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Will Financially Incentivizing Breast-Feeding Work?

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Posted on Nov 12, 2013
HoboMama (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Social stigma associated with women’s anatomies has been a factor in the decline of breast-feeding.

The number of women who breast-feed in the Western Hemisphere has been decreasing for a number of financial, practical and social reasons. Now, a program in the U.K. tackles the issue with money vouchers, a plan that has many in an uproar. But could money be a good way to encourage mothers?

The pros of breast-feeding for both the mother and infant have been widely recorded. Although the health benefits are significant (for example, breast-feeding reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), there are also financial factors to consider when it comes to nourishing a baby.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, families that choose to breast-feed save $1,200 to $1,500 on formula, and during an economic climate as grim as ours, savings such as these can mean a lot to a parent. A Sheffield University research program is offering mothers £120 ($191) to £200 ($318) to encourage more of them to breast-feed in a year during which lack of support from the U.K.’s National Health Service has led the number of women breast-feeding in the country to decline dramatically.

Though some have called the plan “bribery” and the program “loathsome,” Salon writer Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks a few extra bucks may do the trick.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

Salon:

The initiative will focus on women in lower-income areas, where breastfeeding rates are especially low and the practice is often still considered embarrassing and taboo — even in private. As Mary Renfrew, a professor of mother and infant health at Dundee University told the Guardian Monday, “Women have even told us it is immoral because breasts have been very sexualized. They think they might be open to the gaze of people who think they are doing something wrong.” In an attempt to “increase the perceived value of breastfeeding,” the government-funded program is offering women shopping vouchers to give nursing a try. Mothers can receive £120 in vouchers if they breastfeed for six weeks, and a bonus £80 if they’re still breastfeeding at six months. Similar programs have been launched to encourage parents to vaccinate their children, with government benefits paid out to families that meet immunization requirements.

...the Royal College of Midwives said in a statement that “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.”

That’s all well and good, but for families living in economic distress, financial reward is very much in the interest of a child’s well-being. And for mothers who need to return to work right away, who don’t have access to on-site nursing suites and expensive breast pumps, the pressure not to nurse is strong. Throw in the social stigma that is more prevalent in poorer economic classes, and financial reward might well motivate a family on the practical level that a pamphlet about the long-term benefits of breastfeeding would not.

Every mother and child should have access to breastfeeding information, support and guidance. Every family should have the tools to make breastfeeding as practical as possible, especially for women who work. And we definitely need to do a whole lot better in our hypersexualized world to create a culture that recognizes that there is nothing offensive about a woman feeding her damn baby. All of those are long-term goals the NHS should not lose sight of. But as an experiment, targeted to a small number of mothers in a limited geographic area whose babies will be born in the months to come, isn’t it worth exploring whether there are actions that can work, right now, to encourage breastfeeding? Isn’t it worth seeing, however they’re initially motivated, whether mothers who otherwise wouldn’t breastfeed at all might discover that nursing can be cheap and easy and very nice – and whether they can then encourage their friends to do likewise? The experience of nursing isn’t sullied by its motivation. And a baby doesn’t care if his mother is just doing it for the Tesco voucher.

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