Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Breastfeeding vouchers - an unlikely ceasefire in the breastfeeding battle.

Finally, breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers appear to be united in their opinion of today's news about a scheme to offer financial rewards for breastfeeding for six months.

The NPRI-funded Nourishing Start for Health (NOSH) scheme is being piloted in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire in an attempt to increase the number of mothers breastfeeding and to lengthen the time they breastfeed for towards the World Health Organisation's (WHO) recommended six months of exclusive breastfeeding.

Usually, news and diktats about breastfeeding spark a hostile debate between the breastfeeding and formula camps, with those who mix feed increasingly confused as they play piggy in the middle. But this time, it's different.

Formula feeding mothers feel that this is yet another unfair penalty against them. While breastfeeding mothers feel aggrieved and patronised that they will receive money that might be better spent elsewhere, just for doing something they were doing anyway.

There are a myriad of reasons, including the financial incentive that breastfeeding is free and formula costs money, that impact on they way women feed their babies. It seems that this scheme will further  add to the guilt and distress already felt by many formula feeding mothers by addressing a symptom rather than a cause for low breastfeeding rates.

And how will the scheme's organisers check whether a mother really is still breastfeeding at 6-8 weeks and 6 months? Midwives and healthcare practitioners are already overstretched without physically checking that babies are still (exclusively?) breastfeeding. Would guilty mothers lie to get the money and skew the data?

So, women are finally united in their contempt for a scheme that bribes women to breastfeed. The money would surely be better spent addressing the numerous reasons why women don't or feel they can't breastfeed.

What about investing in an education campaign among mis-informed health care professionals who often sabotage breastfeeding in the early days by suggesting formula top ups or failing to diagnose tongue tie or thrush or mastitis? What about investing in more training for peer supporters? What about spending money on specialist lactation consultants? What about more breastfeeding-friendly businesses that can help normalise feeding in public? What about bringing UK law in line with the UNICEF/WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and clamping down on the unethical promotional practices of formula manufacturers who undermine women's breastfeeding? What about addressing the fact that formula-feeding permeates our culture, with anything relating to babies symbolised by a bottle? What about breastfeeding-friendly policies that help women breastfeed as they return to work - or even a longer paid maternity break to help women continue to breastfeed?

There are so many ways the UK can start to tackle the causes of low breastfeeding rates without resorting to a financial sticking plaster.

One good thing has come of this scheme - it has finally shown that no matter how women feed their infants, formula or breast, there is common ground in what is often a contentious issue. And the scheme has also done wonders to highlight the UK's poor breastfeeding rates and promote the need for more support to all mothers.

Would it be too much to hope for that this unified response could be harnessed to create a more supportive network of women that help each other and understand the challenges we all face, rather than vilify women who do not or cannot breastfeed?

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