The Economy's Latest Casualty: America's Baby Bottoms

Whether Due to Penny-Pinching or Parent Laziness, Infants Are Getting Short-Changed

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Baby bottoms in the U.S. look to be in worse shape than ever, and the economy -- or inattentive parents -- may be to blame.

Sales of diaper-rash cream are up, rising for the third straight year on a unit basis, even though the number of babies has kept declining over that period. Data suggest that babies are getting diaper rash more often because parents are changing their diapers less.

The number of babies ages 2 and under in the U.S. fell about 3% to 8.1 million last year, based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which tracks the number of live births. Yet SymphonyIRI data show unit sales of disposable diapers fell 9% in the 52 weeks ended Aug. 7, three times as fast as the population of infants. At the same time, unit sales of baby ointments and creams rose 2.8%, despite fewer babies.

Diaper rash doesn't rise to the level of concern that the CDC tracks cases, so sales of diaper-rash cream are one of the better barometers for tracking its frequency. And the trend of diaper-ointment sales rising even as diaper sales decline has been going on since 2009, according to SymphonyIRI data from Deutsche Bank. The disconnect between fewer diapers and more rash cream has intensified in the past year.

But it's accepted pediatric wisdom that less frequent diaper changes are linked to diaper rash. For example, at AskDrSears.com, a site run by a pediatrician and his wife, a pediatric nurse, the top two tips for preventing diaper rash are "1. Change diapers frequently" and "2. Change poopy diapers right away."

Yet, it's easy to see why parents would be more reluctant to do so. Unemployment has been persistently high, and diapering, with costs estimated at $1,500 annually, is one of the biggest line items on the new baby ledger.

For its part, Pampers marketer Procter & Gamble is having none of the blame-the-parents theory. A spokesman said in an email that the company hasn't identified a trend in the U.S. toward people changing diapers less often, though it has observed parents trying to potty train their youngsters earlier to save money.

As a possible guide for parental quality benchmarking, P&G research finds U.S. babies get their diapers changed on average 6.3 times daily. That's more than the normally fastidious Germans (5.06 times daily) or the French (5.15) and way more than the Russians (3.84), but not quite so attentive as the Japanese (6.45).

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