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Bribes for breastfeeding: Why is a woman's personal choice made so difficult?

Breasts are not a self-contained, independent milk bar that a mother merely happens to have located on the front of her body. Breastfeeding is something a woman makes a choice to do.

Breastfeeding does not begin and end with the act itself. Photo: Getty

When it comes to bribes for breastfeeding, it seems I got my timing all wrong. It’s three years since I last breastfed and apparently the £200 worth of high street shopping vouchers awarded to mothers taking part in a new research project can’t be awarded retrospectively. It’s a shame, since as MP Charlotte Leslie helpfully points out, said mothers could even spend the vouchers on “fags and booze” (think of the post-breastfeeding shindig you could have!). Anyhow, I’ve clearly missed the boat on this one and will have to look out for something else (presents for pushing? Gifts for gestating? The possibilities are endless).

Like many people, I have my concerns about this project. I’ve nothing against vouchers or breastfeeding but putting the two together does not, to my mind, make sense. It reduces the complex reasons why a mother may not breastfeed to the assumption that she’s clearly not bothered, at least not until someone waves a few Poundland vouchers under her nose. While I realise some of these vouchers will be going to women who need them, it disturbs me to think that they will be withheld from women with similar needs who fail to toe the line. I worry that if breastfeeding becomes, in essence, paid (however poorly) some women will feel unbearable pressure to continue regardless of how they and their babies are responding. I worry about abusive partners exerting pressure on women to get their vouchers. I worry about how progress will be monitored and how intrusive such monitoring could be. I also wonder why such a radical scheme is being proposed when the usual, tried-and-tested methods of support are being withdrawn. Beyond all this, however, I wonder what this says about our attitude towards women and their bodies that we will bribe them to perform biological functions that they should be free to opt out of. 

I have no problems with breastfeeding itself; I would do it again, but that would be my choice. What bothers me is how little acknowledgement is given to how personal a decision this is and to the degree to which breastfeeding compromises ownership of one’s own body. It’s a compromise that I, as an individual, wanted to make but I can’t help feeling the overwhelming pressure on women to breastfeed – regardless of their feelings and circumstances – disregards their individuality and their needs.

Breastfeeding does not begin and end with the act itself. Breasts are not a self-contained, independent milk bar that a mother merely happens to have located on the front of her body. As long as you are lactating you are subject to the rhythms of your baby, regardless of whether you are the primary carer or have other responsibilities. Any time spent away means either miserably expressing in public toilets or being punished with painful engorgement and leaking. When you are unwell you will feel pressured to avoid all medication, “just to be on the safe side”.  The clothes you wear will be dictated by “ease of access” principles. Your sex life may suffer (not because, as is often suggested, we are just too squeamish around breasts, but because sex is weird, we all have our preferences and suddenly getting let-down while getting down to it might not be an individual’s idea of fun).

I realise all of these things will strike some people as minor issues but the discomfort and inconvenience affect people differently according to their circumstances. It’s not good enough to say “it is always worth it for the sake of your child”. As far as I’m concerned, this kind of thinking sits neatly alongside the view that pregnancy is an inconvenience, abortion a lifestyle choice and a caesarean a posh woman’s indulgence. It’s the belief that women’s bodies have a purpose without context. It is dehumanising.

I’m sure breastfeeding is made much more difficult than it needs to be. Not only is the already inadequate supply of practical support via health visitors, midwives and breastfeeding counsellors under threat, but our attitude towards bare female flesh is characterised by a mix of salaciousness and prudishness that makes breastfeeding in public contentious when it should be a perfectly natural thing to see. There is, however, a clear difference between supporting, enabling and judging.

There is something badly wrong with the way in which any discussion of breastfeeding brings up crass stereotypes, with lactating Primrose Hill Polly Fillers played off against ignorant formula fiends who need bribes in order to make them do the right thing. The debate is crammed with classist assumptions, something which the voucher proposal only exacerbates. The truth is, new mothers need help for a wide variety of reasons and financial support should not be contingent on making a choice that has such a personal impact.

In Expecting Better Emily Oster notes that when it comes to pregnancy, good decision-making is rejected in favour of recommendations which focus on data alone without considering the personal pluses and minuses which “may result in different decisions for different people”. The same is true, I think, when it comes to recommendations on how mothers should feed their babies. Increasing the pressure to breastfeed rather than creating the conditions in which mothers feel happier to opt in sets a damaging precedent. By all means give mothers the means to purchase the things they need but let them nurture their babies in the way that is best for them.