How much do you think it might cost to drastically reduce the incidence of premature birth, low birth weight and high birth weight, while simultaneously increasing breastfeeding rates? You might guess figures in the thousands or even tens of thousands. But what if I told you that a recent study found that giving pregnant women on the brink of poverty just $81 a month could accomplish all of these objectives? If you're shocked, you're not alone.
A recent Canadian study followed pregnant women who were receiving a Healthy Baby Prenatal Benefit — a monthly supplement check given to women living below the poverty line. The check was the Canadian equivalent of about $81 U.S. dollars a month, and it was given to women with no strings attached. In other words, they weren't forced to spend it on certain foods or hospital visits. Rather, the women were given the funds along with pamphlets about prenatal nutrition, breastfeeding and healthy baby development.
"Sending these women the money is a way of saying, 'We trust you to make good decisions,'" said Marni Brownell, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, and a lead researcher for the study. "We trust that you know what you need to have a healthy pregnancy rather than telling women you must spend the money on X, Y and Z," she added.
In contrast, the U.S. Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program offers meal vouchers to pregnant and new mothers and their children who qualify based on income, but that money can only be spent on certain types of foods such as milk, peanut butter and eggs. The WIC program has had mixed results when it comes to improving the health of pregnant women and children.
The Canadian study, which was recently published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the women who received the benefit had babies with lower rates of low birth weight, high birth weight and prematurity than a similar group of babies born to low-income women who didn't receive the extra funds. What's more, the women who received the supplement had shorter hospital stays during labor and delivery and higher rates of breastfeeding than their peers.
"It actually adds to a growing body of evidence that if we raise the incomes, if we lift people out of poverty, the outcomes for infants and children are better than if we leave them in poverty," said Brownell.
Healthier babies for just $81 a month? Now that's a good deal.