Special Needs

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Parents Are DIYing Clothes For Their Kids Until Adaptive Brands Catch Up

“I am not a seamstress, and I’m having to cut up pajamas.”

When you go shopping for your kids, you’re probably focused on finding the right sizes, or choosing designs your little one will get excited to put on (instead of putting up a fight). But for parents of children with special medical needs, finding adaptive clothing for kids can be extremely challenging. And while a quick Google search may make it seem like there are plenty of options and brands available, moms and dads often find themselves having to “hack” traditional children’s clothing to work for their child.

More than 40 million people in the U.S. have a disability, and about 14 million of them have difficulties with daily activities, like getting dressed, according to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau report. Enter adaptive apparel: Clothing designed for people with disabilities who have challenges getting dressed, medical devices that typical clothing doesn’t fit, or sensory issues with certain textures and materials.

Adaptive clothes use features like Velcro closures and magnetic buttons to make getting ready easier. Other tweaks include easy access openings for feeding/breathing tubes, extra room to cover braces, and more. So, if adaptive clothing exists, why are so many parents hunched over their dining tables, staring at yet another pajama onesie or pair of shoes, snipping and sewing them into something their child can wear?

Kids’ Needs Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All

With all the medical conditions in the world, and the variety of braces, devices, and mobility accessories out there, there simply isn’t clothing available for everyone. And not every child has just one need from their clothing.

Meghan Wooldridge is a mother of three living in Pittsburgh. Her 4-year-old son, Timmy, has both a G-tube in his abdomen and tracheostomy tube at the base of his neck. In an interview with Romper, she explains that while some adaptive clothing lines make shirts with abdomen access for G-tubes, she also has to find clothing with collars wide enough to fit over her son’s trach without irritating it.

“Sometimes just cutting a hole in a onesie works, but for a lot of people it’s not that easy. Sometimes I have to sit down and see how he moves around, how the clothing is positioned on him,” she says. “Just finding pajamas for Timmy is extremely difficult because he has to have a pulse oximeter on at night, so finding clothes I don’t have to cut up so he can wear footie pajamas, they just don’t make them in a way he can wear. I always get upset when people malign snap-up onesies for babies because some of us need those for G-tube access or pulse oximeters. I am not a seamstress, and I’m having to cut up pajamas.”

Accessibility & Cost Are Issues

Wooldridge adds that while she often turns to Amazon, Etsy, and Target for adaptive clothing options, she wishes they were more accessible in person.

“Target has a line of adaptive clothing and that’s fantastic, but I’ve never seen it in the store, online only. That makes it difficult because of differences in sizing, or knowing if the material will be comfortable, or if the quality is worth the price,” she says.

Wooldridge’s older son Conan, age 5, has autism spectrum disorder. She prefers onesies over T-shirts for him to cover his diaper, but a onesie in his size costs around $15 minimum. Some children go through multiples of these each day.

“Adaptive clothing right now is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people,” says Wooldridge. “I mostly have to DIY it. Target is good for onesies, and I’ve been able to find some on Amazon. Etsy is a good place to look for a lot of adaptive clothing, but they are so expensive because it’s people handmaking it and it’s not very economical for most families.”

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed., says finding onesies in larger sizes can be so challenging she’s heard of parents purchasing snap button guns and altering T-shirts themselves. She worked as a developmental specialist with special needs children for eight years. Her twins, Naomi and Ezra, now 7, wore orthotics and support braces from 10 months to 3 years of age.

“Shoes were the big thing,” she says in an interview with Romper. “Technically, if your child is disabled, Medicaid should pay for shoes to go over the orthotics, but that’s a big battle for a lot of families. We would end up checking special needs groups sharing hacks, like, ‘Buy these specific shoes from Target, cut the tongue out, buy adult laces, and then they’ll fit.’ It was really moms networking on the internet that solved it for us.”

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Parents Turn To Each Other For Help

St-Esprit and Wooldridge are both members of Facebook groups made up of parents whose kids need adaptive clothing. Kimberly Neal is the founder of Reagan’s Journey, a nonprofit that provides funds and medical equipment to families named after her daughter, who experienced a brain injury at birth. She also started the Facebook group “Navigating The Journey,” where St-Esprit has found many helpful tips for clothing hacks.

Neal started the group because she wanted to feel less alone figuring out her daughter’s needs. The group has around 500 members now, each with their own unique clothing needs. “What I’ve seen with parents is that necessity is the mother of invention. They don’t have time to sit and Google the best brands, and parents often come from a single-income family so they can’t afford a specialized onesie for $30 for their child who is going through them all day. They’re on the phone with insurance companies all day, caring for their kids, and so on. I would buy pants, bring them home, and take them in. It was always rough because I’m not a seamstress, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says.

Neal says parents in the group often ask questions about where to buy, or how to hack, clothing items to meet their child’s needs. They can also use the page’s search bar to find past discussions and advice.

“A lot of people swap and pass stuff down because your kids grow, and you spent $100 on these adaptive shoes,” says St-Esprit. “We passed down a gait trainer our insurance paid for and someone else’s didn’t. The special needs community is amazing. We all just get it and want to make someone else’s day easier.”

Adaptive Clothing Options Are Improving

All three women turn to the Cat & Jack adaptive line at Target, and both St-Esprit and Wooldridge have shopped Etsy for their clothing needs. Moms in Neal’s Facebook group recommend Kohl’s onesies and Adaptable Snapables for their children with G-tubes. It seems brands of all sizes are working towards making more options.

“New Balance makes an extra, extra wide shoe that’s accommodating without being super expensive,” says Neal. “We also bought these Billy shoes and Reagan can just pop her foot in there and I zip it up. Sometimes I can find things at Old Navy, like their trouser socks are great for orthotics.”

“Target has done a great job with the adaptive Halloween costumes,” adds St-Esprit. “Hatchbacks shoes are made for kids with orthotics and they were awesome as well. One of the neat things I’ve seen lately are step-in shoes, and there are a lot of kids that could be huge for.”

While these parents love seeing the progress made in adaptive clothing, they agree there is still a ways to go. And it’s important that brands keep expanding their options.

“It fosters independence and dignity,” says Wooldridge, speaking about her own kids and adults who have difficulty dressing. “Having clothing that they can easily get on and off over medical supplies can mean the difference between requiring assistance or being able to live independently as adults.”

“Adaptive clothing makes life better for kids and their parents because they’re not having to fight all those fights just to get out of the house or have comfort day-to-day,” adds Neal. “If something can help them get through the day easier or restore their child’s pride, I think it’s hugely important.”