The idea of cloth diapers dredges up unpleasant visions for some–pokey pins, leaks and other unmentionables. Believe it or not, cloth diapers have made a dramatic turn for the better over the last few years. No more pins to prink your fingers, fewer leaks, and no more toilet dunking. This happy news will soften the blow of discovering some of the dangers of disposable diapers. Not only do babies adorned in cloth tend to potty train earlier than those in disposables, there are some health and environmental risks to ponder. Luckily, you have a choice!
Why Choose Cloth over Disposable
Back in the 1950s, nearly every little tyke in the U.S. wore cloth diapers. Proctor & Gamble changed that statistic dramatically by introducing Pampers, a one-time use, throw-away diaper, in the early 1960s. Today, a vast majority of babies wear disposables. On average, babies use about seven disposable diapers per day,1 a number that varies with age and frequency of changes. This can mean up to 8,000 diapers per baby for their diapering phase of life.
When deciding between cloth or disposables, one should consider the following three areas: environmental burden, chemical exposure for the family and financial impact.
Both disposable and cloth diapers have their environmental costs. The question is, which is higher? First, disposables place a burden on the environment through manufactured materials (often synthetic). The plastic in disposables takes an extended time to break down. There are different estimates as to how long, but it is more than several lifetimes. With the billions upon billions of disposable diapers thrown into landfills every year, any estimate gives a bad result, regardless of how you look at it.
The second issue is waste management with the viruses and other contaminants from untreated feces and urine that may find their way into our soils and community water supplies.2 Although this scenario has not been clearly established as a current problem, the possibilities are real.
Have you ever read the back of the box for disposables? When you do, you will find a statement that baby soil should be put into the toilet before the diaper is disposed of in the garbage. Human waste is not meant to be in landfills, but when was the last time you tossed the contents of a disposable diaper into the toilet? This is a practice thought to be only necessary for cloth, but in fact should be done with both.
For cloth diapers, water usage, energy cost, the cost of detergent, and chemicals emitted from detergent are issues to be considered. Washing cloth diapers certainly uses more water than dumping a disposable diaper in the trash, but one must look at all the sides. For instance, newer washing machines are more water efficient. Moreover, some argue that washing diapers twice per week uses less water than an adult uses in a day of flushing the toilet. Finally, the chemical intake from detergents is moot if you use environmentally safe detergents.
Numerous chemicals are emitted from commercial disposables, such as those from the polypropylene liner and polyethylene backing.3 In fact, scientists have discovered that the chemicals in disposables, when inhaled, are toxic to the respiratory system. Although studied on mice, the response was clear and the researchers concluded that diapers should be considered as one of the factors that might cause or exacerbate asthmatic conditions.4
Disposable diapers contain bleached materials. Although the U.S. paper mill industry has made improvements to reduce toxic waste output over the last few years, concerns remain surrounding this process. Ultimately the manufacture of diapers with bleached products puts all humans and animal at higher risk for health damages.5,6,7 We would all do well to avoid these hazardous chemicals.
Although there is no specific scientific link between diapers and the aforementioned conditions, the manufacturing of diapers with bleached products puts all humans and animals at a higher risk in general. We would all do well to avoid these hazardous chemicals. Moreover, could dioxins still remain in the diaper itself, thus exposing your baby and family to them more directly? Possibly, but this is not something supported by scientific study.
Even more worrisome are the super-absorbent diapers, which often contain cross-linked sodium polyacrylate, a powder that turns to a gel in contact with liquid. This is the same substance associated with toxic shock syndrome from ultra-absorbent feminine hygiene tampons.1 Although negative health symptoms have not been directly linked in the case of diapers, these types of chemicals are just better to avoid, especially when they are in products in close contact with such sensitive areas of the body.
There are more environmentally friendly disposable diaper manufacturers that do not use chlorine in the bleaching process (such as the maker of “Tushies”). Although they are more expensive than conventional disposables, using these products reduces the health concerns posed by chlorine and its toxic byproducts.
Although disposables are convenient, cloth diapers are running a close second with new product designs. The act of putting on the diapers is quite similar. For example, velcro wraps close in the cloth diaper and are simply washed with the diapers when wet or soiled. All-in-one diapers skip the cloth diaper insert step and have the cloth sewn inside and the wrap outside, acting like a disposable but washing like a cloth.
Cloth diapers do not need to be presoaked or even rinsed off, as many people believe. If unrinsed diapers are not appealing, an option is flushable liners that are just lifted off and flushed down the toilet. When planned right, cloth diapers should add only two more loads of laundry per week. There is also the option of a diaper service, which through economy of scale uses less energy and water per diaper than home washing. However, diapers are shared with other members and the service may not use detergents you find acceptable.
What about when you are out and about or traveling? Unless you are a stickler when it comes to using cloth, these are fine times to use disposables. But for those hardcore cloth users out there, nylon tote bags are an easy solution. They cinch up, close in the smells, and can be thrown in the laundry right along with the diapers at home.
Disposable diaper companies try to have the “dryness” competitive edge. Have you thought of what that really means? Although the super-absorbent diapers hold more than cloth, utilizing them may not be the best approach. This idea of “super absorbency” leads to several problems. First, some babies are left too long in diapers. They are still being exposed to their own eliminations, in essence allowing a diaper to become a traveling toilet. Second, feeling wet can be a good thing when it comes to learning how to use the big-person toilet. It is believed when children actually feel they are wet, they can better grasp the concept of potty-training. Diapering a child for only a year and a half to two years instead of three or more offers additional financial savings and further reduces environmental burdens. Moreover, optimizing brain development with adequate fats and nutrients through a nourishing traditional diet may further facilitate training.
An idea that may sound foreign to many of us, but natural to those in numerous other cultures, is infant potty training. The basic concept is that infants are aware of and can control their eliminative needs and are able to learn at an early age to go on cue. Parents can communicate with their babies by learning their signals and rhythms and make the toilet or chosen “potty” available when needed, thus eliminating or at least reducing the need for diapers. Our affluent, on-the-go society of today makes this a little challenging, but it is an appealing idea that parents may want to explore through books such as Laurie Boucke’s Infant Potty Training, and informational websites such as the nonprofit organization Diaper-Free Baby, at www.diaperfreebaby.org.
Summing up, diapering decisions are a personal family choice, and all the factors need to be evaluated. Some babies do better with one diapering method over another–there is no one best type for every baby. One’s lifestyle, personal preferences, finances, available time and concern for environmental issues play a role in these decisions. Regardless, being well-informed is half the battle in making the right choice for you and your baby.
Personally, cloth feels good to me, my son, and family compared to the paper and plastic products. I feel that cloth, although it means a bit more effort on my part, is gentler on my baby, family, pocket book and the environment! Although we don’t use cloth all the time, we do the best we can as often as we can!
My Product List
Take a trip to any cloth diaper website and you will be inundated with more choices that you know what to do with in regard to diaper covers, wraps, inserts and the like. Here is what worked for me and my little guy, Tate, and the “what, why and how” of it all.
I purchased unbleached, cotton prefolded diapers in both infant and regular sizes. These are layered so that the middle part is the thickest. I have seen these varieties only on-line, not in regular stores. I surfed the internet for the best price and bought in bulk. At night or for naps there are extra pads called doublers that can be used to give added absorbency; the smaller infant size can be folded and used in the same way.
I purchased Bummis’ Super Whisper Wraps™. These are sturdy waterproof wraps that go over the diaper and take the place of pins and cheap plastic pants and can withstand the rigors of washing. They come in different sizes and patterns and indicate the weight they fit best. I bought approximately four of each size (I found a few at yard sales), since they sometimes get wet or a little soiled and need to be washed.
Another great investment is reusable cotton flannel baby wipes. They are basically little square pieces of cloth with trim around the edges to keep them from fraying. The commercial one-time-use brands are very harsh on baby’s bottom and expensive! After the cloth ones are used, they go right into the diaper pail along with the diapers to be washed.
As far as diaper disposal goes, I purchased two plastic draw-string pail liners on-line and a diaper pail from a local Wal-Mart. The pail is a simple trash can that has a button on one end that when pressed opens the lid. This comes in handy when only one hand, or finger, is free. The liner fits well inside and is pulled out and washed right along with the diapers and wipes. When one liner is washing, the other is ready to be placed into the pail. I find the pail stays relatively dry and odor-free; I clean it out about once a month.
My Day-to-Day Diaper Routine
Instructions for diaper folding and placing can be found on numerous websites and in baby care books. It becomes second nature once you do a few. For storing wipes, I found a round plastic container with an easy lift-off lid. I make my own wipe solution (see side bar Wonderful Wipes), which is very gentle and healing to a baby’s bum. I make a new batch once or twice a week. When I first started, I measured everything out, now I just pour, squirt and stir–it takes all of two minutes. Tate loves to help, too!
Just throw wet diapers right into your lined pail. For poopy diapers, get as much of the poop into the toilet as possible. For stubborn poop that does not easily roll off on its own, I came up with a little device called a “pooh-tula.” This is a regular spatula solely dedicated to the use of scraping off diaper messes into the toilet. Just wipe the “pooh-tula” off on a clean part of the diaper when you are through and it is ready to be placed in its special out-of–the-way location for the next use. There are little nozzles on the market that attach to the toilet to rinse off the diapers as well, but I found my own method to work just fine. Will your hand sometimes come into contact with the poop? Sure, but that is life with a baby!
When your diaper pail is getting full or you are starting to run out of diapers, it is time to wash. The easiest method is the double, cold-then-hot wash. Dump everything into the washing machine–the diapers, wipes, dirty wraps, tote, and pail liner (turned inside out to wash the side touching the diapers). I never even touch the diapers on their way into the washer since I am turning the pail liner inside out and using my hand on the clean side to move things around in the washer.
Wash the load in cold for the first run to get everything off. Once done, do the same load in hot; this gives the diapers a deepdown cleaning. I use a natural detergent with each load and a fabric softener occasionally in the second. A little baking soda can also help remove odors. My diapers have a few stains, but they always smell fresh coming out of the dryer.
A fun and energy-efficient idea is to hang the diapers out in the sun and wind to dry. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant and bleaching agent, and being outdoors with your toes in the grass can be quite invigorating.Regardless of what you do with the diapers, air-dry the pail liner and the wraps. Although the wraps can go into the dryer, air drying can help extend their life. If not hanging the diapers, throw them into the dryer and fold to get them ready for their next “job.” Folding is another Mom-and-Tate activity we enjoy together.
There you have it, a simple way to diaper your baby in cloth! Although there are many choices in the cloth diapering world, this is what worked for my family and may for yours too. I hope at least I have eased any unpleasant concerns about using this more natural diapering choice. Not that it is the best way for everyone, but it is an option that is much easier than most people think. Sending you happy diapering wishes!
Arguments ensue regarding whether disposable or cloth diapers are more of a financial strain on the family budget. The money spent on disposables and wipes is cut and dried, with ranges depending on preferred brands. Cloth gets a little fuzzier. Costs for electricity to heat the water and run the dryer vary; laundry detergent and depreciation of laundry equipment may be additional considerations.
With the high-tech varieties of cloth diapers available, someone can pay as much as $15 or more per diaper. However, if you stick with the less fancy products, the cost is actually quite reasonable. Here is my personal financial breakdown (see My Product List below for details on these products).
Diapers (two dozen infant and four dozen regular) $400; wraps (four of each small, medium, and large) $108; doublers (6) $10; wipes (60) $35; diaper pail $15; two diaper pail liners $30; extras (e.g., changing pads) $30. Grand total = $520.
On a personal note, I purchased more regular sized diapers than I eventually found necessary. I would recommend two to three dozen instead of four unless you have more than one child in diapers.
Having multiple children use the same diapers also significantly cuts costs. Furthermore, products can be purchased and sold through the community or on the internet to save money. When I started purchasing my diaper stash, previously used products were selling for almost as much as new, so I chose to buy new. (I also hear that, when your diapering days are over, diapers make fantastic house rags!)
The cost of disposable diapers averages around 20 cents apiece. The price can be even higher if more natural products are used. Let’s calculate, using the average of seven diapers a day at 20 cents each: $1.40 per day, $9.80 per week, $39.20 per month, and $470.40 per year. The low end age for potty training is two and a half years, for an estimated grand total of $1176 spent on one child! Using the more environmentally-friendly diapers, which run as high as 50 cents a pop, makes the total closer to $3000! Wowzers!
To make the wipe solution, use approximately two cups water and approximately two tablespoons each of aloe gel, body oil (Burt’s Bees Apricot Baby oil smells fabulous), and a chemical-free liquid shampoo or soap (I use the same clean body soap the rest of the family uses). Mix this together and then keep adding wipes until all the liquid is absorbed and they are damp, but not dripping wet. We find what works best is, before performing a diaper change, get a few wipes unfolded and ready for duty. Then there is little risk of being in an unpleasant situation trying to unfold a wet wipe with one hand!
Yes, We Had No Pampers
According to Contemporary Pediatrics, over 50 percent of the world’s children are toilet trained between six months and one year of age, and 80 percent by one to two years, with 18 months as the average. This trend was also true in the United States prior to the mid 1950s when disposable diapers were introduced. However it is now only in the US and other “disposable diaper” nations that toilet training is delayed to 36 or 48 months. After all, many societies don’t even need to use diapers.
Just out of curiosity, I called a friend who would be able to tell me firsthand about toilet training children in Russia, one of those places where diapers (cloth or disposable) did not exist until very recently. Marina is in her late 60s, now living in Nova Scotia and not long ago widowed. She and her husband were Moscow dissidents and raised their two boys there before immigrating to Canada several decades ago.
Marina seemed pleased to talk about this topic with me–it brought back happy memories of her husband, Yuri. She surprised me by telling me that it was Yuri who had trained their boys! When their first son Grisha was born, Yuri (almost immediately after birth) would position Grisha by the tap and run a stream of water while making “psss, psss, psss” noises. Marina pointed out that boys’ apparatus rather resembles indoor plumbing parts and therefore thought it might be easier for boys to grasp the notion. Grisha very soon did. “You know how easy it is to train kittens?” Marina asked me. “Well, children are much smarter than kittens. Much more clever. And they are happy to learn to do this–it makes them very proud!”
She went on to explain that you do not bother the child at night, but in the morning you demonstrate the process again if the swaddling cloth is not dry. Never scold, never punish, but only praise the desired behavior, she emphasized. Always forgive “mistakes.” As for the other eliminative process, you let them view the right place with the right action having been performed. Again, they catch on very quickly. At four months, they are most of the way there and by eight months they have completely grasped the idea. Certainly by a year, there are no more wet underclothes.
When Grisha was three-and-one-half years old, his brother Yasha was born. Again, Yuri began the training soon after birth. Grisha, who was very excited to have a brother, wanted to help with demonstrating as well, and so Yasha learned even faster than his older brother.
Marina saw that this early self-mastery helped build the child’s character and sense of confidence and responsibility. Grisha, she said, has always been a very caring person, and toilet trained all four of his own children in the same manner, right there in Canada. “Children in diapers at three or older!” she suddenly exclaimed, commenting on the contemporary scene around her. “Disgusting! Shameful! And such a waste of unnecessary products, such pollution.”
Sometimes, Marina continued, a child may be stubborn. In their communal apartment in Moscow was a single mother with her son, Lyovochka. Her mother, the grandmother, also lived with them. Everyone knew when Lyovochka had soiled his underwear because his mother would lock him in the toilet with the light off to punish him and Lyovochka would howl.
Lyovochka’s grandmother was a communist party member, an old-guard revolutionary. One day she came to Yuri and pleaded with him, “Please tell me why your son is toilet trained and my grandson is not and they are almost the same age?” Yuri had an impish sense of humor. “Maria Isaakievna,” he replied, “It is obvious. My son was born on December 25th, the birthday of Jesus Christ. Your grandson was born on May 5th, the birthday of Karl Marx!”
- Disposable Diapers. Consumer Reports. August 1987, pp. 510-512.
- Smith, Joyce A. and Pitts, Norma. The Diaper Decision – Not A Clear Issue. Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Diaper-Not-Clear.htm on March 20, 2006.
- Consumer Choices. The Diaper Dilemma. Iowa State University. Ames, Iowa. September 1994. Found at http://www.rockwellcollins.com/daycare/pdf/pm1401.pdf on March 20, 2006.
- Anderson RC, Anderson JH. Acute respiratory effects of diaper emissions. Arch Environ Health. 1999 Sep-Oct;54(5):353-8.
- Healing the Harm: Eliminating the Pollution from Health Care Practices, Health Care Without Harm Campaign Report, 1997.
- Risk Characterization of Dioxin and Related Compounds, Draft Scientific Reassessment of Dioxin. United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA). Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, May 3, 1994.
- DeVito, Michael et al. Comparisons of Estimated Human Body Burdens of Dioxin-like Chemicals and TCDD Body Burdens in Experimentally Exposed Animals, Economic Analysis of the Proposed California Water Quality Toxics Rule, U.S. EPA, 1997. Pp. 820-831.
- Martel, PH; Kovacs, TG; O’Connor, BI; Voss, RH. Survey of pulp and paper mill effluents for their potential to induce mixed function oxidase enzyme activity in fish.79th Annual Meeting of the Canadian Pulp and Paper Assn, Montreal, Que.,Canada, 01/26-27/93; pp.A165-177, 1993
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2006.