Breast-Feeding: An Economic Bonus. (Food for Thought)

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Breast-Feeding: An Economic Bonus. (Food for Thought)


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


Breast-feeding not only benefits the health of the infant and mother, but yields an economic bonus, too. According to estimates, if more mothers breast-fed, at least $3.6 billion would be saved annually in the United States. More breastfeeding would reduce the amount of money spent on infant feeding formulas; it would also reduce the amount of money spent treating illnesses that are more prevalent with bottle-feeding than with breastfeeding. Most likely, the figure of $3.6 billion is an underestimate of the total savings, because it accounts for only three childhood illnesses: otitis media (a common ear infection), gastroenteritis (inflammation of the mucous lining of the stomach and intestine), and necrotizing enterocolitis (a grave condition in which the mucosa of the small intestine and colon die, and the infant experiences shock, dehydration, the passage of mucus--often mixed with blood and shreds of the bowel wall--to the rectum, and sometimes death).

Only 64% of infants born to American mothers are breastfed. This percentage drops to only 29% for 6-month-old infants. The U.S. Surgeon General has recommended that breast-feeding should be encouraged and supported, with a goal of having at least 75% of infants breast-fed at birth, and at least 50% of 6-month-old infants still being breast-fed.

Some mothers choose not to breast-feed for several reasons. The aggressive marketing campaign waged by infant feeding formula manufacturers has influenced mothers' decisions. A counterforce has been lacking. Women have not always received encouragement from their doctors, family or friends. Medical professionals have lacked knowledge or training about breast-feeding benefits. Administrators in maternity hospitals may prefer an orderly schedule of bottle-feeding over a non-scheduled demand by infants for breast-feeding. Other factors include cultural attitudes and an increasing number of women in the work force. Appropriate education can counteract these factors.

In earlier times, breast-feeding was nearly universally practiced. However, the introduction of commercial feeding formulas resulted in a dramatic decline. Revival of breastfeeding was due, in large measure, to the dedicated efforts of women in La Leche League. Except for some pediatricians, the medical profession, in general, ignored the issue. Instead, doctors succumbed to the persuasiveness of free formula-feeding samples as well as free pharmaceutical samples. The laity had to teach the professionals.

Gradually, physicians and their medical organizations were enlightened. In recent years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dietetic Association have endorsed breast-feeding as the most beneficial method to ensure infants' health and well-being. Also, government agencies responsible for health-related issues became active in promoting breast-feeding. In addition to the Surgeon General's recommendations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) launched a national program to promote breast-feeding. WIC funding can be used by recipients to purchase infant formula. However, recipients now are encouraged to breast-feed, which automatically makes the WIC funding go further toward the purchase of other foods.

Early studies about the economic benefits of breast-feeding addressed the formula-feeding cost. Those studies demonstrated that breast-feeding promotion offered an effective economic advantage. More recently, USDA's Economic Research Service focused on another aspect: the economic benefits of breast-feeding to society, in terms of preventing childhood illnesses and premature deaths.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding enhances cognitive development. Numerous studies have demonstrated other values, including enhanced immune function, protection against allergic reactions, and psychological bonding between the mother and infant, which is thought to have profound and lasting benefits. …

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