Nutrition Program Seems to Benefit Infants in Growth and Health
In the three decades since the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC, was established, it has grown to be the largest food supplement program in the United States, serving more than 7.5 million women, infants, and children annually. Despite its long history, not much data has been collected about the effects of WIC on infant growth and health.
Now, a first-of-its-kind study in six cities shows that infants in the WIC program benefit in terms of weight, length, and caregiver-perceived health. Results of the study are published in the July 2004 issue of the journal Pediatrics.
“Our study, which included a geographically diverse sample of infants, found that WIC participation helps babies under 12 months of age get off to a good start,” says Maureen Black, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She adds, “Infants who did not participate in WIC were more likely to be underweight, shorter and perceived as only having fair or poor health, as compared to the infants who received WIC services,”
The study found that 22 percent fewer children receiving WIC were underweight, compared to those not in the program. There are almost two million infants across the United States who participate in WIC. Based on that figure, the researchers believe that WIC has played a key role in helping approximately 75,000 infants from being underweight, which is defined as weight-for-age below the 5th percentile.
Dr. Black adds, “We found no differences in being overweight among those who did receive WIC services and those who did not, suggesting that WIC participation did not impact the risk of being overweight.” Approximately nine percent of infants in both groups were overweight.
“At no time in life is growth more important than the first year,” says Kathleen Knolhoff, M.P.H., director, Office of the Maryland WIC Program. She continues, “Normal progression in an infant’s weight and length serves as a marker for optimal physical development. This study is significant because it demonstrates an association between WIC participation and normal growth in infants, as well as a positive perception of the infant’s health by the caregiver,”
The results were based on a survey administered at six urban hospitals and clinics over three and a half years. A total of 5,923 families participated. The participants were WIC-eligible and caring for an infant under 12 months of age. Over 94 percent of the families were receiving WIC services. The 528 families who did not receive WIC services either had access problems or reported that they did not need WIC.
The survey included questions about household characteristics, food availability, and the infant’s medical history. In addition, the infants were weighed and measured. Using these data, Dr. Black and colleagues from Boston, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. determined that WIC protects infants of low-income families from poor health and slow growth. The researchers recommend that waiting lists and barriers to WIC participation be eliminated and that health care providers promote WIC services among eligible families.
Through WIC, pregnant women, and infants and children from low-income families have access to food, nutrition counseling and health services. Past studies have shown that WIC reduces the likelihood of giving birth to a baby born with low birth weight, but findings related to children’s health have been less clear.
“This study provides an important contribution to the growing body of literature documenting the positive effect of the WIC Program to America’s youngest children,” says Ms. Knolhoff.
Data were collected as part of the Children’s Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program, a multi-site consortium of senior child health professionals with interest and expertise in the impact of nutrition on children’s health and development.
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