The recession is making life a little messier for some toddlers and their parents.
Disposable training pants, long viewed as a staple in potty training children, are becoming dispensable as some parents choose value over convenience in the recession.
These days, an accident here and there has become an acceptable tradeoff for saving some $30 to $100 a month. And many parents say that doing away with the crutch has had an added benefit: surprisingly quick toilet training.
Parents embraced disposable training pants when they hit the market 20 years ago because they made life easier, preventing messy accidents as children transitioned from diapers to underwear. The training pants contain absorbent material just like diapers, but are elasticized and can be pulled up and down like underwear.
Now rising unemployment, stagnant wages and sharp drops in both housing and stock markets have caused consumers to redefine what's essential. As they've pored over their expenses, sales data suggest more parents are finding it's one product they're willing to try doing without.
Darcy Forsell had spent so much on diapers in her daughter's early years — at least $1,500 by her estimate — that when the time came for 3-year-old Liz to potty-train, Forsell decided to skip the training pants.
"It didn't seem like a good investment in terms of time and money," Forsell said.
Forsell trained Liz in a weekend by letting her mostly run around the house naked, an approach she learned from other moms. Similar to just putting kids in underwear, the thinking is that if children wet themselves, they tend to learn quickly that the way to avoid that is by going in the toilet.
Although it was a quick transition, Liz had about three accidents on the carpeting that weekend and Forsell did a lot of laundry. But, Forsell said, it was worth it.
"I think if we had just used Pull-Ups, that learning would have taken a lot longer because she would have been comfortable peeing in the Pull-Ups. They are so similar to diapers," she said. Forsell did use disposable training pants at night as a precaution and still has them in the car for times when a bathroom may not be available.
Industrywide, sales of disposable training pants declined 3.2 percent to $731.2 million for the 52 weeks ending June 13 and the number of training pants sold is down 10 percent, according to data from The Nielsen Co. That's despite the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, U.S. births rose 3 percent in 2006 and 1 percent in 2007.
The decline in an industry that had grown steadily for 20 years raises questions about whether the trend will continue when the economy recovers.
Kimberly-Clark's Pull-Ups brand is the industry leader with a 65 percent market share. Sales of disposable training pants rose every year after the company introduced them to the mass market in 1989, even as competition grew.
The company would not break out sales for its own products but said sales in the category softened in the third and fourth quarters. So far this year, revenue has declined 1.1 percent from a year ago, but the company expects growth later this year.
Many parents rely on the pants for months, some for more than a year, so the cost can be significant, reaching more than $90 a month. Still, in better times, it was a cost many bore without question.
The one-time cost for a pair of underwear is about $2. By comparison, one Pull-Up is around 68 cents and a diaper costs about 42 cents. The cost per day would vary depending on how many slip-ups a child had.
Kimberly-Clark CEO Tom Falk said some parents are keeping their children in diapers longer because of the tough economy and the higher price of training pants versus diapers.
"I think it's just more evidence of the consumer squeeze," Falk said.
Parents surveyed by the company cited their finances as a reason for delaying potty training; some said their children weren't ready, while others said they were too overwhelmed by the recession to take on the task. Kimberly-Clark also makes Huggies diapers.
At Procter & Gamble, which rivals Pull-Ups with its Pampers Easy Ups brand, sales of disposable training pants have flattened over the past year. However, there has been a "slight uptick" in sales in the past three months, which spokeswoman Tricia Higgins attributes partly to the seasonality of potty training. Many parents start potty-training children over the summer to prepare them for pre-school in August and September, Higgins said.
Andrea Barbosa said she put her daughter Aiyana, who is 2 1/2, in regular underwear mostly because of the cost savings and found it very effective.
"When she'd have an accident and was wearing panties, she realized it," said Barbosa, who lives in Fort Myers, Fla.
While some experts and parents say kids learn faster when they're allowed to wet their pants, others say the training pants take some pressure off kids to navigate this milestone in their own time.
"The big problem isn't potty training. The problem is the emphasis we place on 'holding it'," said Steve Hodges, assistant professor of pediatric urology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
By using disposable training pants, he said, children are more likely to empty their bladders when they have to. On the other hand, if toddlers are in underwear, they avoid the bathroom so that they can keep playing and having fun. If kids hold their urine, there's a bigger chance for infection, he said.
"Kids always say they don't have to go," he said, "but they always do."