Monetising Mammaries


Have you heard the latest? The NHS (UK health service) is running a pilot scheme in which it will pay mothers from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to breastfeed. Up to £200 in shopping vouchers from some of Britain’s top retailers could be bagged by mothers who breastfeed for the coveted period of 6 months.

Cue nervous breakdowns from the pro-choice lobby. Whether a mother breastfeeds or formula-feeds is an intimately private decision, they chant. It’s her body – her choice, and no one should apply pressure upon her choice, right? I disagree.

The same pro-choice lobby get their knickers in a twist whenever the health authorities adopt a disincentivization approach by highlighting the dangers of formula feeding. Defensive formula feeders denounce such tactics as scaremongering. Yet now the NHS have proposed a reverse-strategy of incentivisation, and the pro-choicers are up in arms again! Their satisfaction is annoyingly elusive.

This vocal opposition to the recent £200 pro-breastfeeding scheme highlights a major flaw of contemporary society: we tend to put choice on a pedestal. This is particularly troublesome in scenarios like infant feeding where people have a hard time predicting how their choices will end up affecting their lives. Under these circumstances, I would argue there are advantages to giving people a wee nudge in the right direction. Call it liberal paternalism.

Aside from a few tentative flaws in the new NHS scheme (limited demographic scope; relying on health professionals to ‘certify’ that breastfeeding is taking place; the use of shopping vouchers from retailers that may not be in the mother’s primary interests, and why only 6 months? The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for at least 2 years…), nonetheless, this ‘gentle bribe’ approach has a lot going for it. I would go as far as to say it is inspired! Instead of targeting parents’ moral consciousness (their hearts), the NHS has finally realised the need to target parents’ financial sensibilities (their wallets) – genius! The immediate utility that results from money is not the same as that which arises from health which is more remote and prospective. Clearly, £200 would be more incentivising than health messages alone.

You can’t put a price on breastfeeding…or can you?

As for those who argue the decision to breastfeed should be based solely on altruism, I would suspect a patriarchal sentiment lurking here. As a society, we are often so quick to devalue ‘women’s work’, whittling it down to mere philanthropic acts and depriving it of remuneration. But the facts are clear: by breastfeeding, a mother is not only preserving the optimum health of her baby and herself, she is also saving money for the state and protecting the environment to boot! Furthermore, she is incurring significant financial disadvantage in the process. Contrary to what some well-intentioned lactivists may say, breastfeeding is not ‘free’. Rather, it is only free if a mother’s time is worth nothing.

in mind, recompensing women for the preservation of infant health is nothing new. Several years ago, numerous cities in the U.S. including Greensboro, North Carolina, experimented with a ‘dollar a day’ program, in which teenage girls with a baby received a dollar for each day in which they were not pregnant. The results were extremely promising. This recurring payment, however small, was salient enough to encourage teenage mothers to take steps to avoid another pregnancy. And because taxpayers end up paying a significant amount for many children born to teenagers, the costs were deemed to be far less than the benefits.

Ultimately, whether it fits or conflicts with our neatly boxed selfless perception of mothering, the reality is that financial rewards have huge potential. The pro-choice crowd would do well to think outside the box on this one.

What do YOU think? Should the government pay mothers to breastfeed if it saves the government more money in the long-run?