The controversy about breastfeeding would be over if we counted breast milk production as part of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the same way that we count formula production. The $4 billion a year in US formula sales is part of the good news of our economy because of the distorted way that we count things. We don’t count the health savings from breastfeeding or the actual value of breast milk production in our GDP.

What would it look like if we did?


In 1997, nursing professor Jan Riordan calculated a potential US cost savings from breastfeeding of over $1 billion per year. By 2001, the savings was calculated to be $3.1 billion a year.

But this is just cost savings. What if we calculated the value of breastmilk production itself?


A study in the 1980s, calculated that the one billion liters of breastmilk produced annually by Indonesian mothers would cost $400 million to replace with formula.

A study in 1993 estimated that if the 51% of Indian women then exclusively breastfeeding stopped it would cost $2.3 billion to replace their breastmilk with formula.

Here are some surprising numbers from a 1999 study by Arun Gupta and Kuldeep Khanna:

The net value of breastmilk produced in Ghana if breastfeeding were optimal would be $165 million.

If the value of breastmilk were included, the GDP of Zimbabwe would increase by 1%; the GDP of Mali by 6%.

In Iran, when exclusive breastfeeding increased from 10% in 1991 to 53% in 1996, the cost of importing breastmilk substitutes declined by $50 million.

In Norway, hospitals paid $50 for each litre of breast milk in 1992. The 8.2 million litres of breastmilk that Norway produced that year is worth $410 million.

In 2010, USA Today reported that US hospitals pay a $3 to $5 an ounce [or $96 to $160 a quart] handling fee for donated milk collected by milk banks.


Here’s my attempt to make sense of these numbers. I would love to hear from an economist who could expand upon them. These numbers give us a window into what we are worth.

Number of US births per year: 4,130,665

Percentage of US mothers exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months: 13.3%

Number of US mothers exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months: 549,378

Average amount of breast milk produced per day between one and six months: 25 ounces.

Average amount of breast milk produced in 6 months: 4500 ounces:140 quarts.

Value of 140 quarts of breast milk at $96 a quart: $13,440.

Value of 549,378 women producing 140 quarts of breast milk at $96 a quart: $7 billion.


In six months, 13.3% of US women produce breast milk of equal economic value to nearly two  years of formula sales. If 50% of moms were exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months as the American Academy of Pediatrics and Healthy People 2010 recommend, the total yearly economic value of US breast milk would be at least $28 billion.

What do we need to do to add breast milk production to our Gross Domestic Product?

Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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  1. I wish I did. I will try to find out! She is really great, and I’d love to know more about what she’s up to now.

  2. In your equation you neglected the cost of breastmilk. Lactating mothers need about 200 additional, good quality, healthy calories per day.

  3. Sylvia, GDP doesn’t take into account all the costs of formula production and usage, either, and they are pretty huge. If they *were* taken into account, the net value of it would be pretty small indeed, globally. Heck, it might even be negative, all things considered. Interesting to ponder, though.

  4. You know 43% of babies are breastfed at 6 months, so the figure would be higher if you took that into account. Many babies are given solids by 6 months:)

  5. Without meaning to disagree with your message here, it seems to me that you don’t understand what GDP actually is.

    The essential problem is that GDP isn’t a very good measure of the value of an economy, this is well recognised by economists, but it is fairly easy to calculate and shows if things are improving or getting worse over time. It is handy too for comparing between different countries.

    Mama Bear is incorrect when she says ” GDP doesn

  6. Merewyn, perhaps I don’t understand what Gross Domestic Product is. Isn’t this the value of what a country PRODUCES, and not what it consumes? The gallons and gallons of breastmilk nursing mothers produce has an actual value, in the same way that cows milk has actual value and eggs have actual value. The problem of course is that breastmilk has not been assigned that actual value in any regular way, and few countries include it in their GDP. You could look at it like this: what is the cost of replacing breastmilk that is not produced with artificial baby milk? If you think that’s a strange way to look at it, consider how much the U.S. federal government spends on formula that it gives away through the WIC program. If all the mothers on WIC breastfed for 6 months it would increase the GDP by the amount of formula that the goverment would NOT need to purchase with tax dollars.

  7. Helen – From the wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) refers to the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a given period.

    The critical word there is “market value” and so as there isn’t much of a market for breastmilk it doesn’t get counted. Lots of things that are produced don’t get counted, as I said earlier volunteer work etc. All this means that as a measure GDP is pretty crude and rude. Another problem is that different countries calculate it differently, that’s the “officially recognized” part of the definition.

    I think your idea of counting the value of the equivalent amount of formula has some merit, but I’m sure we can agree that would vastly underestimate the true worth of breastfeeding, but might be better than nothing, a sort of minimum value. Not sure you’ll convince the US Govt to officially recognize it however 🙂

    Sorry I have no knowledge of the WIC programme, I’m from New Zealand and our government has nothing equivalent, formula samples and advertising of infant foods before 6mo are banned here (sort of) and almost all our hospitals are BFHI. But if you are saying that not buying something would increase GDP then no, even if what is being purchased is a “bad” (that is a good which does harm) it still contributes to GDP.

    But I think we are getting away from the real issue here, I hoped to explain a little of the economic theory behind GDP, and its short comings. I think the important point this post is trying to make is that breastfeeding contributes to the wealth of the nation, and I totally agree. This is not reflected in GDP, that’s just not what GDP is counting.

    Have a google on “Alternatives to GDP” plenty of people have come up with other ideas, specifically trying to measure happiness or leisure, but so far no governments have decided to take up one of these alternatives.

  8. Such an interesting article but I will not be sharing the link to all the mums and colleague I work with via Facebook because of the Cow & Gate advert that is hosted on the page.

  9. I breastfed my daughter to 2 1/2 yro and I participated in WIC and I was told (after questioning their practices, because their peer group for asst in BFing was horrible- they didn’t contact me until 4 months, and by then I had worked out all the issues I was having through LLL) that WIC was trying to not provide mothers with formula until month 2 thus trying to force the hand of mothers who COULD nurse and had no medical reason not to. I never heard anything after that. I do get frustrated that so many of my friends try to nurse and give up because they don’t have the appropriate BFing support. The government (if it is sincere about getting moms BFing) need to team up with LLL and change the way society looks at BFing. We are one of the few countries in the world where it is NOT the norm. No wonder our insurance and health are such a mess.

  10. “What do we need to do to add breast milk production to our Gross Domestic Product?” ….

    Let the government levy a tax on it! Then they might be interested in it. Cynical answer I’m afraid. 🙁

  11. Wow what a wonderful group of thoughts on Breastfeeding! I’m an American living in Canada,( Currently Breast Feeding my third an almost two year old) here the government recommends two yes two years of breast feeding! The first six being the exclusive source of intact nourishment. Midwives are also widely available thank heavens! Breast feeding is a common sight in the city where I live it’s just the way it is. Interestingly enough Canada’s average life span is several years greater than the “average” american life span, which may or may not have anything to do with the respective health care systems. SO why share all of this? I firmly believe that common sense should or would indicate that Breast Feeding is the best way to go period. However we must all remember that it takes common knowledge to have common sense.

    I know from chat with friends who didn’t breast feed that the defensive guilt is quite a big hurdle on both sides. We breast feeders know how and why it’s so right unquestioningly. The best way I can sum up the difference in understanding is the difference between soon to be parents (well read as they can be) and actual parents. Both are aware but at different levels. As breast feeding moms and advocates our responsibility is to educate family and friends positively. I fear that this is the biggest hurdle facing breast feeding the 13% who manage to breast feed successfully for 6 or more months are the ambassadors. It’s all to sad to realize that many of them are not fully supported or applauded for this wondrous gift they are selflessly providing to the next generation. Formula companies won’t support a practice that will mean the loss of millions of dollars of annual revenue. So breast feeing support has to be from friends and loved ones more than health care providers.

    Finaly I love the GDP comparison and want to add what I think is a bottom line point. I ‘ll use my own family to illustrate. I’ve breast fed three children each exclusively for 6 months thus saving my family ~$40,000 over the past few years ( if we calculate using the breast milk value)

    Additionally I’ve continued to support my children’s nutrition and health until they were at least two ( we’ll see how long my youngest stays attached 🙂 ) To try to place a $ value on that call it another $100,000 in breast milk. What can’t be valued are the lack of colds resulting in medications and dr visits. Long term health benefits that will keep them out of Dr’s offices, Not to mention the sense of well being and immediate comfort that the breast feeding mom supplies with each feeding. We can’t calculate this intangible quality that is breastfeeding. But creating a GDP comparison is sure a clever way to make people think.

    Thanks everyone!

  12. I haven’t read all the other comments, so maybe this is already out there, but I think this speaks volumes as to what the formula companies are profiting. No wonder they are pushing so hard for women to formula feed instead of breastfeed. Also, then those babies will need more medications in the future due to health issues from the ingredients of the formula and those companies stand to make even more because they are partnered with the pharmaceutical companies. Wow.

  13. I have to start by saying that I am proud to breastfeed my 10 month old. I’ve probably made some friends and family uncomfortable by talking about its benefits so much. That being said, this article has a major flaw in assuming that if all breastmilk marketed, it would have a value of $96 per quart. Market price is based on supply and demand. The $96 per quart value is based on a very large demand for a very small supply. If all nursing mothers were to put our milk in the marketplace, the supply would be much higher, driving down the price. In addition, most families could not afford to pay the price for breastmilk that a hospital could pay, so the demand would decrease. The actual market price would likely be somewhere between the price of formula and the $96 per quart that hospitals pay now. GDP is a relative measure of the economy. I’m not sure I understand the reason we would want to add breastmilk to it. Are we trying to say that the economy is better because more women are breastfeeding?

  14. One thing I would like to see WIC do to further encourage breastfeeding is to completely eliminate the food package for formula feeding moms. Right now they get a food package for the first 6 months (breastfeeding mothers get one for 12 months) that includes milk, cheese, juice etc. Eliminating that and giving them only formula for their babies (since they don’t actually need the extra nutrients to provide for their babies’ feeding) would provide an increased economic incentive for low income women to breastfeed without jeopardizing the health of infants whose mothers refuse to or can’t breastfeed.

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