The Unexpected Costs of Breastfeeding

Photo by Janko Ferlič (cropped) on Unsplash.

One of the first things you are asked after your baby is born is “Will you be breastfeeding?” It’s a controversial and potentially touchy subject. Breastfeeding your baby feels like it should be the simplest, easiest thing to do. For a while, the phrase you heard was “breast is best,” but there are so many reasons why a mom or baby might choose not to or not be able to breastfeed, so the new thing that I heard when had my baby was “fed is best,” and that’s what I like to focus on. Making sure my baby was fed was the most important thing, and it was a challenge I had to deal with early in Baby Girl’s life.

I took a breastfeeding class through my obstetrician’s office before Baby was born so that I would know what to expect and have a very basic idea of how to do things. Even before she was born, I knew I would be going back to work eventually, and if I wanted to breastfeed my baby, I would need to pump milk for her during the day. Insurance will reimburse you for the cost of a pump and a few of the basic supplies that come with it, but there’s no way that anyone could use just two bottles in order to keep their baby fed for any amount of time. I got a few leftover pieces that fit the pump from my sister, but I still needed to buy a bunch of additional bottles, storage bags, nipples and flanges, along with a bag in which to carry everything to work. I also purchased some different power adapters for different situations — a 9V adapter for using the pump in the car, and a battery power supply for emergency situations. I tried to get as many of these things as possible using Amazon’s “registry completion discount” to bring the cost down. 

  • Medela Pump In Style Advanced Breastpump Starter Set: FREE
  • Medela Breastmilk Storage Solution: $26.48
  • Medela Breastmilk Bottle Set, 5 ounce, 3 count: $12.92
  • Medela Breastmilk Bottle Set, 8 ounce, 3 count: $14.62
  • Medela Pump and Save Breast Milk Bags, 50 count: $15.19
  • Medela 3 Piece Wide Base Slow Flow Nipple, 0-4 Months: $4.99
  • Medela 9 Volt Vehicle Breast Pump Lighter Adapter: $27.06
  • Medela Battery Pack for 9 Volt Pump in Style Advanced Breast Pump: $28.48
  • Breast Pump tote bag: $36.99
  • Hands-free pumping bra: $37.59
  • Breastfeeding class: $75

TOTAL: $279.32

At Baby Girl’s first newborn pediatric appointment, we discovered that she had lost a lot of weight — more than 10 percent of her birth weight — and we were asked to feed her formula exclusively for a short period of time in order to plump her up. We were given one 8-bottle package of formula for “free” at the pediatricians office, but since she would need more, and we weren’t sure for how long, we went out and bought four 8-packs of formula in hopes that it would be enough for a while. It turns out that she gained enough weight from 24 hours of formula feeding that we didn’t need most of the formula we bought, especially since at that point my milk had come in and we could pump everything we needed to feed her even if she wasn’t breastfeeding well. All the formula is currently sitting on a shelf, waiting to be donated so other babies who can make use of it. Because Baby Girl was a slow weight gainer, we made multiple appointments at the pediatrician’s in order to make sure she was getting enough milk in her belly.

  • First 8-pack of formula: FREE
  • Four more 8-packs of formula: $46.60
  • Five weight check appointments: $100 (5 x $20 copay)

TOTAL: $146.60

When we were in the hospital, the person who helped me the most was the lactation consultant. She was the one who initially assisted me in working out a plan after my little girl refused to latch — and as part of that plan, she recommended renting a hospital grade pump and using a nipple shield. I took the pump initially for one week, and then extended the rental for another month, just to make sure my milk fully came in. Having that pump was an essential part of feeding my baby before she could figure out how to feed at the breast. The nipple shield helped baby to latch before she could do it on her own, but the one I was given at the hospital got greasy after a while and would not stay in place, so I ordered a couple more online.

To help Baby Girl figure out how to eat at the breast, I worked with another lactation consultant who was recommended by my OB practice (and whose breastfeeding class I took the month before baby was born). She came to our house for a couple of two-hour sessions with me and Baby Girl, where we put together more strategies for feeding. This plan included having soothing nursing experiences even if baby wasn’t getting much milk, pumping, and using a supplemental nursing system (Baby Girl flailed at the breast and ripped it away, so was only in use for one weekend). The first session was a struggle, but by the follow-up appointment Baby Girl had turned a corner and we got rave reviews. I really should look into seeing whether my insurance will reimburse me for the two sessions, but even if I can’t get them reimbursed, it was worth having someone there to support my journey.

  • Hospital grade pump rental (5 weeks): $110
  • Lactation consultant initial visit: $225
  • Supplemental nursing system: $25
  • Lactation consultant follow-up visit: $150
  • Nipple shields: $17.94
  • Special “slow-flow” bottle nipple I bought that ended up being not recommended by the LC: $15.99
  • “My Brest Friend” nursing pillow which helped us out: FREE (this was a gift, but I wanted to mention it here because it’s really good)

TOTAL: $543.93

At around three weeks old… Baby Girl figured it out. The first times we had really good nursing sessions were revelatory. Knowing that I could feed my baby all by myself and that she could gain weight appropriately (albeit slowly) was amazing. Suddenly we had more options: where we could go, when we could go, what we could do. We weren’t tied to the breast pump or the need to carry around bottles of milk.

But even if you’re just nursing happily, you’ll need a different wardrobe. You need bras that unlatch to provide easy access to the breast, or that pull down easily at night — and they can’t have wires, because it will limit your milk production. You could probably get away with sleeping in just your regular pajamas, but I wanted something that offered easy access, so I bought a couple of nursing nightgowns that unbuttoned to the appropriate level. I was lucky to get a bunch of hand-me-down specialty nursing shirts from my sister, which weren’t really necessary, but it’s nice to have some nursing-friendly options that look cute. I ended up getting a few additional tank tops and shirts which were on sale to supplement my wardrobe.

  • 2 H&M nursing bras (which turned out to be too small): $26.49
  • 5 Bravado nursing bras (I like variety, and I don’t like doing laundry): $220.50
  • 4-pack nighttime nursing bras: $25
  • 2 nursing nightgowns: $57.90
  • 3 nursing tops: $75.52
  • 5 nursing tanks: $60.98

TOTAL: $466.39

We’ve reached the point in the story where theoretically things should be easy. But at her two-month appointment, we discovered that Baby Girl might have a dairy allergy (very common, and usually temporary in new babies), and in order to verify this, I needed to go off dairy for a while. I’m the kind of person who needs cheese, milk and chocolate in my life, so I’ve been trying to find substitutes for the things that I love to eat while still buying dairy for the rest of the family. My regular grocery store has a few non-dairy options, but for the widest selection in a variety of categories, I needed to make a trip to Whole Foods. Expensive — yes. Worth it? We’ll see…

  • Harris Teeter non-dairy items: $57.60
  • Whole Foods non-dairy items: $84.40

TOTAL: $142.00

So here we are, 10.5 weeks into our breastfeeding journey, and we’re doing pretty well. For some parents, the costs I list here won’t apply. If your baby feeds well from the beginning, if your baby doesn’t have any allergies, if you already have a working pump that you like and the accessories that go with it, and if you have nursing clothes and bras, you won’t need quite as much. Still, the point of this story is to highlight the unexpected costs of breastfeeding. People often tout breastfeeding as a way to “save time and money,” but you might not save all that much compared with buying formula (especially at the beginning). Would I go back and change how I did things? Maybe. But in the end, I think it will be worth it, and for me that justifies the costs.

GRAND TOTAL COST TO FEED MY BABY: $1,578.26 (or $21.93/day so far)

Maggie Keller has a few more weeks left on maternity leave to drink in that sweet baby goodness before returning to her library work. You can follow her on twitter @darastar.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Food Series.

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