Free Programs for New Parents: Formula, Diapers, Care, More

Pamela G. Knowles

Being a new parent is hard work. Along with the sleepless nights, countless diapers, and potty training, there’s the expense of it all.

Experts estimate that it costs upward of $233,610 to bring up a child from birth through age 17 — and that doesn’t include higher education. If you need some extra help, there are various programs and resources available for assistance with anything from formula to child care costs.

Your newborn may need formula feeds some 8 to 12 times each day. While there are a variety of formulas on the market with a wide range of price tags, you may need additional help covering this essential.

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is a government program that provides formula, food, and other nutrition help (counseling, for example) to young families. The program provides vouchers for iron-fortified formulas or special formulas if your child has other medical or dietary needs.

Qualification: You must be pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, or have children up to age 5. You must also meet residency requirements in your state, income requirements depending on the size of your family, and certain risk criteria with regard to nutrition as determined by your doctor.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Like WIC, SNAP is a government program that provides staple foods for the whole family, including baby formula and baby food. These items can be purchased using an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.

Qualification: You must meet specific income and resource limits set by your state. These limits are updated each year. You may also need to meet certain work requirements depending on your age and health.

Food banks

If you don’t meet requirements for either WIC or SNAP, you can check with your local Feeding America food bank about formula. There are 200 food banks and over 60,000 food pantries across the United States. You can also find fresh and shelf-stable foods for your whole family at locally run food banks.

Other options

Formula manufacturers will often send coupons and free samples if you sign up for these perks. For example, the Similac Strong Moms and Enfamil Family Beginnings programs will each send you $400 worth of benefits (formula samples, coupons, and more). While you’re at it, your doctor or baby’s pediatrician may also have formula samples you can try at home for free.

You may spend upward of $1,000 on disposable diapers by your baby’s first birthday. That’s a lot of changes and a good chunk of change.

National Diaper Bank Network

The National Diaper Bank Network is a nonprofit organization that supplies disposable and even cloth diapers to families in need. There are over 200 diaper banks across the country that serve some 280,000 babies and young children each month.

Qualification: You will need to contact your local diaper bank or affiliated program for eligibility requirements. For example, the Central New York chapter of the National Diaper Bank Network maintains a list of participating distribution locations, each with their different requirements (like identification and residency) and hours.

Other resources

If you don’t have a diaper bank near you, you might consider checking with local churches or social services organizations like the United Way. Your child’s pediatrician may also be able to point you to help for this essential need.

And if you have a friend getting rid of a stash of cloth diapers, don’t shy away. When taken care of properly, used cloth diapers work well and can save you loads of money beyond just the first year of diapering.

All that eating and diapering will surely make your little one tired. So, you’ll need a safe place for your baby to sleep. Cribs can range in price from $100 to $3,000 and more, depending on your preferences.

Cribs for Kids

Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cribs for Kids has a mission to provide safe sleep environments for babies and to educate families on safe sleep practices. The organization offers free portable cribs (Cribettes) at hospitals in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, and nationwide through their network of 1,750 partners.

Qualification: Find the Request a Crib page on Cribs for Kids to search the partner directory to apply to a program near you. Different partners may have different eligibility criteria or availability. If you are unable to secure a portable crib locally or do not have a program nearby, you may purchase the organization’s Cribette directly at a discounted rate.

Other options

You may also ask friends or family members to lend or give you their secondhand cribs. If you go this route, it’s very important to take into consideration the age and condition of the crib. Inspect the crib or portable crib for any damage or defects.

Certain older cribs — such as those with drop-down sides — are not recommended for use by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). And you’ll also want to investigate to see if the crib has any CPSC recalls before using it with your baby.

With babies and young children, you’ll likely be on the go to well checks, child care, and shopping. A safe car seat is important to all your journeys and is required by law to travel in the United States.

Safe Kids

If you’re in need of a free car seat, contact the Safe Kids Coalition near you. These groups hold safe car seat events to provide education on safe use as well as checking installation of car seats. Many also offer free or low-cost car seats and other safety products (carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detectors, helmets, and life jackets).

Qualification: Any fee you pay for your seat will depend on your coalition’s guidelines. Contact your local group for more information.

Hospitals

Some hospitals may have free car seats to give away or to sell at a low cost or sliding scale price. Programs and eligibility depend on your location and specific hospital. Try calling your hospital a few months in advance to inquire about free car seats. Your hospital may also be able to point you to other local resources that can help.

Other options

Again, you may be tempted to borrow or take a free second-hand car seat from a friend. You should do so only if you know the full history of the car seat. First, you’ll want to check the seat’s expiration date, which is generally a minimum of 6 years. You’ll also want to ask if it has ever been involved in a traffic collision. If the answer is yes, you should not use it.

Child care is necessary at one point or another, whether you need to work, go to school, or just go run errands. Unfortunately, securing safe, quality child care can be expensive.

Early Head Start

The Early Head Start program is for children from birth to 3 years old. It provides a quality day care environment intended to “promote the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development of infants and toddlers.” Programs typically provide around 1,380 hours of care per year and may be set up around the school year calendar.

Qualification: To be eligible for Early Head Start, you’ll need to prove that your family’s income level is at or below the poverty level. Even so, there are not always enough spaces for eligible children, so contact your local program for more information and details about waiting lists. You can also call 866-763-6481 with any questions.

Child care vouchers

You may be eligible to receive subsidies/vouchers from the government for child care so you can attend school or work. These vouches cover partial payment for child care at approved providers in your area. You may be responsible for paying a copay (calculated by sliding scale) each month as well.

Qualification: You must be a parent of a child or children under 13 years of age and be the primary caregiver. You must also provide documentation to show that your income level is low or very low as defined by your state. And some states require that you are employed or in school. Visit ChildCare.gov’s state resources page for more information on requirements for your particular area.

Parent’s Day Out

While not free, there are also Parent’s Day Out or Mother’s Day Out programs across the country that offer low-cost child care to families regardless of income level. This child care program is meant for part time or occasional child care a few hours or a few days a week. The setting is usually a church, but the program itself is not faith-based. Trying doing an internet search for “Mother’s Day Out” and the name of your town to find programs in your area.

Qualification: There are no income or work or education requirements for this type of child care. Children are typically between the ages of 6 weeks and 5 years old. Prices will vary depending on your area. Be sure to ask about any sliding scale or assistance covering costs.

Other options

If you know of any other parents who are also in need of occasional child care, you might consider swapping duties to help each other out. Of course, you’ll only want to make this type of arrangement with somebody that you know closely, like a friend or family member.

A mother’s helper is another low-cost option where you hire a teen or preteen or babysitter-in-training to help with child care duties while you are also in the home. What you pay is up to you but can be as low as a couple dollars an hour.

They grow so fast. Once your tot is old enough for preschool, there are several free and less expensive options available, depending on your eligibility.

Head Start

Children between the ages of 3 and 5 may sign up for preschool programs through Head Start. You may even be able to secure safe (and free) transportation to and from your child’s program through Head Start. Preschool programs focus on kindergarten readiness. While most programs are held at centers, there are some staff that make home visits.

Qualification: As with Early Head Start, eligibility has to do with your family’s income level and your area’s availability. Contact your local program for more information and details about waiting lists or call 866-763-6481 with questions.

Universal pre-kindergarten

All but six states provide some sort of funding for pre-kindergarten programs, though the amount of funding various widely, as does family participation, says a 2018 report from the Education Commission of the States.

Two states — Vermont and Florida — plus Washington, D.C. offer universal pre-K, which means any and all children can attend, and the programs are not capped by any enrollment numbers.

Seven other states offer “near universal” free pre-K:

  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

More states are adding this type of programming as time goes on. For example, starting in 2023, all Colorado 4-year-olds will be able to attend at least 10 hours a week of public preschool programming for free.

Qualification: Your family’s eligibility will depend on where you live. Contact your local school district to ask about free universal pre-K, as well as to find out any eligibility requirements, such as income.

Other options

You may also want to check with private preschools in your area to find out if they offer need-based tuition assistance or similar programs. Tuition assistance varies by preschool. In general, you will get a certain percentage discount or a sliding scale rate according to your family’s income or ability to pay.

If your child is in need of assistance with their development, there are free government programs to help. Even if your doctor has not mentioned any developmental concerns, you may request an evaluation for your own for peace of mind.

Early Intervention

Babies and toddlers (up to age 3) who have delays in development or other special needs may be eligible to receive Early Intervention. Services include but aren’t limited to speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. Early Intervention is available in all states and is totally free. In most cases, your therapist will travel to your home or your child’s daycare.

Qualification: Before services begin, a coordinator will come to your home to perform an evaluation of your child’s abilities. Your doctor may be able to connect you with your local services, but a referral isn’t required. You may call your state’s program and say, “I have concerns about my child’s development and would like an evaluation.”

Special education services

Children over age 3 may be eligible to receive therapies for free through your school district. Like Early Intervention, these services are provided to help with educational and developmental needs of children who have documented disabilities or developmental delays.

Qualification: Simply call your local public school district and say, “I have concerns about my child’s development and would like my child to be evaluated for preschool special education services.”Your qualification will hinge on your child’s evaluation and the offerings in your area.

Don’t see what you need on this list? Try seeking out “buy nothing” groups nearby.

The Buy Nothing Project is all about something called the gift economy. You can find local groups via Facebook that have literally anything and everything you may need, such as bottles, toys, baby carriers, for free. You can even post things you’re in search of to see if other members may be able to help you out by either lending or giving. Freecycle is a similar organization.

The key here is to follow any posted rules (for example, no exchanges of illegal items) and to check frequently to claim things you may need or want. Be sure to pay it forward when you can, too.

Other options

Can’t find a buy nothing group near you? You might also find things for free by searching Craigslist in the “free”, “baby+kid”, and “toys+games” categories. Just be sure to make exchanges in public spaces, take your cell phone with you, or bring a friend with you to any meetups. And check out the site’s other Personal Safety tips to ensure you don’t find yourself in a dangerous situation.

The same goes with free listings you may find on Facebook Marketplace or other online buy/sell/trade pages you may find.

If you find yourself in urgent need of an essential item (food, diapers, child care, etc.) and don’t know where to turn, call 2-1-1. This number will connect you with staff and volunteers who can direct you to various resources in your area. You can find anything from help paying your bills to finding food to getting much-needed baby items, healthcare, and more.

You can also call 2-1-1 for support with domestic violence, suicidal thoughts, sexual assault, homelessness, or any other crisis situation. Can’t call? You can search for your local 2-1-1 organization and text or search for resources online.

Raising a child takes a lot of your time and resources. Fortunately, if you find yourself in a spot where you need help, there are various programs that may fill your essential needs.

If you cannot find programs on your own, consider reaching out to your child’s pediatrician or someone else in your community who might know where to point you. There’s always help; don’t be afraid to ask for it.

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