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Story on 'diaper need' brings a medical study to life Date: 10/14/13

Medical research can often seem far removed from a local health beat. All the statistics, the jargon, the complicated graphs can make it easy to forget that behind every number there's a real person. In fact, medical studies can be great jumping off points for local stories. The key is finding the people who are at the heart of the research.

We asked health reporter Eryn Brown to share how she recently turned a medical study from Yale University into a poignant local story for the Los Angeles Times. In bringing the research home, she shined a light on the heartbreaking ways low-income mothers have to stretch diapers when they can't afford a steady supply.

The story is part of a recent push in research to "operationalize" poverty by documenting the concrete ways income impacts health and quality of life. These kinds of studies are starting to give us a glimpse into the hardships faced by people on the fringes of society.

Eryn Brown

By Eryn Brown

Each week, my colleagues and I at the Los Angeles Times review journal tip sheets in search of studies to highlight.  Much of the time, our approach to the research is straightforward: We summarize study findings, speak with the authors about how they completed their work, and get a comment or two from outside experts to put the findings in a larger context for our readers.

But there are times when a story begs for a different approach that brings the findings closer to home.  Our recent coverage of a Pediatrics study on the phenomenon known as “diaper need” — the inability to afford to keep a child in clean diapers — was such a case. 

What might have started as a rather dry and straightforward lede instead became:

There have been days, since her son Ezekiel was born 11 months ago, that Los Angeles mom Beth Capper has gone without food to keep up her supply. One friend was arrested for stealing some.

It's not drugs or alcohol or even baby formula that has put her in such a bind. It's diapers.

The research we based the story on was conducted by Yale University psychologists and representatives at the National Diaper Bank Network, a nonprofit group that works with diaper banks around the country to help families get access to diapers. The team painted an unsettling picture of want. Polling women in New Haven, Conn., they found that 27.5 percent of the respondents in their study said they had experienced some diaper need. Such women didn’t have enough diapers to change their children as often as they'd like. They had turned to social service agencies, friends or family for help, or had "stretched" the diapers they had.

Some mothers admitted that they sometimes scooped out waste and then put an already used diaper back on a child. Reusing or just ignoring a dirty diaper for as long as possible isn't just stressful and unhealthy for kids, the study found, it's also upsetting for moms who not only feel guilty about the practice but spend more time tending to fussy, uncomfortable kids.

Latinas reported more diaper need than African-American or white women. Women 45 or older (who the researchers assumed were mostly caring for grandchildren) were also particularly hard hit.

Many of us on the Los Angeles Times science team are parents, so we’re aware of the investment involved in keeping a baby’s bottom clean — but it had never occurred to us that so many people didn’t have access to clean diapers for their children. If we didn’t know about diaper need, we figured, many of our readers probably didn’t, either. It seemed logical, in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles, that many readers might have neighbors who struggled to keep their kids in diapers, too.

So once I was assigned the story — and after I made my usual calls to the authors of the study and sought outside comment as well — I set out to see if I could find evidence of diaper need in our own backyard.  The problem isn’t apparent unless you look for it. One Los Angeles-based diaper bank organizer I spoke with called it a “silent epidemic.” Before the Pediatrics study was released, there had been no other academic work on its extent.

I started my search at the National Diaper Bank Network’s website, which lists sources for diapers around the country, including two nonprofits in Los Angeles: L.A. Diaper Drive, and Baby2Baby. 

I cold called both groups. The women who led the organizations hadn’t seen the Pediatrics research, and I didn’t reveal the findings, which were still under embargo.  But they provided me with anecdotal accounts of diaper need in the Los Angeles area.  They characterized the need for diapers as "practically infinite," and reported that diapers "fly" out of warehouses as soon as they're delivered.  I wrote:

When word spread — mistakenly — that Los Angeles-based Baby2Baby was handing out diapers directly to parents, desperate parents came to its office and formed a line that snaked around the corner in just a couple of hours,  said co-chair Norah Weinstein. The nonprofit also received 3,000 voice-mail messages that day.

The conversations with the diaper banks helped me establish that there were many mothers and caretakers in the region who couldn’t get their hands on enough diapers. 

Finding one of those mothers to talk with took a bit more legwork.

Both diaper donation groups work with partner nonprofits, who distribute diapers (usually, as an incentive for parents who complete parenting classes.)  I worked through one of these partner non-profits, Children's Institute Inc., to find a 41-year-old mom in Los Angeles who was willing to meet with me at her son’s daycare center and talk about her own struggles with diaper need. 

She told me that she had foregone food some days to get diapers for her baby.  A friend had been arrested for stealing diapers. 

“There’s no way around buying them,” she said.

The story we ran in the newspaper inspired many angry comments and e-mails from readers in Southern California (for a sampling of those submitted to the Letters page, click here.) Some writers were angry with the mothers, questioning their judgment or their devotion to their kids. Others wanted to know whether cloth diapers might be an option (yes, groups like the National Diaper Bank Network said, but they, too, can prove expensive.)  Others still contacted me to express sympathy and outrage that an item as basic as a diaper could be out of reach.

Bringing this medical study home also had an upside: I later heard that donations to the local diaper banks went up after our piece ran.


Eryn Brown has been a reporter since 1994.  She joined the Los Angeles Times in 2006 and moved to the paper's Science and Health desk in 2010. Why cover health?  Brown says "Mainly, because it touches everyone—including myself!   Also, coming at the subject from a science perspective, there are just so many interesting research advances to write about: genomics, stem cell biology, etc."  Follow her on Twitter at @LATerynbrown.