For Immigrant Mothers, WIC Nutrition Program Led to Healthier Infant Birth Weights

Originally posted on HealthCity.

The Bottom Line | Participation in Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) during pregnancy by immigrant mothers with low incomes is associated with healthier birth weights among infants born in the U.S.

Context | An infant’s birth weight is an indicator of the mother’s prenatal health and a predictor of the child’s future health and development. Children with low birth weight are at increased risk for mortality and morbidity, such as developmental delays, and are more likely to have long-term, chronic medical conditions as adults.

On average, birth weight among infants of immigrant mothers is similar to, or greater than, infants of U.S.-born mothers. But a more nuanced look at data patterns shows that an immigrant mother’s region of birth may influence the risk of having an infant with low birth weight. Other studies have found that the longer the mother’s length of U.S. residence the greater the risk of low birth weight.

WIC—the federal food-assistance program specifically for pregnant, nursing, and postpartum people and young children—improves outcomes for mothers and children, including birth outcomes. However, recent changes to immigration policy and enforcement, along with rising anti-immigrant rhetoric, have resulted in confusion and fear in immigrant communities and had a chilling effect on WIC access and utilization among immigrant families. Though immigrants are largely eligible for the benefit, data on maternal nativity are limited. This makes examining outcomes among immigrants participating in WIC challenging.

Study Objective | Investigate the relationship between prenatal participation in WIC and the birth weight of U.S.-born infants of immigrant mothers with low incomes.

The Details | Using data from a cross-sectional health and wellbeing survey collected by Children’s HealthWatch, a network of experts dedicated to improving children’s health in America, researchers analyzed 9,083 pairs of immigrant mothers and U.S.-born children in five cities: Baltimore, MD; Boston, MA; Little Rock, AR; Minneapolis, MN; and Philadelphia, PA.

The mothers were divided into two groups: those who participated in the prenatal WIC program and those who did not. More than 80% of the mothers were from the following regions: Mexico, West Indies, Caribbean, Africa, and Central and South America. Among the immigrant mothers who reported participating in WIC during their pregnancy, 67% identified as Latina, 27% identified as Black, 2% identified as White.

Only children with public or no health insurance were included. Low birthweight was defined as less than 2,500 grams, or about 5 pounds 8 ounces.

Findings | Infants of immigrant mothers who participated in the prenatal WIC program had significantly higher birthweights and lower odds of low birth weight compared to infants of mothers who did not participate in the program, among mothers with less than five years of U.S. residence.

Among the infants whose mothers participated in WIC, 10% had low birth weight, compared to 13% of infants whose mothers did not participate in WIC. Infants in the WIC participation group had a birth weight that was 81 grams (a little less than 3 ounces) higher than infants who were not in the WIC participation group.

Pull Quote | “Combined with the existing evidence base on the high cost to society of low birth weight and the cost savings associated with WIC, this study’s findings imply that ensuring eligibility for WIC and supporting prenatal WIC access through culturally sensitive outreach and streamlined processes would benefit both immigrant women and their U.S.-born infants as well as society at large.”

Source: Ettinger de Cuba S, Mbamalu M, Bovell-Ammon A, Black MM, Cutts DB, Lê-Scherban F, Coleman SM, Ochoa Jr. ER, Heeren TC, Poblacion A, Sandel M, Bruce C, Rateau LJ, Frank DA. (2022). “Prenatal WIC is Associated with Increased Birthweight of Infants Born in the United States with Immigrant Mothers.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.