Breastfeeding mothers don’t need money, they need respect

A recent trial offered a cash incentive to mothers for breastfeeding their babies. Annie Ridout argues that what mothers need is respect and a change in attitude towards breastfeeding in public – not a patronising suggestion that money solves all issues…

During a recent trial, new mothers were offered cash vouchers as an incentive for breastfeeding. It had a positive impact, with six percent more mothers nursing their babies in areas where the scheme was offered – rising from 32% to 38% of mothers.

The pilot scheme was rolled out in deprived areas of South Yorkshire and Derbyshire and funded by both the government and medical research sector. Apparently, a nationwide pilot may be launched across in England next year, if the third trial is successful.

Breastfeeding is free. And once established, mothers who chose to do it will learn that it is in many ways simpler than bottle-feeding – you pull up your top and the food supply is there. No bottle sterilisation. No boiling water needed. No formula powder.

Great, therefore, that this financial incentive encouraged mums to give it a try, or to continue for longer.

But the issue with breastfeeding does not lie with new mums; it lies with the general public who stare and judge. With workplaces that don’t offer fridges for expressed milk, or a room to express in. With shops and hotels that ask women to cover up when breastfeeding their baby.

And not just that. We also live in a culture where women are seen as sexual objects and their breasts are for the male gaze rather than suckling babes. Where watching porn is the norm. Where 9642 women – and rising – are having their breasts surgically augmented in the UK each year.

I was in my local bank when my second baby was a few weeks old. I put him to my breast and the bank manager shifted uncomfortably. He told me that there was a private room where I could “do that”. I was clearly at ease doing it right there, while we discussed my finances, but he wasn’t ok with that. I insisted that we continue the meeting.

There have been times when I’ve been in a cafe, or on the Underground, and have needed to feed my baby. People are so awkward about this that they attempt to avert their attention but keep looking back. It’s as if you’re doing something wholly unnatural and never-been-seen-before.

When did people become so uncomfortable about women feeding their babies from their breast? 

The UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, with only one in 200 women breastfeeding their children after they reach their first birthday. We’re certainly not following the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendation that mothers continue breastfeeding until the child is two.

If women felt comfortable feeding their babies both in private and in public, perhaps they’d be more open to breastfeeding and the low rates would naturally start to increase. And by more than a fairly unimpressive six per cent.

For women living in poverty, cash – £200 shopping vouchers, in this instance – is always helpful. New mothers who are struggling financially should receive this after having babies, whether or not they breastfeed. Because there will be women living in deprivation who simply can’t breastfeed.

Some women (1-5 per cent) don’t produce enough milk to breastfeed their babies. But there are other medical reasons (recurrent mastitis, for example) that can hinder breastfeeding. Will these women then be penalised? As if there isn’t already enough pressure and guilt surrounding how we feed our babies.

My own breastfeeding journey has been both wonderful and horrendous. My firstborn latched on as soon as she was born, but I then had repeated bouts of extremely painful mastitis. With my second baby, I endured bleeding nipples and a sting every time he tried to latch that made me cry out in pain. But we got through a painful start and are still going, nearly 12 months later.

I can see why women don’t want to breastfeed. And I can see why they start but then stop.

So, what’s my solution to the low breastfeeding rates? Stop sexually objectifying women and their breasts. And work on educating everyone about the benefits of breastfeeding, so that mothers feel respected rather than stigmatised for doing it in public.

But most importantly, it needs to be a choice for the mothers to make. Not the government, or the older generations, or our friends, or antenatal instructors. We need to be offering information about the benefits of breastfeeding, but after that – it’s up to the mother. It’s her body, her breasts, her baby.

What do you think – should mothers receive a cash incentive for breastfeeding their babies?