Poor parents found to water down baby formula: study

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Many low income parents find that they need to “stretch the formula” to keep their infants fed, even as they utilize government food assistance programs.

The study found that 1 in 8 low-income families, or about 15 percent, make ends meet by watering down their babies’ formula or by feeding them less frequently. And 30 percent of low income parents overall reported not having enough food to make though each month, according to a new study published in the latest issue of Clinical Pediatrics.

Study co-author Andrew Beck, a fellow in general academic pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is shocked by the numbers. “We knew this was a high-risk population,” he said. “But these numbers are still staggering.”

Beck said that until this study, there has been very little research on how food shortages among the poor affect infants specifically. Previous studies have shown that between 16 and 22 percent of families in the U.S. come up short on food some months. Exactly how that impacts infants has now been demonstrated.

The study is based on 144 families visiting the Pediatric Primary Care Center at the children’s hospital. The overwhelming majority of the families are on Medicaid and also receive food assistance through food stamps as well as formula through a government program called WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children).

Despite this assistance, roughly 65% of particicipating families ran out of formula most months.

Formula stretching as a means to cope with the shortage will have longer-term consequences not only for the children and parents individually, but for society as a whole. Some children may experience failure to thrive. Others will develop cognitive and behavioral issues which will impact them in school. These children might also be predisposed to obesity later in life. All of which will carry a tremendous burden collectively.

While some may point to the option of breastfeeding, unfortunately many working class moms may not be in a position to do so. Some work environments – and certainly most full time working hours – are not conducive to breastfeeding or pumping. In an ironic reversal, breastfeeding is now the provenance of the more privileged moms who can afford to stay home with their babies, or to work part time.

“Clearly, we encourage and actively support breastfeeding,” said Dr. Beck. “The reality is that a relatively low percentage of our patients breastfeed by the time they reach us. If they do, we continue to encourage it and have a breastfeeding clinic if they need it. Although they likely wouldn't require formula, we need to do education and a nutritional assessment for mom. Also, as the first year progresses, even fewer families continue to nurse.”

Beck and his colleagues are working on ways to figure out how to help the parents who don’t have enough to feed their kids, but the solutions will work only if the doctors can figure out how to identify those most at risk.

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