Thursday, April 28, 2011

Diapering in Tough Economic Times

With events like the Great Cloth Diaper Change making front-line news recently, media outlets all over are taking a sudden interest in diapering--a practice that has been around since the beginning of mankind and which never demanded that much attention before now. As of late, there has been a special amount of public attention given to the sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted battle waged between disposable diapers users and cloth diapers users (for more: Cloth or disposables? Half-century debate still on).

For our grandmothers and all those who came before them, diapering was a non-issue, such a commonplace, necessary practice that it wasn't even discussed. They had sets of white, cotton flats or rags, along with covers and tins of pins, passed along from baby to baby, mother to mother, indiscriminately covering the bums of every little baby equally. Diapers became rags and rags became diapers--they were a functional item, basic and versatile, getting the job done. Women did what they had to do--fashioned diapers from household items if need be; handwashed them if they were without home laundry resources; and braved all sorts of pails and dunking and swishing and hand-wringing. No one considered these moms of old to be brave or tough for doing this; they were just moms, and they did what they had to get done for the good of their family. No one gave it a second thought.

When disposable diapers were introduced to the market approximately fifty years ago, they allowed some versatility, convenience, and freedom in terms of diapering practices. In a post-war era, women were liberated by the ability to have more time to themselves in which they could take on non-traditional roles (such as leaving small children and entering the workforce). Truly, disposable diapers and other modern luxuries such as prepared foods and microwaves, though now shunned at times, did play a large role in allowing us, as North American women, to be what we are today--equal human beings in all ways to our male counterparts. Thus, despite some of their downsides, disposable diapers have provided an amazing revolution even on a societal level.

What's sad nowadays, however, is just how far removed some of us as moms have become from our basic roots that were prevalent only a mere fifty or sixty years ago. Where two generations ago, every one of us would have been equipped to take care of our babies whether we were well-off or in poverty, modern conveniences and luxuries have now stripped us of some of our natural know-how, leaving us somewhat disempowered. Many women today don't know how to get by without disposable diapers in times of trouble.

Are diapers a basic need? Definitely. Still, in America, families in financial trouble are not permitted to use social assistance program aid such as Food Stamps or WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) assistance towards the purchase of diapers. Isn't it ludicrous that food stamps can be applied towards purchasing sugary breakfast cereals and other "empty" food items that provide little value, but cannot be applied to the necessary practice of diapering our babies? That is a controversial topic for another day, perhaps, but, suffice to say, it leaves those in poverty feeling as though they are without a real solution to some of their woes.

"Mothers view diapering as emotionally rewarding and as part of being a good parent" (via Huggies' Every Little Bottom Study; pp. 3). Imagine then, the correlation between being a mother and being unable to adequately meet your baby's diapering needs. You'd be left feeling useless, guilty, and inadequate. However, when money is in short supply, it is very difficult to keep up with the demand for disposable diapers, and so corners might be cut. This study by Huggies also reports these findings:

Mothers in the U.S. report spending on average $17 a week on diapers for their youngest child, with mothers in Canada reporting spending $16 in a given week. This equates to approximately 2 percent of American mothers’ total household income, and 1 percent of Canadian mothers’ total household income.

Nearly all mothers in the U.S. and Canada report solely using disposable diapers for their children, with few using cloth diapers (use disposable diapers: U.S. 95%, Canada 91%). These mothers are already looking for savings by primarily shopping at large discount stores, followed by supermarkets and warehouse stores where one can purchase products in bulk (U.S. 78%, 41%, 37%; Canada 57%, 51%, 21%).

- [Huggies; pp. 20]
It is apparent that even with shopping at discount stores and in bulk, the cost of disposable diapers still factors significantly into a household's monthly budgeting needs. To many cloth diapers users who are reading this, it may be completely obvious to you that cloth diapering is an economically preferable solution to this (and you would be right, particularly if you are talking about using simple flats, prefolds, pins, or covers, which are inexpensive to buy and easy to wash, maintain, and reuse). That being said, however, this study still indicates that only 65% of moms in both the USA and Canada actually think that "cloth diapers are cheaper than disposables" (this exact question was posed to them in the phone survey). That means that 35% of moms out there really legitimately do not know how much cloth could be saving them (disregarding other concerns about laundry, etc).

It is so sad to read that "A number of mothers in the U.S. and Canada have cut back on food and clothing as well as borrowed money in order to afford enough diapers for their children. Some mothers also have had to limit other purchases or even skip payments on utilities." (Huggies; pp. 21); in fact, nearly 1 in 3 mothers in the USA and 1 in 5 in Canada have reported having to choose these sorts of cut-backs when times have gotten tough financially. Many frequently report that they have personally run out of money for diapers (pp. 29), and 3% report that they have either cleaned out poopy diapers and reused them, or have even resorted to blow-drying wet diapers to reapply them on the baby's bum (pp. 30). Close to 30% report they have left their child in a wet or soiled diaper longer than they knew they should have in order to conserve money and fresh diapers. Additionally, many moms report they have also attempted early potty training before the child is ready in order to attempt to cut short the financially-stressful diapering years.

Of course, as a mother, my heart goes out to these moms. Not only do they already have financial strife heaped on their plates, but to add to that, they may have growing feelings of guilt and inadequacy over their inability to provide clean diapers for their baby. When babies are left clean, dirty, or uncomfortable for lengthened periods of time, this would only serve to further increase the baby's fussiness, crying, and opportunity for rash and infection, thus adding to the moms' stress levels even more. It is truly a slippery slope.

In communities like Mendota, California, poverty and joblessness is a reality that has left numerous families washing and reusing their disposable diapers (read the full article here). In fact, moms across the country, even in New York, admit they've had the same woes (via NY1).

To the older generation, like some of our own grandmothers, this problem seems ridiculously easy to solve:
“I’m wondering where their mothers are and their grandmothers that aren’t teaching them these things,” said Carol Greely, 73, of Holladay. “It would be cheaper to go to the laundromat rather than buying new diapers every three days.”

Disposable diapers were the technology of the future when these women were young parents. When money was limited, they often made the diapers themselves, cleaning them in kitchen sinks and bathtubs if they couldn’t afford a washing machine.

- The Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 17, 2011
Awareness needs to be spread about the affordability of cloth diapering. Even without in-suite laundry facilities, there are alternative ways to wash your cloth diapers. An entire set of reusable cloth diapers (of a more simple variety) might cost you only $150 for the entire diapering life of your baby, lasting you from birth 'til potty training (not to mention that one set of diapers can be used for numerous children or shared amongst friends and family members). In truly tough economic times, there are even plenty of ways to create your own cloth diapers, nearly for free, out of materials you may have on hand around the house (via Cotton Babies).

Of course, there are also diaper banks and charities cropping up around the USA and Canada in order to finally start helping moms out, but awareness about them is not always as mainstream as it needs to be. For us moms who are fortunate enough to afford the luxury of having a wide selection of diapers on hand for whenever we need them (whether cloth or disposable), there is something we can do to help out other moms and families. Consider donating your outgrown, reusable diapers to an organization that will help distribute them to moms in need (such as the Real Diaper Association). Additionally, many of us may have half-used packs of disposable diapers kicking around in our closets, going unused because we've made the switch to cloth or because our babies have outgrown them. Check out your local charities, women's shelters, and even food banks, to see if you can drop these opened packs of diapers off so that they can be distributed to moms in need.

Acknowledgments and Further Reading:

- Huggies' Every Little Bottom Study
- High Cost Of Diapers Forces Some Parents Into Risky Practices
- Generation gap sparks cloth vs. disposable diaper debate
- Cloth or disposables? Half-century debate still on
- Almost Free Diapers - How to diaper your baby when you can't afford disposable diapers or cloth diapers


  1. I love this article. I'm glad that it does not seem demeaning to those who do use disposables. In my mind I feel that many women feel insulted when articles about cloth diapering come out. No one wants to hear that they are doing something wrong. I do agree with everything this article said. Women need to go back to their older roots and look at those options if they are in deep financial problems. We pay for convenience. There is no reason to endanger our children with reusing disposables or hurting ourselves by cutting food etc.

  2. Totally agree. And even if times aren't tough enough for someone to leave their baby for a long time in a wet diaper, cloth could help them save up an emergency fund in case of a health problem or layoff. Or it could give them the freedom to financially help out a family member or friend in need.