New mothers are to be paid to breastfeed their babies as part of a research project examining whether or not uptake rates will increase if they are offered financial incentives.
Vouchers for Matalan, John Lewis or Mothercare - as well as supermarkets - will be dished out to new mothers if they feed their babies with breast milk.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield are examining ways to boost the low rates of breastfeeding.
Despite numerous attempts to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies, rates remain stubbornly low in parts of the UK.
The new study is to be trialled in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire - in areas where breastfeeding uptake rates are low.
Mothers will be given shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if their babies receive breast milk until they are six week old, and a further £80 if their babies continue to be breastfed until they are six months.
If the “feasibility” project is successful, the authors will conduct a national research project into the scheme.
The NHS recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies during the first six months. Despite this, only 34% of UK babies are breastfed at six months, with only 1% exclusively breastfed at this stage said principle investigator Dr Clare Relton.
The senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield said breastfeeding is “stigmatised” in parts of the UK - for example, some advertising for formula milk sends out subliminal negative messages about breastfeeding which contributes to low uptake rates, she said.
“The UK has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world and breastfeeding rates vary very widely across different parts of the country,” said Dr Relton.
“If you are a six-week-old baby the chances of you being breastfed vary depending on where you live. If you live in an affluent area you are four times more likely to be breastfed than if you live in a deprived area.
“Babies who are breastfed have fewer health problems such as upset tummies and chest infections, and are less likely to develop diabetes and obesity when they are older. Breast milk is perfectly designed for babies and provides all they need for the first six months of their life.
“The scheme offers vouchers to mothers who breastfeed as a way of acknowledging both the value of breastfeeding to babies, mothers and society, and the effort involved in breastfeeding.
“Offering financial incentives for mothers to breastfeed might increase the numbers of babies being breastfed, and complement on-going support for breastfeeding provided by the NHS, local authorities and charities.”
The preliminary study will focus on up to 130 mothers who give birth between November and March.
If the mothers breastfeed their children for a full six months they will receive £200 shopping vouchers - half for supermarkets and half for high street stores.
The vouchers, which are being funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative, will be dished out in five stages of £40 each.
The initiative will not be rigorously policed and will simply require the participating mother and their health visitor or midwife to sign off to say they are breastfeeding.
Dr Relton said the test will not only ascertain whether or not the payment improves uptake rates, they will look at whether women think they are being “bribed or rewarded” after they receive the vouchers.
“We’re testing whether this is a way of increasing the perceived value of breastfeeding.”
Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Whilst we are not against financial incentives for the right reasons, there is a much bigger social and cultural problem here that needs to be tackled instead of offering financial incentives for mothers to breastfeed.
“In many areas, including those in this study, there are generations of women who may not have seen anyone breastfeeding their baby, meaning it is not the cultural norm in many communities.
“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.
“Investing in midwives and improving ante-natal and post-natal care will go a long way to reversing the worryingly low levels of breastfeeding that we are seeing in certain communities.”
Are you able to Speak out Safely?
Sign our petition to put pressure on your trust to support an open and transparent NHS