A mother arrived at a Salvation Army food bank in Wellington with two toddler-aged children wrapped in torn-up bedsheets instead of nappies.
It was January 2021 and the family’s nappy supply had run out two days earlier. Both kids had a stomach bug and had gone through far more nappies than they normally would.
“She was absolutely exhausted,” said Pam Waugh, a director for the Salvation Army who was able to top up the mother’s supply with donated nappies and wipes. “She was very ashamed and embarrassed that she couldn’t do better for her kids.”
The cost of nappies can present a distinct burden for families whose budgets walk a cliff edge, sometimes taking up 10 per cent or 15 per cent of a weekly grocery bill. They’re expensive, kids need them often, and if anything goes wrong, such as a stomach bug, a family’s stock can quickly disappear.
Anxiety over nappy supply has only increased with the financial strain of Covid-19 felt by low-income families, according to community organisations on the front lines of nappy supply stress.
* Behind the scenes of The Salvation Army: from asking for help, to volunteering in return
* Nearly 16,000 Kiwi children seek emergency aid over Christmas
* Rise in working people relying on charities for food as living costs soar
“Things aren’t easy for people with high rents and electricity costs. It puts extra pressure to fund essential things like nappies,” said Chris Ottley, the manager of Pregnancy Help in Dunedin, which provides baby essentials such as clothing and nappies to parents in need.
“It might be a day and a half before payday and the family might have only two nappies left,” said Ottley, of a typical situation that could cause a parent to reach out to Pregnancy Help. Depending on what’s been donated, the organisation typically keeps a stock of disposable and cloth nappies.
Whenever pandemic panic buying has driven more financially able families to clear shelves of supplies like nappies, lower-income families have been forced to snap up what’s left, Ottley said. Even a pack that is 50 cents or a dollar more expensive than their normal brand can upend a family’s nappy supply.
“That can be devastating if you’re on a small budget,” Ottley said.
A recent study conducted in the United States, where one in three parents experiences a nappy shortage, presented the idea of “diaper work”. This is made up of the physical, mental and emotional energy expelled by parents as they creatively manage a finite nappy supply while trying to keep up with what it means to be a “good” parent.
The study’s findings, based on 70 interviews with low-income mothers, are mirrored in the experience of New Zealand’s community organisations easing the burden of nappies.
“Some kids will just run around without nappies until the nighttime” if a family runs out, said Shobna Singh, a clinical leader at a Plunket in Manurewa.
The organisation gets a few dozen large packs of nappies each quarter. Before Covid-19, those nappies would get dispersed to families over about three weeks. Now, word quickly gets out to families whom the Plunket location serves. The nappies are gone within days, Singh said.
“There is a shame because as a parent you feel like you should be able to provide everything for your child,” Singh said.
The problem seems to come with no perfect solution. Cloth nappies, which can be cheaper in the long run, come with a larger startup cost. There’s also the added time pressure of washing them, provided a family has a washing machine, Singh said.
Other families trying to eliminate nappies from their budget might force their child into potty training before the child is ready. “There is a lot of stress about potty training,” Singh said.
Running out of nappies can affect other areas of family life beyond just the budget, according to Waugh. Parents might deal with a nappy shortfall by not leaving the house, meaning isolation for child and parent.
Keeping a nappy on longer than it should be on can lead to chafing and nappy rash, and treating that can add another unexpected cost, Waugh said. Children might also be prevented from attending daycare if parents can’t provide nappies.
Across Wellington, the Salvation Army experienced a 39 per cent increase in demand for its food and essential-item parcels in the fourth quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. The biggest demographic it serves is young families, so nappies and wipes are often included in those parcels.
The Salvation Army’s food banks typically interview those who come. “When nappies are offered there is usually a big sigh and a smile,” Waugh said. “They say, ‘Yes, please,’ because that is a big cost in their budget each week.”