Susan Ludwig and the team that developed diapers for preemie babies have kept these tiny consumers at the center of our diaper innovation since 2002. In heartbreak, she realized the company's unique ability to deliver hope.
“Who else has all this access to these amazing people, in a company that listens?”
As a Baby Care Research Specialist, Susan spends most of her time in the incubator room in the Winton Hill technical center in Cincinnati, when she’s not visiting NICUs around the world. Her work centers on developing diapers that meet the needs of our newborn consumers.
Pampers Preemies launched in 2002, led by Susan and a team of passionate engineers. Compelled by a personal experience in the hospital with her third child, Susan iterated the current Pampers product, eventually securing a patent for an extendable back sheet that would fit the diaper to 2.5 to 5-pound babies.
The stretchable back sheet allows nurses to fit the diaper to the tiny baby, and manually widen the diaper to accommodate the babies as they grow. Pampers was the first major brand to make a diaper so small.
As medical research and technology evolved, the infant survival rate at one and two pounds has improved. Susan and Amy Tally launched an even smaller diaper in 2017, the P3, to fit 400-800g preemies.
We chatted with Susan about her work on Pampers Preemies as part of the Pampers Institute of Neonatal Care, and were reminded that her approach to innovation—to “fail fast,” innovate how we innovate, and keep our eyes on the consumer—is everything P&G aspires to do.
Susan keeps her heart on the consumer. Her interview illuminates what talented P&G employees achieve when they are relentless and passionate about meeting an important consumer need.
I wish I could bottle up her joy and energy. At the end of our conversation, I laughed and told her, “No one is supposed to have this much fun at work, let alone after 31 years!” She said if she won the lottery, she would still come to work because this is what she was meant to do.
Are preemie diapers relevant to your personal experience and family? Share more about your moment of inspiration.
During the birth of my third child at Bethesda North Hospital in Cincinnati in 1996, I was placed in a room with another mother. Immediately, I felt the room turn. I sensed grief in her. I’ve never felt, to this day, so much emotion.
Susan had just delivered her son, and she assumed her roommate’s baby was in the nursery with the other babies. But the woman kept her back turned to Susan. She was grief stricken. She went to the bathroom once, and Susan glimpsed the anxiety on her face.
Later, the nurse told Susan that the woman delivered prematurely. Susan felt overcome with guilt that the woman had to face this unexpected turn of events, while she held her full-term baby in her arms.
Curious, Susan mentioned to the nurse that she worked for Pampers, and the nurse replied that the current diapers for preemies available in market did not properly fit the babies, nor were they soft enough for the fragility of preemie skin. Immediately, Susan knew what she needed to do as a mother, but also as a researcher for the largest diaper manufacturer in the world.
“I had the power to change this.”
After she returned from maternity leave, Susan spoke with her leadership about the tiny babies who needed diapers designed exclusively for them. “I believe we were meant to share that room for a few hours.”
The first preemie diaper was released 17 years ago, so I’m sure the landscape of employees looked different in 1999 than today. How does P&G make R&D and innovation a space that women can thrive?
I kind of laugh because it was all men at the time—my managers, the brilliant process engineers and raw materials experts.
I presented the data to my team, inspired by the woman who shared my room. I said, “Why are we only catering to full-term babies? That seems so unfair.”
After my presentation, I was told they would give me three months to do what I needed to do to create a prototype. It wasn’t going to be a high-volume line, but we all knew that we were doing the right thing. “Who else has all this access to these amazing people in a company that listens? So, I got to work,” Said Susan.
What is your favorite part of your job and P&G?
When you’re standing on that line, and they’re bringing up the product for the first time, with the engineers beside you, there’s no better feeling. A big passion of mine is to get a deep understanding of what every single feature on the product is delivering to the consumer. I love that.
She prides herself in knowing the nurse and baby so well that she can push back on the engineers and raw materials analyses to demand the best for the newborn baby and its development, and share exactly why the hook needs to be just so, or the fastener needs to be softer.
Being a mom inspires my work in Baby Care and led to my work on Pampers Preemies. Importantly, P&G has also been tremendously supportive of me as a mother, and I think it’s powerful that I’ve been able to devote myself to both roles, as mom and product researcher.
You’ve done a lot of traveling for your work. Describe a revelatory experience you had in diaper research?
Every culture is different. Japan handles babies differently than we do in the U.S. They keep the preemies on their stomach with their legs tucked under, like in utero.
I observed how they would turn the baby over to change them, then flip them back over, causing excessive handling. I asked, “Why don’t you just put the diaper on backwards, so you don’t need to flip the baby over?”
The nurse replied through her interpreter, “Would you wear your pants backwards?” She was showing the baby respect by putting his diaper on “properly.” This inspired the world’s first reversible diaper design with flex fasteners, now used in Japanese NICUs to allow the diaper to be worn on either side.
What’s something that would surprise us?
It may not surprise you, but every single detail is poured over and analyzed. From function to aesthetics, there is a reason for each element.
She talked about the planning that goes into the graphics on the Pampers:
Parents are going through so much in the NICU. It bursts their expectations of what the birth of their baby will be, and the future that parents spent months envisioning for their child. Many parents have a hard time bonding. The mom is going through a process of guilt, thinking, “I failed this baby, I am failing the siblings…How will this affect my family?”
Susan leans into this experience and wants to share any small bit of hope she can. She works closely with her designer, Danielle, to create illustrations that bring a sense of comfort. The sweet animal images and “I love you,” sentiment, universally understood by parents and nurses alike, offers a little lift and hope for everyone.
After all the protypes, iterations, lines of product, airline miles, and years, Susan still thinks of that woman in the other hospital bed, profoundly and humbly aware that her pregnancy could have taken a similar turn.
“I did it all for her.”