Breastfeeding is difficult enough without someone bribing you do it. I was horrified to read of NHS plans to 'encourage' new mums to see that breast really is best by offering them £200 in shopping vouchers if they give it a go. Under the rules of the pilot scheme in England, they then get another £80 in vouchers if they make it to the magic six-month mark.
I'm horrified because the assumption behind the bribe is that most mothers don't do it because they simply don't want to. Not because they can't, but because they'd rather not bother. And that's offensive to any woman who's ever cried her way through the pain of feeding, desperately trying to do the best for her baby.
I breastfed my daughter Katie for exactly six months. I was a good mummy and ticked all the government boxes by doing it literally to the day I was supposed to – and then gleefully gave it up.
Breastfeeding is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. It's far from the smiley, peaceful and loving image the glossy government ads like to portray. When midwives are encouraging you to feed yourself, they naturally hammer home its benefits. It's the best option for a baby's health, there's no doubt about that. It's like giving them a force field of protection against many things. It's good for your own health (and weight loss). It's also a lot cheaper than buying formula.
That's all accepted. My quibble is not with breastfeeding but with what happens when it goes wrong.
When it's going well, it still involves cracked skin and bleeding that involves pain you can't imagine. It still involves embarrassing leaks. You're still in despair because no-one other than you can do those lonely night feeds. And when you go out, panic sets in if you can't find somewhere private to feed to feed them.
Northern Ireland public space is simply not geared up for women getting their boobs out without getting some strange looks. So then you stop wanting to leave the house and that's not good.
What midwives don't hammer home is the misery of mastitis, nipple thrush (apologies, I really didn't want to write those two words) and breast abscesses. I had them all and even ended up in hospital with an excruciating abscess when Katie was seven-weeks-old.
I then had to endure hospital trips for the next six weeks to have the abscess repeatedly drained. You've never seen that in an ad now, have you? Apologies for giving out too much information, but I feel it's important to paint a true picture of just how difficult it can be.
We battled through, not because of any loyalty to my breastfeeding, but because Katie refused point blank to have anything to do with a bottle.
With the advice of a midwife, I was sent out shopping while my husband sat for hours on end, formula bottle at the ready for when Katie was ready. It turned out she would rather starve and cry than entertain a bottle. It was only when a friend advised trying a completely different type of bottle that we finally cracked it and I was able to reclaim my life.
I don't regret breastfeeding, even with all those problems, but my advice to new mothers is give it a go, expect a hard time but don't flog yourself. Make your own decision on whether to continue based on the balance of what is best for both of you.
My advice to the NHS is to encourage but to be realistic about the pros and cons of breastfeeding. Allow every woman to make up her own mind, free from the pressure of guilt and shopping vouchers. Offering bribes to new mums, particularly those from deprived areas, smacks to me of preying on the vulnerable to push up low breastfeeding levels.
'ALLOW EVERY WOMAN TO MAKE UP HER OWN MIND, FREE FROM PRESSURES OF GUILT'