Should Moms Be Paid to Breastfeed?

Esther Crain
·Writer
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A program that gives new mothers a cash incentive to nurse is stirring up controversy. (Photo: Masterfile/Corbis)

Breastfeeding has big advantages for mom and baby: it’s free, provides a newborn all the nutrients she needs, and is recommended by every major health organization.

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But only 49 percent of new moms in the U.S. nurse their newborns during the first six months of life, reports the Centers for Disease Control. And by their first birthday, only 27 percent of babies are still on mother’s milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that babies be nursed exclusively for six months, then fed solid food and breast milk for at least a year.

One way to nudge the numbers upward, as pediatricians and other health experts keep trying to do, might be to take a cue from an idea currently being tested in England: paying new moms to nurse. That’s the crux of a program established by U.K. researchers, which gives women $310 in vouchers for free food, toys, and household goods if they agree to breastfeed for six months. 

Offering free vouchers to moms who nurse isn’t a new idea in England; it was tried on a smaller scale in two British cities over the last few years, and the results “showed promise,” according to researchers. Still, the U.K. program has its critics, who deem it patronizing, and a form of bribery.

But considering all the health advantages breast-fed babies rack up throughout life—babies fed formula are more likely to be obese and tend to have weaker immune systems, among other issues, according to the AAP—is a program that gives moms cash for nursing worth trying in the United States?

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“I’m not sure it’s a good idea in principle, but we have a similar government-backed program here, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), which offers low-income women who breastfeed vouchers that can be redeemed for nutritious food at grocery stores,” Dr. Deborah Campbell, chief of the division of neonatology at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, tells Yahoo Parenting.

Established in the 1970s, WIC has been very successful in helping boost the number of women who breastfeed, says Diana West, lactation consultant and director of media relations for La Leche League International. “Though there’s still work to be done, there’s been a shift in the acceptance of breastfeeding, and WIC has helped increase the numbers.”

Though a sizable number of American babies still rely on formula, the real issue in the U.S. isn’t convincing women to breastfeed, it’s helping them do it successfully and to continue the practice as long as possible. “The incentive to breastfeed is there; women know it’s best. But what mothers need is more support, in the form of lactation consultants in hospitals, breastfeeding support groups, and more nursing-friendly environments,” says West.

Adds Campbell: “Some women work in an environment where they aren’t given time to pump, or they don’t have access to a breast pump in the first place. We also don’t have a social structure in this country that supports nursing moms, who are still being asked to stop when they breastfeed in public, and in some cases even arrested.”

Rather than a program that lets women earn cash for agreeing to breastfeed, Campbell and West suggest more societal and cultural support for new moms, so they have the time to breastfeed and resources to tap into if they’re having difficulty, as many women do.

“Most women want to breastfeed and know that it’s healthier,” says Campbell. “Greater support for breastfeeding would go a long way toward helping moms do it for as long as they want.”

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