Many low-income families receive government assistance to help them purchase food and housing.
Diapers are another story, a new study suggests.
In what they are calling the first peer-reviewed study to quantify diaper need, Yale University researchers have found nearly a third of mothers cannot afford to purchase their infants diapers, raising health risks for not only babies but for moms who become stressed over the finances.
"Notably absent from the antipoverty efforts targeting families is an essential staple for the health of children, diapers," wrote the researchers, led by Dr. Megan Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the New Haven Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS) Partnership at Yale.
Poverty and hardships for mothers have been associated with negative health effects on a child's development. Parental stress and depression have previously been linked to poverty, and children whose parents have high levels of stress may be at higher risk for social, emotional and behavioral problems, the researchers note.
Not changing diapers frequently can also lead to more immediate health risks like urinary tract infections or diaper rash (dermatitis).
An adequate supply of diapers costs $18 a week, according to the researchers. Therefore, a single mom making minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would have to pay more than 6 percent of her gross earnings to afford diapers for one child, they calculated.
Researchers studied more than 870 pregnant and parenting women, who were given surveys on topics relating to their mental health, basic needs and use of health care services.
They found 30 percent of moms reported being in "diaper need," where they were unable to purchase the products for their kids. Hispanic women were significantly more likely to report the need and older moms appeared to be more affected: Women ages 45 and older were significantly more likely to report diaper difficulties than women in the study between the ages of 20 and 24 years old.
"I call it the silent epidemic," Caroline Kunitz, who runs Pacific Palisades-based L.A. Diaper Drive, which distributes 1.5 million diapers to nonprofits around Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times.
There was a statistically non-significant trend of white women reporting diaper need more than African American women. Women with two or three children under 18 reported also more diaper need than women with one child.
Thirty percent of all the women said they had mental health needs, and another 30 percent said they'd seen a mental health professional within the past year. Women who reported mental health strugglers were significantly more likely to report diaper need.
"Thus, there is potential for pediatric providers to inquire about diaper need as a risk factor for not only child health but also caregiver mental health," the researchers concluded. The pediatricians could then put the parents in touch with local diaper banks and assistance programs, they added.
The researchers also said the study could have implications for families in need of federal or state child care subsidies. Many of these services are dependent on attendance at child care facilities. However, some of these facilities require parents provide their own diapers.
"The child without sufficient diapers may be refused admittance to the child care center and lose the subsidy intended to increase access to child care for low-income families," according to the researchers.
The study was published July 29 in Pediatrics.
While a solution for some families may be using reusable cloth diapers, Smith pointed out to HealthDay that even this can be quite challenging.
"The problem is that most of the families we're talking about don't have washing machines in their homes. And when they do go to Laundromats, most facilities won't let you use their facilities for cloth diapers because their temperatures don't get high enough or they just don't want them," Smith pointed out.
One expert not involved in the study called on more aid from state and federal agencies.
"Children wind up with all types of infections. There is a critical need for diapers and it's not being met," publich health advocate Helene Abiola said to Medpage Today. "Right now, there is a lot of interest and initiative in the public health space towards preventive services. If we can prevent infections, then why not invest in diaper banks?"