A report published last week has revealed that offering new mums up to £200 in Tesco vouchers could motivate them to breastfeed.
Breastfeeding is proven to give babies a good start in life, but many UK mums seem reluctant to give it a go. In some areas, according to the study undertaken by experts at Sheffield and Dundee universities, just 12% of six to eight-week-old babies were breastfed.
When I first held my son, like most mothers, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. It took 45 hours of agony and complications before he arrived and after that I was exhausted, emotionally and physically and, having contracted an infection during the eventual emergency caesarean, I was away with the fairies on intravenous morphine. But when the nurse asked if I wanted to hold my baby and try to feed him, despite all that had happened, I immediately said yes.
Maybe it was the caesarean. Nobody can describe how it feels for a woman to be denied the right to give birth naturally. I felt like a failure. I felt I had let myself, my husband, and my baby down. I had the choice taken away from me. So I was determined I would do this, the most natural of all things, and breastfeed my child.
But as any mother knows, it’s not that easy. Those videos they show you in the ante-natal classes of newborns nuzzling their mother and suckling like piglets? I don’t know where they find them but that’s not how it was for me, or anyone I know. Having done a straw poll of almost every mum I know I can safely say nobody found it that easy.
For days I tried. I tried with baby on my chest, then on my side. Sitting up and lying down. Friends brought me feeding pillows, nipple cream, breast pads, cabbage leaves, and porridge (yep, we tried everything). After three or four days I was ready to give up. I was in tears as I egged on this tiny being, desperately pleading for him to ‘latch on’ properly. We were still in hospital so had nurses and midwives around us all the time. While most encouraged breastfeeding some, mainly the younger ones, suggested formula milk. “It’ll get you some rest”, one said. “It won’t make any difference to him”, said another. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did. A few days later my milk came in and, gradually, things got easier.
As my baby approached 18 months and I was still feeding, I got all sorts of comments. Parents, partners, friends, the woman sitting next to you in the park, everyone has an opinion on when you should stop breastfeeding. After a year it’s no longer nutritionally beneficial, but breastfeeding isn’t all about nutrition. It’s about bonding, and it’s about health. Breastfeeding protects babies from gut problems, respiratory problems, ear infections, and the life-threatening condition necrotising enterocolitis – according to a recent UNICEF report. It can also allegedly build up a woman’s defences against diseases like breast cancer, by the nature of the hormones produced in the process. I stopped at 18 months, but only because I was three months pregnant with my second child. I couldn’t have cared less what other people thought.
So this week when I read that researchers offered cash incentives to mothers in deprived areas with low rates of breastfeeding, it struck a chord immediately. It didn’t, however, fill me with glee. Rather, confusion.
The researchers offered £200 in vouchers to women who would otherwise have bottle fed their babies. If the scheme is seen as successful there are plans to roll it out nationally. But how are doctors, nurses, health visitors, going to measure the success? How are they going to know that the baby is being breastfed and not just put back on the bottle as soon as Mum has received her Booby Bonus? The whole point is that the women they are targeting come from deprived areas, so they may do or say what they think the researchers want to hear if it means a cash reward.
And shouldn’t a woman choose to breastfeed through enlightenment, because she believes in the physical and emotional benefits, rather than because she is being bribed to? If you are offered money to do something you do it for that reason – to gain financially. When the scheme stops, these women won’t be encouraging others to breastfeed, because they won’t receive the rewards. Yes, some of them may grow to love this bond and feel sad at eventually having to break it off, like I did, but many of my friends just didn’t take to it. They did it, be it for a couple of weeks, or months, out of a sense of duty. But not out of enjoyment. The fact is they did do it though, because they knew it was in the best interests of their child. This is something a mother has to feel for herself, and no amount of money is going to change the way a woman thinks about this, the most personal and delicate of issues.
You could say that anything that encourages just one more woman to breastfeed has to be a good thing. After all, only 1% of British mothers still breastfeeds up to six months, as recommended by the World Health Organisation. But research, experience and hindsight, all point in one direction for me – women need support, and they need information. The more information they get, the more they will be driven to do what is proven to be great for their child. But they also need the support. Not just in the first few days, but in the weeks and months that follow. A recent study calculated that the NHS could save more than £17m a year in hospital visits and GP appointments if more women were helped to breastfeed for longer. In order to start saving that £17 million somebody has to ensure that money is first invested in midwives and health visitors so they can get this information across on the frontline.
Unfortunately, I think I can safely say that Health Minister Jeremy Hunt is not going to be the man to do that. The NHS is nearing breaking point as it is, and maternity matters are way down on the Government’s list of priorities. Care to prove me wrong, Mr Hunt?