Financial incentives for mothers shown to increase breastfeeding rates

mother breastfeeding

New research suggests that offering shopping vouchers to new mothers may significantly increase UK breastfeeding rates

A study led by the University of Sheffield and the University of Dundee has found that new mothers are more likely to breastfeed, or carry on breastfeeding where they otherwise would have stopped, when offered a financial reward.

More than 10,000 new mothers across South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and North Nottinghamshire were involved in a trial in which they were offered shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if they gave their babies breastmilk (whether by breastfeeding or giving expressed milk) at two days, 10 days and six weeks old. If the mothers continued to give their babies breast milk until they reached six months, they were offered a further £80 worth of vouchers.

The trial, which was funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative and Public Health England, saw an increase of 6% in the areas where the scheme was offered, compared with those areas where the scheme was not being trialled.

The scheme was tested in areas with relatively low breastfeeding rates (originally only 28% of babies were receiving any breastmilk at six to eight weeks in those areas). Of the women eligible for the scheme, 46% signed up to take part and more than 40% claimed at least one voucher. As the scheme has not been trialled elsewhere, there's no data to show whether the sign-up and claim rates in the trial area would be reflected nationwide.

Principal investigator Dr Clare Relton, from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), said: “Our scheme offered vouchers to mothers as a way of acknowledging the value of breastfeeding to babies and mothers and the work involved in breastfeeding. Eight out of ten mothers in the UK who start to breastfeed stop before they really want to. It seems that the voucher scheme helped mothers to breastfeed for longer and mothers reported that they felt rewarded for breastfeeding.”

One mother who took part in the trial, Fiona Sutcliffe, cited motivation as one of the key strengths of the scheme: “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.”

According to community midwife Anahi Wheeldon, from Sheffield, the scheme has also helped normalise breastfeeding in areas where women found it embarrassing or shameful to breastfeed (in public as well as at home).

Dr Gavin Malloch, programme manager for public health partnerships at the Medical Research Council which led the NPRI collaboration, said: “There is a wealth of evidence about the importance of breastfeeding for a child's health and also the health of mothers. We also know that being breastfed as a baby has benefits for health later in life, reducing the risk of conditions such as diabetes which place an enormous pressure on the NHS.”

He added that “breastfeeding rates in the UK are some of the lowest in the world. This study shows that vouchers might significantly improve rates in areas where they are below the national average. It will also help inform discussions around this issue at a global level.”