There are many decisions new parents have to face that would have been a foregone conclusion just a few short years ago. Among all the other parenting minefields the choice as to what you put on your baby’s bottom can be a source of endless debate and, sometimes, worry.
My Mother-in-law tells me that in her generation cloth nappies were the more reliable method - the relatively new disposables were bulky, unreliable and smelly. The disposable nappy industry has made many advances and modern disposables are much better than they were. So has the modern cloth nappy industry. Long gone are the nasty plastic pants that left the house smelling less than desirable. Modern nappies don’t need to be soaked in nasty solutions either. Mine are stored in a drawstring wetbag (in a bucket) then turned into the washing machine without the need to handle them again. The nappy pin is no longer a necessity either - you can choose from a variety of fastenings these days from poppers to applix (a bit like velcro but longer lasting and washes better), or you can use the ‘nappy nippa’, a strange looking contraption that holds a nappy together in place of pins without the risk of jabbing the poor child - or yourself. In terms of reliability, unlike disposables, you can customise your cloth nappies for the shape, size and current needs of your baby. In our family we’ve found that the occasions we’ve needed to use disposable nappies have been the times we’ve had leaks, irritation and nappy rash.
Another consideration is the cuteness of a cloth nappy. Whether you prefer the clean white cotton look or brightly coloured patterns and pictures there are cloth nappies that suit everyone’s taste. Many parents find the cuteness makes nappy changing much more enjoyable, and it’s very rewarding seeing a cloth bum on a summer’s day under a skirt or just a t-shirt, knowing that your baby looks adorable and isn’t creating extra landfill!
Modern cloth is incredibly easy once you get going. There is a small learning curve while you get used to adding in the 2 extra loads of washing a week (hardly noticeable on top of the extra washing a baby or toddler produces anyway), and how to use each nappy system, but once you’ve been doing it for a while it becomes second nature. It’s no harder to use cloth out and about - you just take the nappy home in a wetbag instead of throwing it out. If you’re worried about smell you can put a couple of drops of tea tree or lavender oil in the bag, but that’s optional.
The initial outlay of a nappy ‘stash’ puts off some people. It can be a little daunting. My own nappy collection is worth around £400 - not an inconsiderable amount. However there are cheaper options than the slightly higher priced ones that make up about half of my collection. Each system can be weighed up - cuteness and ease of use over cost. It’s possible to do the whole thing, birth to potty, on under £200 if you use flat nappies and fold them yourself , putting them under a plain or patterned modern wrap for the waterproof layer. It’s also possible to spend a vast amount of money on custom made or limited edition nappies. Most people fall sensibly in the middle. Disposable nappying costs around £1000 per child, possibly a little less, or a little more depending on brand.
The sheer variety of cloth can also be intimidating, with some babies suiting some types and some makes better than others. Many of the small, family led nappy companies will do a trial service, however. Some will let you return one of each type for cost minus post if it doesn’t suit your child. Some now do a layaway service so you can pay a little each week as if you were paying for disposables, except you finish paying far earlier than potty training! In the UK many areas have services doing trial packs of nappies with a variety of types in each and a discount when you choose your own. Many UK councils also have a scheme to help new cloth users offset the cost, usually via a grant or voucher.
The main reason many people are interested in cloth nappying is the cost of disposables on the environment. Each disposable nappy uses crude oil to produce. If Elizabeth I of England had been in disposable nappies her bottom coverings would still be in landfill. Detractors point out that the cost of washing and drying on the environment should not be overlooked. This is true, but the most recent study ‘proving’ that cloth is less environmentally friendly was seriously flawed. Not only was it paid for by disposable manufacturers, it claimed that all cloth users tumble dry their nappies (not true, not necessary) and iron them (I have never come across anyone ironing their nappies, either among my peers at home or online). A revised study was published in 2008, showing that responsibly laundering cloth nappies has a significantly beneficial effect on the environment, with carbon emissions reduced by up to 40% as compared with disposables.. As you use half the powder recommended on the box to prevent soap build up , and you never use fabric softener (both of which which affect absorbency), the financial costs are marginal and weighing up a couple of 40 or 60 degree washes versus the cost of plastic hanging around in landfill for a few hundred years, I think I’ll take the extra washes.
Cloth nappies have become a rewarding part of parenting in our family. I take pleasure in having saved money and not producing as much landfill as I might otherwise do. Hanging out a line of drying nappies and watching them fluttering in the breeze, or seeing my daughter’s pleasure in choosing a nappy she enjoys wearing makes me extraordinarily happy for such a small thing. A little extra initial cost and a slightly steeper learning curve have been infinitely worth it for us.