How Doctors and Hospitals Help Corporations Cash In On a Diaper Scam

Personal Health

After Venus Savage’s son was born three years ago this August, California Pacific Medical Center loaded her up with diapers, coupons and formula samples. The 32-year-old mom from San Francisco was happy with all the freebies. The diapers “seemed very high quality,” Savage says. “I knew they were, since the hospital wouldn’t give you something bad.”

It wasn’t until baby Jeremy was nine months old and needed a larger diaper that Savage realized she had been spending over $100 a month on her son’s diapers, not including the cost of wipes, a diaper genie to mask the smell, plastic liners, the extra cost of garbage, gas to drive to the store to buy more diapers, and diaper rash cream. And the larger sizes were even more expensive.

“I noticed a huge jump in price. They cost more for less diapers per pack,” Savage says.

The “free” items parents take home from the hospital, like diapers, appear on the medical bills. Most American hospitals receive brand-name diapers and infant formula at no charge to the hospital, and increase their profits by charging the consumer for them.

“If we run out, I just call them on the phone and they send more,” says Rosemary Mamei Tamba, head nurse at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital on the south side of Chicago. Tamba is grateful that large companies like Procter & Gamble (which makes Pampers) and Meade-Johnson (infant formula) do so much to help the socioeconomically disadvantaged moms and babies she works with by providing free plastic diapers, formula, pacifiers, and coupons.

But other medical professionals argue this corporate intrusion in hospitals and in doctors’ offices is undermining our children’s health.

“Exposure to free samples and financing biases every aspect of what we do,” insists Stephan Topolski, assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Topolski says the “vast majority of doctors” in his department believe it is wrong for doctors and hospitals to accept freebies from corporations with something to sell.

American Babies Remain In Diapers Longer Than Ever Before

In the early 1950s, before the widespread use of plastic diapers, 90 percent of American children were potty trained by 18 months of age. By 2001 the average age of potty training rose to 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys. Twelve years later, many parents believe it is normal and acceptable for their three-, four- and even five-year-olds to be in diapers.

Since the average age of potty training has risen so precipitously, on any given day in America there are approximately 13 million children in diapers. More than 95 percent of these children are swaddled in plastic. The average cost of one plastic diaper is about 25.5 cents (a brand-name diaper costs about 28 cents, a store-brand diaper 23 cents).

This means Americans are spending an average of $27 million per day on diapers—a staggering $9.8 billion a year. Ka-ching!

Ask almost any parent and you will find that potty training in America has become more stressful than ever. Jason Stokes (not his real name) did not attempt to potty train his son until Noah was two and a half. But Noah had so many accidents and seemed so resistant that Jason and his wife gave up. They put Noah in plastic pullup diapers for preschool, which he started when he was three, and prayed he wouldn’t poop his pants. At four, Noah still preferred to pee and poop in a diaper. He knew when he needed to go; he would squat in a corner of the living room and do his business. But only with his diaper on.

The Stokes family estimates they have spent nearly $3,000 just on diapers.

In contrast, the average cost for a child in cloth diapers is $480 for the whole time a child is in diapers, which can be reused with subsequent babies, if a family buys two dozen one-size-fits-all diapers at $20 per diaper. 

With an almost five-year-old who still does not consistently use the potty, their experience with child-led potty training has been “honestly, a nightmare," said Stokes.

The Stokes used plastic diapers because they believed the advertising that they would be easier and more convenient than cloth. They read articles online by trusted mommy bloggers that it was better to wait to potty train. They listened to their pediatrician. They did not know that the mommy bloggers were being paid by Kimberly-Clark to promote delayed potty training, and they never thought about how the diaper industry was constantly giving their pediatrician freebies.

Delayed Potty Training Causes Harm

Urologist Jean Jacques Wyndaele, chair of the University of Antwerp’s Department of Urology, has been studying potty training in healthy children for over 12 years. His team took an interest in potty training when they realized more Belgian children were having incontinence problems in kindergarten than ever before. They’ve found that kindergarten teachers today spend up to one third of their time dealing with "accidents" in the classroom.

A delay in potty training causes myriad problems, Wyndaele says, including anxiety for the child, accidents and even higher incidents of disease transmission, like hepatitis B.

Wyndaele’s research has revealed that the problem is plastic diapers.

“[D]iapers that have the most absorbency are the worst for potty training,” Wyndaele says. “Potty training is about awareness and sensation. If you break the link and take away the sensation, you have a problem. The diapers have not helped. They have broken this link. The feeling that ‘Something has to happen’ and ‘Now I’m wet’ is no longer there for the child.”

“Neurologically and physiologically children are ready between one year and one and a half years,” Wyndaele insists. “Of course, there’s a big variety because every child is different, but it’s very rare that a child would be older than two.”

At 35 months, Jeremy Savage is just starting to show interest in potty training. He takes off his full diaper after he pees and hands it to his mother. When Venus Savage’s family switched to generic diapers, they saved over $40 a month.

Thinking back on it now, Savage realizes the hospital that was providing her free diapers and formula was actually doing product placement. “They are advertising in the hospital, and setting you up to spend as much money as possible,” she says.

Wyndaele argues that the best way to potty train is to leave disposable diapers behind when a child shows readiness. Ditching the diapers is also the least expensive. “You should leave them out when you start training. Use cloth diapers or don’t put anything on.”

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