New mums could be offered £200 in shopping vouchers to encourage them to breastfeed following a trial, which helped improve breastfeeding rates.
More than 10,000 new mothers across South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire took part in the trial, which offered shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if babies received breast milk – either by breastfeeding or with expressed milk – at two days, 10 days and six weeks old.
A further £80 of vouchers were given if babies continued to receive breast milk at up to six months.
The trial, carried out by the University of Sheffield and the University of Dundee and funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative and Public Health England, recorded an increase of 6% of the number of mums breastfeeding in areas where the scheme was offered, compared with areas where the scheme was not available – rising from 32% to 38% of mums.
Public health workers believe that a wider use of incentives could help improve Britain’s breastfeeding rates, which are among the worst in the world with just 1 per cent of babies breastfed exclusively at six months.
Study researchers said that the vouchers could help to normalise breastfeeding in areas where women felt too embarrassed to do so.
Clare Relton, who led the study at the University of Sheffield, said she was delighted with the results.
“Our scheme offered vouchers to mothers as a way of acknowledging the value of breastfeeding to babies and mothers and the work involved in breastfeeding,” she said.
“As the scheme was tested in areas with low breastfeeding rates (just 28 per cent of babies were receiving any breast milk at six to eight weeks), we were delighted that 46 per cent of all eligible mothers signed up to the scheme and over 40 per cent claimed at least one voucher.
“The trial found a significant increase in breastfeeding rates in areas where the scheme was offered.”
“Mothers reported that they felt rewarded for breastfeeding,” she continued.
By the end of the trial the gap between the two groups had risen to nine percentage points, with 41 per cent of those offered vouchers breastfeeding, according to data published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Shirley Cramer, of the Royal Society for Public Health, said that payments “could be just the nudge that some mothers need”.
But not everyone believes that offering a financial incentive is the solution to help raise breastfeeding rates, with some arguing that mums on a low income might be “tempted” to report they were breastfeeding in order to receive the rewards.
Andrew Whitelaw, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Medicine at the University of Bristol, told the Telegraph: “The trial design could not avoid the possibility that an economically deprived mother would be tempted to report she was breastfeeding (when she was not) in order to receive a 200 pound reward.
“This trial is worth publishing because it highlights the difficulties in researching this problem but is not a justification for a general policy of economically rewarding mothers who reporting breastfeeding in areas with low breastfeeding rates.”
Others suggested that purpose for mothers choosing to breastfeed should not be rooted in financial reward.
“It has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and wellbeing of her baby,” Gill Walton, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, explained.
“If midwives and healthcare professional have enough time to spend with women to not only to offer them the information about the benefits that breastfeeding has for both mother and baby, but also to support them in starting this would help.”
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