They're in it for the disposable income: Not everyone is happy about a National Childbirth Trust deal with Pampers nappies. Deborah Jackson reports

Deborah Jackson
Sunday 27 June 1993 23:02 BST

THE LETTERS 'NCT' are as closely linked to modern parenthood as 'TCP' or 'BMX'. The National Childbirth Trust enters many middle-class lives during the second trimester of pregnancy. In America, they sign up for LaMaze. In Britain, conscientious prospective parents enroll on NCT couples' classes.

I don't know how we got through our NCT ante-natal experience for giggling. I had already given birth to one baby - I knew what it felt like] - yet here was I crushing an ice cube in my palm to simulate labour, while my husband massaged my back. Like naughty schoolchildren, we refused to take the thing seriously.

But seriousness is what the NCT does best. It takes mothers seriously, and it takes itself seriously. The seeds of earnestness were sown some 55 years ago, when the group naively called itself the Natural Childbirth Association. The name was quickly changed, but the flavour of sincerity lingered. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the trust provoked controversy by accepting a lucrative endorsement deal with Proctor & Gamble, the makers of Pampers nappies.

The story - unlike the nappies - began to leak a year ago, when NCT director Suzanne Dobson agreed to the trust's name being used in Pampers advertising, with such blurbs as 'The National Childbirth Trust recomends Pampers' and '. . . in the National Childbirth Trust's experience, there's no better nappy for helping your baby's skin to stay dry'.

Clearly it was a case of NCT needing the money (rumoured to be about pounds 300,000) and Pampers seeking to enhance its reputation - the one thing money cannot buy. The clinical evidence upon which the endorsement is based comes from Proctor & Gamble itself, 'plus a few bits' Ms Dobson 'picked up from Reader's Digest and other places'.

Times are hard. Government funding for the Trust was cut in two years from more than pounds 40,000 to pounds 12,000. In rode Proctor and Gamble on a white charger, to rescue a damsel in distress. But in return for the helping hand, the damsel must say she loves her knight. This has been too much for some of NCT's 55,000 members. They did not revolt in previous years when Pampers gave pounds 70,000 in straight sponsorship deals, but endorsement of the product? Many feel this just isn't NCT style.

NCT style is earnest and worthy, putting faith in individuals rather than institutions. In some ways this has been its strength, but it has also prompted a few cruel caricatures.

The stereotypical NCT mother arrives, fresh from ice-crushing class, at the labour room with a bag full of charming but irrelevant goodies. Woolly socks, Evian sprays and jars of honey are unpacked with a solemnity that has midwives rolling in the hospital aisles.

Today the NCT continues to wrestle with its image. It would be unfair to resort to cliches about NCT members being earth-mothers wearing sandals and eating brown rice. Its open policy ensures that all mothers - whether they seek an active birth or an epidural - feel supported in the decision they make. And it has done more than any other group to redress the balance of control in the birthing room.

What angers NCT members is that their hard-earned independence is apparently being traded for cash. 'They have sold us up the river,' says one London member. There have been a number of casualties in the row, including the resignation of a senior trustee. Many feel the NCT's starchy-white reputation is now hanging on the line.

A campaign to reverse the Pampers contract has been gathering momentum. Emotions reached a head in April, when the elected Council of Trustees heard the impassioned arguments of its Members' Forum. What about 'informed choice' (keystone of NCT philosophy)? Why be wooed into recommending one commercial baby brand above another?

For some members, the issue is purely about brand endorsement; for others, the question concerns the product itself. Ms Dobson insists that by saying Pampers are best, NCT is not attacking Terry nappies. In reality, NCT is harnessed to a company that has a vested interest in maligning cotton re-usables.

The disposable nappy market has plummeted by 24 per cent in Canada; and in many US states tax laws are being changed in favour of cloth diapers. Meanwhile in Japan, cotton nappies have been awarded a government stamp of environmental superiority. No wonder Pampers' strategy has been to attack its traditional rival, the Terry nappy.

Then there are disputes over pollution, deforestation and land rights, in which Proctor and Gamble has been involved, from the US to Scandinavia. The Women's Environmental Network says it warned NCT of these issues when consulted about the Pampers deal. The NCT did not heed its objections. .

Even taken at face value, the deal is full of pitfalls. Supposing Togs or Peaudouce offer a better endorsement deal in two years when the Pampers contract runs out? Will informed choice suddenly mean a change of brands? Or are we to believe that Pampers are so much better that the rest will never catch up?

No one wants to stop companies donating large sums to famously poor support groups. No one wants to interrupt the dialogue between the informed grassroots organisations and profit- driven multinationals. One reassuring element is that Proctor & Gamble has been taking advice from the NCT over its television advertising, so that

now a properly-positioned breast-feeding baby wets its new-style Pampers nappy.

But groups such as the NCT should not have to promote products in order to survive. There should be a kind of reward system for companies, so that they can make donations, in the words of Sir Norman Fowler, with 'no strings attached'.

Meanwhile, according to the advertisements, the NCT wants what's best for mums - which today is a Pampers nappy. What will it be next, Evian water? The spray that's just perfect for labour; the ice that simulates the most realistic contractions . . .

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