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WIC Program Stresses Benefits Of Breastfeeding

Nearly half the babies born in Kansas are enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a long-standing federal initiative aimed at making sure low- and modest-income families have access to healthy foods.

“We serve about 49 percent of the babies born in the state,” says Martha Hagen, an administrator at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “But we also have pregnant women, women who are six months postpartum and children under age 5.”

RELATED: Advocates, Hospitals Unite To Raise Kansas Breastfeeding Rate 

KDHE administers the WIC program on behalf of the U.S Department of Agriculture.

To qualify, enrollees have to be living in households with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $3,000 a month for a single mother caring for a newborn baby and a young child. They would be eligible for about $240 in monthly food assistance.

Families on public assistance, food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or Medicaid also are eligible for WIC.

Mothers are expected to attend WIC-sponsored classes that stress the importance of healthy foods and breastfeeding.

According to a recent USDA report, more than 19,000 women, 19,000 babies and 46,000 children ages 1 through 4 were enrolled in the Kansas WIC program in 2012.

Almost three-fourths of families in the WIC program have incomes below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.

Hagen oversees the WIC program’s efforts to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies.

“For 2013, our WIC (breastfeeding) initiation rate was 74.6 percent, which was good but wasn’t as the national average (77 percent),” she says. “But we’re catching up.”

State reports, she says, also show that about 16 percent of the WIC mothers were exclusively breastfeeding at six months.

“The goal is for us to be at 25.5 percent, so we have a ways to go,” Hagen says. “But Kansas is behind as well.”

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she says, is expected to update its breastfeeding rate data in early August.

Most of KDHE’s advocacy efforts, Hagen says, have focused on educating mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding.

“A lot of people go into this thinking, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, I can always go to formula,’” she says. “It’s just the way people think, and it’s the message that formula companies put out: ‘It’s just as good as breast milk, it’s got all the same ingredients,’ even though it couldn’t possibly be the case.”

Research has consistently found that breastfed babies grow up healthier than those reared on formula,  cow’s milk or both.

Though WIC encourages mothers to breastfeed, it also allows them to purchase formula with their payments.

“When WIC started back in 1974, breastfeeding rates were really low, and people were feeding their babies skim milk and some other strange concoctions,” Hagen says. “So when WIC came along, it became known as a formula program.

“But over the last 40 years, there have been so many changes,” she says. “We now say that WIC is a breastfeeding program first, and that yes, we do provide formula, but that’s not what we want you to do first. We really want you to breastfeed, and we’re here to help you.’”

The Kansas program, Hagen says, has clinics in all but two of the state’s 105 counties. Most are housed in — or managed by— county health departments.

Roughly one-third of the clinics offer access to peer counselors, all of whom are either on or have been on WIC and have breastfed exclusively for six months.

“They’re a really dedicated group,” Hagen says. “We’ve had several of them go on to nursing school and come back to work for the health department.”

KDHE, she says, recently launched a training initiative called Kansas Baby Behavior Campaign that’s modeled after a University of California-Davis program that converted often-complex research to a “basic messages” aimed at new mothers.

“A lot of it has to do with helping mothers understand their babies’ hunger and fullness cues, because one of the moms’ chief complaints is that they don’t have enough breast milk,” says Hagen, a breastfeeding advocate for the past 35 years. “But they do, and knowing about baby cues, sleep patterns and crying can prevent overfeeding and promote exclusive breastfeeding.”

Brenda Bandy, an active member of the Kansas Breastfeeding Coalition, says the state’s WIC program needs more peer counselors.

“WIC has peer counselors in 44 clinics across the state,” she says. “We’d like to have them in all 105 counties, but so far that’s not happened. The money isn’t there.”

In 2012, the federal government spent almost $50 million on its WIC program in Kansas.

Dave Ranney is senior writer/editor with KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute. 

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