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December 23 2010

The Government Formula... and Breastfeeding

Hadley Heath

Breastfeeding, although it's not every woman's choice for her baby, has a lot of health benefits.  The latest study on this topic comes from Wendy Oddy at the University of Western Australia.  Time.com reports the following on its online "Healthland."

Oddy's group found that by age 10, the children who were breast-fed for six months or longer scored 16 points higher on these tests than those were not breast-fed: babies who breast-fed scored 18 points higher in reading and writing skills, and 16 points higher in spelling.

[...]

Breast milk, she says, is loaded with nutrients that are known to enhance brain development, such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are not always included in formula. In brain studies of infants, scientists have found higher levels of omega-3 fats in the cortex of babies who were breast-fed compared with those who received formula.

In light of these benefits, I was concerned to read on Cato's Downsizing Government blog that the majority of baby formula in the U.S. goes to infants on the Women, Infants, and Children program. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program serves low-income, nutritionally at-risk mothers and young children by providing them with supplemental, nutritious foods and education and counseling about healthy eating.  Here's an excerpt from a USDA study of the WIC baby formula program:

ERS [the USDA's Economic Research Service] estimates that infants participating in WIC consume about 54 percent of all formula sold in the United States. In most States, WIC participants use food vouchers or food checks to purchase their infant formula, free of charge, at participating retail grocery stores. 

 This excerpt is actually from a study on the WIC program and its potential effects on the retail price of baby formula (which is a different story, but read the whole study here if you are interested).

 My first thought upon reading the 54-percent statistic was that there had to be a huge discrepancy between the number of infants on WIC and the amount of baby formula they consume, meaning that babies on WIC aren't being breastfed as much as other babies.  Well, as it turns out, WIC serves about 45 percent of all infants born in the United States.  That's a lot of American babies at risk for poor nutrition.

So, what we have here is a situation where 45 percent of infants are consuming 54 percent of the formula.  That isn't huge, but it's still disproportionate.  The WIC program includes education about and promotion of breastfeeding, but there's something about WIC mothers that still makes them choose formula more often than other mothers.  Perhaps it is the fact that baby formula is free to WIC moms.

Breast milk (last time I checked) comes free with every baby.  But when mothers in WIC face the choice between free breast milk (which I'm told can be a chore to administer) and free baby formula, it's easy to see how the latter option might be preferable.  Children who are at-risk for poor nutrition might stand to benefit the most from their mother's milk, but statistics show they are more likely to get formula.  This is another example of the government's formula for bad incentives.  

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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