New WIC Policy Followed by Mixed Changes in Infant Feeding, Researchers Find

September 20, 2012

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Andrea Grossman

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BOSTON─ In 2009, the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) changed the make-up of its food packages to meet several nutritional goals, including stronger promotion of breastfeeding. For new mothers participating in WIC, there were mixed outcomes after implementation of the policy change, according to an analysis from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science Policy at Tufts University and the global research and program implementation firm Abt Associates.

WIC provides three main food packages for mothers and infants: a full breastfeeding option with no infant formula but more supplemental food for the mother, a partial breastfeeding option with some formula, and a full formula option with less supplemental food for the mother. Among other changes, the new 2009 policy, called an “interim rule,” lowered the amount of infant formula in the partial breastfeeding option.    

By studying administrative records of more than 206,000 mother-infant pairs from 17 local WIC agencies (LWAs) nationwide, the researchers found that more mothers received the full breastfeeding option after the 2009 package change but more mothers also received the full formula option. Fewer mothers received the partial breastfeeding option.  

In the first four weeks following birth, the percentage receiving the full breastfeeding option increased from 9.8% to 17.1% and the percentage receiving the full formula option increased from 20.5% to 28.5%. The percentage receiving the partial breastfeeding option fell from 24.7% to 13.8%. The remaining mothers fell into other miscellaneous classifications.  

After the implementation of the interim rule, there was a small increase in the amount of infant formula provided in the first month of life (548.6 fluid ounces to 559.6 fluid ounces per mother). The percentage of mothers who “initiated”, or reported trying to breastfeed the infant at least once, remained unchanged at approximately 65%.

The analysis is published in the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN).

“There had been some hope that breastfeeding initiation would increase after the policy change,” said Parke E. Wilde, Ph.D., corresponding author and an associate professor at the Friedman School. “While this did not happen, the good news is there was no decrease in the breastfeeding initiation, and more mothers did, at least, adopt the full breastfeeding package.”

The article in the AJCN also discusses opportunities for WIC to make further progress in breastfeeding promotion.

 “We asked WIC participants about the point in time when they made their decisions about breastfeeding and what helped them when they made their choices about the decision to breastfeed,” said senior author Ann Collins, a principal associate at Abt Associates. “More than three quarters of the women reported that they had decided before delivery how they wanted to feed their baby. What’s more, more than 84% of women reported that information on breastfeeding from WIC was ‘important’ or ‘very important.’ These findings suggest that special efforts by WIC agencies to reach out to WIC participants during pregnancy with information on breastfeeding could be very beneficial.”

The analysis does not account for all factors that changed during the same time period, for example the volatility of the 2009 economy. The study compared outcomes in the three months before the policy change and the nine months afterward.

The analysis was conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.

Wilde P, Wolf A, Fernandes M, and Collins, A. “Food-package assignments and breastfeeding initiation before and after a change in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children” Am J Clin Nutr. September 2012 96: 560-566.

Material from the following publication also appears in this news release: Wilde P, Wolf A, Fernandez M, and Collins A. Robare, J. Project Officer. “U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, Office of Research and Analysis, Evaluation of the Birth Month Breastfeeding Changes to the WIC Food Packages.” December 2011.

The Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University is the only independent school of nutrition in the United States. The school's eight degree programs, which focus on questions relating to famine, hunger, poverty, and communications, are renowned for the application of scientific research to national and international policy.