My breastfeeding horror just goes to show why bribing mothers is the right way forward
Breastfeeding is a good thing. Science says so. I know this because, as a parent-to-be, I had it drilled into me in an interminable three-hour session by the National Childcare Trust earlier this year.
My wife has made it clear I am forbidden from writing about anything remotely connected to the reproductive process. So I shall not tell you whether or not she is among the one in three mothers who still bother to breastfeed at six months, even though both the World Health Organisation and NHS recommend it's a good idea.
Part of the problem is the convenience of the alternative. Breastfeeding is tough. Not everyone is prepared to persevere through that tricky initial stage where the coming together of baby and breast seem more complicated than a mid-air refuelling operation. The temptation to switch to bottle-feeding, which is fairly cheap, is overwhelming.
There are other reasons, too. Mothers lead busy lives and it can often be inconvenient for them to breastfeed. They're not even allowed to consume vast amounts of alcohol. How on earth is that reasonable?
There is, I suspect, a still darker reason for the problem we have breastfeeding in this country. This is that breasts are, ultimately, a dual purpose sort of operation. They make milk. But they are also sexual – and in 21st century Britain, one of these functions is clearly trumping the other.
Such is the sexualised nature of our society that we simply can't cope with the idea that breasts might be used for something a bit more wholesome. We just don't get it. When, might you suppose, is the average age for weaning around the world? Six months? Eight months? One year?
It's four years old. And that's the average.
The moderate feeling of horror you may be experiencing as you read that – and the unthinkable idea that (if you happen to have breasts yourself) you might carry on feeding your own child that long – just show how much of a problem this mental roadblock is in Britain.
Breasts are hidden away in the west. This only reinforces our attitude towards them as being exclusively sexual. Just look at the outrage triggered by Seth Macfarlane's 'We Saw Your Boobs' song at this year's Oscars. It just about sums it up, doesn't it?
Now the government has come up with what it thinks is a bright idea: paying mothers to breastfeed. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?
Hmm… vouchers for breastfeeding. Hopefully the start of a trend where the government will pay me every time I go running.
— Isabel Hardman (@IsabelHardman) November 12, 2013
But actually there may be something to it. Clever people have been finding ways to justify this sort of approach, and are actually making a decent go of it.
They want to extend the idea of 'nudge' – a horribly popular concept on Whitehall in which you nag, or trick, or persuade people into making healthy decisions. 'Nudge-plus', as the thinktank Demos calls it, could be used in all sorts of ways to save the taxpayer money.
Paying mothers up to £200 in shopping vouchers, the idea now being piloted by the coalition in deprived areas of South Yorkshire, fits right into this category. The pilot is intended to test whether the mothers view the cash as either a bribe or an incentive.
But is it necessary? Is this just too unsubtle, too crass an approach? Isn't it a shortcut to solving the much bigger cultural problem of how we view breasts (frequently, nudge nudge wink wink) in the west?
I found out the answer earlier this year, when visiting the home of another mother in our parenting group. I had no idea what she was doing until it was too late. My instinctive recoil in horror, which I seem to recall now happened in slow-motion and with an elongated Hollywood-style scream of anguish, just summed up why Britain has a breakdown at the idea of breastfeeding.
That's why the government's heavyhanded approach is a good idea. Even though I am the kind of person who has just written the above and will doubtless be mocked down the pub as a result, when it comes to real life I simply can't cope. The British switch in my brain is flicked and I turn into a stuttering, mumbling Hugh Grant of awkwardness.
This is the sort of gut response which needs fighting. So good luck to those 'incentivised' mothers up north. The decision to bribe them will make absolutely no difference to the bigger issue – but more babies will benefit. And that's got to be a good thing, right?