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If you’re a new mother, or you once were, you no doubt recall the day you got to take home your new bundle of joy – along with the bundle of formula samples and coupons that the hospital supplied. Those goodies have become controversial in recent years, generating criticism from breastfeeding advocates. So now, some of them have decided to come up with their own version, by giving coupons to mothers who choose to breastfeed instead.

And now that move is causing a controversy of its own.

The program is a government-funded test, in parts of central England. New mothers who commit to breastfeeding their babies will receive the equivalent of $320 worth of coupons redeemable at supermarkets and other local businesses. They get $190 up front, and the balance if they continue breastfeeding for six months. “Midwives and health visitors will be asked to verify whether the women are breastfeeding,” the BBC reports, evoking images of Big Brother (or Sister).

Researchers from the University of Sheffield, which is leading the project, say it’s an effort to reverse a decline in the rate of breastfeeding, which they and the government believe is best for babies’ health.

But don’t moms themselves know best for their own babies – better than the government and university researchers?

Supporters say it’s a way to incentivize healthy behavior, no different than rewarding people for quitting smoking or losing weight. But critics of the program say breastfeeding is a personal choice, and that giving out free coupons to those who do it, demeans those mothers who can’t, or choose not to.

Compare the debate over there, to the debate that’s been going on over here about formula coupons. It’s the same argument in reverse – breastfeeding advocates say the formula coupons and samples incentivize new mothers to choose bottle feeding.

“Numerous studies show that women are likely to breastfeed less, and for shorter durations, if they receive formula samples and promotional materials in hospital discharge packs,” reads a recent report from the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and the anti-goodie bag group Ban the Bags. The International Formula Council counters with research from the CDC, which concluded that “we did not find an association between not providing a formula sample or coupon in a hospital gift pack and increased breastfeeding duration.”

There are certainly differences between the two types of coupon offers, though. Formula coupons are mere offers – take-’em-or-leave-’em – while the breastfeeding coupons are rewards, that are denied to those who do things differently (and are made to feel stigmatized as a result). Then again, the formula offers can come across as crass commercialism, with a tacit stamp of approval from hospitals, while the breastfeeding coupons are just a well-meaning effort to improve public health (in a social engineering kind of way).

When it comes to coupons for new mothers, it seems you’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t. Perhaps hospitals should steer clear of the controversy altogether and give out coupons for diapers instead.

But, cloth or disposable? On second thought, forget it.

photo by: Herkie
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