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Across Massachusetts, empty diaper shelves — and long lines to get them

Cradles to Crayons is distributing diapers and other items to partner organizations during the coronavirus pandemic.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

On Wednesday mornings, Sarah Morse dons gloves and a mask and stands behind the glass front door of A Baby Center in Hyannis, next to a table piled high with diapers, waiting for the line she knows will come.

Even before the center is open, families begin to gather outside, keeping their distance from each other. One by one, they come to the small window next to the front door. Morse, a program assistant at the center, opens the door, places a bag with two months worth of diapers and baby wipes on the front steps, and closes the door again.

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“It’s like when people lined up in breadlines,” said Robin Hayward, the director of A Baby Center, which provides baby essentials to families living on Cape Cod and the Islands. “That’s what it feels like right now.”

Even for families who don’t typically struggle to make ends meet, finding diapers is proving to be exceptionally difficult during the coronavirus crisis, partly because of widespread panic buying. That reality has made things even harder for families who have lost their income and can’t buy in bulk, or who lack transportation and can’t shop around. Babies use between 280 and 300 diapers a month, according to Hayward, and those diapers are expensive, costing $70-$80 per month per baby.

Cradles to Crayons distributed diapers and other items to partner organizations.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Diaper banks, which in normal times supplement the diaper supply of low-income families, have been inundated. Cradles to Crayons, a nonprofit organization based in Newton, for example, typically distributes around 1,300 sleeves of free diapers in April to families around Greater Boston. But now the need has skyrocketed to 10,000.

Supplies at some diaper banks, which are no longer accepting donations from the community because of concerns about contagion, are running low. They are hoping people will donate money instead of diapers now so they can continue to operate.

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“They weren’t prepared to serve that many people,” said Joanne Goldblum, the CEO of the National Diaper Bank Network, which coordinates the distribution of baby essentials to low-income families across the country. "Diaper banks are struggling to fill their shelves.”

The supply of diapers has been affected in much the same way the supply of toilet paper has, with people buying in fear and, if they can afford to, stocking up for weeks or months, leaving shelves bare. It’s not exactly that there aren’t enough diapers to meet the demand.

“When you get into this type of buying by consumers, there’s a mis-distribution,” said David Marcotte, a senior vice president of cross-border retail at Kantar, a retail analytics firm. “There are several million where they’re not supposed to be, and there are places where they’re a million short.”

Because people worry they won’t be able to buy diapers when they need them, they buy them whenever they can, and the stock disappears from shelves as soon as it arrives. To make matters worse, Marcotte said, workers along the supply chain — from manufacturing to trucking to unloading — are afraid to show up because they don’t want to get sick, slowing production and distribution.

Similar to what’s happening with other quasi-shortages, low-income families who cannot afford to buy in bulk are bearing the brunt of the scarcity.

Jayuanna, 25, who asked to go by her first name to protect her children’s privacy, had been working as a substitute teacher in the Brookline Public Schools until they closed. Slight, with a shy smile, she writes poetry and wants to one day teach African-American literature. But when the schools closed, she lost her income. She tried calling a local diaper bank in Roxbury, but she said the phone rang and rang; she never got a call back.

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Even when she scraped together enough money to buy a sleeve of diapers, the shelves were empty.

“I had to go to six stores to find one box. It’s only for one kid’s size,” said Jayuanna, who has a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old.

Unable to purchase diapers and without access to free ones, she had to make do, stretching the tiny diapers of her 9-month-old to fit her toddler, and changing both kids’ diapers less often. It has left her anxious, carefully counting the dwindling supply she has left.

Other parents, too, have been left with no good options related to the care of their babies: drying disposable diapers and re-using them; putting socks or paper towels inside diapers; or leaving babies to sit in dirty diapers, Goldblum and others said. Many families who cannot afford the number of diapers they need also live in unstable housing or don’t have washers and dryers at home, so can’t simply use cloth diapers, advocates said. (Laundromats typically don’t allow people to wash cloth diapers).

“To be able to change your baby’s diaper as frequently as you would like is a luxury," said Alicia Stedman, co-president of Baby Basics, a diaper bank that serves 40 families in South Boston and Needham.

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When parents have to make compromises around their children’s dirty diapers, it doesn’t only affect the baby. A study by Yale researchers found a high correlation between maternal stress and diaper need — even higher than food need.

“We surmise that’s because diapering is so tied to being a good parent,” said Goldblum.

Cradles to Crayons Boston recently did a survey among its partners — schools, social workers, YMCAs, and community centers — to gauge what items were most needed.

“Diapers," said Marguerite Dowd, the director of operations, “was ranked number one for every single group."