Billions saved by breastfeeding? Show me the money!


Lactivists claim that if more women breastfed, we could save billions of dollars in medical costs due to decreased illness and hospitalizations.

Dr. Tom Frieden from the CDC repeated this cherished maxim in a recent tweet:

Frieden breastfeeding billions

More than $2 billion in yearly medical costs for children could be saved if breastfeeding recommendations were met.

Really Dr. Frieden? Show me the money.[pullquote align=”right” color=””]Surely we should have seen some savings by now, but we haven’t.[/pullquote]

Breastfeeding initiation rates have risen from a nadir of 24% in the 1970’s to the current rate of over 76%. Surely we should have seen some savings by now, but we haven’t.

The truth is that there was never any reason to believe that we would save billions. That figure was conjured by professional lactivist Dr. Melissa Bartick.

In the 2010 paper The Burden of Suboptimal Breastfeeding in the United States: A Pediatric Cost Analysis Bartick “estimated” that the US could save 900 infant lives and $13 billion if 90% of US women breastfed. These numbers were grossly misleading since not even a single US term infant death (let alone 900 per year) had ever been attributed to not breastfeeding and since, to my knowledge, not a single dollar of savings had yet to be recorded. Moreover, Dr. Bartick invoked many benefits to breastfeeding that have never been proven, including childhood asthma, childhood leukemia, type 1 diabetes, and childhood obesity. Presumably Dr. Frieden’s claim about $2 billion dollars in savings is an extrapolation from Dr. Bartick’s “estimate.” She postulated a 90% breastfeeding rate; his claim is predicated on a lower rate. (The case may be different for preterm infants at risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), but, as yet, that has not been demonstrated, either.)

Though Dr. Bartick’s claim has been quoted repeatedly, a review of the scientific literature fails to show any of the predicted cost savings. As far as I know, and I’m happy to be corrected, there is no evidence that there has been any healthcare savings. That’s hardly surprising when you consider that for term infants in first world countries, the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial: a slightly reduced incidence of colds and diarrheal illnesses in the first year of an infant’s life. Even if there were savings, they’d need to be balanced against the millions of dollars spent on breastfeeding each year (pumps, lactation consultants, etc.) as well as the tens of millions spent on to promoting breastfeeding

Perhaps that’s why Dr. Frieden failed to respond to my request for scientific evidence to support his claim.

The claim that billions of dollars in medical costs could be saved by increasing breastfeeding rates is yet another one of the many examples of overselling breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is one of two excellent ways to feed an infant, the other being formula. Those who claim increasing breastfeeding rates save billions need to show us the money.

The breastfeeding initiation rate has tripled in the past 50 years. Where are the cost savings?