I am a board certified lactation consultant and I work for the Kearney WIC program. Not everyone makes a connection between WIC and breastfeeding. Many people know that WIC provides free formula for low income newborns. In reality, WIC may well be the single largest organization in our country that actively provides breastfeeding education and support for new mothers.
WIC stands for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a food program that was founded in the 1960’s, when hunger was identified as a major problem in our country. A White House conference recommended that low income pregnant women and preschool children receive special attention. Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced legislation to provide supplemental food to children up to age four and breastfeeding-only mothers. In 1975, services were extended to non-breastfeeding mothers. Mothers were actively discouraged from breastfeeding in the 1960’s and 1970’s and breastfeeding rates were very low. In 1992, an enhanced food package was established for breastfeeding mothers, and in 1997, WIC began a National Breastfeeding Promotion Campaign to encourage mothers to begin and continue breastfeeding.
In 2013, WIC served over 8.7 million infants, children and mothers each month, including over 50% of all infants born in the United States and over 9,300 Nebraska infants. Breastfeeding rates are steadily increasing among the mothers who receive food supplements through WIC, in part because WIC offers several incentives for mothers to breastfeed their babies.
Breastfeeding mothers receive supplemental food for up to twelve months, versus six months for mothers who are not breastfeeding. They also receive an enhanced food package and may quality for a breast pump. In addition, their babies receive additional solid foods once they are six months old. Most importantly, tax payers pay less money and WIC moms learn what it is like to take care of the nutritional needs of their own baby. The Kearney WIC program has breastfeeding peer counselors, mothers who have benefitted from WIC and now work part time to provide breastfeeding support to other mothers.
I love working for WIC because I feel like I have the opportunity to educate and empower moms and dads and impact their lives. One mother I worked with was in the middle of a custody dispute. Her nine month old had never taken a bottle and would now have to spend weekends away from his mom. She thought she would have to wean her baby to formula until we helped her obtain a pump and figure out how to provide her milk for her baby during their week-ends apart. This mom continued to breastfed for two years.
Another mom was a past drug user who was rebuilding her life. Early in her pregnancy she told me that she wanted to do the best for her baby and one of her dreams was to breastfeed. She was amazed that we believed in her and wanted to help her breastfeed her baby. She was excited to be given a second chance and have people support her goals. When I see moms empowered like this, it is hard not to fall in love with my job. We may not change the world at WIC, but if we help one mom to breastfeed, we make a world of difference to her and her family.
I see many moms who never intend to breastfeed. Their mothers did not breastfeed and their friends do not breastfeed. Yet when exposed to the concept of breastfeeding from a peer counselor, many moms will choose to breastfeed. One mom broke down in tears and told me that breastfeeding is “the most amazing thing I have ever experienced!” This is why I do what I do for WIC – I get to help moms feel empowered and have an amazing breastfeeding journey.
Because so many mothers receive WIC benefits, this program is the perfect place to start a breastfeeding discussion with mothers. We do this at every visit, helping moms to see breastfeeding as a way they can positively impact their baby’s health (and their own!). I feel fortunate to have learned from so many moms and am proud of the impact that WIC is having on the health and well-being of Nebraska babies.