So far, 2022 has been a hard year for parents of kids under 5. There’s a formula shortage, younger children still can’t get vaccinated for COVID-19, and the price of many necessities has been going up — including diapers.
Food pantries and government assistance can help with groceries, but diapers are more difficult. They aren't always available at food banks, and they're not covered by federal and state programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
To bridge that gap, diaper banks try to aid parents who are struggling. They often can't provide every diaper a baby needs, but they can supplement what families purchase on their own.
On a recent morning, Brenda Torres stopped by Neighbors In Need, a food pantry and diaper bank in Lawrence, to pick up some diapers for her 3-year-old son, Gabriel. He has health problems that affect his digestive system and are making potty training difficult.
"He goes through diapers like it's nothing," Torres said.
Because her work hours were cut during the pandemic, affording diapers has become more difficult for Torres.
“I’m a bargain shopper, so I have my apps and stuff, but they’re still super expensive depending on where you go," she said.
Torres and her son are among hundreds of families that have turned to Neighbors In Need for help. In addition to diapers, the bank offers formula, wipes, baby food and whatever else is donated, like car seats or strollers.
The National Diaper Bank Network estimates that about one in three families with young children in Massachusetts struggles to afford diapers. Depending on their ages, babies need between six and 12 diapers per day. At current prices, that adds up to about $70 to $80 per month. If funds are tight, coming up with enough money is a challenge.
“Families are getting fewer resources now. They’re not getting as much assistance as they were at some points [during the pandemic]," said Lisa Smith, Neighbors in Need's deputy director. "We’re really seeing the need for diapers, as well as formula, increase."
While the demand for diapers dipped at the start of the pandemic, it's been increasing since last spring — monthly numbers are up nearly 20% since last April, she said. The diaper bank serves about 400 to 500 families per month with an allotment of 50 diapers per family.
"That maybe gets a family through a week," she said.
Nationwide, the average cost of diapers has gone up by nearly 22% since 2018, according to NielsenIQ, a data firm that tracks consumer prices. Family budgets are also straining under higher costs for other goods, such as food, rent and gas, among other things. Consumer prices rose 8.3% in April compared to the prior year, according to the federal government. That was only slightly better than March's increase of 8.5%, the largest spike since 1981.
New parents are especially vulnerable to economic forces like inflation, said Kathryn Edwards, an economist with the RAND Corporation.
"Most parents are the poorest they'll ever be in their kid's life on the day their kid is born," she said. “That's what makes something like the cost of diapers hit really hard, is that you're hitting people who in 10 years probably have absolutely no problem affording diapers. It’s just really hard to afford it when they have their kid."
Struggling to afford diapers can have ripple effects. If parents don't have enough diapers to provide for their child's day care, that can force them to miss work.
"Families who don't have enough diapers to send their kids to day care have to make tough choices. Do we want families to work?" asked Smith. "There really is an economic impact if families don’t have enough diapers."
Reusable cloth diapers can work for some parents, said Smith. Neighbors In Need does provide them along with instructional videos about how to use them.
"But there is the issue of access to laundry facilities," she said. "For people who use cloth diapers, laundromats won't really want you to do your cloth diaper laundry [there]."
Parents trying to make their supply of diapers last longer may resort to keeping one on longer than is recommended. That can pose health risks for the child — and for the mom.
The National Diaper Bank Network conducted a study with Yale University in 2013 about the effect of diaper costs on mothers. It found that struggling to afford diapers can contribute to higher rates of maternal stress and depression.
"Even more than housing issues or food issues, diaper need caused higher stress and depression," said Joanne Goldblum, the network's CEO.
Some states, like California, Connecticut and Arizona, have allocated taxpayer funds to supplement diaper banks. In Massachusetts, lawmakers are considering a pilot program that would do something similar, but the future of the legislation is uncertain.
In the meantime, Brenda Torres says she’s looking forward to the day when her son is fully potty trained. Until then, she’s grateful for the assistance the diaper bank provides.
For information on how to help diaper banks, or to get help finding diapers, visit the National Diaper Bank’s website.
This segment aired on June 1, 2022.