Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Lately, reusable nappies are catching the attention of growing numbers of parents with a large chunk of them being millennials. Compared to the early 1990s when only 2 percent of families gave reusable diapers a try, currently nearly one third of parents have tried cloth nappies. The cloth nappy trend is becoming so big that even Vogue is talking about it. In Australia, reusable nappies are available at any major retailers and specialised stores including Baby Bunting, Target or BigW. There are options for any budgets, too - from inexpensive old school pre-fold and “terry” squared diapers to pricey cloth nappy award winners.
But what are the pros and cons of cloth vs disposable diapers? Are cloth nappies really better? And what are they better for? Find answers to these and more below, together with all the hows that we have put together to make your switch to reusable nappies as easy as pie.
What are the benefits of cloth nappies?
Cloth nappies are eco-friendly
As with all other reusables - from reusable cups to reusable bags - the main benefit of reusable nappies would be their sustainable nature if compared with disposable alternatives. In Australia alone, where 95% of parents are still using single-use nappies, almost 800 million of disposable diapers end up in landfills each year. Every child contributes to this horrendous number by approximately 4000 to 6000 single-use nappies before being potty trained. After being discarded, single-use nappies leach dangerous chemicals to the environment for up to 500 years - a time that takes them to degrade into tiny plastic particles that stay in the environment forever. In addition, faeces in discarded diapers release methane, a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Finally, production of only one single-use nappy requires an enormous amount of water and energy that outweighs the amount of resources used for laundering and drying out cloth nappies. It is estimated that the manufacture and use of disposable nappies amount to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth. Production of single-use nappies also mean that more trees have to be cut - more than 135kg of wood are used to produce single-use nappies for one baby each year.
Knowing all that, some eco conscious parents are ready to pay premium for biodegradable nappy alternatives, but it turns out that biodegradables could be same harmful for the environment as conventional plastics.
Cloth nappies are cheaper
The initial investment into cloth nappies might be a big turn-off for some. If you have decided to use reusable nappies full-time, you would need somewhere in between 20 and 30 nappies, which, depending on the brand would cost you at least $300. Prepare to pay much more if you are into cute designs and prints - those are really hard to resist! But, overall, together with liners and laundering, the whole pack should’t cost you more than $1000. On the contrary, the cost of using only disposable nappies is about $3500 to $4500 per child. You can cut the overall costs significantly if using cloth nappies on more than one child. You can also resell your nappies once you don’t need them to recoup part of your initial investment.
Cloth nappies are healthier
It’s hard to be precise in regards of what disposable diapers are made of since diaper companies are not required to list what’s in their product on the packaging. However, it is known that about 25% of a disposable nappy is made of plastic - the plastic is present mainly in the outer layer of disposables to make them leak-proof. Single-use nappies also contain the whole list of chemicals such as dioxins, sodium polyacrylate, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), wood pulp and dyes and fragrances. Some of the chemicals are known to be unsafe for health causing such problems as skin irritations, headaches, liver and kidney damage and even cancer. Although there are research studies that are stating that all the major ingredients that comprise cloth nappies are presented in the quantities that are safe for human’s health, some of those studies are funded by nappy manufacturers, so their conclusions have to be taken with a grain of salt.
Unlike single-use diapers, cloth nappies are made with natural, breathable and non-toxic materials such as bamboo, cotton, terry or hemp. Although many still use some form of plastic for the covers to create a leak-proof solution, overall the materials used seem to be more eco-friendly than their single-use alternative.
Cloth nappies are stylish
Gone are the days when cloth nappies meant boring, plain white “terry” squares! Nowadays, you have a chance to choose among myriad of cool prints, fabrics and designs. You can match a nappy with your LO’s outfit who can wear them without any pants during hot Aussie summer days.
Types of modern cloth nappies
There are 4 main types of modern cloth nappies: all-in-one, all-in-two, pocket and fitted. All of these types have a few layers with the outer layer being waterproof to prevent any leakage. For the same reason they also usually have elastic at the waist and legs. Let’s have a look at each of those to understand their differences.
All-in-one nappies (AIO)
All the layers of this nappy are sewn together making this type a close version of a disposable nappy. When purchasing AIO you don’t have to worry about buying additional covers, inserts and, in some cases, even boosters . They are also very convenient to use. The only downside is a longer drying time if you prefer to line them dry.
Unlike AIO, which has all of its layers sewn together, all-in-two nappies have their inner layer (the one that is in contact with your baby’s skin) snapped into the outer, waterproof layer. Such design makes it quicker for a nappy to dry. It also potentially helps to save some cash since the outer shell can be reused with other insert sets.
This modern cloth nappy type has two different parts - a waterproof cover and an insert that can be placed into the cover’s opening located either at the front or at the back of the nappy. Inserts are highly absorbent and are usually made from such materials as bamboo, cotton or microfiber. If you LO is a heavy wetter simply place thicker insert or double them up to prevent any unnecessary leakage. Unlike AIOs pocket-style nappies dry in no time.
Finally, a fitted nappy has two absolutely separated parts - an inner part made from absorbent natural fabric that is shaped like a disposable nappy and an outer waterproof part that is placed over the top of the inner part. Fitted nappies are usually cheaper than all other types, so if you are on a budget give this a try!
How to use modern cloth nappies?
If you are wondering how to use and wash modern cloth nappies, know that it is easy! You should change your reusable nappy as often as you would change a disposable diaper. Dirty nappies go either in a nappy bin or a wet bag and sits there until it’s ready to be washed (most of the parents wash cloth nappies every 2 to 3 days). If your baby is already on solids, scoop out any poo on the nappy into the toilet before you start washing it. There are also special sprayers on the market that can help you with this task.
When washing start with a cold pre-wash cycle, then a regular wash in 40-60C water (unless a manufacture’s care instructions state otherwise). followed by a proper rinse to get rid of any detergent residue.
The best option for drying cloth nappies would be an old school line drying - not only it will help to decrease the amount of money you pay for the electricity, it will also be kinder to the environment. The sun rays will also help to disinfect washed nappies further by killing the bacteria.
Cloth nappies have advantages and disadvantages, but after careful examination it’s clear that the former outweigh the latter. Disposable diaper brands have huge marketing budgets that make mothers feel that single-use nappies are the most convenient and best way to go. However, as we've uncovered, disposable nappies are detrimental to the environment propelling climate change, more expensive and may even be harmful to your baby's health. So, if you are a mother with a little bubba at home or a mother-to-be, why not give reusable nappies a try.