Diaper banks provide relief for struggling parents, starting at the bottom

Almost a third of families say they lack the diapers they need; network of nonprofits tries to fill that gap

Andrea Scott with her granddaughter, Laila.
Azure Gilman

Andrea Scott resorted to using a towel to clean away the diarrhea from her child after the baby got sick. Her supply of diapers had run out, and she couldn’t afford to buy more.

“I didn’t have any other way. I had to wait. And I’ll never forget it, because it was just one more day I needed before I got to the Pamper bank to get the Pampers,” the 51-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut, said. Now a grandmother, Scott had relied on a similar service to help provide diapers for her seven grandchildren.

Scott’s plight is not uncommon. Across the United States, some 5.3 million children under the age of 3 live in low-income families, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty — of those, 2.7 million infants and toddlers are deemed to be living in poverty.

And with diaper costs reaching up to $100 every month per baby, it is an expense that many simply cannot afford — almost a third of parents lack the diapers they need to keep their baby clean and dry.

For Scott, help comes in the form of free diapers distributed from local churches and supplied by the New Haven Diaper Bank. She watches her youngest grandchild, 2½-year-old Laila, on weekday afternoons while her parents work. Even though they both have jobs, making ends meet can be a struggle.

“The Pampers are expensive so you have to make a choice between the food, getting bare necessities or the Pampers,” said Scott. “It really truly is a good feeling to be able to go to the diaper bank and know that the Pampers are going to last you a week, maybe a little over a week.”

The New Haven Diaper Bank was started in 2004 by Joanne Goldblum. While working as a social worker at the Yale Child Study Center, Goldblum said she realized there were limits to how much she could help clients through clinical work when they struggled to buy even the most basic supplies.

“I would see mothers take a diaper off their child, empty out the solids and put it back on their child,” said Goldblum. “If you can't keep your baby clean and dry, it's really hard to think about anything else.”

If left for too long in a soiled diaper, babies can be at risk of developing health problems such as dermatitis, fungal rashes and urinary tract and staph infections.

It can also prevent a parent from making use of day care, even if it's free. Most centers require those dropping off children to provide their own diapers, and can refuse admittance to those who do not. And being shut out of day care can make it harder for parents to find work or attend school.

A study published in Pediatrics, the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, co-authored in part by members of the National Diaper Bank Network, found that nearly 30 percent of mothers reported lacking diapers. Researchers concluded that not having diapers increases parental stress, which can affect child health and development.

“It just takes some of your self-esteem,” Scott said.

With infants requiring up to 12 diapers a day, the costs can spiral. Moreover, they are not covered under the SNAP or WIC food assistance programs. 

In Connecticut, the New Haven Diaper Bank has been steadily serving 2,500 children a month for the past five years. In the last year, that number has increased to 3,000 children, giving out roughly 150,000 diapers every month. According to executive director Janet Alfano, the need is even greater, but they are at capacity.

Goldblum went on to become executive director of the National Diaper Bank Network. From less than 50 diaper banks in 2011, the National Diaper Bank Network now works with over 250 affiliate centers in 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam. In 2014, they distributed 36.8 million diapers across the U.S.

Centers often work with intermediaries to make it easy for people who are already there to access other services. Baby Buggy, the largest diaper bank in New York City, uses this model extensively.

Katherine Snider, left, the executive director of Baby Buggy, and Laurel Parker West, vice president of national programs, hold diapers that they will distribute to parents at the Baby Buggy offices in Manhattan.
Azure Gilman

“Some families may not come in to see if they’re eligible for all of these services, but when they need diapers, they will come,” said Megan Sergi, the program director for the Center for Urban Community Services, a nonprofit that has partnered with Baby Buggy. “We use it as an opportunity once people come in to screen them for other things. They may not know that they’re eligible for a subsidy for child care or that they’re eligible for WIC.”  

Early Head Start — a federally funded program for low-income families that provides child care for children until age 3 — provides diapers for babies and toddlers in their care, but with the help of Baby Buggy, they're able to give families additional diapers on Fridays.

“They were seeing children coming in on Monday morning with soiled diapers,” said Katherine Snider, the executive director of Baby Buggy. “The parents were so desperate they were cleaning out soiled diapers.”

Though diapers are a costly necessity for many families, they are taxed in most states. In 2011, U.S. Rep. Rosie DeLauro (D-Conn.) introduced the DIAPER Act, which would have made it easier for child-care providers to use federal funds to purchase diapers. The Los Angeles Times reported that Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that the legislation left “no doubt that the U.S. is moving even closer to becoming a ‘nanny state.’” The bill did not pass.

In lieu of any changes to bring down the cost of diapers for struggling parents, diaper banks will continue to provide an essential service to people like Breahna Dawson. The 24-year-old mother moved to Forth Worth, Texas, from California to be with the father of Jenesis, who is 9 months old, and Josiah, who is almost 2. The relationship didn’t work out, and Breahna is alone in Texas now. She reconnected with the diaper bank that she used in California, and they shipped a box of diapers to her in Texas. She buys her own diapers when she can. 

“I try not to always lean on them, because I know they have so many other people to help,” Dawson said. “But when I need it, they're there.”

Janet Alfano, left, executive director of the New Haven Diaper Bank and Joanne Goldblum, executive director of the National Diaper Bank Network, move diapers at the New Haven Diaper Bank.
Azure Gilman

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