If US breastfeeding rates doubled from the current 43 percent to 80 or 90 percent, more than 900 babies lives would be saved and the healthcare cost savings would be in the billions of dollars, according to a new study published in the April 2010 issue of the journal Pediatrics. Conducted by researchers affiliated with Harvard Medical School, researchers looked at medical costs associated with health problems that breastfeeding is thought to reduce—everything from ear infections, gastroenteritis, lower respiratory tract infections, dermatitis, and asthma to leukemia, type 1 diabetes, childhood obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
With breastfeeding rates for the first four to six months in the US standing at approximately 43 percent, "the US incurs $13 billion in excess costs annually [from increased cases of these health problems] and suffers 911 preventable deaths per year because our breastfeeding rates fall far below medical recommendations," researchers write in their findings (as noted in an ABC News story on the new research).
Is this just more of a guilt trip for moms who don't—or can't—breastfeed? According to critics, not only does the study further stigmatize non-breastfeeding moms, the research also fails to consider the costs of what would be needed to make breastfeeding easier for mothers, especially for women who return to work shortly after giving birth.
"The biggest barrier to mothers continuing to breastfeed seems to be the fact that more mothers are in the workplace," says Dr. Lillian Beard, an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in an interview with ABC News. According to Dr. Beard, while a majority of women may want to breastfeed, outside constraints make it difficult and there is a drop-off in breastfeeding once they have to return to work. "It's a very impressive number," she says of the $13 billion estimate, "but I want to know: Did the study take into account the cost for breastfeeding mothers?"
Even study lead author Melissa Bartick acknowledges the study's controversial findings. "We shouldn't be blaming mothers that our rates were so low because mothers are not supported well and their efforts to breastfeed are undermined by such things as poor hospital practices," she tells ABC News.