British Moms Get Bribed to Breastfeed in Controversial New Study

Photo: Blend Images/KidStock/Getty ImagesMoney talks. But is it persuasive enough when it’s used to convince moms to breastfeed their infants? A newly launched study in Britain aims to find out. 

“Despite the Department of Health saying all babies should be breastfed exclusively for up to six months, in the UK, breastfeeding rates are much, much lower than that overall,” Dr. Clare Relton, researcher with the University of Sheffield, tells the Independent, noting that just 34 percent of Brits breastfeed for six months, with just 1 percent of babies getting nursed exclusively. (In the U.S. those numbers are higher, at 49 percent and 16 percent, respectively.)

“We know that breastfeeding is good for moms, for babies and for society as well. We know that breastfed babies cost the NHS [National Health Service] less than babies fed infant formula," Relton continues. She adds that what they're testing is "whether it’s possible to offer financial incentives.”

The already-controversial, partly government-funded study will offer low-income new moms shopping vouchers worth up to $190 if their infants are breastfed for up to six weeks; they’ll receive an additional $125 worth of vouchers if they continue to breastfeed for up to six months.

In the United States, the “breast is best” argument has an army of well-known supporters behind it, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And it’s been promoted through various regional programs, like the particularly big-brother Latch On NYC in New York, which asks hospitals to document medical reasons anytime infant formula is doled out to new moms. In 2011, the IRS reversed a long-held position by announcing that breast pumps and other lactation supplies would be tax deductible, which was a crumb of financial incentive.

But regarding the new UK study, Professor Mitch Blair of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health tells the Independent that converting more bottle-wielding moms should not necessarily be the priority. “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,” he says, “and know the best techniques to feed their baby and keep themselves comfortable at the same time.”

His sentiments were echoed, albeit less gracefully, on blogs and social media, where criticism was fierce (though many commentators failed to grasp that this is, in fact, an information-gathering study, and not a new law).

“It’s a ridiculous policy, which does nothing to target the real reasons why women ‘fail’ or chose not to breastfeed,” writes blogger Louise Pennington, who dubs herself a “harsh but fair FemiNazi” on Twitter. “It doesn’t target the phenomenal number of myths about breastfeeding peddled by formula manufacturers.” Another mommy blogger, on Hurrah for Gin, writes, “It’s not going to fricking work! In order to breastfeed, you need to want to breastfeed. It’s the same as with giving up smoking: If the motivation is not there then you will never succeed.”

Independent columnist Grace Dent calls the pilot “barmy, middle-class lactivism,” calling breastfeeding “the tedious one-note hobbyhorse of a small, vocal group of women.” And Guardian columnist Joanna Moorhead, similarly, notes that, while she is personally pro-breastfeeding and finds low UK rates to be “a scandal,” she finds this initiative to be the worst she’s ever come across. “In fact, I don't think it's pro-breastfeeding at all: I think it's a patronizing, naive, ill-thought-out gesture,” she writes.

Tweets are calling the pilot “dumb,” “bribery” “priceless,” “ridiculous” and “beyond laughable.”

And then there’s this, buried in the Twitter din, from a lone voice in Australia: “If it takes money for children to have a healthy start, I say go for it.”