If we have to bribe new mums to breast-feed, let’s do it

Breastfeeding: It's only natural, so why do so few UK mums persist with it, asks Rachel Moore.

Breastfeeding: It's only natural, so why do so few UK mums persist with it, asks Rachel Moore. - Credit: PA

A new study has found that offering new mums cash incentives to breast-feed their babies will encourage more to do it. Rachel Moore says if that's what it takes, then so be it.

For something so nurturing, nourishing and natural, breastfeeding prompts such polarised reactions and furious ructions.

It can break friendships, tears rifts between daughters and mothers and sends onlookers apoplectic with offence.

Little threatens the sisterhood as much as a confrontation between a zealous breastfeeder on her lactating crusade and the formula-never-did-my children any harm bottle feeder.

So riven are the two camps, they tend to give each other a wide berth so their paths rarely cross, but when they do, the breast-is-best brigade is a little too supercilious and smug and the bottle brigade defensive, driven by guilt.

Women are becoming afraid of breastfeeding; despite breast milk being the mankind-long proven best start a mother can give her baby, period. Scientific and borne out in life by lower rates of obesity, infection, heart disease, diabetes and allergies alongside higher IQs.

What mother wouldn't want to be able to give, uniquely and single-handedly, her precious baby the very best chance in life? Sadly too many.

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An incredible – and wholly shameful – just 1% of UK babies are still exclusively breastfed at six months. We have one of the worst rates in the world.

No wonder breastfeeding mothers in public are social pariahs. It's seen less and less in public places because there are fewer mothers doing it.

Our babies might get the flashiest prams and exquisitely-decorated nurseries packed with gadgets and baby paraphernalia neither baby nor mother really needs, but they lose out when it comes to what really matters because women are too embarrassed, get too little help to and simply don't grasp that breastfeeding is normal, convenient and involves far less faff than mixing, sterilising and temperature testing bottles.

But, if they were paid to stick at it, given financial incentives to breastfeed, more women would give it a go, a trial led by the University of Sheffield discovered.

Paid to try harder to do what is best for their babies? Now I know we have lost the plot.

By waving a carrot of shopping vouchers to make women 'feel rewarded,' according to the study leader, women might be a little more interested in persevering, apparently.

But money does changes behaviour and incentivise, however distasteful and vulgar that feels. Money succeeds in driving people to achieve more.

Financial persuasion in the shape of Asda vouchers would improve the deplorable rates by about 20 per cent, the research found. That's a lot of babies with a lot of benefits.

As mercenary as it feels, to pay them to do what should be their top priority as a new mother, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Today, three quarters of new mothers start off breastfeeding with fewer than half continuing when their babies are eight weeks old. If it takes £200 of shopping vouchers to turn things around, in the interests of the future health of a new generation, so be it.

Breastfeeding isn't easy. For many new mothers, it's the hardest new skill they ever have to conquer, wincing with pain for the first few weeks, if they get that far, especially if they can't access the sparse help from midwives and breastfeeding supporters, which are always desperately needed.

Exactly 21 years ago, I called for help to feed my 10-day-old baby. I was desperate, in agony, my hungry boy couldn't grasp what he was supposed to do any better than I could and we were getting into a hot sweaty pickle every four hours.

Luckily, midwives then had the time to sit and help. The National Childbirth Trust breastfeeding supporters gave invaluable advice, while my (male) health visitor said I shouldn't be a 'breastfeeding martyr', presumably encouraging me to give up if it was too much like hard work.

Since when was trying doing the very best for your child 'hard work?'

Rewarding women for achieving what they should be doing is far less distasteful than less than 1% of six-month-old babies in the UK getting the benefits of breastfeeding.