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Breast Milk Expression and The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Have you ever hung onto an uncomfortable pair of shoes or an ill-fitting outfit because it cost a lot of money?

Eaten every last bite of a "kitchen nightmare" because you spent so much time making it?

Or seen the movie the 1980s movie The Money Pit, where Tom Hanks and Shelley Long just keep throwing money into renovations on a house that's beyond repair?

These are examples of the sunk cost fallacy. As Behavioral Economics puts it, this is when a person "continues a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money, or effort)" -- even if that endeavor seems like an increasingly bad idea.

I had my own battle with the sunk cost fallacy these past few weeks, in the decision to wean from exclusive pumping. (Of breast milk, if anyone is unfamiliar. BREAST. I said it. It's how babies eat.)

Baby Heavy Metal was born with a cleft lip and palate, so I didn't expect to breastfeed the "regular" way. In the hospital, lactation consultants visited us at my request; their verdict was that he could try to breastfeed for about ten minutes at a time, but then would need a bottle of formula so we'd know he was getting the necessary nutrition. After each feeding, I would pump for twenty minutes to keep up my milk supply and he could later have the breast milk from his Dr. Brown's Specialty Feeder, an adaptive bottle for babies with feeding issues.

Easy peasy, right?


This random stock photo from Pexels is actually the brand of bottle my kid uses!

I started off with a Spectra breast pump, which a coworker had recommended. It cost $200 and wasn't covered by insurance, but breast pumps and accessories are HSA-eligible so I used my HSA to pay for it. Before I tell you all about how pumping was terrible, I'll admit that the Spectra does have some useful features: it's rechargeable and has a handle so I didn't have to be tethered to an outlet while using it, and it has a small nightlight for those multiple late-night pumping sessions. (Greaaaatttt....)

But now, my grievances. First, "twenty minutes" is really more like 30-35 minutes once you sit down, assemble everything, pump, hand-express so you don't get mastitis, store the milk, and wash all the pump parts. And an hour and a half later, you get to do it all over again!

It wasn't easy to pump at least eight times a day, around the clock, while taking care of a newborn; in fact, my pumping attempt would have been even more short-lived if Heavy Metal Husband wasn't able to take so much time off from work. More on that later, but I soon started to feel like all I was doing was "pumping and chores" -- not spending time caring for my actual baby.

In an attempt to make pumping gel more with real life, I purchased a set of Elvie wearable pumps. These alien-egg-looking gadgets cost $500 and once again were not covered by my insurance... But the Elvie allowed me to pump without exposing myself, having giant plastic contraptions sticking out of my bra, or being attached by tubes to a machine.

While pumping with the Elvie, I could do simple things like hold the baby in my lap or make a sandwich. However, it was still difficult to lift Baby or do anything that involved bending or reaching -- and not that it mattered because I was in my own house, but the Elvie is not "silent" as it's advertised. Quiet? Yes. More discreet than flanges sticking out of your shirt? Yes. But silent? That's #fakenews.

Even with all this round-the-clock milk expression, two different kinds of pumps, and following all the lactation consultants' recommendations, the most I ever pumped in a day was 8 ounces. For reference, 16 ounces is considered a "pretty good" amount, and the baby needs to eat about 24 ounces daily -- so the best I ever did was halfway to "pretty good." The rest of Baby's diet was made up for in formula. And after that 8-oz. day, it was all downhill -- the previous week's lowest amount would become the current week's new normal.

Let me pause here and say that completely oblivious to his mom's quest to produce breast milk for him, Baby Heavy Metal was (and is) doing great! He fed very well from the adaptive bottle, and his growth and development are right on track for his age. The cleft condition didn't slow him down and neither did a diet that included ever-increasing proportions of Similac.

But back to The Quest -- I think my body started to get in line with my mental frustration, because about three weeks in, my right breast just quit. The left side kept plugging along with its slow but steady supply, while the right side threw its apron on the floor, slammed the door, and drove off into the sunset. For real. I'm talking twenty minutes of pumping for... DROPS.

Not wanting to give in, I got some advice from the lactation folks and Dr. Google on supplements to increase milk supply, and ended up trying fenugreek, moringa, and goat's rue. That lightened my wallet at least another $100; a one-week supply of the moringa and goat's rue cost over $40 each!

So here I was: at least eight hundred bucks and countless hours deep into milk expression, and now producing six ounces or less a day. This was an enormous, time-consuming effort for what was a fraction of Baby's diet. And my husband -- who was a vital part of the pumping process because he took care of the baby while I was doing it -- would be returning to work in two weeks. I had just ordered another batch of supplements. "I'll start weaning once he goes back to work," I thought.

But then something dawned on me... If he was going back to work in two weeks, that meant I was going back in six! The end of my maternity leave was still a ways off, but it was now in sight. Did I want to spend any more of it not being able to pick up my son because I was pumping? Even with a low supply, weaning comfortably would take 1-2 precious weeks that we would never get back.

After mulling over it for a few days, I decided the answer was "no." Rather than waiting for HMH to go back to work, I started weaning right then, despite the new container of goat's rue that had just arrived. By the time he was back on the clock, my pumping misadventure would be over and I could focus 100% on the baby.

The day my boy turned eight weeks old was the first day I didn't pump at all. A part of me was sad; there's plenty of literature about how breast milk is the best food for babies, which is why I wanted to go this route in the first place. Undoubtedly it gives them antibodies -- important at any time, but even more so during a pandemic, for a kid who's prone to ear infections and soon to undergo surgery, right?

Breast milk is also linked to better school performance, better behavior, and winning more Nobel Peace Prizes. Formula-fed children, on the other hand, are fated to become dull and sickly criminals... KIDDING, KIDDING -- but some that's what some breast pump websites would have you thinking!

I know my pumping experience wasn't typical; most moms who pump start off by breastfeeding and then join Team Flange when they go back to work. If my milk supply wasn't so low, I probably would have stuck with it longer -- but those plastic contraptions didn't fool my body into thinking it was breastfeeding a child. Eventually I had to overcome the sunk cost fallacy and look at the prospective costs of continuing The Quest: not a lot of milk and less time with my baby.

I also had to remind myself that I could be a "good mom" even if my baby eats formula. In fact, I think it's making me a better mom, or at least a happier one, since I can spend more time feeding him, playing with him, and even (heaven forbid!) spending a few minutes doing things that I want to do. Baby Heavy Metal got almost two months of antibodies mixed in with his Similac, and now we can get on with our lives.

Spectra and Elvie are happily tucked away in the basement; if we have a second child who breastfeeds, maybe I'll break them out and pump one of those "freezer stashes" before I go back to work. On that note, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed for at least twelve months -- yet women in the United States are guaranteed zero months of paid maternity leave. Now having personally experienced the effort that goes into pumping milk, breastfeeding for a year while also working a full-time job seems like an impossible expectation.

For that and a thousand other reasons, I hope 2021's batch of new politicians paves the way for universal paid maternity leave. It might not have kept my boy eating breast milk this time around -- but it would sure make for happier families, no matter what the babies eat.


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