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Vouchers for mothers who breastfeed: Isn't there enough breast-mongering in the world already?

We all know the spiel by now: ‘It's easy; it won't hurt; it guarantees world peace...’

Fran Yeoman
Tuesday 12 November 2013 13:16 GMT

By the time my baby was born nearly six months ago, I was ready to reach for the bottle. Nine months of heavy fire from the massed armies of pro-breastfeeding propagandists had made me - someone who had never previously given a second's thought to using formula - tempted to do so just to spite them.

Yet I would never have actually done that. I knew that 'breast is best' and my baby's health was and is more important than anything. But that's the point; I knew. How could I not?

Throughout my pregnancy, I'd barely been able to move for posters, leaflets and helpful advice to this effect. While most of my NCT antenatal course was invaluable, - with a pretty cursory demo of how one actually goes about feeding another human being via your boob (as if our presence at a breastfeeding class didn't suggest that perhaps our problem wasn’t motivation but cluelessness).

If, by the time I arrived on the labour ward, I had still been minded to formula feed, and if the midwives and health visitors I saw over the next fortnight had failed to change my mind, would £200 in shopping vouchers in exchange for six months of breastfeeding - the idea now being explored by University of Sheffield researchers - really have made any difference? I seriously doubt it.

Dr Clare Relton, who is leading this project, doesn't strike me as one of the more militant breast-mongers. In fact, she sounded like a reasonable, well-meaning woman on the radio this morning. The idea, she said, was to recognise the value of breastfeeding to mothers, babies and society. But it's the last of these groups where I think she should be focusing her attentions.

Babies, on the whole, appear to be persuaded of the merits of guzzling milk. New mothers, as discussed, have more encouragement than many need or want, yet Britain continues to have internationally-low breastfeeding rates. So who would vouchers help? Many mums want to breastfeed and can, in which case they would simply pocket £200 of scarce NHS resources if this experiment were rolled out.

A few are steadfastly against it (“It’s disgusting,” according to a pregnant woman who sat next to me during one hospital visit), and while bribes might work in a few of those cases, £200 wouldn’t get close to compensating me for the amount of effort involved if I didn’t think breastfeeding was important.

That leaves those who might breastfeed if something didn’t stop them, either before they get started or in the subsequent weeks. According to Unicef, 90 per cent of women who stop breastfeeding in the first six weeks discontinue before they want to. For some, despite the ‘everyone can do it’ mantra, it is a biological issue, and more ‘incentives’ just equals yet more pressure. No shopping voucher will remedy what health visitors, lactation consultants, tears and guilt cannot.

For other new mums, the barriers are social. Dr Relton wants to recognise the value of breastfeeding to society, yet society itself seems disinclined to do so. Inside antenatal wards, the walls are lined with pro-breastfeeding posters. Yet out in the real world, women still get looked at disapprovingly or leeringly if they attempt to feed anywhere other than in a middle class baby-ghetto cafe. Is your infant hungry on an inter-city train, in a shopping centre or even while waiting an hour for his or her doctor's appointment? Get ready to be stared at.

Meanwhile, while maternity leave is in theory up to a year long, many employers pay so little (or nothing) on top of statutory pay that women are forced to go back to work far earlier. I defy anyone to express enough milk to feed a five month old baby.

And then there's body image. Breastfeeding ain't a sexy look, at least by the pneumatic standards of our society's glossy adverts and pop videos. It is undeniable that nursing your baby changes your body, and sadly until we decide that child health is more important than spherical boobs, there will always be some people who think that the priority function of a breast is to look nice in a plunge bra.

These social disincentives are not evenly spread. NHS research shows that breastfeeding in the UK is most common among better educated mothers over 30 in managerial and professional occupations and living in the least deprived areas (and among minority ethnic groups). I tick most of these boxes, and have a husband, mum, brilliant new mum mates and a handy neighbourhood middle class baby-ghetto café that all make life much easier. Unless we accept that motherly love is class-based, it would seem that society makes it harder for some women to breastfeed than others.

My baby is very nearly at her half birthday, and happily healthy on her breastmilk diet. I feel fortunate that I have been able to feed her for this long, and plan to continue for a while yet. To some extent, the propaganda is true; breastfeeding, when it works, is an amazing experience for you as well as good for your baby. But I can also tell you this: it isn't always easy and it can hurt. It takes over your life and can be exhausting and frustrating and stressful.

Most new mums don't need any more persuading of the theory that breast is best, and they certainly don't need any more pressure. They need partners, parents, friends, employers, waiting staff, ticket inspectors – a society – who will help. Breastfeeding is a team effort and this voucher scheme is, once again, targeting the one player who probably doesn’t need another pep talk.

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