Human breast milk is the ideal food for infants, offering tailored nutrition and increased protection against illnesses. There are thousands of studies illustrating that breastfed babies are healthier than formula fed babies.
In fact, Kaiser Permanente conducted a study on the costs of not breastfeeding. The study found that, on average, a family will spend an additional $1,435 in medical expenses for a baby that receives formula from birth. Another 2010 study concluded that if 90% of U.S. families complied with the recommendation to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the United States would save $13 billion per year in health care costs.
Despite this fact, breastfeeding rates remain suboptimal throughout the world. Just 37% of babies under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed in low and middle-income countries, with even lower rates in high-income countries.
Related: Researchers Aim to Increase Breastfeeding Rates In Young Mothers
Researchers from the University of Sheffield and the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom are trialing a new program aimed at increasing levels of breastfeeding in the UK, which is among the lowest in the developed world. The study, funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative and Public Health England, offered over 10,000 mothers grocery store vouchers up to $250 if their babies received breastmilk.
Researchers chose 92 electoral areas that had breastfeeding rates lower than 40% at six and eight weeks postpartum. They randomly selected 46 regions to offer vouchers to 5,398 women. The women were informed about the incentives by their healthcare providers. The remaining 4,612 women in 46 other areas were not offered vouchers.
Mothers could claim their shopping vouchers worth $50 if they reported breastfeeding when their babies were two days, ten days, six to eight weeks, three months, and six months, regardless of whether or not they were supplementing with formula or food.
The study found that women who were offered shopping vouchers had 6% higher breastfeeding rates at 6-8 weeks than those women who were not offered vouchers.
Related: Breastfeeding can Reduce Infant Infections and Health Care Costs
There are several limitations to the study, most notably that there was no way to confirm whether or not every mother who reported that she was breastfeeding was actually doing so.
Andrew Whitelaw, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Medicine at the University of Bristol said: "The trial design could not avoid the possibility that an economically deprived mother would be tempted to report she was breastfeeding (when she was not) in order to receive a 200 pound reward.
"This trial is worth publishing because it highlights the difficulties in researching this problem but is not a justification for a general policy of economically rewarding mothers who reporting breastfeeding in areas with low breastfeeding rates."
The Royal College of Midwives said that it was "interested in the study" but cautioned that the motive for breastfeeding shouldn't come from financial interests.