The Costs of Pumping

Every so often newspaper and magazine execs must think to themselves “How can we drive more traffic to our website?  How can we get those mommy-bloggers everyone is talking about to pick us up?  We know!  Let’s write about breastfeeding — that gets ‘em every time!”  And, for some reason, it does get us every time.  We leave comments, post on blogs, and get down and dirty over breast versus bottle.  But by now we must all know that the only people who are benefiting from these articles are writers and media execs.

Such is the case with Ruth Mantell’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal on “The Economic Consequences of Breastfeeding,” which suggests that working mothers should think twice about pumping at the office.  Mantell joins the ranks of other mommy agitators like Jill Lepore and Hanna Rosin in suggesting that the costs of time and equipment might not be worth the benefits.

Just one problem: Mantell is a reporter/writer who was able to take a 6-month maternity leave.  Sound like most working mothers out there?  Nope, not even remotely.  Did she take the time to interview anyone more representative of the various working mother communities?  Nope.  Not a professional working mother, not a fast-food employee, not a middle manager or a factory worker — all of whom would have vastly different experiences with pumping in the workplace.  The only perspective she got on this issue is her own, and that doesn’t reflect most of us in the trenches trying to sync our parenting choices with our career ambitions.

Those of us in the corporate world who have breastfed on the job understand that the real issue is not the costs and benefits of pumping (that is going to be a very personal calculation), but the ability to make the choice.  This kind of article drums up traffic-driving mommy-wars, but doesn’t shed light on or challenge the corporate culture that forces women to choose between work and feeding their babies.

Full disclosure: after going back to work at 8 weeks, I pumped on the job until my son was a year old, and I found it to be a difficult but incredibly enriching and wonderful experience.  Here’s my take on Mantell’s assertions about the costs of pumping:

First, if you are only able to take a 6 to 12-week maternity leave it can be hard to establish a milk supply that would allow you to do what Mantell says she plans: breastfeed at home and formula feed during the day.  Many working women need to pump during the day to maintain the ability to nurse at all.  So when Mantell blithely suggests that women stop pumping, we need to understand that for many this means  losing the opportunity to breastfeed and moving to formula exclusively.

Second, Mantell cites research indicating that mothers who breastfeed longer than 6 months experience declines in income compared with those who choose to stop.  But the article goes on to say that this research is not causal — it’s correlative.  Mothers who choose to breastfeed are more likely to cut back on their hours or opt out.  It’s the opting out, not the breastfeeding that’s leading to reduced income.  Is the solution here to stop pumping?  No, it’s to find ways of normalizing breastfeeding in the workplace so that mothers don’t feel they have to leave the workforce to make the best parenting choices for their kids.  This is actually happening — many states are now mandating that employers provide pumping breaks and lactation spaces for their nursing employees.

Third, let’s talk about the “direct costs” Mantell cites in her piece.  Anne Bulin over at did a very thoughtful analysis of this that suggests that even if you buy everything top-notch and new (not necessary in the case of pumps and nursing shirts), formula still comes out more expensive than breastfeeding.  And while pumping takes time at work, there is time cost to getting up in the middle of the night and preparing bottles rather than nursing, which requires no prep if you have the baby and the boobs.

Finally, if we are really going to talk costs, the journal Pediatrics is reporting that billions of dollars in healthcare costs could be saved if 90% of women chose to breastfeed their babies in the first six months of life.  The report indicates that diseases such as “stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even childhood leukemia” might be prevented by increased breastfeeding.

I’m not putting down anyone’s choices here — breastfeeding was right for me; it may not be so for everyone.  But I think we need to challenge so-called journalism on this subject that addresses breastfeeding (and other parenting topics) from a rarified perspective that gives the wrong impression about costs and benefits for a majority of working mothers.  From this piece, the corporate execs who read The Journal might deduce that making pumping an option at work isn’t worth it for business or women — in fact, just the opposite is true.  But it takes more than the lazy reporting in this and other articles like it to get the real story.

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Filed under Breastfeeding and Pumping, Health, News

13 responses to “The Costs of Pumping

  1. I never bought an expensive pump. I used an Avent hand held pump and went back to work at 12 weeks with all three of my daughters. Pumping was not always easy, the walk to the bathroom, yes, I pumped over a toilet, was kind of embarrassing as my male co-workers quickly looked away as if seeing me head off to pump was the same as seeing my breasts. I stowed bags of breastmilk in a cooler bag and ferried them home each night. I was proud of what I did, feeling like in some ways it compensated for having to go in or to leave my baby with a sitter. It was my milk, the best I could give her (them). I found myself working harder to negotiate with each daughter, carving out more creative scenarios, leaving early and telecommuting, or accomplishing pre-determined tasks late at night. Now, as I wean my last daughter, I have the most flexible schedule I’ve ever had, but look back on the decision to pump and make it work for me as a great tool in assessing the most important things for my family and myself and then devising ways to accomplish them.
    I realize my experience may be unique, but I think the common element is having the opportunity to create an approach to those first 12-18 months (or however long) that works for the family/individual, rather than being forced to conform to guidelines that don’t yield the highest return for employer or employee. I worked so much harder in exchange for what I wanted out of gratitude and relief.

  2. The negotiations with my all-male management team for a private space in a 100% glass-walled office layout were agony. I did it for two children, got one to 9 months before I lost my milk and left the traditional workforce when the other was 5 months. I was offered the bathroom (only no electrical outlets nor hygienic space).

    I fought the Head of Global Security for the entire multi-national corporation to get my own key to the computer file server room. There was a telephone. I created a little work station and invested in a hands-free pumping “bra” that meant I could work, do conference calls (I’m brazen like that), and maintain productivity the 2-4 times a day it was necessary.

    I didn’t really care what anyone thought about my breasts, my milk or my baby. Certainly there were looks, some cow jokes from a few vicious voices. But I was quite simply a pain in the ass until everyone got so tired of me they gave in. It shouldn’t have to be that hard. And whilst it’s not all, it’s certainly part of why I off-ramped. Thank you Mama Bee.

  3. The highest return for employees and employers would be from a federal policy that would mandate six months of paid maternity leave for every new baby. This would send the message that our culture cares about what’s best for babies (breastmilk, for one) and that it will do what it takes for families to give it. The cost will be made up by healthier children, as the study demonstrates.

    So where’s the “family values” crowd now?

  4. TMB,
    you’re right, this gets us every time! Us being those of us with the privilege to choose to breastfeed or not, and those of us who wish they had that privilege.

    The only thing I can add to the general conversation about it is that we in mgmt positions can advocate for this, for our colleagues. After enjoying the privilege/luxury of my own private office for pumping for both kids, I gave my office over to a nursing mom/MBA student 20 mins every morning for a month (yes, I went and got coffee) until we were able to get her a lockable, clean ‘lactation room’.

    It was a freaking drag on my productivity but it was completely worth it to me, and I know that the student appreciated the office and my advocacy for a better solution for her.

    (Somehow, the temporary lactation room never got the same amout of celebration as the diaper changing stations we got into the men’s room. Never figured that one out.)

  5. Oh god. What is it with these journalists who feel the need to write these articles? Can’t they write something useful about working motherhood instead? Here was my response the last time:

    I am now back at work after the birth of my second child, and pumping for her. And I plan to keep doing it until she is at least a year old, longer if that is what I think she needs.

    I don’t give a rat’s behind how any other woman chooses to feed her baby- formula, breastmilk, a combination. Whatever. But I do care that everyone gets to make that decision FOR HERSELF. And these articles make it harder for us to get to the point where everyone gets to make that decision.

    I happen to live in CA, a state that requires locking, non-bathroom lactation rooms and unpaid break time to pump. When I started the job I have now, I was still pumping for my first daughter. I took one look at the lactation room and laughed. It was just a chair facing a table. I’m in charge of IT here, so I put in a computer, and I can work while I pump.

    Or, in this case, read blogs and post annoyed comments!

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  7. katya

    great post stephanie.
    re: shannon Drury’s point – I’ve got 2 pregnant employees and I’m fighting hard for their right to take 6 months UNPAID leave. Its an uphill battle but I think I’m almost there! score one for the ladies.

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  11. I would like to mention that there is a price to breastfeeding one baby while you have a 1 year old that has their needs, too. I couldn’t find the time to breastfeed and read, clean, do puzzles with my other son, and just feel like I wasn’t a slave to the schedule. I found a great hands free bra option and didn’t go back to feeling like there weren’t options. It literally saved my sanity…like it says!

  12. Rachel H.

    I am a new mom. I started back to work at 6 weeks after my daughter was born. I have been pumping twice a day ever since. I have to say that pumping has cost me nothing. I work really hard at maintaining my supply and nursing on the weekends, but once my supply was established, I have a lot more freedom now.

    My pump was $250. My bags cost about $10 every two or three months. I usually store milk in the bottles I plan to feed my daughter with.

    I am granted two 15 minute breaks by this company (and my old company, I changed jobs two months ago). Nobody cares that I pump, nobody cares that I use my breaks to take care of my daughter, and nobody has made a single joke at my expense.

    I am lucky to have a stay at home dad caring for my daughter. Between her cloth diapers and my pumping, my child costs almost zero dollars a month. Now that she is eating food, we spend a little bit on her food, but I make it all myself so the cost is minimal.

    Breastfeeding and pumping is the cheapest way to feed a child. My daughter has never been to an emergency room, has never been sick enough for me to stay home from work, and I am very very lucky that I am able to do the best I can to keep it that way.

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