15 May 1999

Formula-Fed Infants Cost Health Plans More Money

It's official. Breastfed babies are less likely to need visits to the doctor and prescription drugs than babies who are fed infant formula. This inevitably leads to an increase costs to health care services, according to a new study.

The study was conducted by Thomas Ball, M.D., MPH, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics, and Anne Wright, Ph.D., research professor at the The University of Arizona Department of Pediatrics.

"These findings are significant because they quantify the cost of not breastfeeding," Dr. Wright says. "Our work, as well as that of other researchers, has shown that breastfed infants have lower incidence of illness. This may be the first to attach a price tag to not breastfeeding."

Researchers analyzed data from more than 1,500 healthy newborns from the Tucson Children's Respiratory Study at the UA and the Dundee Community Study from Scotland. The study focused on three illnesses common to babies: otitis media (ear infections), lower respiratory infections and diarrheal illnesses.

Drs. Ball and Wright gathered information about doctor visits, prescription drug use and hospitalization for these three illnesses among this group of newborns.

When they compared 1,000 never-breastfed babies to 1, 000 babies who had been exclusively breastfed for three or more months, they found 2,033 excess office visits, 212 excess days of hospitalization and 609 excess prescriptions for these three illnesses. Researchers estimate the additional health care costs of exclusive formula feeding between $331 and $475 per infant in the first year of life.

"We know that managed health care plans make medical decisions based on cost and health outcomes," Dr. Ball says. "We hope this study will convince health plans across the country to promote breastfeeding the way they promote smoking cessation, exercise and low-fat diets. It's clear that in this period of cost-containment in health care, encouraging breastfeeding improves infant health and the bottom line."