By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Many families living in poverty might benefit from diaper banks but don’t receive this support, a U.S. study suggests.

Nearly half of U.S. families with infants and toddlers live on less than $51,500 for a family of four, which is 200% of the federal poverty level, researchers note in the American Journal of Public Health. Many of these low-income households may struggle to afford rent and food as well as basic infant care needs, including a sufficient supply of diapers to keep babies clean, dry and healthy.

Nationwide, only about 4% of infants and toddlers in these low-income households who needed diapers received them from diaper banks in 2016, the study found.

“When we look at specific communities that have diaper banks, the percentage of met need is much, much higher,” said Kelley Massengale of the National Diaper Bank Network in New Haven, Connecticut, the study’s lead author.

“The challenge is that not all communities have a diaper bank,” Massengale said by email.

Massengale’s team surveyed 262 diaper banks across the country about their activities in 2016.

With the assistance of 3,547 community organizations, diaper banks distributed more than 52 million disposable diapers that year. About 74% of these diapers were donated, and the rest were purchased.

Diaper banks also distributed 4,395 kits with reusable cloth diapers.

Nationwide, researchers estimated that more than 7 million infants and toddlers needed diapers and about 300,000 of these children received support from diaper banks.

In each state, the proportion of infants and toddlers in need of diapers who received support from diaper banks ranged from 0% to 16%.

Sometimes families may receive diaper donations from food banks or from other nonprofit organizations, Massengale said.

One limitation of the study is that it only looked at a national network of diaper banks, and didn’t assess other ways families in need might get diapers, the study team notes.

The cost of diapers can add up quickly, with newborns needing up to a dozen diaper changes a day and toddlers requiring around six, Massengale said.

“When families do not have enough diapers, children go longer between diaper changes,” Massengale said. “This means their skin is touching urine and feces for longer periods of time, which puts them at increased risk for skin infections and urinary tract infections.”

It can also be uncomfortable for children, making babies fussier and more fitful sleepers, which is stressful for parents.

Many daycare centers require families to send children with diapers, and parents who can’t afford this may miss work because they’re unable to send kids to child care centers, Massengale added.

And low-income families may also have a hard time saving money on diapers with bulk purchases.

“Strategies that make diapers more affordable for middle- and upper-income families may not be possible for low-income families who may not have: transportation to big-box stores, memberships to bulk shopping clubs, enough money to make bulk purchases, or the resources to shop online,” Massengale said.

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, online December 4, 2019.