You can tell by the volatile weather, road closures and slow news days that it’s the middle of the summer holidays (in the Southern Hemisphere, obviously).
When I was a kid, we spent every summer at a campground or two somewhere around the country, in our trusty Camp-O-Matic.
And every summer, we would visit a different dump. I mean that literally. My clever dad is a civil engineer specialising in waste systems like rubbish dumps, recycling transfer stations, sewerage systems. It’s very important work, though it was underappreciated by his daughters during school holidays.
We all grew up pretty green, with a clear awareness of the cost of throwing things out. In the years since the dump-tourism, Dad and I have had a long-running conversation about what kind of nappies – reuseable or disposable – are best for the environment. It’s one of those things, like the ‘health benefits’ of red wine, that is so high stakes, financially, that each competing industry keeps funding studies to trump the last one.
But if you’re going to use nappies at all, it’s actually a bit of a toss-up which kind is ‘best’ for the environment. There are so many factors to consider when doing a life-cycle analysis that it’s hard to be dogmatic, and the answer is different if you live in different places and have access to different utilities.
Disposables are complex to manufacture and take a lot more transporting to and away from your house and then take up an enormous amount of landfill space, emitting greenhouse gases for ages afterwards.
But reusable cloth nappies also have to be manufactured, perhaps from fertiliser- and water-intensive cotton farming, for instance. While you have one manufacturing outlay that lasts hundreds of nappy changes, you do then have to keep using water and electricity washing (and perhaps drying) them, and the detergent you use has to be manufactured, transported and disposed of.
In most analyses, cloth nappies are the winner by a small margin (a wider margin, the more children they are used for), but the gap narrows if you have to use an electric drier often, have to use lots of synthetic detergent (in hard water), or use nappies that are intensive to manufacture.
Health-wise there seems to be no clear difference between cloth and disposable nappies (except for one interesting study calling – so far in vain, as far as I can tell – for more research).
The one clear difference, of course, is in cost. Cloth nappies have a big initial cost but over a couple of years of nappy-wearing, come out at under half the cost of disposables – perhaps as little as a sixth of the cost, depending on what kind of nappies you’re comparing.
My Dad reckons that in terms of the environmental impact, it’s a bit of a toss-up, but that he would prefer cloth nappies to be more popular, partly for psychological reasons: to make an effort to reduce landfill waste in one area could help in other areas too, and landfill waste really needs to be cut.
I always thought I would use cloth nappies, for those reasons, but we actually started with disposables for ages.
Just before SBJ was born we were lucky enough to be given a bunch of different cloth nappies to trial for a Kiwi Families feature. We always intended to use disposables for the first few weeks while we got used to every other challenge of having a newborn in the family.
But on day five SBJ was diagnosed with a clunky hip and put in a von Rosen body splint for nine weeks. It was nearly impossible to fit reusable nappies under the splint. Also, because the splint couldn’t be removed, even for a second, the risk of it getting manky while we learnt how to maximise the leak-proofing of the washable nappies was pretty off-putting, so we stuck with the disposables, which are certainly more forgiving to amateur nappy-changers.
Once SBJ was out of the splint – and his hip is perfectly fine now, so far – we started on the cloth nappies, slowly, while we got used to the routine of storing, washing, drying and assembling them.
We started with one cloth nappy a day – the rest disposable – until we worked up to full-time reusable. Now we use cloth nappies all the time except when we’re travelling.
I’m a total fan of cloth nappies now, and wouldn’t do it any other way. In fact, for us, it’s easier (now) than disposables, which we’d have to remember to buy!
We’re a generous-and-respecting-of-differences kind of community at this blog, and I hope my lengthy discourse about the environmental trade-offs makes it clear that I’m not arguing that everyone should be using cloth nappies. But I thought that I’d give some tips from our experience so far to make it easier if you think it’s something you might be keen to try.
So, after an incredibly detailed preamble, here is the New Year’s Guide to Using Modern Cloth Nappies:
- It’s easier than you might think. Once you have a system set up (which is the hard part), it’s basically no extra work or thought.
- You’re saving heaps of money, no matter how expensive and fancy your cloth nappies are. If you have the financial flexibility, buy the best nappies for you and your baby, the ones that will make life the easiest for you. Those may be super cheap or a bit more pricey, but any option will be way cheaper in the long run than disposables, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you budget for them.
- If you can, it might be helpful to shadow a friend who uses cloth nappies for a few hours to see the system in action. It’s a different world from when we were kids, so it’s good to get a picture of how a bucket system works, what kind of cloth wipes they use, how many waterproof wet-bags (for storing dirty nappies and wipes when you’re out and about) will be good to have on hand, how they wrangle a wriggling baby, and so on.
- Do some research on the different kinds of modern cloth nappies – there are a million options, but a few basic categories. A good place to start is Kiwi Families, who did an extensive trial of heaps of different brands last year. Most companies adjust their design regularly, so don’t rely on old reviews, awards or articles.
- Consider getting a sample pack or a couple each of a few different styles to see what actually works for you. All styles are a combination of trade-offs. You can have simplicity, cuteness, cheapness, super-leak-proof-ness, slimness, quick drying time, natural fibres and size-adjustability, but you can’t have all of those in one style of nappy. It’s hard to be sure which factors are most important for you and your baby until you start using them, so don’t buy twelve of one style without trialling it for a few weeks.
- The main challenge for most families is putting the nappies on in the perfect way so that they are leak-proof when babies are very young and breastfed, and tend to have very liquid (and copious!) stools. Prepare yourself for this, mentally, and know that it is a problem with disposables too, though they tend to be more impenetrable-force-fieldish. You can read reviews online and often get tips from the nappy makers for just how to get the best performance out of each brand.
- Be kind to yourself when you begin. Start with one cloth nappy a day and build up.
- Check out this amazing, comprehensive nappy-washing guide based on serious research.
To put some specifics into all of that, here’s exactly what we currently do. There are a million ways to make things work, this is just our routine at the moment, but it works well for us.
- Having trialled a dozen different kinds of cloth nappies, we have invested in sets of three different styles.
Most of the time, and always at night, we use TotsBots Easyfits because they are all-in-one (you don’t need to put together different components), have a waterproof outer layer, good leg gussets for containment, and adjustable velcro fastenings so they’ll last as he grows. We have about eight of these.
We have three Itti Bitti Tutto and Bitti D’Lish nappies which are cute, slimline and sort of all-in-one. The Tutto are one-size-adjusts-to-all so will last through all ages.
We also have a set of EcoBots (three covers and six or eight inners), one of the cheapest systems on the market, which are very reliable, just a bit bulkier to pop in the nappy bag or fit around him.
- When we change SBJ, we do so in a bathroom if at all possible, and use a tap to wet a couple of flannels that we use as reusable bottom wipes (colour coded so they’re not used for anything else!). We clean him up, put the new nappy on, and put the old one and the used wipes in a pedal bin with a lid. It’s just an empty bin, sometimes with a few drops of tea-tree oil for freshness.
- When he was solely breastfed, we could put the dirty nappies straight in the bin, then the wash. Now that he is on solids as well, we use toilet paper to tip/scrape/push the worst into the loo before putting the nappy in the bin ready to wash.
- Once every couple of days, when the bin is full, we wash a load of nappies in the machine with soapnuts and a few drops of tea-tree oil (and now sometimes a few drops of frangipani fragrance oil). I’m still on my first bottle of tea-tree oil which I’ve been using in the laundry for a year. We use soapnuts in all our laundry for several reasons, but one of them is that they don’t leave any residue on nappies – other detergent can make them less absorbent, so you need to use less than usual if you’re using normal washing soap.
- We’ve washed in a couple of different ways depending on where we’ve been living. Either a cold rinse or brief wash without soap but with tea-tree oil (to get rid of the worst of the muck!) and then a cold normal wash most times and a warm or hot wash every so often; or just the one, longer, hot wash. We wash in cold for all normal clothes, but hot or an extra rinse for nappies.
- We dry the nappies on the washing line or an indoor drying rack. They all dry well and fast outside. Inside, the lighter TotBots often dry overnight; the others are thicker and take a full day, or longer in cold weather.
- Folding and assembling doesn’t take long as most of ours are all-in-ones (they look a bit like disposables) and we’re only washing 6-10 at a time. We put the clean ones away in a container in the bathroom and they’re ready to go.
- When we go out we take clean nappies and wipes and a wet-bag to bring them home in. We do need a tap (or a glass of water to tip on a cloth!) for the wipes, but otherwise we’re pretty portable for changing. We own one big zipping wet-bag and three smaller ones that came free with something else, that do when the good one is in the wash. Now that SBJ is older, we often don’t have to change him when we’re out – he lasts longer.
Phew! I hope that’s helpful for, you know, someone :).
If you are a present or former cloth nappy user, it’d be great to get a collection of experiences and tips and routines in the comments, as a resource for people wondering about them.
Again, I completely respect those who decide to use disposable. I think there are strong arguments in favour of them, from the saving in washing to the need to remain sane and happy while tackling early parenthood. So please, there’s no need to apologise or defend your decision to use disposables (we use them too) – this thread just happens to be focused on the joys of cloth nappies.
What can you add?