For many families, having access to government benefits like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is literally a lifeline. A new study shows that babies of low-income mothers who have WIC benefits and Medicaid coverage are one-third less likely to die during their first year of life than babies of low-income mothers without WIC.
Besides infant mortality, the study also found that having WIC benefits and Medicaid coverage was associated with a lower risk of preterm birth than for low-income mothers without WIC. The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at babies born to more than 11 million women between 2011 and 2017. These low-income expectant mothers represent about 43 percent of all expectant mothers in the U.S.
The WIC program provides vouchers for certain foods high in protein, iron, vitamin D, and other nutrients—such as dairy, eggs, beans, canned fish, and fruits and vegetables—meant to benefit women who are pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding, as well as children under 5 years old. The program also offers breastfeeding resources for new mothers.
Dieticians who work with pregnant women say the study confirms what they have seen in practice. Liz Weinandy, a dietitian at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, says that “WIC has a profound impact on patients” because of the emphasis on iron and other nutrients needed during pregnancy.
Only 50 percent of WIC-eligible women were actually enrolled in WIC in 2016—down from 59 percent in 2009. The researchers conclude that WIC enrollment should be further promoted through public health campaigns and increased funding for the program, so that more eligible women are encouraged to participate and improve health outcomes for themselves and their children. And, as food insecurity increases due to the coronavirus pandemic, WIC benefits are likely to become even more essential for pregnant moms and their infants.