New mothers will be “bribed to breastfeed” by the NHS in the UK, in an attempt to increase rates across the country - although those behind the scheme admit they are powerless to stop the shopping vouchers being used to buy cigarettes and alcohol.
Researchers said the trial scheme is an attempt to tackle “stubbornly low” rates of breastfeeding in parts of the UK.
But last night critics lambasted the use of taxpayers’ money in a system of “bribes,” which they said set a “dangerous and insidious precedent” for the state, in suggesting that parents needed financial incentives to look after their children.
From this week, new mothers living in parts of the UK will be offered £120 (€142) in vouchers for high-street chain stores such as Argos, Debenhams and Poundstretcher and supermarkets like Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, if they sign forms declaring that they have breast-fed their child for six weeks, with a further £80 (€94) at six months.
Researchers behind the Government-funded initiative said there is nothing to stop women who enroll in the trial from using the vouchers to buy alcohol or cigarettes - and that they hope future schemes will simply hand out cash to mothers who say they are breast-feeding.
If the pilots appear to increase breastfeeding rates, and schemes are judged to be “socially acceptable,” a national trial will begin next year, and could then be rolled out across the country.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield said the project is an attempt to boost rates of breastfeeding in Britain, which are among the worst in the world.
The NHS recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies during the first six months.
Dr Clare Relton, principal investigator, said that current figures show just 34 per cent of babies are breastfed at six months, and that just one per cent only receive breast-milk by this stage.
She said that the scheme will test whether offering women financial incentives to breast-feed was a way to “increase the perceived value of breastfeeding” among some parts of society.
Research has found that breast-fed babies have fewer health problems, such as chest infections, and are less likely to develop health problems such as diabetes, or become obese, when they are older.
Women in the selected areas will apply to receive vouchers - which they will receive regardless of whether they had intended to breastfeed anyway, researchers said.
Vouchers will only be supplied if health visitors state that they believe mothers are telling the truth. However, those leading the study said it would be impossible for them to know whether women were actually breastfeeding.
Harriet Sergeant, research fellow from think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, said: “This seems extraordinary and ridiculous. Women already have a hard enough time with the ‘breastfeeding police’ telling them what to do. This it doesn’t tackle the essential problem that women need help and support to breastfeed, not a financial inducement.”
Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “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.”