February 18, 2013

Nursing numbers reflect economic gap

Low-income Mainers are likely to choose formula despite much-touted breast-feeding benefits.

By BEN McCANNA Morning Sentinel

Breast-feeding rates in Maine are keeping pace with the rest of the nation, but the state's most vulnerable population stands in stark contrast.

click image to enlarge

Thomasina Hutchins feeds Eva, 3 months, both breast milk and formula, but says she can understand a “nervous nursing mom” caving to using only formula.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

A significant percentage of low-income mothers enrolled in the Maine Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program feed their babies formula instead of breast milk, and the state spends more than $1.4 million a year to provide it to them, despite widespread education programs, financial incentives and strong evidence that breast milk is significantly healthier.

Also, Maine mothers are receiving large, unsolicited samples of infant formula via the mail, which some think could undermine state educational efforts.

COST OF FORMULA

The percentage of babies in Maine fed breast milk at least once -- 76.1 percent -- is about even with the national average of 76.9 percent, according to statistics released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2012, 41.5 percent of Maine babies still received breast milk at 6 months of age, along with other food sources (the national average is 47.2 percent). At 12 months, 23 percent were still receiving some breast milk (the national average is 25.5 percent).

"We're doing really good here in the state of Maine with breast-feeding education and encouragement," said Sheila Pinette, head of the Maine CDC.

Maine was ranked first in the nation for the number of births occurring at "baby-friendly"-certified birthing centers, third for the number of board-certified lactation consultants and fourth for the number of La Leche League leaders -- a peer-to-peer support group for nursing mothers.

But it's a different story at the Maine Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program.

Every month, the program provides $118,000 in cans of formula to mothers who qualify for benefits, said Director Lisa Hodgkins. In a year, that's more than $1.4 million.

The program serves about 5,000 infants per month, 4,000 of whom (about 80 percent) are exclusively formula-fed. About 160 infants are fed a combination of breast milk and formula. About 1,000 infants (roughly 20 percent) are exclusively breast-fed.

Hodgkins said WIC promotes breast-feeding through counselors, nursing coaches and financial incentives. Breast-feeding mothers receive about $75 worth of food every month for a year through the program, while mothers who don't breast-feed receive about $49 a month for six months -- a difference of $600.

"We encourage breast-feeding for a number of reasons. It's better for the baby, it's good for the mother-child bond, there are a lot of health benefits, and it's cost-effective," she said. "That's our first conversation with folks that come to our program. If they say, 'No, I can't,' or 'I don't want to,' we do offer formula."

BREAST IS BEST

Reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and many other authorities all point to widespread benefits from breast-feeding for baby, mother and society at large.

People who were exclusively breast-fed as infants are less likely to experience a host of ailments than their formula-fed counterparts, including ear infections, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, allergies, diabetes and asthma.

Mothers who breast-feed for more than 12 months are at decreased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and more.

There are economic effects, too. Mothers who favor breast-feeding over formula can save up to $1,500 a year, according to a report from the Surgeon General. The U.S. could save $13 billion a year in health-care costs if 90 percent of mothers breast-fed their babies exclusively for six months, according to a 2010 article in Pediatrics. The same practice would save more than 900 lives a year, mostly infants.

Pinette said there are several reasons why some moms choose formula over breast milk.

(Continued on page 2)

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