Imperialist Lactivism

maryI have waited a few days since the news broke about the breast feeding incentive scheme, whereby mothers get £200 vouchers for Matalan (presumably deliberately chosen by some well meaning busybody because that’s where Poor People Shop, isn’t it) if they breastfeed till 6 months. That is because I am so splenetically ANGRY and I wanted to introduce some measure of calm and reason into my post. I’m not sure I will be entirely successful. Because to me this is a case of Nero-like, patronising and doxastic (excellent new word Joe taught me!) fiddling while, to be blunt, children die.

  1. Most women stop breastfeeding in the first 6 weeks and, within that, in the first few days. So those women have TRIED and it hasn’t worked. They’ve not gone ‘oh, I can’t be arsed, I’d rather shove a bottle in its gob and pop down Matalan’. They’ve stopped because their baby is crying with hunger and losing weight. So we penalise that act of love? Going against your own wishes in order to SAVE THE BABY’S LIFE?
  2. The 6 weeks drop-off also correlates with the date at which maternity pay plunges from 90% of your salary to £136 a week and those unlucky enough not to have a high earning partner or sufficient savings have to go back to work. Now, of course, you can express milk. But rare must be the bovine marvel who can express an entire day’s worth overnight, or has a workplace understanding enough that she can nip off to the loo every few hours and attach herself to a pump.
  3. Exactly how will this be policed? Are we to have benefit spies and an incentivised neighbourhood watch scheme with local biddies pressing their noses up to your windows to see when and if you get your norks out?
  4. What about those who mixed feed? Is this an all or nothing approach? Given the lobby’s purist evangelism I strongly suspect the latter.
  5. Writing with a degree of bias, naturally…but what about multiples? I was a rare beast in managing to feed the girls (until 5 months, so would have missed out, unworthy soul that I am). It is just bloomin’ tricky breastfeeding twins and I imagine nigh on impossible with triplets. Multiples parents are already financially penalised as it is. Double money trouble.
  6. Talking of which, there is already in place a strong financial incentive to breastfeed. Which is the cartel-like price of formula. We were spending over £20 a week on it. That’s over £1000 up to the point they went onto cows’ milk. And then there’s the bottles, the sterilising equipment etc. It would have been lovely to have £1000 to splurge, even in Matalan.
  7. Finally, as the excellent points out, behavioural economics would imply that this scheme will have precisely the opposite effect. Those of you who have read Freakonomics will recall the example of the nursery who started setting a fine for parents who were habitually late in collecting their children. What happened? A sharp increase in late pick ups. By assigning a monetary value to something that should come naturally to parents, the guilt was removed and it became transactional. They got an extra half hour of childcare for a fiver. This incentive for breastfeeding runs the real risk of being similarly self-defeating because of simple psychology. If you’re paying me £200, it must be hard, mustn’t it? An unattractive prospect for a mother to feed her own child naturally. So that gives me a get-out. It removes guilt – I’ll make a financial sacrifice instead. Any emotional pressure is removed from the thought process and it becomes monetary instead. You know what? I think I can do without some Matalan tat if it means I’m not having to dart into a grubby public toilet because my baby needs feeding.

To me, that’s the bigger picture, and if I were in charge of breastfeeding I would do two things (and incidentally, isn’t an individual mother in charge of breastfeeding? Whyohwhy do we have to have state interference? What’s next? A Tit Tzar?):

  1. Provide more support on maternity wards
  2. Provide more feeding facilities on the outside

I’ve written about it before, but our experience in hospital when it came to breastfeeding was HORRENDOUS. There are breastfeeding assistants, but they seemed to be voluntary, and only there during the day. Babies feed at night too. I got about 5 minutes with one. I remember, at 2am, trying to haul the twins out of their cot and position them either side when my abdomen had just been sliced open and I hadn’t slept for 72 hours. And then the next afternoon, when Charlotte’s blood sugar had dropped, we were frogmarched up to neonatal care, made to feel our baby was dying, that I was a rubbish mother, only for her to be given a bottle of formula and immediately rally. There was a complete lack of empathy. Or even basic biological understanding – with premature babies, and a C section, it takes a while for the mother’s milk to come in. Charlotte could have been given a bottle on the ward. Or, do you know what, we could actually have waited a while. I’d also pre-warn mothers that IT BLOODY HURTS. Most of the breastfeeding liturgy is soft focus proselytising about the lovely bonding, and all about the baby…but in the first few days it can feel like shards of glass are being driven into your nipples. Seeing my own blood around Romilly’s mouth wasn’t a particularly ‘bonding’ experience. I’d have nipple shields and jellonet on wards as standard. They’d be a lot cheaper as a one-off NHS purchase than an ongoing supply of Aptamil.

Secondly, I’d make breastfeeding in public just a slightly less grim experience. Possibly even fining the tutters, which could help finance my first suggestion. I remember vividly being sat in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child in the Ashmolean, feeding Joe (who would have screamed the place down else, shattering the peaceful contemplation of the other visitors) and an elderly gentleman muttering ‘disgusting’. Because the Baby Jesus was fed on Cow & Gate, wasn’t he? As breastfeeding Mums, unless we are to be housebound for the first 6 months, we are in a Catch 22: whip ‘em out in public, and risk condemnation, or skulk in a germ-infested bog, and risk the baby’s health.

And I just rankle at the utter condescension of it all. A financial gold star. Are we going to get more vouchers if we spend an hour a day doing arts and crafts with our children? If they’re early walkers? If they can speak fluent Mandarin by the age of two? The implication is that the State knows better than you what’s right for your baby. £200 from Matalan? Oh, breastmilk must be good for them then. That had never occurred to me. I thought my boobs were just for builders to leer at. I wondered what that white stuff dripping out was.

Most of all, it is just so BLOODY TYPICAL of a State that also thinks blowing billions on making Birmingham twenty minutes closer to London is a priority. The news of the breastfeeding vouchers came the same week we had the inquiry into the death from starvation of little Hamzah, a death that remained undetected FOR TWO YEARS. Can we please spend MY MONEY on preventing children dying? Babies don’t die due to being formula fed. At least they’re actually FED. There are 700,000 children born each year in the UK. A nationwide voucher scheme would cost £140m. Surely that could be better spent on employing more – and better – social workers and a more joined up system?

Or what about the amount of mothers and babies who still die in childbirth in this supposedly developed country? Maternal deaths have doubled in the past five years; you’re less likely to die in Albania. And 5000 infant deaths, the majority of which could have been avoided if they’d had better antenatal care and qualified attention in labour. British maternity wards are closing their doors 1000 times a year, due to lack of beds and staff. 1700 women in labour were refused entry last year and had to travel up to 100 miles to another hospital or risk an unplanned home delivery. The Royal College of Midwives reports that we are currently 5000 midwives short. It costs £27,000 to train a midwife. For the £140m projected cost of the voucher scheme that’s 5185 new midwives.

But no, let’s just give it all to that well known charity, Matalan*.

And breathe…


*owned by John Hargreaves, whose personal net worth is valued by the Sunday Times at £1.3 billion.

3 thoughts on “Imperialist Lactivism

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