place and I felt like the worst failure. I went through almost 10 weeks of feeding through a tube taped to my breasts in the hope some miracle would happen, while trying every doctor available – but nobody actually cared. With the second one we had a much better pediatrician, they were great, but I also knew by then.

      We can not forget the fact that we live in a culture that does not support breastfeeding. Women need to hide their babies under blankets, maternity leave in this country is a joke and then there is the culture of easy and comfortable, and for some reason many moms find formula easy and comfortable, because of the first issue, living in a culture that does not support it. It is a bad cycle.

    • Kandis Powers

      There is help out there. LLL is aa group that helps women with breast
      feeding. You can contact your local office and I know in my city we have
      three centers that offer free help that are not apart of the state. WIC
      office offers help also. This place not only give educational classes
      but help with correcting latch problems, inverted nipples, and supply
      issues. Im sorry that you both were not able to breastfeed but very glad
      that you tried. Maybe you will be able to next time and be able to get
      the help that is there. A lot of the time these resources are not
      networked properly. GL!!

    • Annoyed

      I am right there with you. I too tried desperately to breast feed my kids. My son would scream and cry because he was so hungry and no matter what I did my body would not produce more than a small amount of milk. I don’t think its fair for people to write these articles and preach about breast feeding but never acknowledge that some mothers simply don’t physically have the ability to breast feed. Instead we are made to feel as if we are not good enough as mothers and that we didn’t try hard enough.

  • Amy Tuteur, MD

    This study is deeply flawed, rendering the results meaningless.

    The authors acknowledge that the study is only true if we ASSUME that breastfeeding prevents maternal hypertension and diabetes. There is NO EVIDENCE that breastfeeding prevents maternal hypertension and diabetes, and in the studies that have looked at the issue, the associations between breastfeeding and hypertension and diabetes are essentially zero once you correct for maternal characteristics such as economic status and obesity.

    Therefore of the claim that breastfeeding would prevent over 70,000 cases of maternal disease is inflated by a factor of 14. The only illness that may be prevented by breastfeeding is breast cancer. All other claims are nothing more than wishful thinking.

  • Jo-Jo

    They need to sort out the maternity leave system in the country. Some paid maternity leave will help give thousands more women the opportunity to breastfeed their babies and breastfed babies get sick less often, or if they do, take quicker to recover..meaning mom can get back to work sooner. Plus more organisations need to provide facilities for moms to pump in a safe, hygienic manner so they can continue to provide breast milk to their infants. How about spending less money looking for weapons of mass destruction and spend some money on weapons of mass protection ;)

  • K

    A year isn’t the cut off. Breastmilk doesn’t go “bad” at 12 months. At least 2 years of Breastfeeding is the WHO minimum. As long as the child is nursing the milk continues to change and adapt to the child’s needs. The emotional & health benefits of nursing to both mom & baby can’t be matched by anything else. Breastfeeding should continue for as long as mom & baby desire. Allowing a child to self wean is wonderful.

  • Lisa

    I breastfed my daughter till she was 11 month. I am also breastfeeding my 7 month old son and also going back to work fulltime.. I pump in my car everyday and feed him when I get home, it is very hard work but I feel guilty if I supplemented him. I feel guilty enough that I couldn’t give him the full year like I did with my daughter. I am still going strong!! And want to continue as long as possible!!!

  • Marissa

    Many people seem to believe that breastfeeding is archaic and too much of a burden for todays mothers. I can’t tell you how many people told me I was amazing and sometimes crazy because I breastfed for 14 months. It is actually amazing to me that women who can breastfeed chose to spend tons of money on formula. To each their own. I’m glad I was able to meet my goal through continuing to pump at work, and I don’t regret it one bit!