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For Millions of Low-Income Families, “Diaper Need” Is a Heartbreaking Reality

When my kids were newborns, I was pretty shocked by the number of diapers they’d go through each day — sometimes it was up to seven or eight. And forget it if they had a blow-out or were in the middle of a growth spurt — their diapers (and their clothes, for that matter) would get used up so quickly, it would make my head spin.

All told, we’d easily burn through $70 or more on diapers each month, especially when my babies were little. And while that may not sound like such a hefty price tag, at the time it actually was.

When my second son was born, my husband lost his job suddenly, and our family of four found itself in a tight spot. For one very lean year, we collected SNAP (food stamps) and WIC, neither of which covered diapers. But we were lucky — we were gifted diapers by family and friends, and our savings account (which was being quickly depleted) filled in the gaps.

Still, the experience brought to light the fact that being able to afford diapers is something many families take for granted. And although I already knew this, I was more than a little shocked when I saw the statistics.

Troy Moore, Chief of External Affairs at the National Diaper Bank Network, a nonprofit that provides free diapers for families in need, tells Babble that 5.2 million kids under the age of 3 grow up in poor or low-income families. Even more heartbreaking is that 1 in 3 families experience “diaper need,” which Moore describes as “not being able to afford the diapers needed to keep a baby clean, dry, and healthy.”

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This is further complicated by the fact that government programs set up to help struggling families don’t provide diaper assistance, as I experienced first-hand with my own family.

“Among the biggest misconceptions about families struggling to afford diapers is that government safety net programs provide diapers for babies,” says Moore. “There are no such programs. Diapers cannot be purchased through current assistance programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children). Both programs are nutrition-based and disallow the purchase of nonfood items like diapers.”

And while wealthier families can take advantage of discounts when diapers are bought in bulk, families living paycheck to paycheck often don’t have the same option.

“Families living in low-income and/or rural communities that are not served by big box stores cannot buy diapers in bulk,” says Moore. “Without access to bulk pricing on diapers, many families spend nearly twice.”

I would stand in line for up to two hours every third weekend at the local food pantry, praying that they didn’t run out before they got to me.
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Eden Strong, a freelance writer and founder of a nonprofit for domestic violence victims, found herself in this predicament shortly after her husband suddenly abandoned her, leaving her to care for their 3-year-old and 7-month-old on her own. Once she was able to qualify for public assistance, Strong learned what so many low-income moms quickly do: the assistance doesn’t cover diapers — which her 7-month-old desperately needed.

“Because SNAP doesn’t provide diapers,” Strong shares, “I would stand in line for up to two hours every third weekend at the local food pantry, praying that they didn’t run out before they got to me.”

Thankfully, Strong’s community rallied around her, and she was gifted diapers from a few different sources. But as she looks back on her time of struggle, she notes that donating diapers is one of the biggest ways you can help struggling mothers — and it’s something that many people don’t realize will have such a strong impact.

“So many people look at struggling moms and think ‘I wish I could help them,’ says Strong, “But the reality is that providing basic needs such as diapers is sometimes the best way that they can show they care.”

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Other parents are not as fortunate to have such overwhelming generosity from family and friends. As Troy Moore from the National Diaper Bank Network tells me, many mothers end up stretching the use of whatever diapers they have in their possession, just so they can ration diapers. Sometimes, this can result in health risks, like diaper rash, yeast infections, and UTI’s.

A mother of three from Philadelphia, who chose to remain anonymous for this article, tells Babble that she would often use diapers for longer than recommended when her first son was born and her family was experiencing economic strife.

“Diaper rashes were frequent and plagued me with guilt,” she shared. “I also found out that after a certain point, the diapers begin to just leak through the diaper fabric itself. So many outfits and bedsheets changes during those times.”

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“Guilt” is a word mothers-in-need used frequently when they discussed rationing out diapers with Babble. Brenay, a mom who suffers from chronic health issues and lives in an “extremely rural, economically depressed area,” says her family has often struggled to provide enough diapers for her children, and describes the whole experience as “humiliating.”

Brenay says that she would purchase the “super absorbent” kind of diapers so that she could leave them on her kids for extended periods, only changing the diaper when her kids had a bowel movement, or until the diapers were so full, they would start leaking. She admits that her daughter suffered from several yeast infections and diaper rashes because of this.

Families who send their children to daycare face other diaper stresses, as well. Many daycares require that families bring in a certain number of diapers with their babies — often more than a struggling family is able to afford. And even when there aren’t “diaper minimums” at daycares, families who struggle with diaper affordability may still experience stressful diaper situations when they bring their children to daycare.

“When I worked, we sent our youngest to daycare,” Brenay shares, “There were no minimum diaper requirements, but I still felt stressed. They changed her much more often than we do at home, so I had to ration diapers even more strictly at home.”

It should be noted that while cloth diapering is certainly an option for moms struggling to afford diapers, it is not always a viable solution for struggling families. Moore tells Babble that diaper banks like the National Diaper Bank Network do provide cloth diapers as well as disposable diapers, but most families prefer disposable because they don’t have easy access to laundry machines.

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I know this was certainly the case for me — my husband and I tried cloth diapering with our second child to cut down the cost of disposables, but apartment living didn’t always make laundering easy or accessible. And the cost of using the washing machines in our apartment building was cost-prohibitive, as well.

“For low-wage earners, the lack of time required to launder cloth diapers and/or access to and costs of reliable laundry facilities can be obstacles to families considering cloth diapers,” says Moore.

Susan, a homeschooling mother of three from South Central Texas, found this to be true herself. “I tried to supplement with the [six] cloth diapers I had,” Susan tells Babble, “But our washer was old and the breaker would flip mid wash and we couldn’t run the washer at the same time as the A/C.”

Susan adds that her family lived in a very rural area, which meant they couldn’t easily get to the local laundromat. As a result, her daughter had to sometimes stay in a wet diaper much longer than Susan would have liked, often ending up with yeast infections.

Perhaps one of the biggest impacts the “diaper divide” can have on mothers is on their mental health, says Janet Alfano, the executive director of The Diaper Bank, which provides diapers for families in the Connecticut area.

If you can’t provide your baby’s basic needs, how can you provide as a parent?
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In fact, research cited by the American Academy of American Pediatrics shows a strong correlation between diaper need and maternal depression. Alfano says that for mothers, not being able to provide diapers for their children can affect them to their very core — damaging their confidence and self-image as a mother.

“If you can’t provide your baby’s basic needs, how can you provide as a parent?” Alfano asks.

Providing diapers for babies is what Alfano calls a “recurring need,” and one that isn’t transferable. You can’t outsource it, and it isn’t something a mother can sacrifice in order to provide for her child. “When there is not enough food in the house, a mom won’t eat,” says Alfano. “But you can’t do that with diapers.”

Mandy Elizabeth, a mom from New Jersey, who struggled to provide diapers for her first child (now 8), says that the experience left her feeling “like a failure of a mom.” She remembers the stigma that was attached to the experience quite well.

“I remember I had a blog about being a young single parent,” Mandy Elizabeth tells Babble, “And I had admitted I had a hard time buying diapers. A girl I went to high school with found my blog and left a hurtful comment about how I’m an awful person for having a baby I couldn’t afford diapers for.”

Mandy Elizabeth says that she’s in a much better place now, which she’s grateful for; but the pain of those years she struggled to provide her baby with diapers still lives within her.

The fact is, even when families climb out of poverty, the experience of diaper need can have lasting impacts, even years later. A mom from New Jersey, who wanted to go by the name of “Lala” for this article, struggled with diapers from 2006-2008, when she was a single mom coming out of an abusive relationship. Lala tells Babble that she collected WIC, SNAP, and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) at the time, and describes the whole experience as “embarrassing” and “humiliating.”

Even though she has since remarried and is now a SAHM of four who can afford diapers, Lala says that she’s still careful with her use of them, and will probably always will be.

“I’m still frugal with the diapers,” says Lala, “But I don’t have to worry like when I had my first as a single parent. I can actually change diapers every time they’re soiled, but I still don’t! Old habits die hard and all that.”

Lala says that after her second child was born, she learned to cloth diaper. In the back of her mind, this decision was based on the fear that she might again be in a situation of not being able to afford diapers. “I guess it was traumatic to not be able to afford diapers,” Lala reflects.

If you’re wondering how you can help relieve some of the stress placed on families who are struggling with diaper need, there are plenty of convenient ways. Organizations like The National Diaper Bank Network and The Diaper Bank do a fantastic job of getting diapers to families who need them most, and they are always looking for volunteers and donors. Some people even start their own local, grassroots diaper drives within their communities.

The bottom line here is that we need to raise awareness about diaper need as a real problem — one that affects millions of American families on a daily basis — and not stay complacent, or turn a blind eye. And if you feel inclined, then find a way, big or small, to get involved. Anyone who has struggled to provide basic needs like diapers for their families will tell you that every little bit of generosity and kindness makes a profound and lasting difference in their lives.

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