How to Save Money on Breastfeeding

It might be best for baby, but nursing moms often discover a host of hidden costs.

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When we recently asked readers for their best money tips for new parents at USNews.com, one of the most popular suggestions was to breastfeed. “It’s free,” a reader said.

But is breastfeeding really free? Sure, it used to be, back when we lived in caves, but today, nursing moms buy $400 pumps, nursing tops and tanks, nipple cream, and lactation consulting services, to name a few popular purchases. While avoiding formula certainly saves a lot—over $1,500 in the first year, by some estimates—and breastfed babies are less likely to come down with certain illnesses, which reduces health care costs, breastfeeding today is certainly not “free,” at least not for most people.

[See Can I Afford a Baby?]

To help nursing moms save on some of those costs, I asked Gina Ciagne, certified lactation counselor and senior director of breastfeeding relations as Lansinoh Laboratories, for some tips.

First, she expanded on some of the potential savings that come from breastfeeding. “Moms and babies have a reduced risk for a number of health conditions, some of which last a lifetime,” she says. Breastfed babies have lower rates of ear infections, asthma, and obesity, and mothers who breastfeed face lower rates of ovarian and breast cancers, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Not only does that save money on direct medical costs, but less illness also means parents miss less work.

Ciagne also shared these money-saving strategies:

1) Skip the accessories: Sure, you can splurge on a customized nursing pillow, but you can also just use a regular pillow. You can also skip the nursing cover and use nothing at all or a light blanket. Expensive nursing tops and tanks, while stylish, are also entirely optional. A button-down top or hoodie with a zipper can provide just as easy access for the baby.

2) Get free advice: Many moms face breastfeeding challenges, but they have many affordable resources at their disposable, from hospital lactation consultants to Twitter chats under the hashtag #bfchat. You can also contact your local La Leche League or visit the dozens of websites and blogs devoted to the subject, such as kellymom.com. Many birthing workshops and moms’ groups incorporate breastfeeding support. The International Lactation Consultant Association (www.ilca.org) can also point you towards affordable assistance. Even the federal government offers breastfeeding support (in English and Spanish) through a hotline and free guide sponsored by the Office on Women’s Health (1-800-994-9662; www.4woman.gov).

3) Pump on the cheap. While a $400 pump might be temping, it’s actually not necessary, says Ciagne. A $150 model will work just fine. (Just don’t buy a used one; with the exception of hospital-grade pumps, they aren’t designed for sharing and can contain milk remnants.) And you will probably need milk storage bags and bottles, as well, but those still cost less than the total expense of formula feeding, she adds. She also recommends looking for ways to make it easier, such as trying to visit the baby at lunchtime for an in-person feeding (and bonding time). The law requires companies with more than 50 employers to provide a place other than a bathroom for nursing moms to pump until their babies are over one year old. (The Labor Department is currently developing further guidelines on how this law should be interpreted.)

[See What Women Should Know About Breastfeeding at Work.]

4) Take advantage of the new flex spending rules. Last month, the IRS announced that breast pumps and related nursing supplies are now eligible for a tax break under flex spending accounts, which allows users to pay for health care costs with pre-tax dollars.

Even with these strategies, nursing moms often discover hidden costs of breastfeeding. If you only have 20 minutes to pump and need your hands free to send E-mails or make calls at the same time, then you might want one of the $400 breast pump models that make such multi-tasking possible. MarketWatch reporter Ruth Mantell wrote about the fact that extended breastfeeding can have a negative impact on earnings, largely because of the time it consumes. In The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin wrote extensively about the burden of breastfeeding on moms and suggested that many of the benefits might be oversold.

The bottom line: Breastfeeding isn’t free, but there are plenty of ways to make it more affordable.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.