Encouraging mothers to breastfeed is a challenge around the world, including here in Canada. Now, officials in the United Kingdom have launched a new experiment that's raising eyebrows: offering low-income mothers financial incentives for starting and continuing nursing.

It's an idea that dividing experts who worry the program will be hard to monitor and could turn poor mums into "cash cows."

Under the pilot program, mothers in two regions of the country will be offered $190 in coupons for several popular department stores and grocery stores if they breastfeed their newborns for six weeks. If they are still breastfeeding at six months, they will be entitled to a $125 bonus.

The program, called NOSH, or Nourishing Start for Health, will begin in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, two low-income regions chosen for their exceptionally low breastfeeding rates. The hope is that the cost of the program will be recouped in health care savings later on.

Several studies have shown that breastfed babies have fewer health problems as they grow, with lower rates of obesity and diabetes and fewer stomach and respiratory problems. But in some areas of the world, less than a third of women breastfeed for the six months that the World Health Organization recommends.

In Canada, where maternity leave benefits are considered generous compared to many areas of the world, about 90 per cent of new mothers start off breastfeeding. But after three months, only half are still exclusively breastfeeding. And at the six-month mark, full-time breastfeeding drops to just 15 per cent.

The rates are even lower in the U.K., with only 20 per cent of mothers still nursing at the eight-week mark in some parts of the country.

Dr. Colin Michie of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health says public health officials needed a new approach to try to keep mothers nursing.

"We tried many, many things to improve breastfeeding rates in the U.K. and we failed dismally. We think that vouchers might be the way ahead or this group," he says.

But the proposal has been lambasted by some who call it bribery. Others say the project will be difficult to enforce because no one can constantly supervise if a mother is breastfeeding.

Others, such as Oakville, Ont.-based lactation consultant Jean Kouba, says that while the initiative sounds well-intentioned, it may not be the best approach.

"It makes one uncomfortable to suggest we pay money to get mothers to breastfeed," she says.

She believes government money would be better spent on breastfeeding support programs, like the one she helps lead. She says such groups help new mothers learn the best nursing techniques and to cope with any breastfeeding problems that can arise at the beginning. Breastfeeding is often more difficult to learn than many think and she says support groups help women cope with the anxiety.

"These things are frightening for women and if they don't get the right support, women are going to quit," she says.

Susan Lefevbre, mother to 11-month-old Kaitlyn, who attends Kouba's breastfeeding group, agrees that peer support is crucial.

"Money would not have enticed me," she says. "But without this support, I don't know if I would have lasted."

Dr. Clare Relton, the University of Sheffield researcher who is leading the pilot program, says the financial incentives program is designed to complement on-going breastfeeding support programs already provided by the National Health Service, as well as local public health authorities and charities.

For now, the U.K. project remains an experiment. But officials say if it works, they could expand the money-for-milk program across the country.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip