Offering new mothers financial incentives could significantly increase low breastfeeding rates, a pilot study has found.
More than 10,000 new mothers across South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire were involved in the trial, which offered shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if babies received breast milk – either by breastfeeding or with expressed milk – at two days, ten days and six weeks old.
A further £80 of vouchers was available if babies continued to receive breast milk up to six months.
The trial, funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative and Public Health England, saw an increase of six percentage points in areas where the scheme was offered, compared with areas where the scheme was not available.
Breastfeeding levels in the UK are among the lowest in the world. In some areas, just 12 per cent of six- to eight-week-old babies are breastfed.
Community midwife Anahi Wheeldon, from Sheffield, said the scheme had helped to change attitudes towards breastfeeding.
“The vouchers really lifted mums and gave them recognition and acceptance,” she said.
“Particularly with young mums you used to be the odd one out if you breastfed, but now they know people who’ve breastfed, there is a network between mums, so it’s become more normal.”
The research, conducted by the universities of Sheffield and Dundee, found 46 per cent of eligible mothers signed up to the scheme and more than 40 per cent claimed at least one voucher for breastfeeding.
Fiona Sutcliffe, 29, from Sheffield, who took part in the trial with her daughter, said: “Breastfeeding is quite difficult in the beginning. The scheme is a really good way of keeping going – keeping motivated to stay on track rather than giving up and going for the bottle.
“It provides little milestones, little stepping stones and helps you get breastfeeding established.”
Mothers who took part were assessed by healthcare professionals who would already be expected to discuss feeding during routine visits, and would also check the baby’s general health.
Breastfeeding has a wide range of benefits for mothers and babies. It helps to prevent short- and long-term illnesses in children and mothers and reduces health costs to the NHS.
It is estimated the NHS would save at least £17 million every year in hospital admissions and GP visits if more women were supported to breastfeed for longer.
Study co-author Mary Renfrew, professor of mother and infant health at the University of Dundee, said: “Thanks to all the mothers and staff who supported this study, we now know much more about what might work to help new mothers to breastfeed.”