There’s been a fair bit of coverage today of this story that a trial is beginning in a couple of deprived areas of Yorkshire of paying new mothers up to £200 in shopping vouchers to try and encourage them to breastfeed for 6 months, with a view to extending the scheme if it proves successful. Breastfeeding is a subject currently high up in my consciousness, as I have just started maternity leave (no baby as yet though! 🙂 ) and do intend if possible to breastfeed if I can. I have really mixed feelings about this initiative.
In my last post I ranted about people constantly referring to breastfeeding as “free”. As I said there, it is only “free” in the sense that money doesn’t change hands the way it would if milk was bought and sold. The demands on a woman’s (and wider family’s) time, work, health, etc are not to be sniffed at, and there are plenty of economic implications. Breastfeeding doesn’t always work out quickly, sometimes it can take several weeks to get properly established, and in that time the woman might experience pain, stress, and complications requiring help from health staff and/or medication – all of which cost money (OK not to the woman directly, but they have to be paid for somehow and it is the health services that pick up the tab). Even if it does work out, for someone exclusively breastfeeding the physical costs of feeding every few hours day and night are not to be taken lightly. And on return to work, if you are still feeding whilst the baby is in childcare, there is a cost to the employer of providing facilities for expressing breastmilk (a private room and a fridge, as well as time).
So part of me kind of welcomes the monetary aspect of this – I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that the financial aspects of breastfeeding are explored and discussed. Having said that, I suspect that would be an unintentional outcome of the initiative – I don’t think the vouchers are there to extend the debate, just to simply act as an incentive. Incentives in themselves aren’t necessarily a bad thing – it would be great if breastfeeding rates could improve, and nationwide they appear to be quite stubbornly not growing currently. However, I am not convinced at all that this is the way to go.
I have a number of concerns. One particular red flag in the BBC article linked to above was the sentence “Midwives and health visitors will be asked to verify whether the women are breastfeeding.” It reminded me of the concerns that lecturers had/have in higher education about having to verify whether foreign students are attending lectures and reporting back; if we had wanted a police role we would have trained to be police officers, not nurses/lecturers. As it is, health visitors are often already seen as the breastfeeding police (and not in a good way! – I think a common perception is that we will bang on about breastfeeding regardless of whether the woman wants to continue or not, and are unsupportive to families who choose to formula feed), and I don’t think that this will particularly help the therapeutic relationship that we all strive to build with families. I want to offer support to families to feed in the way they choose, not police whether they are meeting the criteria for a particular benefit/incentive. Also, this scheme does nothing to address the gaps in service which might lead to women not being supported – yes by all means give vouchers, but if there are not enough appropriately trained health professionals to offer support when the going is tough, the vouchers aren’t going to solve breastfeeding issues.
There is also the class issue to consider – this initiative is currently aimed at a more deprived, lower socio-economic area, with the assumption appearing to be that money is therefore an appropriate incentive to offer. There are plenty of so-called working-class women who breastfeed, and plenty of affluent women who choose not to, and I worry that the use of monetary incentives in deprived areas could act in a way to stereotype further the people who live there. I think that it would be better to provide more funding to train more health professionals to high standards in the full range of infant feeding, for all families who want/need that support, and provide the ongoing support needed instead of simply being the Breastfeeding Police monitoring who’s claiming the money.