Breastfeeding is worth $3.6 billion to the economy, says researcher


Her 40 million litres figure is a matter of “simple arithmetic” using data from the 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey, the last time breastfeeding rates were estimated at a national level.

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“We know how many babies are born each year, we know how many are breastfed at each month of age, we know approximately how much milk a baby takes each day when it’s exclusively or partially breastfeeding,” she explains.

There is a precedent for considering breastmilk as a food product: Norway counts breastmilk as part of its national food production.

The price of milk Dr Smith uses in her research is the Norwegian value for unpasteurised human milk, as sold in institutional not-for-profit banks.

(The value of pasteurised donor milk is much higher, selling at roughly $300 per litre internationally.)

Although she is advocating for viewing breastfeeding as food production, Dr Smith is keen to clarify she is not seeking to commodify breastmilk, and thinks a reality with breastmilk on supermarket shelves is concerning as it divorces the product from its benefit to new mothers.

The average Australian mother spends 40 hours a week caring for a new baby, including 18 hours of breastfeeding.

“The point of Norwegians including it in their statistics is that they value breastfeeding. It’s not that they value the product so much, but that they value the whole package.”

Dr Smith says she has performed the analysis because “money is the language of policymakers”, and she wants breastfeeding to be supported by policy. Ideally, this would include at least six months of full-time maternity leave, implementing the WHO’s Baby Friendly Health Initiative (which promotes breastfeeding as the norm) as part of basic care at all maternal health services, as well regulating the marketing of baby foods “so that mothers do not think they are comparable with breastfeeding”.

Of course, sceptics might say breastfeeding is free. While Dr Smith concedes breastmilk has “very low food miles”, it does, in fact, cost time. The average Australian mother spends 40 hours a week caring for a new baby, including 18 hours of breastfeeding.

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“It’s also about who pays that cost,” she says. “At the moment, women pay all the cost … that time is not free. The gender pay gap starts here; it starts when they become a mother and how we treat them.”

Decreased rates of breastfeeding have a cost, too, she says.

“If we don’t support women through investment in [breastfeeding], the cost will come back to bite us in the form of babies with increased admissions to hospital, mothers with PND because they wanted to breastfeed and weren’t supported, or women weaning before they wanted to because they had to go back to work.”

The Department of Health is currently preparing the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy, after a consultation period last year.

A spokesperson for the department said it is anticipated the strategy will be announced later this month.

Mary Ward is Deputy Lifestyle Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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