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More questions than answers: Follow-up on economic consequences of breastfeeding

As I mentioned in the comments to my post on The Economics of Breastfeeding: A Cost Benefit Analysis, Phyllis Rippeyoung (one of the authors of Is Breastfeeding Truly Free? The Economic Consequences of Breastfeeding for Women) got in touch with me after reading my post to clarify some of the points that were raised by Rosin and by myself. She also sent me a draft copy of the study's results (the one that Rosin quoted from, but didn't link to, leading many people to point out that something was missing). The study is not yet available online and while Rippeyoung gave me permission to share it with you (as long as I indicated that it was a draft), I can't figure out how to upload and link to a Word document using Wordpress. That said, I can share with you some of what I learned after reading it.

What Hanna Rosin Neglected to Say

In her article, Hanna Rosin quoted this finding from the research:
Although, at two years before birth, both breastfeeding groups earned statistically higher incomes than the formula feeders, by year 10 this advantage has disappeared - formula feeders and short-duration breastfeeders do not have significantly different incomes, and long-duration breastfeeders earn significantly less than formula feeders.

This is true, but Rosin left out a big piece of the puzzle...

The researchers (Rippeyoung and Noonan) are careful to point out that "once you control for work characteristics (professional status, hours worked, and employment status) the breastfeeding effect on earnings goes away." Or, in plain language, women that breastfeed and work full-time are not seeing a decrease in their salaries.

You see, the data that showed that long-term breastfeeders see a decrease in their earnings compared to formula feeders and short-term breastfeeders, lumped together and averaged out the earnings of moms that stay home full-time, moms that work part-time and moms that work full-time. Since long-duration breastfeeders are more likely to stay at home than formula feeders or short-duration breastfeeders, this is what accounts for the earnings difference.

In my opinion, the real finding here is likely that stay-at-home moms earn less than work-out-of home moms (and as a side note, stay-at-home moms are more likely to breastfeed).

What the study doesn't do

In her e-mail correspondence with me Phyllis Rippeyoung confirmed that the study doesn't differentiate between long-duration breastfeeders that wanted to go back to work quickly versus those that wanted to stay home. So someone that worked really hard and earned lots of money in order to save so that she could afford to be a stay at home mom gets lumped in with someone that went back to work after only a few weeks at home. There is no indication that long-duration breastfeeders that wanted to go back to work experience any economic penalty for breastfeeding.

The study also did not look at the number of children that women had over the timeframe that they anlayzed. Perhaps long-duration breastfeeders are also likely to have more children and therefore likely to take more time off to tend to those children (which would be cheaper than putting them all in day care, hiring nannies to pick them up from school, etc.) and therefore the economic "costs" of staying at home balance out with the savings from the expenses that they avoid (above and beyond formula costs).

The study is doing descriptive analysis of trends. It is not trying to propose a cause and effect. Rippeyoung confirms this in her e-mail to me. The reasons that long duration breastfeeders have lower wage trajectories could be entirely based on choice or it could be because US workplaces and US government policies are not supportive of breastfeeding mothers.

My concluding thoughts

I will repeat from my other post:
Perhaps professional women who choose to stay at home do these things because they want to and because they can afford to. That they are making the choice to stay home with their children as part of an overall package deal of being a dedicated parent, which happens to also include breastfeeding. It isn't about breastfeeding or not breastfeeding. It is about choosing to care for your own child or choosing to have someone else care for them. When you choose to care for your child yourself, then yes it is easier and cheaper to breastfeed. This is a luxury. I understand that. But it isn't a case against breastfeeding.

I want to be very clear, especially now that I have read the study, that I am not criticizing the work of Rippeyoung and Noonan. While it raised more questions than it provided answers for me and while I don't agree with all of its hypotheseses, it is a well thought out and researched piece of work. My objection, my critique, is of Hanna Rosin once again picking and choosing a few findings at the exclusion of all others, in order to try to make a case against breastfeeding that just isn't there.

One last note

Rippeyoung also pointed me to the reference that I thought was missing in my last post on (re: "increased breastfeeding duration has had no effect on overall physical or pscychological health outcomes of either children or mothers"). I am going to download the report and will discuss its findings in a separate post.  If anyone else is interested in reading it, it costs $5 and can be downloaded here:  Maternal Employment, Breastfeeding, and Health: Evidence from Maternity Leave Mandates.
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Reader Comments (11)

Interesting post. Hurrah research! :P

April 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAl_Pal

Thank you for your thoughtful posts on this topic. I thought that the Atlantic article raised a couple of goods points, but was otherwise pretty disturbing and far too negative. Thanks for adding a nice analysis of this topic.

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Great follow-up. You are a forensic lactivist!!

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlina

I second what these other folks have said: thanks for the due diligence. Whenever I read something like what Rosin puts out there I feel in my gut that it's bullshit, but I don't have the oomph in me to ferret it out and point to sources, etc.

Thanks so much for doing what I don't! We need the other side out there, too!

Thank you for following up and continuing to review this information.

I love Alina's comment - Forensic Lactivist! So perfect!

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

[...] One: Rosin, as usual, ignores the full information provided by the study. Read this article for an in-depth analysis [...]

[...] post: More questions than answers: Follow-up on economic consequences of breastfeeding Bookmark [...]

Terrific posts -- so important to counter Rosin's claims with good research. I tried to download the study "Maternal Employment, Breastfeeding, and Health" and got an SSRN Firewall alert. Do you know anything about this?

Latest update on 4th ed. of THE COMPLETE BOOK OF BREASTFEEDING: It should be published Dec. 2009 or early 2010. Thanks again for your help with this.
Keep up your great work! Sally

May 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSally Wendkos Olds

If there's one thing that really gets on my nerves, it's social scientists quoting "results" without, apparently, even the most elementary understanding of econometrics. This seems to be another of the many examples. It is brain-dead and statistically illiterate. Well done for pointing it out.

May 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSean

[...] my post on the Economics of Breastfeeding: A Cost-Benefit Analysis and the follow-up to that post, I mentioned a study called Maternal Employment, Breastfeeding, and Health: Evidence from Maternity [...]

[...] The researchers did a really good job of citing references in almost all parts of the paper. And then this. They come out with a whammy of a sentence, with no reference, no footnote. This unsubstantiated finding is that “increased breastfeeding duration has had no effect on overall physical or pscychological health outcomes of either children or mothers.” Says who? (Note: The researchers have since provided me with the missing reference : Maternal Employment, Breastfeeding, and Health: Evidence from Maternity Leave Mandates. I read it and commented on it in my follow-up post: More questions than answers: Follow-up on economic consequences of breastfeeding) [...]

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