When researcher Megan Smith set up a study to find out what stressors were impacting the mental health of moms, she was expecting to hear tales of babies who didn't sleep or expensive doctor visits. She wasn't expecting to hear that one stress that affected roughly 30 percent of the moms in her study came from their inability to fill one of their baby's basic needs. It's not food or even shelter. It's diapers.

In her study, Smith, an assistant professor of psychiatry, child study and public health at the Yale School of Medicine, spoke with 877 women at various income levels in New Haven, Conn. She talked to women through their health care providers, at schools, in beauty shops, at bus stops, on playgrounds and in grocery stores. She wanted to find out out what stresses these moms were experiencing, particularly the stresses that were affecting each mom's ability to bond with her child.

Smith was shocked to learn that almost one-third of the women she surveyed experienced a time when they could not afford to buy diapers for their children. And 8 percent reported that they had taken steps to stretch their diaper supply — leaving kids in a wet diaper all day or scraping the contents out of a diaper and reusing it when they couldn't afford to buy more.

“Some were taking off their kids’ diapers and scraping off the contents and then putting them back on the child,” Smith says. “While that has an incredible impact on the health of the child in terms of urinary tract infections and rashes, it also impacts the self-esteem of the mom.”

Smith's study, which was published recently in the journal Pediatrics, was specific to New Haven, but other research shows that this problem is occurring nationwide. In fact, diaper-need worries are now among the top stressors for low-income parents, next to concerns about food and housing, researchers say. And there are little to no federal or state dollars to help. WIC and SNAP programs generally do not pay for diapers and food banks may offer an extra meal, but they often don't have diapers And as you might expect, moms with more than one child in diapers report even more stress.

As for cloth diapers, that's a luxury for moms who also have access to a hefty start-up fee and in-house laundry machines. Most laundromats won't allow cloth diaper washing.

I don't know about you, but I'll be dropping off a box of diapers at the women's shelter later today. Even it helps even one mom breathe a little easier today, it will be totally worth it.

For more stories on moms and stress, check out these posts:

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