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How the struggle to pay for diapers impacts low-income families and how nonprofits are trying to help

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 1:55 p.m. MST

Pampers disposable diapers are on display Monday, Oct. 31, 2005 in a New York pharmacy. Thirty percent of low-income families lack an adequate supply of diapers, according to study published in Pediatrics, a top academic journal focused on children's health issues.

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press

Standing in the diaper aisle at a Colorado Walmart, Isabel Ear summons elementary arithmetic to figure out which diapers to buy for her 6-month-old twins Liam and Lianna. At 17 pounds each, the twins can fit into either a size two or three diaper. Each option has its advantages, according to Ear. “If I get the bigger size, the diapers will fit better, but if I get the [smaller] size I get more diapers," she says. And more diapers means saving money. She reaches for two packages of the smaller size diapers and places them in her cart. Given her financial situation, quantity trumps most other considerations.

Ear and her husband, of Thorton, Colo., support their five children on the $2,000 a month salary he earns doing sales for a cellular phone company. They've found that on average the twins go through about $40 of diapers per week, an expense they've been able to cover by cutting back on their grocery bill. But sometimes, especially now that the twins are growing and eating solid foods, they run out early. When this happens, there isn't any wiggle room in their budget to buy more diapers, so Ear will pack up her children and take a bus to a nearby food panty, which provides three-day emergency diaper supplies for families in need.

Like the Ears, families around the country are struggling to afford diapers, according to an August 2013 study published in Pediatrics, a top academic journal focused on children’s health issues. Thirty percent of low-income families lack an adequate supply of diapers, according to the study. While diaper need is ubiquitous, it is rarely discussed among health or public policy experts, according to Joanne Goldblum, study co-author and founder of the National Diaper Bank, which promotes awareness on this issue. The study shows how the inability to afford diapers, and the strategies used when supplies run low, can have significant physical, emotional and financial consequences for parents and their children.

Health and well-being:

When their diaper supplies get low, researchers found that many families use strategies to make diapers last longer. One way of doing this is to leave the child in a wet diaper until they’d had a bowel movement or to change the baby by removing solid waste from the diaper and reusing it if it is dry, Goldblum said.

While Goldblum has no doubt that parents who use diaper-stretching strategies don’t intend to harm their kids, the practice is dangerous. When a child wears a wet diaper or dirty diaper for too long, it is more likely to contract skin rashes and urinary tract infections (UTIs), according to the study. Difficult to detect in non-verbal children, untreated UTIs can cause serious kidney damage that can lead to scarring, poor growth and high blood pressure among afflicted children, according the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Diaper need doesn’t just put babies at risk, according to the study; parents’ health can also be compromised. Researchers found a high correlation between inadequate diaper supply and mental health issues: parents who reported diaper need are also more likely to struggle with depression. Research by Rand Conger, a sociologist at UC Davis, suggests this is fairly common. His work shows how parents under economic stress are more likely to display punitive behaviors like yelling when interacting with their children. The combination of financial worries and stressful interactions with their children can also make them more susceptible to feelings of inadequacy and incompetence.

Economic tailspin

Diaper need can also make it harder for parents to pay their bills or even get to work, according to the study. Most child-care providers, even government subsidized facilities, require parents to supply diapers for their kids, Goldblum said. If a family doesn’t bring its own diapers, the facility may refuse to admit the child.

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