The breastfeeding vs formula-feeding debate is a contentious one. And while the discussion wasn’t always considered a hot-button issue, the consensus on what was best varied throughout much of the 20th century.

In the United States, a number of factors often influenced the trend of each decade, from medical recommendations to how formula was marketed to the general public.

Today, however, the discussion around breastfeeding includes not only what’s best for baby, but also what’s best for the parent.

Issues of maternity leave, balancing work and pumping, and social acceptance of breastfeeding in public are but a few narratives that surround the issue.

There’s also the issue of cost. Both direct and indirect costs can play a major factor for a family when deciding how to best feed their baby. But these breakdowns aren’t always clear-cut. They can vary drastically by state, region, and socioeconomic class.

If you’re curious to learn more about how breastfeeding costs stack up against formula-feeding, here’s a financial overview.

Many people choose to breastfeed instead of formula-feed because it’s cheaper than formula. There’s also a considerable amount of research that indicates breastfeeding offers several benefits for mom and baby that formula doesn’t. In infants, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of:

  • asthma
  • obesity
  • type 2 diabetes

In mothers, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of ovarian and breast cancer.

Breastfeeding can also help fight many global health disparities, such as noncommunicable diseases, which account for 87 percent of premature deaths in developing countries, notes the World Health Organization. Moreover, a 2016 study found that breastfeeding could reduce life-threatening respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malnutrition from diluted formula.

But all of these benefits have to be weighed in the context of mental, financial, and career health. Some people choose to formula-feed based on things like milk supply issues, which cause them to make less milk than their baby needs to thrive and grow.

There’s also the issue of not having to worry about pumping when returning to work. This is an important factor when considering single-parent households. Moreover, formula takes longer for babies to digest, so it keeps the baby satisfied for longer and can allow other members of the family to bond with the baby by feeding them.

Direct costs

If you’re a mother who chooses to breastfeed, you technically only need a working milk supply. That said, there are other elements to consider, such as lactation consultants and a number of “accessories,” such as a breast pump, nursing bras, pillows, and more.

For people who don’t have insurance or an insurance plan that isn’t comprehensive, though, the expenses related to breastfeeding can begin the first time they speak with the hospital lactation consultant. If breastfeeding goes smoothly, you might only need an initial visit.

But for many mothers, this isn’t the case. Trouble with breastfeeding can mean a number of consultations. While the cost per session depends on the parent’s location, some estimates report a lactation consultant who’s certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners can charge anywhere between $200 to $350 per session.

If your baby has a tongue- or lip-tie (which can lead to breastfeeding challenges), you might face the expense of corrective surgery. That said, this condition also has the potential to cause issues for infants who formula-feed. The price of this procedure can vary. Infant Laser Dentistry in Philadelphia, for example, charges between $525 to $700 and doesn’t accept insurance.

From there, it’s likely — but not required — that you’ll need to buy a breast pump, especially if you’re working. This expense can range from free if covered on insurance to up to $300.

While purchased for convenience and not essential, the cost of breastfeeding bras and pillows, breast massagers, and lactation boosters can start to add up. But again, all of these are optional.

Meanwhile, if you’re someone who chooses to formula-feed, the direct cost of infant formula depends on a child’s age, weight, and daily intake. Brand of choice and dietary needs are also factors.

By the second month, the average baby is eating 4 to 5 ounces per feed every three to four hours. A bottle of Similac, one of the cheaper options currently available on Amazon, comes in at $0.23 per ounce. If your baby is eating, say, 5 ounces every three hours (eight times a day), that comes to 40 ounces per day. That’s roughly $275 per month or $3,300 per year.

Formula also requires access to bottles, which start from $3.99 on Amazon for a pack of three, as well as clean water. For those who face environmental inequality — like in places such as Flint, Michigan, that have had years of contaminated water — this poses an additional obstacle. If clean water isn’t accessible, the cost of buying water regularly must also be factored in. This can cost upward of approximately $5 for a case of 24 bottles.

Indirect costs

While the direct cost of breastfeeding is low, the indirect costs are higher. If nothing else, breastfeeding is going to cost you a significant amount of time, especially when you’re establishing a solid breastfeeding routine.

Other indirect costs include how much you’re able to interact with loved ones and how much personal time you might have. It also affects the amount of time you can dedicate to work. For some, this is no big deal. For others, however, particularly people who are the sole breadwinner, this is an indirect expense they simply cannot afford.

Similarly, for working parents, it’s vital that they’re given the time and space to pump enough to maintain their supply. It’s the law that employers provide employees with a space to pump or breastfeed that’s not a bathroom. But employers aren’t required to create a permanent, dedicated space.

Federal law supports women’s freedom to breastfeed at work, but employers often don’t enforce these regulations, don’t inform women of these freedoms, or enforce the regulation but make women feel uncomfortable about these accommodations.

Similarly, for many women, not having a permanent, dedicated space leads to further stress — which can impact mental health, work productivity, and milk supply.

Breastfeeding also puts the feeding responsibility almost solely on the mother. As a result, breastfeeding can be mentally taxing and challenging to maintain without adequate support. For people dealing with postpartum depression and other mental health issues, breastfeeding can be a major inconvenience, especially for those who face issues with latching and milk production.

Moreover, some breastfeeding mothers face stigma around breastfeeding in public and face pressure to cover up. That pressure and fear of judgement might compel some breastfeeding mothers to supplement or incorporate pumping.

Formula-feeding isn’t immune to social stigma, either. Many people scrutinize formula-feeding, and the parent can be perceived as not providing their children with the “best” food possible.

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Breastfeeding

Rachael Rifkin is a breastfeeding mother located in Southern California. At age 36, she’s a married, white mother with a combined household income of around $130,000 per year. She has two children, is a writer, and can work from home.

Rifkin breastfed her first child for 15 months and her second for 14. She came to the conclusion that breastfeeding was the best option for her family based on a number of factors.

“I decided to breastfeed as a result of evidence-based benefits of breastfeeding, its convenience — though it can also be labor intensive — and for its bonding benefits,” Rifkin explains.

When she began breastfeeding, Rifkin’s lactation consults and pump were both covered by insurance. However, her breastfeeding bras were approximately $25 each.

Rifkin had zero monthly expenses associated with breastfeeding, but she did have a high level of indirect costs. These costs included the amount of time she spent pumping, planning ahead for milk storage, and keeping her supply up.

“Breastfeeding is convenient, except when it’s not. When I went out for more than two to three hours, I had to make sure I had pumped ahead of time so there was milk available. If I was away for a while and I didn’t pump, I ran the risk of becoming engorged and decreasing supply, since supply is based on demand,” Rifkin says.

Formula-feeding

Olivia Howell is a 33-year-old mother who formula-feeds. She’s married and lives in Long Island, New York, with her spouse and two children. Her occupation is a social media manager, and she can work from home as well. The family’s income is around $100,000 and they have insurance.

Olivia decided to formula-feed after she struggled to breastfeed her eldest. That made it pretty easy to know what she wanted the second time around.

“I hated breastfeeding. I didn’t have any milk come in and my oldest son was starving. So, I started him on formula and I never looked back. I formula-fed my oldest for three years and my younger for 1 1/2 years,” she explains.

In addition to buying formula each month, which costs around $250, Olivia reports that she buys bottles that cost between $12 to $20 every six months. In the beginning, she bought a bottle warmer and a bottle cleaner, which came to about $250 total.

The experience of both breastfeeding and formula-feeding can vary greatly depending on your financial position. For this reason, it’s helpful to plan ahead. The following information can help you get started in your planning.

Budgeting tips

Start saving for necessary breastfeeding supplies or formula ahead of time

By purchasing these items gradually, you can reduce the pressure of buying them all at once. You’ll also have the opportunity to purchase during sales.

Buying formula ahead of time may be challenging. It’s common for infants to require a specific brand of formula. Keep in mind when buying formula in advance that it can’t be returned. Seek out discounts for your baby’s preferable brand when and where possible.

Consider buying items in bulk

In the case of formula, buying every month can be a frustrating, recurring expense. By buying formula in bulk, you’ll have a greater upfront cost, but you’re likely save money in the long run.

Funding resources

The Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC)

WIC helps offset the impact of nutritional expenses for people with financial issues. This resource has the potential to help both breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers.

Breastfeeding mothers receive money toward their grocery bill and later baby food once their child begins eating a more diverse diet.

Formula-feeding mothers also receive money toward their grocery bill, but discounted and occasionally free formula is included as well. It’s important to look up local guidelines. This program varies from state to state.

Local food banks

In addition to providing resources for adults and children eating solids, there’s the potential that your local food bank will have access to free formula. The quantities will likely vary from time to time, but it’s a resource worth checking out. Find your local food bank here.

La Leche League

Although La Leche League doesn’t provide food resources, they do provide access to plenty of educational materials as well as connections to lactation consultants.

Breastfeeding mothers who are struggling with latch, pain, or any other common breastfeeding-related issues can contact their local chapter and get free advice from other breastfeeding moms. La Leche League doesn’t provide lactation consultants.

Milk banks and milk shares

Regionally based milk banks and organizations like Human Milk 4 Human Babies exist to help parents with no milk, supply issues, and general donation concerns.

The best items to add to your shopping list depend greatly on what type of feeding experience you want for you and your child. The following lists are some of the most common purchases for breastfeeding and formula-feeding parents.

Breastfeeding

Again, breastfeeding thrives mostly on indirect expenses and doesn’t have to cost

anything, other than providing food for the mother. In the first few months, however,

some breastfeeding mothers opt to buy complementary supplies.

Essentials (if pumping)

Conveniences

Optional

Formula-feeding

In the first few months, here are some of the common items formula-feeding mothers buy.

Essentials

Conveniences

Optional

Through the years, opinions on the best way to feed babies have varied. Even today, the issue of breastfeeding vs. using formula can spark heated debates.

While it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which costs more when comparing direct vs. indirect, when looking at direct costs alone, breastfeeding is the cheaper option. That said, some people decide the monthly expense of formula is well worth it.

What matters most is that parents select the style that best fits their body, mental state, financial circumstances, and family structure.


Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be seen in The Washington Post, InStyle, The Guardian and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.