Low breastfeeding rates in parts of the UK could be tackled by offering mothers up to £200 in shopping vouchers, researchers have said.
A study in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire will investigate the impact of offering the financial incentive to mothers in neighbourhoods where very few women breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding offers a number of health benefits to both mothers and babies, but levels in the UK are among the lowest in Europe. Fewer than 20 per cent of mothers breastfeed for six to eight weeks in some parts of the UK.
In a creative – and not uncontroversial – attempt to address the issue, researchers from the University of Sheffield are to run a pilot scheme investigating whether financial incentives are an effective way of increasing uptake.
Mothers included in the study will be offered shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if their babies are breastfed up to six weeks old, and a further £80 if they continue to breast feed up to six months. If successful, the scheme will be tested nationwide over the next two years.
“Breast milk is perfectly designed for babies and provides all they need for the first six months of their life,” said Dr Clare Relton, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research.
“Offering financial incentives for mothers to breastfeed might increase the numbers of babies being breastfed, and complement on-going support for breastfeeding provided by the NHS, local authorities and charities.”
However, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said that “a much bigger social and cultural problem” needed to be tackled to increase rates in the long-term.
Across the UK, 81 per cent of babies are breastfed, according to the most recent figures, which date from 2010. But women living in more deprived areas and those who left education earlier are more likely not to breastfeed.
Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the RCM, said that while she did not oppose all financial incentives, efforts to improve breastfeeding rates must address broader health inequalities.
“In many areas, including those in this study, there are generations of women who may not have seen anyone breastfeeding their baby, meaning it is not the cultural norm in many communities,” she said. “The motive for breastfeeding cannot be rooted by offering financial reward. It has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and well-being of her child.”
Professor Mitch Blair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “It is more important that those mothers who wish to breastfeed are appropriately and fully supported to do so prior to, and following the birth, and know the best techniques to feed their baby and keep themselves comfortable at the same time.”
Babies who are breastfed are better protected against chest and ear infections, and are less likely to suffer from diarrhoea, vomiting and constipation.
Mothers also benefit from a reduced risk of getting breast and ovarian cancers, and evidence suggests that lots of skin to skin contact improves the bond between mother and baby.