New Year’s Guide to Modern Cloth Nappies

SBJ wearing Tots Bots EasyFit with an extra booster inside for night-time

SBJ wearing Tots Bots EasyFit with an extra booster inside for night-time

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.

Going nappy-free would be best by far, if you’ve got real commitment to ‘elimination communication‘, but I can’t claim to have sorted that out.

SBJ wearing a disposable nappy

SBJ wearing a disposable nappy

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.

SBJ wearing Itti Bitti D'Lish (and dribbles from Grandma's strawberries)

SBJ wearing Itti Bitti D’Lish (and dribbles from Grandma’s strawberries)

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.

SBJ in von Rosen hip splint and disposable nappy

SBJ in von Rosen hip splint and disposable nappy

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.

SBJ with an Itti Bitti Tutto peeking out from under his onesie

SBJ with an Itti Bitti Tutto peeking out from under his onesie

So, after an incredibly detailed preamble, here is the New Year’s Guide to Using Modern Cloth Nappies:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Be kind to yourself when you begin. Start with one cloth nappy a day and build up.
  8. Check out this amazing, comprehensive nappy-washing guide based on serious research.
SBJ in Tots Bots EasyFit nappy - a Queen's Jubilee special edition, if you can believe it!

SBJ in Tots Bots EasyFit nappy – a Queen’s Jubilee special edition, if you can believe it!

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.

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0 comments on “New Year’s Guide to Modern Cloth Nappies”

  1. Daina Reply

    We use a disposable overnight and also used them for about the first 5-6 weeks, but apart from that we use homemade cloth nappies. Homemade is a super cheap way to go if you can sew – there are lots of free patterns and advice at the nappy network, materials for the covers from greenbeans and inners from snazzipants among others. My first set for Logan worked out at about $6-8 per nappy for everything and they have been used for 3 children now. When I had two kids in nappies I had to make a few more which were a little more expensive as the fabric prices went up but my total outlay has probably been about $400 for nappies for 3 children and a $10 packet of disposables lasts us a month at night. We’re pretty happy with that!

  2. Georgie Rynhart Reply

    Like Daina, we also used homemade nappies, and would have spent less than $300 for our two kids, and the naps are still good for another baby. We used pockets stuffed with traditional flat nappies (=super fast drying in dodgy Manawatu winters) with a flat folded booster of microfibre or hemp.

    We did/do use disposables at night from when the girls started sleeping through the night (which was not early enough for my liking!). I found that, probably due to my issues with recurrent mastitis and being on antibiotics for the first 12 weeks of Hannnah’s life and a significant part of Sarah’s early days, recurrent thrush on their bottoms was something we battled and disposables over long stretches at night was the only way we could get around this in the end.

    In my experience, cloth were more reliable than disposables for poo-splosions, but your mileage may vary! Not changing frequently enough or using enough absorbancy is probably the main problem with leaky nappies.

    If you are grossed out about the though of handling/dealing with poop, get over it (or don’t have kids)! It is no hassle to flush the poop and even rinse the nappy. Even poop in disposables is supposed to be flushed before the nappy is put in the rubbish – just read the packet. Incidentally it is illegal to send untreated sewerage to landfill too . . .

    WARNING: the use of cloth nappies can be slightly addicitive, as they are just so cute! Who would choose boring white underwear when you have a rainbow of possibilities?

    • Daina Reply

      It must be mentioned that it was the talented Georgie who made me my first set of cloth nappies, before I learnt to make them myself. I have since repeated her kindness by making cloth nappies for friends of mine, as well as passing on my newborn sized ones.

      My boys used a disposable overnight as they slept through quite early and were very heavy wetters (I used to dream feed them too which added to the liquid load). There was no way I was waking them for a nappy change! In fact the only combination that ever worked for my first was a cloth nappy over a disposable – the disposable did most of the work and then the cloth nappy soaked up the excess.

  3. Frank Reply

    I’m also a cloth nappy advocate, but we use disposables at night and when we travel. I find the disposable at night prevents nappy rash, we just couldn’t get rid of it when he was in cloth at night.
    We also tried a whole lot of nappies and have settled on the Napnaps fitted with a cover. Unfortunately Napnaps have gone to all in ones now, but you can still get great quality fitteds and covers second hand on trade me. They tick the boxes of most of your criteria, Thalia – simplicity, cheapness, super leakproofness, natural fibres, quick drying, super absorbent and size adjustability.
    I definitely recommend going 2nd hand for nappies. They work better after a while as the absorbancy increases, it’s way cheaper and better for the environment. I got all my nappies from Trade Me, or op shops. I reckon I’ve spent under $100 and we have around 40 nappies which is way more than we need!

    My tips for people who are thinking about it are:

    Try a whole range or brands, don’t buy a whole lot without testing to see if it works for your baby (if you’re in wellington I have a set of about 10 brands I loan out for people to try, leave a note below and we can set it up). Don’t rely on what works for other babies, as yours will be a different shape. We found napnaps the best, but when Lachie was tiny the napnaps covers didn’t work well for him, so we used napnaps nappies and other covers.

    Get a nappy sprayer that attaches to the toilet, then you can just spray poo off without having to touch anything. You can also get flushable liners which are great. Just lift the liner out and chuck in the loo. They can be washed if there’s no poo which makes it cheaper. I get mine on trade me too- once got 6 rolls for $1! I use these liners in disposables too, that way if they poo just after you’ve changed them you can lift the liner out and put the nappy back on.

    I use cloth wipes cut up from an old towel. I have a little spray bottle filled with water and a teaspoon of baking soda (tip from my doctor to help with nappy rash). I just spray the water on, then wipe off with a dry cloth. This way their bum ends up dry, you don’t have to worry about being near a tap etc. It’s also easier to get poo off with the towelling cloth than with the flushable wipes.

    Don’t beat yourself up about using disposables if you need to for a while. Sickness, travel, nappy rash, uberbusy-ness can make cloth hard.

    Don’t scrub or soak in bleach or other whiteners to get rid of stains. They’re nappies, so stains are ok. Drying outside in the sun removes stains and smells really well- even in winter it’s good to do if you can. (I sometimes finish them off in the dryer if needed)

    The one thing I don’t like about cloth, and would love to hear how people deal with it, is the nappy bin. We have ours in the toilet room, to make it an easy distance once the nappies have been rinsed. We do a dry bucket, but it does smell like ammonia which grosses me out. Any tips?

    • andrew Reply

      i know well that ammonia smell.
      what’s worked well for us is wet bucketing. A cap of eucalyptus oil, about a cup of white vinegar (get the cheapest you can get at supermarket ~$1/litre), and about a litre of water. Didn’t cause nasty smells. we only went dry bucket when child 1 got mobile and we worried about accidental immersion / drowning. you could still put the oil + vinegar in the bottom, and it should help.

      • not a wild hera Reply

        That’s helpful, Andrew. What did you do with the ‘wet’ when you went to wash the load of nappies? Tip down a sink or all in the washing machine?

        We now have a front-loader (so can’t do the latter) and I really don’t want to spread yuckness to any more areas, which is why I like dry-bucketing.

        But we’ve just moved into an apartment with no windows in the bathroom for fresh air and the smell is starting to get to me for the first time in a year.

        Might try the eucalyptus as well as tea tree in a dry bucket and report back!

        • Frank Reply

          We haven’t tried wet bucketing due to L’s inquisitiveness, but have found that a cloth with a few drops of tea tree oil helps. Will try the eucalyptus and vinegar and see if that helps more. T, we have a netting bag the nappies go into in the bucket so then the bag gets thrown in the machine. Much nicer than picking them up one by one to go into the front loader. you could then tip left over liquid down the loo, maybe?

          • not a wild hera

            Oh, of course, the toilet! Feeling a bit dumb 🙂 And good idea with the netting bag. Our bucket is small enough to tip into the front loader, sort of, but a bag would be better, if you find it allows enough room for agitation.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Will check out napnaps, Frank. I’m just thinking we need a few more nappies as we have no proper clothes-line in our new place, and can’t put the rack outside when it’s galing!

      I prefer all-in-ones so will be keen to check them out 🙂

  4. andrew Reply

    we went with “real nappies” cloth system. What appealed to us was that in ~6 months of the first child’s use of them we’d covered the initial cost, and they were guaranteed for two children. Reducing waste was one of the factors for us, but cost was the over-arching driver.

    they have absorbant inserts and waterproof outers. In the case of the outer not getting soiled you only need to replace the inner. they have flushable liners that can readily transport “soil” to the toilet for flushing. a good front load washing machine with a hot “baby” cycle and it’s all sorted.

    It’s worked well for us. Clement weather for drying nappies year round has helped.

    Disposables are handy when going out or when on holiday, but we’ve not found that cloth have been overly burdensome.

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  6. Robyn Ryan Reply

    Oh the “memories” … being a parent of 4 sons – the youngest twins … “in my day” it was “white square cloth nappies” … I can’t remember the cost but do remember the deciding of “what brand” was best !! In the 70’s we didn’t have much choice really. Disposables were “coming in” but not many of “us” used them. We did try some with No.1 son when we “went caravaning” but all I remember about them was once they were wet they “broke down & stuck to baby’s bottom” like wet cottonwool !!! When the twins arrived son No.2 was still in “night naps” only BUT hmmmm .. “he decided” (maybe) he got “more attention” if he “wet his undies” instead of “bringing his pottie” when he needed it … I will NEVER forget the day I had just “brought the basket full of nice white dry nappies” in from the line & precious No.2 son decided to sit on the basket & wee 🙁 I was “dumbstruck” BUT I think this was when I realised he must of been “going thru some difficult ajustments” in his little 2yr old head .. Thank goodness I had a “good supply” of nappies !! Cloth nappies “did us” .. a single one folded much like a “kite” shape (as taught in the hospital to all Mums) & at night an extra fold for between the legs !!! We didn’t have “washing nuts” or anyone to “help” us decide “what was best” – not many choices really … A good routine was what we learn’t as far as washing & drying. No one “minded” or “commented” when baby was being changed “in public” .. The “times” sure have changed & such “fancy”, “pretty” naps can be worn “in style” …

  7. Angela Reply

    I am very fortunate to have a mother-in-law who sews, so we also had cloth nappies made for us. And I, too, do disposables at night as I find they last the distance better, and I quite often put a disposable on if I’m heading out and am pretty sure we’re due for a poo! (She’s fairly reliable!) I also find that I need to change a cloth nappy more often during the day then a disposable. I have had phases of using disposables during the day, with so much else happening in my life it felt like another way to make things a bit easier, BUT I really believe cloth nappies are actually very little work! I’d really encourage skeptics to give them a try, and I really like the idea of starting out with just one a day if you’re not sure.

  8. Rochelle Reply

    We’ve now used MCN for the best part of 4 years and I am always amazed that more people don’t – as Angela says, for the savings alone! I also have a large number of nappies… probably north of 30… as they seem to come my way from time to time! As several people have said, I think it’s important to try different brands so see which works for you. When we did a group review for KF, I was really surprised that some people loathed the ones I loved and vice versa. And your location can certainly play a role in the decision… I have a couple of all-in-one nappies that I think I would love if I lived in a climate that made drying them easier! They’re fine in the summer but can take several days to dry in Welly in winter and that’s just not practical.

  9. Eliza Reply

    We’ve been using cloth nappies since my 7 month old was a week old – biggest tip: buy a full stash secondhand on trade me before the baby arrives! I’m so glad we did this. We tried different types, but never had to transition from disposables, so got into the habit of washing early. Also, a few points on the environmental impact: in New Zealand, our energy is almost entirely renewable, and water is plentiful, meaning that the environmental impact of cloth nappies is much less than many countries. And a lot of the comparisons assume one baby us using the cloth nappies, then they go to landfill – but after being used by several babies and finally worn out, cloth can be recycled (those big clothing bins by supermarkets), so the landfill impact should be almost nothing.

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