Fiona McCade: Keep abreast of silly voucher scheme

Education is what helps women towards successful breastfeeding. Picture: AP

Education is what helps women towards successful breastfeeding. Picture: AP

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VERY soon, I expect the following job advertisement to appear all across Sheffield: “Wanted – Nipple Inspector. Must be able to tell the difference between a lactating nipple and a non-lactating nipple. Experience needed, but Sun readers need not apply. Salary includes vouchers for Poundland.”

Now, don’t all rush at once. Besides, this dream job may never materialise, because it’s dependent on a project that is about as sane as a March Hare and Hatter’s convention in Madrid.

Dundee and Sheffield University researchers have created an incentive scheme to encourage new mothers to breastfeed. In the initial trial, 130 mothers will be given vouchers in exchange for the promise that they will breastfeed, at least in part. If they are still doing some form of breastfeeding when their baby reaches six months, they will have gained a total of £200, to be spent in places such as Poundland, Tesco, Asda and (possibly because their breastfeeding facilities are so fantastic) John Lewis. If the trial can be shown to be successful, this will become NHS policy across Britain.

The exercise is intended to be taken on trust, but how long will it be before Sheffield’s Nipple Inspectors are called in to ensure the rules are being obeyed? It certainly won’t be an easy job. If one of the control-group is shown not to have been breastfeeding, will they confiscate everything she’s already bought from Poundland? Will they really take away her 100 non-stick bun trays and 100 pairs of fluffy, purple acrylic gloves?

There is so much wrong with this idea, it’s difficult to know where to start, but discrimination against women who cannot breastfeed springs to mind, as does the inability to conclusively prove the outcome. There is also an intrinsic lack of provision for the future, because this project can only motivate the women receiving vouchers, and once the vouchers stop (which they inevitably will), what happens then? What legacy will be left for the next generation of mothers?

Education is what helps women towards successful breastfeeding, but there’s no education taking place here, just special treats for those who are able to obey.

If these researchers consider cash to be the best incentive, why not simply show how much money can be saved by breastfeeding rather than using formula milk? It’s devastating to think that all this money is being given away as shopping vouchers, when it could be spent employing more and better lactation consultants, or empowering existing midwives and health-visitors to give improved care and longer-term support to the thousands of women who need it.

Any woman who has ever struggled with breastfeeding will tell you that nothing can beat a real, human being by your side, guiding you through the process and giving tailor-made advice. A sympathetic expert holding your hand is worth a thousand Asda vouchers. If we want to encourage more women to breastfeed, we need to spend our money on people, not in Poundland.

Even if this study succeeds, it will be a sad day, because it will show that, for some people, the promise of an Asda voucher is more exciting than the knowledge that they are giving their baby, and themselves, the very best care. It might also create an unfortunate trend for more voucher-based rewards schemes.

Why stop at six months of breastfeeding? Why not get mothers to promise to give their kids five servings of fruit and veg a day up until, say, the age of ten? That kind of dedicated parenting should be worth a couple of Tesco vouchers. If you have twins, you could even get a BOGOF. Heck, if this works, the whole population could be controlled with vouchers. There could be voting vouchers: turn up at the polling station, collect your voucher, then off you go, straight to John Lewis. Some political parties might even decide to offer extra vouchers, in exchange for your promise to vote for them. Don’t worry, they won’t be able to verify if you do or you don’t, but you’ll get the vouchers anyway.

Frankly, I’m wondering, after having breastfed for nine long months, and raised a child for eight exhausting years, where’s my incentive to carry on? Unless I’m given some Jimmy Choo vouchers pronto, the boy may well be going up for adoption.

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