Breastfeeding and WIC

Today, I read this post, “Is WIC shooting the CDC in the foot when it comes to breastfeeding rates?” It was an interesting take on a couple of new studies that have been released: racial and ethnic disparities in breastfeeding, and how breastfeeding (yes, even in America,) could save over 900 babies’ lives per year, and reduce diseases and health-related costs. One thing the blogger pointed out is that women who sign up for WIC have lower rates of breastfeeding (initially, at 6 months and at 12 months) than women who are eligible for WIC but don’t sign up for it [and both WIC-eligible groups have lower rates of breastfeeding than women who are not eligible for WIC at all]. So, it appears that women who are in the lower socio-economic bracket are less likely to breastfeed than women who are in higher brackets (not eligible at all for WIC); but also that women who could get WIC (but don’t) have more success with breastfeeding than women who are on WIC. Taken at face value, it does appear possible that WIC may be undermining breastfeeding efforts. However, “face value” may be incorrect.

One of my friends who, among other things works with WIC doing lactation support, wrote a post on this article on her blog, citing some of the reasons why women who are on WIC have low breastfeeding rates, including among other things that they are more likely to have the low-income jobs such as working at a fast-food joint, and may not be able to pump enough to feed their babies, or face other such obstacles.

From the comments on the original blog, I learned more about what WIC does and how it operates. I had a vague idea, but since I had never “crossed paths” with it before, didn’t know much beyond that. One of my friends was on WIC during or right after her divorce, and I knew she got food as well as food stamps, but I didn’t know how much food she got just for herself and how much just for her children (and I’m not sure if she was breastfeeding still at the time). [There may be others in my acquaintance who are also on WIC, but it’s just not a topic of conversation; I know that some of my friends when I was younger were also on WIC, welfare, and/or food stamps, but it’s just not something I’ve ever had to deal with personally.] So, “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know” — the comments on that post had some specifics for how much food a breastfeeding woman could expect to receive, and how much less (or perhaps even none at all) she would receive if she switched to formula-feeding (although she would receive free formula and/or coupons for it). It’s possible that I would have qualified for WIC (but I don’t know, since I never really even thought about applying). Had someone suggested it to me, I probably would have declined, because I wouldn’t have needed any formula, since I was planning on breastfeeding and staying at home, and not needing anything they had to offer.

I wonder how many other people have that same idea of WIC — that it’s a source for free or reduced formula — which would be a sort of “selection bias” that might skew the data about women who are eligible for WIC but choose not to be on it (or don’t realize they’re eligible), vs. women who get on WIC. To be honest, the researchers may have looked at this, but I didn’t read the whole report since it is quite lengthy. If they didn’t look at that, I think it would definitely skew the results, because more women who never intended on breastfeeding to start with, or who had less of a commitment to breastfeed, may have gotten on WIC at the outset, while WIC-eligible women who were planning on breastfeeding so “didn’t need anything WIC had to offer” (or so they thought, as I did, erroneously) stayed off it. Definitely food for thought.

Another possible skewing would be the barriers to breastfeeding that women who need WIC face, that women who are eligible for WIC but don’t get on it, may not face. For example, a stay-at-home mom who is making it on her husband’s income, though it’s tight, would not need to pump while at work; while a single mom would of necessity have to work (and pump, if she is to continue breastfeeding), which could cause moderate to severe difficulty with continuing to breastfeed.

In other words, there are reasons why there might be a difference in the women who are all eligible for WIC, with some getting on it while others don’t, and it might be this “self-selection” that causes the difference in WIC-eligible breastfeeding, rather than WIC “shooting the CDC in the foot” when it comes to breastfeeding support.

4 Responses

  1. I qualified for WIC. Was on it during pregnancy. When my son was born they told me that because I was breastfeeding, he was going to be overweight (umm, sure) and then they told me that I needed to give him a bottle of formula every day in case I had to be away from him, so he’d be used to formula. This is the same office that gives out $300 breast pumps. I know of people that were given said pumps, but I was never offered one, only formula. I quit using WIC.

  2. I have been on or had children on WIC for 2 1/2 years now. So, from experience, I can say it is a decent program (in theory) with some definite problems (when carried out). It’s a government program though, so I expect this. In my state (Idaho – although I’m fairly sure these rules apply to all states) a woman must be pregnant or breastfeeding to receive food, but children aged 6 months through 5 years receive their own food.

    I breastfed my first child 16 months, but they only provide food for the mother for 12 months and it consists of milk, cheese, eggs, fresh produce (as of last October), bread, cereal and peanut butter or dry beans. The foods for children are basically the same, except for 6 months through one year, when they get rice cereal and baby food.

    I like the recent changes for produce but wish I could opt for more fresh produce once baby #2 is 6 months instead of baby food because I make my own. It’s also quite a pain to buy the produce because WIC gives a check with a dollar amount (6, 8 or 10 dollars as far as I’ve seen) so I have to weigh and calculate all my produce to reach that amount without going over it. Another thing that bothers me is that when I choose to not get an item on my checks (usually bread since I also make my own) the cashiers always say weird or rude comments.

    So, there’s my take on WIC. I have noticed, though, in my area, there are quite a few people on WIC who formula-feed. I’ve never felt like they undermine breastfeeding efforts in my situation, but I’m a stay-at-home mom and formula never crossed my mind as an option for me. I do think it is annoying that they provide formula at all though. I suppose it is good that people who really need it can get it free (or at least most of what they will need) but most people don’t really “need” it in my opinion. It seems like it creates an easy way out for mom’s who struggle with breastfeeding in the beginning and aren’t committed.

  3. My sil got on it for the free formula. She choose not to bf and knew she could make that decision, despite the expense, because she could get it free. My mother was on it when my brothers and I were younger. My mother did get a free breast pump from them (the cheapest possible kind you could get), but everything else was a hassle. It was never this in and out thing. Its another office visit with waiting rooms and people and weigh ins and iron checks. It really put me off for when I could qualify. I don’t feel the help they would give would be offset by the time and hassle involved for myself (taking all 8 kids with me or getting a sitter). Esp when you consider how much I am paying for all my other kids for food, the little bit they would give would be like a drop in the bucket lol.

  4. I have seven children and have breastfed them all to roughly 12 months of age. I am currently on WIC and have been for the last couple of years. I cannot say how pro breastfeeding WIC is in the face of a parent who does not want to breastfeed, I can say that our local office strongly encourages and praises my efforts to breastfeed my own children. They also have lactation consultants and have lots of stuff promoting breast as best how that carries out into the practical I cannot say. I think a lot of it is more, as you were hinting at, due to factors outside of WIC that are more prevalent in the people groups that use WIC than in those that don’t.

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