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Getting More Low-Income Americans to Breastfeed Would Lead to Health-Care Savings Down the Line

It would cost about $250 million to get an additional 650,000 low-income Americans to breastfeed as much as experts recommend, but it would save families and the health-care system $1.5 billion, a study finds.
By 2020, the U.S. government wants more than 60 percent of American babies to be breastfeeding at six months of age.

By 2020, the U.S. government wants more than 60 percent of American babies to be breastfeeding at six months of age.

Experts recommend that parents breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months of their lives, and continue to breastfeed until they're a year or older. Yet, in 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 58 percent of American parents were breastfeeding their babies at all by six months of age, and only 25 percent were breastfeeding exclusively. Breastfeeding rates tend to be even lower among low-income Americans.

And so, in March of last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee asked government scientists to study what it would cost to encourage breastfeeding among Americans in the Women, Infants, and Children program, a federal program that provides food and social services to low-income pregnant women, babies, and new mothers. A new report, published last week, has the answer: If 90 percent of WIC participants in 2016 had followed international breastfeeding recommendations, WIC would have had to provide many more supportive services for breastfeeding moms, costing an additional $250 million, the study finds. That's about 4 percent of WIC's 2016 budget. But in the long run, getting so many WIC participants to breastfeed would save money for WIC families and their insurance providers because the moms and children would likely be healthier, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers with the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

Mothers who breastfeed are less likely to have Type 2 diabetes, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and breast cancer, according to the non-profit United States Breastfeeding Committee. Babies who breastfeed are less likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome.

Most WIC participants end up on Medicaid for a short while after their time with WIC is over. So researchers estimated that Medicaid would likely save $176 million. Overall, the savings in medical costs from getting ideal numbers of WIC participants to breastfeed would total about $1.5 billion, the researchers found. The government wouldn't see all of those savings, however; how the savings are divvied up would depend on where WIC participants get their health care afterward.

The government does have official breastfeeding goals for the nation. For example, it's aiming for more than 60 percent of American babies to be breastfeeding at six months of age by the year 2020. Last summer, however, progress hit a surprising hiccup: At an international gathering, officials from the Trump administration tried to delete a resolution Ecuador planned to introduce that said governments should "protect, promote and support breast-feeding," the New York Times reported at the time. The administration threatened Ecuador with unfavorable trade policies and a withdrawal of American aid if it introduced the resolution. Ecuador backed down. The intensity of the administration's reaction shocked foreign officials at the meeting, who had expected the resolution to pass easily. Russia introduced it instead, and it went through with the original language intact, the Times reported.