When choosing what to cover your kid’s butt with, there are a lot of things to consider. How much money do you have to put into diapers right now? How much access do you have to laundry? Do you care if your diapers match your child’s outfit? Would you be comfortable having a bag with soiled diapers in your bag? The things to consider go on and on. Another thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some people use a mix of cloth and disposable diapers depending on what they have to do that day. Here I want to talk about some of the main differences and considerations of disposable diapers versus cloth.
Disposable diapers are single-use products which generally use sodium polyacrylate to absorb a large amount of liquid. If you are interested in reading more about the chemical structure and properties of sodium polyacrylate check out this article. Disposable diapers are very simple to use. They generally have a simple Velcro-style closure system that allows you to get the perfect fit around your babies’ waist every time, and you just toss them out when they are dirty.
Disposable diapers are fairly cheap, about 30 cents per diaper (the price varies by size) for a well known brand. There is a steady expense over the diapering years, and many people estimate a child will go through four to five thousand diapers in a child’s life. This means at least $1200-$1500 total expense just for the diapers (though many sources say over $2000).
One thing that some people worry about with disposable diapers is the impact on the environment. This impact includes not only things in the diapers, but also things associated with the production of disposable diapers. An interesting study “An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies” by the UK Environment Agency looks at many environmental factors comparing cloth to disposable diapers. The basic summary of the findings with regards to disposable diapers was that the average disposable diaper “would result in a global warming impact of approximately 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents used over the two and a half years a child is typically in nappies.” The results actually found that cloth had the potential to be better in terms of greenhouse gasses, but it greatly depended on how they are cleaned. In one study sponsored by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) and conducted by Carl Lehrburger , he found that disposable diapers produced 7x more solid waste when disposed and 3x more waste in the manufacturing process in comparison to cloth diapers. It is worth mentioning that, over the years, disposable diapers have gotten thinner and lighter, and this reduction of materials has improved their environmental impact. Further advancements should only help things.
Chemicals in the diapers are another concern that some people have. For a very detailed look at the makeup of disposable diapers the Disposable Diaper Industry Source has an article going over the different layers and what they are made up of. These days there are some tests which have shown some very low levels of things like dioxins or VOCs, but for the most part they are sponsored by environmental groups pushing cloth diapers as the best option. The levels that have been found are incredibly small and children will get a higher level of exposure from other things in their daily lives (like food), which the studies fail to point out. The studies also tend to leave out that dioxins are found in comparable levels (once again very small amounts) in cloth diapers. Bleach is the one chemical which can be a concern. Most disposable diapers use bleach to treat the fibers in their diapers. This can lead to some residue being left behind. This is normally not an issue, unless the child being diapered has very sensitive skin or one of a number of skin conditions.
There are some “more natural” options available including Honest Company diapers and Seventh Generation diapers. The big difference between more eco-friendly diapers and regular ones is that they do not bleach the absorbent core of the diaper. The bleaching process uses energy and creates chemical wastes which need to be disposed of. If the child you are looking for has very sensitive skin and has had trouble with traditional diapers then these may be a good option if you want a disposable diaper. For the most part though the actual product that hits the shelves is made up of the same ingredients. Honest Company’s diapers do come in a variety of cute prints, while Seventh Generation’s are plain. It is also important to note that the more environmentally friendly diapers do cost more per diaper: 40 cents per diaper for the Honest Company’s diapers or Seventh Generation.
Cloth diapers these days consist of several layers of absorbent cloth surrounded by PUL (polyurethane laminated) fabric. The PUL fabric is waterproof, and can come in a variety of colors and patterns. The diapers generally close with either snaps or Velcro around the waist and have elastic leg closures to keep everything snug. Cloth diapers can be bulky, which can change the size your baby needs in clothes, but it is normally not a big issue, only pushing them to the next size up a few weeks early.
Cloth diapers have a range in prices. Generally babies need between 24 and 36 cloth diapers. There are some different options and sizes that I will talk about in another post, but for cost comparison prefolds with covers are generally the cheapest and all in one diapers are the most expensive. For 24 infant prefolds, 36 larger prefolds, and 8 one size covers the cost would be $240 for the diapering life of the child. For all in one diapers 24 newborn size and 36 one size diapers would cost $1356 for the entire diapering life of the child. This cost would be upfront rather than spread out over the first few years of the child’s life, but if you had later children they could use the same diapers, leading to even more savings.
The environmental impact of cloth diapers is generally less than disposable diapers. The biggest impact in solid waste is that the diapers are not sent to a land fill once they are used; instead; they are cleaned and reused. The Lehrburger study says that disposable diapers produced 7x more solid waste when disposed and 3x more waste in the manufacturing process when compared to cloth diapers. “An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies” by the UK Environment Agency showed that the effects of using cloth diapers on greenhouse gasses depended on how they were cleaned. If the users washed cloth diapers in only full loads, in hot water (60 degrees Celsius), line dried the diapers, and reused them on a second child they “would lower the global warming impact by 40 per cent from the baseline scenario, or some 200kg of carbon dioxide equivalents over the two and a half years.” On the other hand, if the users washed their cloth diapers in smaller loads in very hot water (90 degrees Celsius), tumble dried them every time, and bought new ones for a second child “they would increase the global warming impact by 75 per cent over the baseline scenario, or some 420kg of carbon dioxide equivalent over the two and a half years.” This means that if you are interested in cloth diapers only for the impact on the environment, it is up to you to be aware that how you wash them can significantly affect the production of carbon dioxide.
Cloth diapers have a simpler construction, and tend to use less chemicals in production, but many of the diapers use bleached cloth which has the same slight potential for irritation as disposable diapers. Unbleached cloth is available, and has the least irritation potential for children with sensitive skin.
Cloth diapers have different considerations for storage than disposable diapers. Disposable diapers fold very flat and once used, are disposed of. Cloth diapers are bulkier and take up more space in a diaper bag than disposable diapers. This means you may need a larger bag if you are planning an all day excursion. Cloth diapers also need special storage once used. People don’t want wet diapers getting all over everything else, so there are special wet bags made from PUL fabric to go in diaper bags. They also make large wet bags which can hang from a door handle in your diaper changing area to hold the dirty diapers at home until you wash them.
Cloth diapers need to be washed every 2 to 3 days. Most people recommend using a pre-wash rinse, hot water wash, and an extra rinse to be sure to get out all the soap residue. Cloth diapers also need less detergent than a regular load of laundry needs. Many companies sell special cloth diaper detergent, but most sources say just using a smaller amount of your regular laundry detergent will work fine. Poop is another thing people wonder about. If the baby is eating only breast milk then the poop is fully water dissolvable and there is no need to remove it from the diaper before washing. If the baby is getting formula, and after the child starts eating solids, then the poop needs to go into the toilet. There are diaper sprayers which use a high powered stream of water to blast off the poop, and there are flushable liners which go in the diaper to catch the poop, and then you just pull it out and flush it down the toilet with the poop.
There are lots of options for construction in cloth diapers, but I think that might be best as its own post.
How can this choice affect potty training
There are no studies which show that cloth diapering can led to earlier potty training. Many people believe that a disposable diaper locks the moisture away, so the child isn’t even fully aware that they have gotten wet. Cloth diapers tend to allow the child to feel that they are wet, which can lead to them wanting to start using the potty earlier. There is some good logic there, and many cloth diaper supporters will mention this as a reason to use cloth.
No matter what you decide neither option is likely to cause serious harm to your child, and in the end they won’t remember what you used to cover their butt.