Early results in breastfeeding vouchers trial
Initial results of a controversial scheme offering shopping vouchers to persuade mothers to breastfeed have shown promise, researchers say.
Mothers in three areas of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire where breastfeeding rates were low - between 21% and 29% - were offered vouchers of up to £200.
Of the 108 eligible for the trial scheme, 37 (34%) earned vouchers for breastfeeding at six-to-eight weeks.
Critics, including leading doctors, say the scheme amounts to "bribery".
There will now be a much bigger trial involving 4,000 women.
Of the mothers eligible for the scheme, 58 signed up.
The vouchers are given at five different time-points. And results for the three- and six-month stages are still being collected.
The results of Nourishing Start for Health (Nosh) scheme are being presented at a public health science conference organised by the Lancet.
Vanessa Purdy, 31, who is still breastfeeding her eight-month-old, James, said: "The vouchers lure you into the scheme and breastfeeding. But the confidence you gain, and the friends you make through the scheme, is unbelievable.
"It's that support network, not the money, that spurs you on to continue.
"It broke down the barriers and got everyone talking about the vouchers.
"It made breastfeeding feel normal and natural to me.
"And the money was useful for daily shopping and a few treats. I even tried tuna steak for the first time."
Across England, 51% of women are breastfeeding by the six-to-eight week stage. The equivalent figure in Scotland is 38%.
Rates are much lower in poorer areas - sometimes reaching just 12%.
Official health guidelines recommend that babies are breastfed up to six months, to help protect infants from infections.
And some research has linked breastfeeding to a lower risk for mothers from breast and ovarian cancers.
But rates in the UK remain low compared with other countries. Just 1% of babies here is exclusively breastfed at six months.
Dr Clare Relton, from Sheffield University's School of Health And Related Research public health section, is running the scheme, part of a four-year research project.
She said: "The UK has one of the worst breastfeeding rates in the world - yet it gives better health outcomes to mums and babies, and saves the NHS money.
"During the last year, our small-scale tests have shown that midwives and health visitors were happy to tell mums about the scheme.
"We think this idea has the potential to increase breastfeeding rates in the UK, but we don't have enough information yet.
"So we are conducting a large-scale trial to help us find out how acceptable and effective the scheme is - and whether it would a good use of public money in the future."
But Dr Colin Michie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "You're asking for a payback from some mums who can't necessarily give it.
"Not all mothers can breastfeed for a range of reasons - so it's just not fair.
"It is essentially a bribe if you're offering money for breastfeeding.
"This pilot scheme has been a success - but it would be nice if we could incentivise mums to breastfeed without paying them."