The Dirty Secret of the Diaper Industry

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Being not in a position to provide your toddler with a diaper can be worrisome, for both new and experienced mothers. Well, raising a baby is expensive especially in today’s economic climate. It seems as if every single day the baby needs something new(and that means pumping more dollars into purchasing that item!). This does tend to put a strain on the parents. This becomes worse when single parents get into the equation, where one parent is expected to meet all the baby’s needs. Such strains may lead to mental problems to the parent. This is evidenced by the increasing numbers of women seeking and needing counseling soon after delivering. When you do the math you realize it can really get to a nasty, scary situation, especially for low-income parents.

Infants use about 240 diapers per month. A year’s supply of diapers costs $936. That means a single mother working full time at the minimum wage can expect to spend 6 percent of her annual pay on Pampers alone.

Meanwhile, the two biggest programs that assist low-income mothers, SNAP (food stamps) and WIC, don’t cover diapers or baby wipes.

That might be why, in a study of 877 pregnant and parenting women published in Pediatrics in 2013, a team of researchers found that needing diapers and not being able to buy them was a leading cause of mental health problems among new moms.

Mothers having mental problems that relate to their newborns is not new. This by no means that this is by no means to say that it should be ignored. Understanding the problem would obviously help mothers around the country. This would translate to better care for the toddlers since their mothers would have one less issue to worry about. This is what made the research such a good idea.

For the study, Megan Smith, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, approached women in New Haven, Connecticut, and asked them one simple question:

“If you have children in diapers, do you ever feel that you do not have enough diapers to change them as often as you would like?”

Almost 30 percent of the women responded “yes”—they often lacked sufficient diapers. Their explanations of what they did to “stretch” the diapers reflect the harrowing reasons why so many new moms feel depressed and anxious.

Motherhood for these mothers became a nightmare instead of the bliss that is associated with newborns. The sad bit is that those around mothers going through this problem hardly ever know what they are going through. Some of these moms have become professionals at hiding their problem and you would never suspect that something was wrong just by looking at them. This is hardly a solution but a lot of moms go through it every day. All sorts of coping mechanisms have been taken up by these unlucky mothers to hold on to their sanity.

Mothers would take the diapers off, dump out the poop, and put the diapers back on. They would air-dry the diapers. They’d let their kids sit in wet diapers for longer than they should—a practice that can lead to UTIs and other infections. Other moms have reported potty training infants who are less than a year old—at least six months earlier than is recommended—in order to save money.

The first option is quite obviously unhealthy for the baby. It exposes the babies to a wide range of diseases. Reusing these diapers is discouraged by most if not all pediatricians. Having the baby fall sick due to such practices will only further dig the mother into depression because they would then have medical bills they can’t afford to deal with.

The discomfort of sitting in wet diapers sometimes for hours can make babies crankier. This will lead to them crying more which only serves to aggravate the mothers more. Seeing your child cry a while you know exactly why they are crying is bad. Knowing that you can do nothing about it is just plain heartbreaking.

I learned more about this study during a week-long training with the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, where I am a grantee this year. Smith presented her work to the fellows and described what she’s done to help these mothers. The women told Smith things like, “My self-esteem plummets. I can’t soothe my baby because I can’t put a clean diaper on my baby,” she recalled.

The diaper deficit hurts more than moms’ self-worth: Many daycare centers require a week’s supply of diapers before mothers can enroll their children. Without the required diaper stash, women can’t drop their kids off and look for work.

This is just another way in which the problem is compounded. It becomes hard for such a parent to dig themselves out of the problem because they can’t even work to do it. It would be great if daycare centers would reconsider this rule, for both the baby’s and the mother’s sakes.

“An adequate supply of diapers may prove to be a tangible way of reducing parenting stress and increasing parenting sense of competency, enabling parents to be more sensitive with their children, and thereby improving parenting quality and overall child outcomes,” Smith wrote in the study.

Smith now works with the New Haven MOMS Partnership, a support network for new mothers and their children. The Partnership operates several resource centers that offer stress-management classes and job-search help at locations across the city—including in places where moms are already likely to be, like Stop & Shop grocery stores.

The first thing the moms receive when they arrive for counseling? A bundle of fresh diapers.

Such initiatives are commendable and should be encouraged. There are however not enough of them to go around. This means that more well-wishers need to be brought on board to help. This will only happen if the issue is made public knowledge. With time this problem can be dealt with more conclusively. Until then, we just have to our bit to help one mother at a time.


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