February 16, 2013

Maine seeks to build breastfeeding support, especially among low-income mothers

Maine spends $1.4 million-plus per year to provide formula, despite education programs, incentives and strong evidence that breast milk is significantly healthier

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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 sits with her daughter, Eva, 3 months, at home in Winthrop on Friday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Maine's percentage of breastfed babies is about even with national statistics, released last month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; however, it could be stronger, advocates say. Maine's WIC program spends about $118,000 month providing mothers with formula, despite widespread education programs and strong evidence that breastfeeding is preferable. Also, Maine mothers are receiving large, unsolicited samples of infant formula through the mail, which some breastfeeding advocates believe is undermining their education efforts.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

2012 Breastfeeding Report Card

Maine's percentage of breast-fed babies is about even with the national average, according to statistics released last month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The annual report, which is in its sixth year, shows that Maine was close to the national average in nearly every category, and in some instances was ranked in the top 10 for breast-feeding support and education.

According to the report, 76 percent of Maine infants were breast-fed at least once in 2012. At 6 months of age, 41.5 percent still received breast milk along with other food sources. At 12 months, 23 percent still were receiving some breast milk.

Maine was ranked first in the nation for the number of births occurring at so-called baby-friendly birthing centers, third in the nation 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, according to the report.

A significant percentage of low-income mothers enrolled in the Maine Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program have chosen to 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 through the mail, which some think could undermine the state's educational efforts.

Cost of formula

The percentage of breast-fed babies in Maine is about even with the national average, according to statistics released last month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In two categories, Maine was ranked in the top 10. In one category, Maine is No. 1.

In 2012, 76 percent of Maine infants were breast-fed at least once. At six months of age, 41.5 percent still received breast milk along with other food sources. At 12 months, 23 percent were still receiving some breast milk.

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

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

It's a different story at the Maine WIC Nutrition Program, however.

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 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 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

There is little doubt breast milk is the healthiest choice for babies.

Reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Surgeon General, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and many others all point to widespread benefits 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 United States 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.

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