Researchers from the University of Sheffield are examining ways to boost low rates of breastfeeding in parts of the UK.

Mothers will be given shopping vouchers worth up to £120 if their babies receive breast milk until they are six weeks old, and a further £80 if their babies are still breastfed at six months.

If the “feasibility” project is successful, the authors will conduct a national research project into the scheme.

But midwives have warned that financial reward should not be the main motivation for women to breastfeed.

The Department of Health has admitted it is funding the project, however, Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter stressed that he did not believe “financial incentives” were the best way of encouraging mothers to breast feed.

He said: “Breastfeeding has huge health benefits, and it helps to promote a strong bond between mum and baby. But it should be a woman’s choice to breastfeed and we know not all mothers are able to.

“Latest figures show nearly 74% of mums start breastfeeding and we have seen a general increase in recent years.

“We believe the main way to promote breastfeeding is not financial incentives, but to make sure women have all the information they need to make an informed decision.”

The new study is to be trialled in Derbyshire and South Yorkshire – in areas where breastfeeding uptake rates are low.

Only 34% of UK babies are breastfed at six months with only 1% exclusively breastfed at this stage, said Dr Clare Relton, senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield.

She said: “Breast milk is perfectly designed for babies and provides all they need for the first six months of their life.

“The scheme offers vouchers to mothers who breastfeed as a way of acknowledging both the value of breastfeeding to babies, mothers and society, and the effort involved in breastfeeding.”

The NHS recommends mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of a child’s life.

The preliminary study will focus on up to 130 mothers who give birth between November and March.

If the mothers breastfeed their children for a full six months they will receive £200 shopping vouchers – half for supermarkets and half for high street stores.

The vouchers will be paid in five instalments of £40 each.

The initiative is being funded by the National Prevention Research Initiative, a group made up of government departments, medical charities and research companies.

The initiative will not be rigorously policed and will simply require the participating mother and their health visitor or midwife to sign off to say they are breastfeeding.

Dr Relton said the test would not only look at whether or not the payment improves uptake rates, but also at whether women think they are being “bribed or rewarded” after they receive the vouchers.

Janet Fyle, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Whilst we are not against financial incentives for the right reasons, there is a much bigger social and cultural problem here that needs to be tackled instead of offering financial incentives for mothers to breastfeed.

“In many areas, including those in this study, there are generations of women who may not have seen anyone breastfeeding their baby, meaning it is not the cultural norm in many communities.

“The motive for breastfeeding cannot be rooted by offering financial reward.

“It has to be something that a mother wants to do in the interest of the health and well-being of her child.”