My current job provides considerable financial benefits to the Australian economy, as well as significantly contributing to the health of our population.
And yet despite it’s compelling contribution to society, my job in unpaid and, more importantly, completely unvalued.
What is it that I do? I am a breastfeeding mother.
‘But breastfeeding your own child isn’t a job’, I hear you cry. And technically you would be right. In today’s Australian society, the work of breastfeeding counts for nothing. We only value the work that can be directly monetised.
In accordance with the World Health Organisation Guidelines, I exclusively breastfed my child up to the age of 6 months (9 months corrected for his prematurely), and continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age and beyond.
In order to meet the WHO breastfeeding recommendations, I willingly made personal and financial sacrifices. I invested a significant amount of time and energy in establishing an adequate milk supply and achieving a successful breastfeeding relationship with my child.
I chose to delay returning to paid employment in order to breastfeed. I, like all other Australian mothers, received my allotted 4 months minimum wage from the government in the way of Paid Parental Leave and after that time my family chose to incur financial losses rather than abandon breastfeeding.
I purchased lactation equipment such as a breast pump, nipples shields and a supplementary feeding system; all of which are classified as luxury items and are subject to the GST. And because breastfeeding is a learnt skill that does not come naturally to all mothers, I also had to employ the help of a private lactation consultant.
So why did I bother investing all this time and money into breastfeeding? And why, given that breastfeeding was my personal choice, do I feel that it should be acknowledged as a contribution to society?
I will tell you why. Because investing in breastfeeding saves the tax paying people of Australia a hell of a lot of money.
It is well understood that breastfed children have lower rates of acute infections, long-term illnesses and overall reduced rates of hospitalisation. Breastfeeding also offers improved maternal health and lower risk of developing future diseases. These infant and maternal health benefits mean that, economically, breastfeeding results in markedly lower health care costs, less employee time off work to care for sick children and higher labour productivity.
Additionally, according to a WHO report, breastfed children have higher IQs, which in turn, lead to an increase in lifetime earnings.
In fact, research has found that not breastfeeding is associated with economic losses of about $302 billion annually worldwide!
These findings have been echoed in the ‘Australian National breastfeeding Strategy 2017 and Beyond’, in which it was found that the hospital costs of premature weaning in Australia was estimated at $60-120 million per annum for just 4 common medical conditions!
Similarly, a US study showed $13 billion per year could be saved if 90% of families met the WHO recommendations to exclusively breastfeed for 6 months.
According to UNICEF Executive director Anthony Lake “breastfeeding is one of the most efficient and cost effective investments nations can make in the future health of their economics and their societies.
This isn’t about a personal crusade to receive kudos for breastfeeding my own child. In truth, my decision to breastfeed had little to do with the Australian taxpayers and more to do with my own personal preferences. I am certainly not looking for a round of applause because I chose to breastfeed.
This is about the government and society ignoring the valuable investment that breastfeeding mothers are contributing to the economy and the health of the nation. And in doing so, they are evading their responsibility to provide adequate support and resources.
Public policy relating to breastfeeding should reflect its importance to economic welfare and the health of the population. Steps to achieving this goal include aligning paid maternity leave with the WHO breastfeeding guidelines and removing GST from lactation aids.
The devaluation of breastfeeding is an example of institutionalised gender inequality and is just one aspect of the economics of gender. It is yet another way that women’s contribution to society is made invisible.
By failing to value breastfeeding, we are not only failing breastfeeding mothers and their babies, but also paying a high price in lost lives, a sicker society and lost opportunity.
You may also like to read ‘SAYING ‘FED IS BEST’ IS NOT ALWAYS BEST‘.
By Phoebe Shields
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If you are interested in reading some research on the economic value of breastfeeding, I found the research by Dr Julie Smith to be really fascinating! Check out a list of her publications here.