More than 4,000 mothers to be given up to £200 in shopping vouchers if they breastfeed their child.
Thousands of new mothers will be “bribed to breastfeed” by the NHS, in an attempt to increase rates across the country.
Trials which offered women up to £200 in shopping vouchers if they breastfed their children found half of those offered the initiative signed up for it, and two thirds breastfed for six weeks.
Now researchers have expanded the controversial experiment.
More than 4,000 women will now be offered the scheme, which pays out £120 in vouchers for those who breastfeed for six weeks, rising to £200 for those who reach six months.
Health experts said the scheme aims to tackle “stubbornly low” rates of breastfeeding in parts of the UK.
But the trials of the scheme last year were criticised last year, with some suggesting the payments set a “dangerous and insidious precedent” for the state.
Under the scheme, Argos, Debenhams and Poundstretcher and supermarkets Tesco, Asda and Morrisons, if they sign forms declaring that they have breast-fed their child for six weeks, with a further £80 at six months.
Mothers taking part in the project reported spending the vouchers on groceries as well as nappies, baby clothes and toys, researchers said.
Principal investigator Dr Clare Relton from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research said: “For several decades now the majority of babies in the UK have not been getting enough breast milk, and despite many efforts, this situation has not improved. Now we need to conduct the full trial to find out if offering vouchers for breastfeeding can significantly increase our stubbornly low breastfeeding rates and be a cost effective use of UK public funds.
“Last year, there was a lot of controversy about the scheme and we didn’t know if it would be acceptable, so we have been delighted to see how enthusiastic local mothers and healthcare professionals have been.”
Mary Renfrew, Professor of Mother and Infant Health at the University of Dundee said: “In areas where most babies are bottle fed women need support to breastfeed. This scheme could make a difference. It’s great to be able to test it properly in a large trial.”
The large trial by researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Dundee and Brunel follows an initial feasibility phase, launched in November 2013 with 130 women living in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said: “The RCM is interested in these initial findings and it is clearly important given the serious need to improve breastfeeding rates that these are explored further.”
But she said other ways to improve uptake of breastfeeding should also be introduced, such as recruiting more midwives who specialised in infant feeding.