Called one of the "most concrete and heartbreaking examples of the ways families suffer when money runs short," the need for diapers brings emotional heartache and economic hardship to thousands of mothers who feel disempowered in their ability to raise a child.

The growing problem of diaper cost versus necessity has many mothers turning to drastic means — reusing soiled diapers, cutting food consumption, theft — in order to maintain a level of comfort and health for their babies. According to a report published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, a "substantial" number of low-income mothers in New Haven, Conn. — some 30 percent — report not having enough clean diapers. And it's a growing trend that has few reliable alternatives.

"I call it the silent epidemic," said Caroline Kunitz, who runs Pacific Palisades-based L.A. Diaper Drive, which will distribute 1.5 million diapers to nonprofit partners around Southern California this year.

Diaper Drive sits alongside other nonprofits and social service agencies in Los Angeles who report the need for diapers as "practically infinite" and that diapers "fly" out of the warehouse upon arrival, according to the Los Angeles Times. To compound the problem, governmental subsidies seldom apply to household products, which, among many other things, include diapers.

"Mothers described to us not being able to pay their utility bills, for example, because they needed to buy a case of diapers," said Megan Smith, the study's co-author and assistant professor of psychiatry, child study, and public health at Yale University. "So they were definitely skimping and cutting back on other areas for their families in order to provide diapers."

One such area is day care. Mothers who cannot afford a constant supply of diapers have begun staying home from work because they can't provide enough diapers to last the full day. These setbacks not only impact the mother's take-home pay, experts say, but also hurt the child's development.

"Losing out on day care makes it even harder for parents to put in a full day's work, and so they fall further behind," wrote Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in 2011 as part of a bill that would have made it easier for childcare providers to use federal funds to supply diapers to needy families.

Despite citing research that said one in five mothers are forced to stay home as a result of the diaper shortage, DeLauro failed to convince Congress that her plan wasn't an instance where low-income families would receive subsidies for a problem they themselves incurred.

The Numbers Behind The Problem

According to the Pediatrics study, the average weekly cost for diapers is $18. If a mother works full-time at a minimum wage job, a full six percent of her $15,080 yearly earnings will go towards buying diapers.

Mothers who reported diaper issues in the study, which included 877 women over the age of 18 years old, were twice as likely to experience mental health issues. A total of 73 percent had used food stamps in the previous year, and 89 percent were receiving support from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Nearly eight percent said they stretched diaper use when money was tight, which poses health problems, such as urinary tract infections and other skin infections.

Mothers are often locked into disposable diapers, due to the expense of washing cloth diapers at a Laundromat.

"The most important thing from my perspective is that small things impact big things," said Joanne Goldblum, the study's co-author and executive director of the New Haven-based National Diaper Bank Network, which helps community-based agencies provide diapers to needy families. "We can't address the bigger issues of poverty and child development if we don't address the most basic issues, like diapers."

Since federal subsidies do not cover diaper costs, the nonprofits associated with helping low-income mothers routinely offer attendance-based rewards for the women who attend parenting classes.

Beth Capper's son Ezekiel now gets to wear his diapers for free thanks to Children's Institute Inc., a Los Angeles-based children's welfare organization that receives diapers from Baby2Baby and L.A. Diaper Drive. Capper has enrolled her son in the institute's Early Head Start Program, which offers her free diapers.

Director of development for the institute, Megan Aubrey says the incentive of free diapers for attending the parenting classes entices many mothers to keep showing up, if only for its morale-boosting effects.

"No one wants to have their child in a soiled diaper all day long," she said. "It's a basic thing, but it's really empowering."