Since the announcement that the government intends to offer a £200 ‘incentive’ to new mothers to encourage breastfeeding over bottle feeding, I’ve had time to think about this subject a bit more deeply. The thing that no one seems to have touched on in all the various blog discussions and comments threads that I’ve read lately seems to be the fact that, whilst we are, of course, taking on board this news from the point of view of middle class women aged late-20s and upwards (for the most part – agreed?), this initiative is really nothing to do with us (although that’s not to say that it doesn’t affect us). Its quite obvious that the monetary incentive the government is proposing is not aimed at those of us who want to breastfeed (but can’t). Obviously despite our age, education and backgrounds, many of us are still not able to escape the pinch of recession, inflation, and soaring cost of living and having a financial incentive thrown into the mix at this emotional time would muddy the waters, just as everyone else seems to agree. But what about the real targets of this campaign -young (in some cases very young) women from low income areas with poor educational backgrounds?
According to the researchers of the Sheffield University Study (which will pilot the scheme in low income areas in Yorkshire and Derbyshire), research highlights that young women from low income areas are least likely to breastfeed for a number of reasons including embarrassment, lack of role models which portray breastfeeding in positive circumstances, fear of pain, misconceptions that their babies will not gain sufficient weight from breastfeeding alone, and exposure to a bottle feeding culture.
If you were 16, 17 or 18 and you had other friends with babies, none of whom were comfortable with breastfeeding, as well as a mother who didn’t breastfeed and grew up in the same culture, this peer behaviour would probably be a lot more influential to you than a lot of middle class, middle aged midwives trying to educate you into cultural submission (especially if you feel like you’ve only just escaped a lot of middle class, middle aged teachers trying to educate you into cultural submission at school). Someone in the government has looked at the statistics, thought about what is important to these young women in particular (material possessions, iPhones, etc.) and surmised that a financial incentive is the only thing that will make them sit up and take notice.
Of course breastfeeding support should be improved in hospitals, tongue-ties should be identified quicker and GPs should be able to offer more help and better referrals, but for me, this is a completely different debate. The government seem to think that they will save money in the long run by encouraging this particular group of mothers to adopt breastfeeding as part of a ‘healthy’ lifestyle (for their children) but for me, breastfeeding alone is not going to solve the problem of a population becoming unhealthier and more of a burden to the creaking NHS of the future – it goes hand in hand with many, many other factors and this financial incentive is not going to change that. Do they really think that a breastfed child from a low socio-economic background is not going to be affected by a crappy diet later in their childhood? Are they going to start paying people £200 to clear out their cupboards and follow a closely monitored diet of fruit and veg for 6 months?
So I ask you this: if it’s the young women described above who are the true target of this incentive, what could the government do instead to change their attitudes and get them on board? If its not to do with physical inability or depression and its just to do with peer group attitudes then how would you tackle the issue?