Written by Coni Longden-Jefferson Published on 21st December 2020

We know that there is a multitude of benefits to nurturing your baby with breastmilk, and we also know that the decision to breastfeed is incredibly personal. But, there are also larger, societal issues at play that mean women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to breastfeed – but what’s behind this great divide?

A global issue

From Iran to Nigeria, there exists a correlation between class and breastfeeding, and research into the socio-economic disparity within this area of motherhood is evolving all the time. In a 2018 study, researchers found that UK mothers living in deprived areas were 40% less likely to breastfeed, compared to women living in affluent neighborhoods. This study also indicated that breastfeeding rates positively correlated with babies born into a household that had two parents, a higher household income, and were determined to be in a ‘higher social class’. 

This trend continues when we look across the pond. In the U.S, research shows that the chances of a baby being breastfeed at all are much lower if it’s born into a family with less financial stability. 72% of babies born to mothers living below the poverty line are breastfed when they are first born, compared to 91% of babies born into affluent families. This disparity is even starker when looking at the breastfeeding rates after three months: 38% for baby’s living in poverty compared to 70% for those living six times over the line. Socioeconomic status is determined by a complex fusion of factors – but which are the most impactful when it comes to breastfeeding? 

It all starts with education 

One key factor that comes up consistently when analyzing this data is the correlation between breastfeeding rates and education. In the US, mothers with a college education are a third more likely to breastfeed their babies compared to those who didn’t finish high school – and twice as likely to still be breastfeeding at 6 months. In the UK, we see a similar trend – the higher the level of education the mother received, the more likely she is to start and continue breastfeeding. Of course, it’s important to remember that education isn’t always directly linked to socioeconomic status. There are many people who grow up in poverty that achieve academic success, and there are plenty of college graduates who still live on the poverty line. Generally speaking, however, there is a connection between the two and, in turn, the likelihood of breastfeeding. 

This evident link shines a light on two of the crucial factors impacting breastfeeding rates. The first being knowledge and understanding of the benefits of breastfeeding. ‘Breast is best’ wasn’t always the go-to advice from doctors – especially back in the day when there was money to be made by selling formula. However, in the 1970s, information around the health benefits of breastmilk, as well as natural childbirth, began circulating amongst certain groups – groups mainly made up of white, educated women. As this shift in mindset was passed down through generations, and breastfeeding became seen as the ‘thing to do’ in the middle classes, and thus the seeds of the modern breastfeeding class divide were sown. This cultural disparity is felt even more deeply when looking at the lower rate of breastfeeding in the Black community, which has a long, complex, and at times heartbreaking relationship with breastfeeding.  However, an even more tangible result of education level is the impact it has on future employment prospects. 

Time is a luxury 

Generally speaking, a better education system and start in life, makes it easier to climb your chosen career ladder. The vast majority of research indicates that women in higher-paying jobs are more likely to breastfeed, and there are a few reasons that may be the case. 

While breastmilk may be technically "free", breastfeeding itself is undeniably time-consuming. This precious time spent with your baby is a joy, but also a privilege. Statisticians estimate that for a woman making $60,000 a year pre-tax, the monetary value of the time spent breastfeeding is around $14,000 - more than 20% of their salary. That’s a financial hit that women from lower-income households –particularly single parents – can’t always afford to take.  

Length of maternity leave is another key indicator of the likelihood a woman will breastfeed. Financially stable women have more freedom to decide when they go back to work and how they work when they do. For high-powered women working in corporate environments, they may have the option to extend their maternity leave thanks to savings, pay for personalized child care so they can work from home while still being around for feeding time, or can express themselves at work in a comfortable environment. For women who work in lower-paying, service-based industries – their options may be more limited. 

This concept is perfectly illustrated when you look at the results of a UK study which showed that only 8.7% of mothers who were in manual occupations, such as sales assistants and postal workers, exclusively breastfed for at least 3 months compared with 27.4% of those in managerial and professional occupations.  

Products and privilege 

Not only do higher paying jobs come with increased financial security and the potential luxury of time, but more disposable income means access to tools and support that can make breastfeeding an easier choice. 

Any mother will tell you that the first few weeks of breastfeeding can be a challenge. While there are many low-cost, natural ways you can look after your breasts – there is also a whole market dedicated to making breastfeeding a more comfortable experience. From breast pumps like Elvie Pump and nursing bras, to nipple shields and anti-chaffing cream, it would be wrong to deny that breastfeeding can be made easier by these little luxuries. Money might not be able to buy you happiness, but it can buy you the Boppy Nursing Pillow – and some new mamas may argue that’s the same thing. Even access to breast pumps can make a huge difference to the length of time mothers breastfeed, as they give them the option to feed their baby breast milk – even when they return to work. 

Though it's not only products that aid breastfeeding. Middle and upper-class women may have the option to pay for private healthcare, lactation consultants, and even post-partum doulas to help them on the next stage of the motherhood journey. Whilst there may be free resources and community-led groups that lower-income families can access, this requires a certain level of confidence, awareness, and time –bringing us back to the other factors at play. 

It’s clear that the breastfeeding class divide is complex, deep-rooted, and will certainly take time to change. We may never be able to fully democratize the breastfeeding experience, but we can work together as women to raise awareness, limit shame, and support each other – regardless of our differences. Breastfeeding is the best thing we can do for our children, and it shouldn’t be a luxury that only a few benefit from. Because really, every child deserves the best start in life and every mother deserves the option to breastfeed healthily and happily.