While Maine's infant mortality rate climbs, the group tasked with understanding those deaths has not met or reviewed deaths. Credit: Stock Photo

The rise of infant mortality in Maine is alarming. Two articles by the Maine Focus team at the Bangor Daily News — last August’s “When Maine wasn’t looking, more babies began to die,” and a follow-up piece in December, “Infant deaths are rising, and the group charged with understanding why hasn’t met for 2 years” — bring focus to the trending rise of infant mortality in our state and the seeming inability of government agencies to do anything about it.

Maine is the only state to see a higher infant mortality rate in this decade (2005 to 2014) than the previous decade (1995 to 2004).

While reasons for Maine’s high infant mortality rate are not entirely clear, there are some factors — noted in the BDN’s first article — that do stick out: smoking while pregnant, unsafe sleeping environments (when infants share a bed with parents), substance use, home births and access to prenatal care.

Poverty can also be a factor. “Poverty causes people to have such a high level of stress. Domestic instability or violence, irregular access to nutritious food, the stress of not being able to go to the doctor’s as much as you want all lead to infant mortality,” Marie Hayes, who researches opiate-exposed infants at the University of Maine, said in the BDN’s August article.

And while people will continue to debate how to address this issue, what remedies are available and how best to apply them, there is an existing program that offers one solution.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, helps low-income pregnant, postpartum or breastfeeding women, and infants and young children afford nutrient-rich foods. The foods that are covered by the federally funded program include items such as milk, fruit, vegetables, whole-wheat bread, cereal and juice.

Research into WIC has shown it has tangible effects on health, including lowering the risk of infant mortality.  

“WIC reduces the risk of infant mortality by connecting expectant mothers to essential prenatal health care, promoting healthy eating through nutrition assessments and counseling, and providing healthy foods tailored to the specific needs of pregnant women and their babies,” states the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

One study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined infant deaths in Hamilton County, Ohio, from 2005 to 2008, and found a lower infant mortality rate among WIC participants, at 8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, than non-WIC participants, at 10.6 per 1,000 live births.

When a prenatal or postpartum mother enrolls in the WIC program, she meets with a certified nutrition counselor. The nutritionist will talk with the client about her eating habits, and from that information will discuss ways to improve the woman’s nutrition health and the health of her children or unborn child.

The WIC counselor will also provide the mother or expectant mother with guidelines for feeding her newborn or young children, and will encourage the client to ask questions about nutrition and healthy eating habits.

WIC clients meet with a nutrition counselor every three months during the woman’s pregnancy and for the child’s first 12 months after birth. At each appointment, WIC clients receive food vouchers for a three-month period. They also have access to one-on-one nutrition counseling, breastfeeding support and counseling, and referrals to health care and other programs.

WIC provides services to pregnant women, in addition to children up to age 5.

WIC nutrition counselors will talk with parents about how alcohol, tobacco and drugs can harm a baby and affect everyone in the family. The emphasis is always on safety and care — care for the expectant parent, the new parent, the unborn child and the infant: care for the health and wellbeing of the entire family.

It’s this extra care that can save lives. All parents want their children to be born healthy and strong. Some can benefit from a little extra help along the way.

Brad Bohon is communications director of York County Community Action Corporation, which is a nonprofit comprised of a variety of health, educational and community development programs. Most YCCAC programs — which include WIC, Head Start and Early Head Start, transportation, economic opportunity, energy services, weatherization, and Nasson Health Care — are designed to keep vulnerable families safe and provide access to opportunities. Bohon may be reached at 408-5625.