I'll also add that I'm an independent mum, with no affiliation to any political or activist group, and no ties to any company that sells nappies or any baby products. My opinions are my own, independent opinions, having used both cloth and disposable.
Photo: What to look for in a cloth nappy. I think this one is pretty darn good! [Source]
Saving the environment
A lot of mothers choose cloth nappies for environmental reasons. The claim is that cloth uses fewer trees in their creation, has a lower carbon footprint, uses less water, and does not contibute as much to landfill.
The studies are confusing. You can read studies that say cloth is much better, that disposables are better, or that there is no difference.
I think the studies are flawed that suggest there is no difference, or that disposables are better.
The studies that reach these conclusions often assume such ridiculous assumptions as the cloth only being used once, the cloth being washed in hot water in peak electricity period (coal instead of, say, wind energy), and even one nappy being washed per wash, rather than them being bundled and washed together. I mean - who does that? Dumb!
My view is that Blind Freddy can see that a product which is used over and over again is going to be better for the environment than one which is used once, contains all sorts of bleaches and chemicals as well as plastics, does not break down well, and is thrown away after a single use.
Green claims: Some disposable nappies make "green" claims. They are made from post-consumer content and suchlike. Nappes such as these are available in Australia and New Zealand - having been flown halfway around the world from their manufacturing point in Ireland. The carbon miles in specialist products such as these can be enormous.
Disposable options: If you're going to use disposables, try to use a locally-made product to save carbon miles, not something from the other side of the planet. To save the number of disposables you use (and cut resource use) you can try using cheaper, thinner, home brand nappies in the daytime, saving the premium nappies for night time. A lot of mums I know do this, and it works well for them, using the least nappies (and resources) for the disposable option.
Grown where?: While cloth nappies are usually made from non-organic cotton and other fibres grown in such far-off places as Pakistan, as they are a one-off purchase used many times over, the carbon miles per use are of course significantly reduced as to be virtually insignificant. And if local, organic fibres are used, this is not an issue at all.
Personally, I believe that "green" and "disposable" are not words that usually go together, unless you're talking apple cores and banana skins.
The clear winner for the environment: cloth.
Cloth is much cheaper. No doubt about it. However, the up-front costs of cloth can be scary, especially when looking at fancy pocket nappies and suchlike, which can retail at $30 per nappy or more.
Sew your own - maybe: This is where (I think) the cloth nappy sorority let themselves down in their PR. Not every woman is a sewer, knows how to sew, or has ambitions to become the next Little House On The Prairie do-it-yerself-Ma-about-the-house. Certainly I don't.
The thought of sewing nappies to me is noxious. I can't think of anything worse (although root canal springs to mind!), yet again and again on the cloth nappy websites you see these homebody types force-feeding mums-to-be nappy patterns and photographs of supposedly cute cloth items to soak up baby poo. Ick! I know they're trying to be helpful, but for a lot of women the whole mumsy hausfrau I-live-to-make-doilies image is very off-putting.
These are not the 1940s, and maybe cloth nappies would be more popular with more mums if the women who make nappy designs their life's joy remembered that. I'd prefer a more practical, this is how you do it, no mess, no fuss presentation of facts. A lot of women I've talked to on this issue feel the same, so I'm clearly not alone on this.
Cloth nappies are presented poorly on the net: If cloth nappies are to become more common, they need to be presented in a less confusing, more mainstream manner. A lot of mums-to-be simply want something easy, fast, cheap - and that works. They don't want to make nappies their life, and will be quite happy to get this part of having children over as fast as possible. This is how I felt about it, and I've talked to a lot of mums who have felt the same way. They, like me, got very much put-off by the whole "nappies are our life" attitude of the Nappycino set.
'Nuff said. I'm bound to get lynched for saying it like it is. I guess the Etsy mafia will be out to get me again! ;-) But I'm trying to help by presenting my point of view, the facts on nappies as honestly and fairly as I can.
I think cloth is the better of the two options overall - this post is clearly stating that, and why I think that. But the truth is that nappies are not a joyful lifestyle choice for most people - they're simply a way to keep the poo off the floor.
Which type of cloth nappy?
Why I like pocket nappies: Despite the up-front cost, if you can do it, buy or make the pocket nappies (see the image at the top of this post), and get the type that has adjustable snaps and will fit a variety of sizes, so will grow with your child. Then you won't have to replace your fitted nappies as your kid grows.
I think the fitted, adjustable pocket nappies are the best value, and work the best, but they are very expensive. Sew them if you can, to save money. Or buy them secondhand and soak the hell out of them before use with a good stain soaker, grinning at all the money you'll save. It doesn't matter if they're not pretty (honestly!) - no one is going to see them!
To outfit a baby with new cloth nappies of the most expensive variety you're probably looking at quite a few hundred dollars. It is NOT cheap. Having babies is NOT cheap, that's the truth of it.
Disposables will bankrupt you!: However, disposable nappies are consistently one of the most expensive items in the supermarket.
Think I'm joking? Go take a look in the supermarket the moment it opens on a day when bulk nappies are on special, and you'll believe me. Because you'll see all the bleary-eyed Dads grabbing as many bags of disposable nappies as they can carry, trying to save a few bucks. Then watch them go through the checkout, and watch the bill come to a couple of hundred dollars or more.
When we had two kids under the age of three in disposables, nappies were a separate category in our family budget, they were costing us that much. On the weeks that nappies were on special and we were buying them, they would typical cost more than our entire family food and petrol budget put together.
Now that hurts!
The clear winner for your pocket: cloth. Definitely!
Diaper / Nappy services
An exercise in pointlessness: I'll just mention these services briefly. They're really expensive. We worked out that our nappy service, which we used for about 4 months, cost almost exactly the same amount as disposables would have cost. In fact, I think when we switched over to disposables from a nappy service (I told you we'd used everything!), the disposables worked out to be slightly cheaper, because we were buying them in bulk when on special.
If you use a nappy service it is up to you, but you won't save money. It has almost all the disadvantages of cloth, and almost all the disadvantages of disposables. I wouldn't bother.
Babies in cloth toilet train earlier
The BIG secret Huggies and Pampers don't want you to know!: You'll never see this fact on the Huggies website, but kids in cloth toilet train as much as a year and half earlier than those in disposables. Kids in cloth average 1 to 2 years for toilet-training. In disposables? Two to five years. Work out the difference in dollars, and you're talking thousands of dollars difference. And a lot of extra headaches for the parents who went with disposables!
This is also where the research falls down. All the research I came across comparing the impact of cloth versus disposables assumes that kids in cloth and disposables toilet train at the same ages.
This is simply untrue.
And this is the biggest difference between the two systems, I think.
The reason for this that I've heard suggested by a few mums is that the disposables are so effective at drawing wetness away that the kids don't register the signs they need to learn toileting. They don't learn to associate the feeling of weeing and pooing with wetness and stinkiness. So they don't toilet train when they should.
The clear winner in toilet training: cloth.
Saving your sleep
Kids in disposables sleep better.
I noticed this first with my son when he was very young. In cloth at night he was waking half a dozen times - whenever he got the smallest bit wet. But in disposables at night, he started sleeping through very early. Like so many exhausted new parents we started putting him in disposables at night, saving the cloth for the day.
The clear winner for getting better sleep: disposables.
Saving your baby's skin
The companies that make disposable nappies claim that kids get less nappy rash in disposables than in cloth. I've used both types of nappy, and probably every style and brand of nappy there is. My experience is that there is no difference between the two methods.
The key to avoiding nappy rash is simply keeping your baby dry, and changing him/her regularly. If nappy rash happens (and it will happen to every kid at some point), keep the nappy area scrupulously clean, apply a good basic, unscented nappy cream with every change (pile it on!), and change more frequently than usual. It will go away.
The clear winner for avoiding a sore bum: Both systems are the same. Just keep your kid clean!
Saving your sanity
Disposables are easy when you go out. You just dump them in the nearest bin when they're dirty. Easy.
Disposables are also quicker to change. Just a bit, although I've seen (and done) some lightning-fast cloth changes. There might be 5 seconds in the difference between experienced changes, but there is a difference.
When you're travelling or on holidays, disposables are a real winner. I took my four month old daughter on a two week holiday with me, and was real glad I didn't have to wash nappies the whole time. It was hard enough managing the lack of sleep - my daughter was an 8 times a night waker-upper. Yay.
However, a young couple a few rooms away were using cloth with their daughter, and they managed fine. Sure, the washing machine was always going and they seemed exhausted instead of enjoying the holiday, but they did it. So it can be done. But they were welcome to it!
The clear winner on holiday, for speed (small difference only), and on the go: disposables.
I think cloth is the better of the two alternatives, and if I were starting from scratch with a baby, now I have the benefit of hindsight, I would choose cloth - the adjustable pocket nappies.
However, I think we, as parents, need to stop creating the whole "us and them" battleground on the nappy front.
Having kids is hard enough, without feeling guilty for using disposables, or flaunting an assumed virtuousness for using cloth.
Cloth wins on environment, budget, and toilet training earlier, but disposables have clear advantages in other areas.
Maybe a sensible approach is to use both: cloth as your main nappying approach, saving disposables for holidays and special occasions when you need that extra ease, or those nights when you need an extra bit of sleep (like the first two years!).
Yes, disposable nappies are probably shocking for the environment, but red meat and cars probably worse. If you're environmentally that concerned, maybe giving up red meat and your car are things you can do to make even more of a difference than the type of nappy your kid - or someone else's - is in.
And if something someone else is doing offends or upsets you, that's their business, not yours, so mention it ONCE if you must, then butt out. They're a parent, they're doing it tough and need your support, not your holier-than-thou attitude.
After all, we can't change what other people do, but we can continually improve our own habits if we choose.
I think, as parents, we should do whatever we feel is right for us. And I do think, no matter which nappying option is right for us, that caring for the environment by using our resources sparingly in other ways, is a wise and responsible thing to do for our kids.
Because our kids, no matter what nappy they wear, are all terrific.
I'll end this post with some links to research on nappy systems, and some links to various nappy resources around the net.
- Cloth v Disposable Diapers
- The Diaper Debate
- An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies
- Womens' Environment Network Media Report: "Environment Agency report is seriously flawed"
- Overview of cloth nappy styles
- Oz Cloth Nappies
- The Little Squirt
- Kittykins (UK site)
- Soft Cloth Bunz (US site)