Breastfeeding isn’t free. Apparently, it’s worth billions

by Verve

What would you say if we told you that there was a group of Australian people doing $3.6 billion of work for *free* every single year. Well, they are — and it’s people who breastfeed. 

The first week of August is dedicated globally to World Breastfeeding Week to mark the anniversary of the Innocenti Declaration. Not heard of it? Produced and adopted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF nearly three decades ago, the Declaration sets out targets for the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding. So this month at Verve we are thrusting breastfeeding into the spotlight and shining a light on women’s unpaid labour. 

Got milk?

Calculated using the number of babies born each year, and data from the Australian National Infant Feeding Survey on how many children are breastfed, at what age, and how much milk they drink each day, Australian National University researcher Dr Julie Smith has estimated that Australian women produce 40 million litres of breast milk a year. That’s nearly nine million gallons or over 100 swimming pools full. So, a lot. 

Not many of us would have thought much about whether we should be counting breast milk as a food product or as part of our national food production (like our Scandinavian sisters do). But in a world where women are retiring with an average of 47% less superannuation than men, and the gender wage gaps still sits at an alarming 14.1% — we need to be thinking about all of the unpaid labour that women are doing. Our time is not free. Breastfeeding is not free. With many women spending approximately 18 hours a week breastfeeding in the first few months of their baby’s life — those 40 million litres of life-giving goodness actually add an estimated $3.6 billion to our economy. Again, that’s a lot. 

Why now?

Why are these calculations useful, and why now? For better or worse, quantifying the impact of breastfeeding on the economy is in language that policymakers understand, and when you’re trying to mandate better breastfeeding policy, that’s an effective way to do it. Furthermore, breastfeeding rates in Australia are declining — so it’s time to make this invisible labour visible. 

It’s time for policy change

While we’re not buying into the various debates that seek to divide and pit women against each other about whether #breastisbest or not, we do think it’s worth noting that for World Breastfeeding Week this year that WHO is focusing their efforts on promoting the importance of creating family-friendly policies to enable breastfeeding. 

This means an advocacy campaign on a global scale to push for paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks (which Australia barely meets), as well as paid paternity or partner leave (currently a measly two weeks in Australia) to encourage shared and equitable responsibility for child rearing. It also means enshrining a mother’s right to access a family-friendly workplace to protect and support their ability to continue breastfeeding upon return to work. We’re talking about breastfeeding breaks; a safe, private, and hygienic space for expressing and storing breast milk; and affordable childcare.

Breastfeeding is unpaid labour. Unpaid labour is a feminist issue. Ergo breastfeeding is a firmly feminist issue and we must be prepared to quantify the cost to the Australian economy of women continuing to do these extraordinary levels of invisible work. 

So what can you do to make your workplace more family-friendly this August?

Did you know that, depending on your income and assets, that you may be eligible for government benefits such as Parental Leave PayFamily Tax Benefit or Rent Assistance? Take a closer look at ASIC’s Having a Baby page here

As part of our commitment to living our values and supporting women to overcome the financial barriers to having a baby, we offer a little way to help out at Verve Super. Find out what our Baby Bump policy is all about here

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