Every new parent will need to decide how to handle their infant’s toileting needs and with so many options now available the choice can be overwhelming. Here we explore the great debate; cloth nappies vs disposables to help you decide which option is best for you and your baby.
Fifty years ago, there was no choice when it came to using cloth or disposable nappies. Women across the country diligently displayed clotheslines full of freshly washed terry towelling squares and safety pins were a new-mum necessity item. When disposable nappies became an option in the 1960’s, this convenience became incredibly popular and many women chose to spend money on disposables for ease of effort. It wasn’t until the 1990s that awareness grew around the environmental impact that the billions of disposable nappies were having. In recent years, the shift back to cloth has become a popular option – especially with the modern kinds of cloth nappies that are available. As a mum and early childhood professional, I have tried and tested many varieties and brands of both disposable and cloth nappies. Read on to learn everything you need to know about choosing the best option for your baby’s bottom.
A cloth nappy glossary of terms
Yes, that’s right. There is a whole language associated with the world of cloth nappies and if you are new to all of this, there are some things you need to understand. Here are some common-use words and phrases that you will hear when talking about cloth nappies.
All-in-one nappy (AIO) – A fitted cloth nappy with the water-resistant layer sewn onto the outside of the nappy. These can take longer to dry but they are quick and easy to use.
All-in-two nappies (AI2) – These are similar to AIO nappies but usually have a booster that snaps in and out of the outer nappy shell. These dry faster and can be very absorbent.
Booster – An absorbent pad that is added to the nappy to increase absorbency.
Cloth wipes – A fabric square, usually made of flannel or bamboo that is used instead of a disposable wipe. These are used with just water.
Cover – A cover is needed over some cloth nappies that don’t have an absorbent layer sewn in. These can be made of wool, fleece or polyurethane laminate (PUL). These are sometimes referred to as wraps or pilchers.
Fitted nappy – A shaped nappy with no waterproof outer. These are usually fastened with snaps or Velcro and require a separate cover.
Flat nappy – traditional nappy squares that can be made from cotton, muslin, bamboo or flannelette. These are fast drying and usually mean using pins or a ‘snappi’ to close them.
Liner – comes in disposable or cloth options and are used to make cleaning nappies easier and to reduce staining. The poo is collected on the liner and then you can flush it in the toilet.
Modern cloth nappy (MCN) – Any pre-shaped nappy that involves little or no pinning or folding.
Prefold – Similar to a flat nappy but with a thicker pad down the middle. These can be fastened with a pin or snappi and require a waterproof cover.
Pocket nappy – A shaped nappy with an outer water resistant layer and a pocket opening in the back to allow the level of absorbency to be adjusted.
Snappi – This is a brand name of a product that has been made from stretchable plastic and is shaped like a T and with grips on each end. The grips hook into the cloth and provide a way to secure the nappy without pins.
Cloth nappies vs Disposable: COST breakdown
The debate has been rife as to whether cloth or disposable nappies are actually cheaper in the long run, so let’s break down the actual costs.
It might not be surprising that the cheapest cloth option is still the old-fashioned terry toweling squares which can be purchased for approximately $1-$2 per nappy. Although these are a tried and tested option, they can be tricky to fold and require some additional accessories – such as nappy pants or pilchers to prevent leaks.
Modern cloth nappies are now an excellent option. They don’t need to be folded and are very straightforward to use. The cost of purchasing this style of nappy ranges from $7 to $35 per nappy so are certainly more expensive initially but seem to pay themselves off over time.
When it comes to cost, disposable nappies start at just 16 cents per nappy for the cheaper brands and up to $1 per nappy for some of the more eco-friendly products.
According to CHOICE Magazine, a typical baby will go through about 6000 disposable nappies before they are toilet trained. This adds up to around $3000 in nappies for one child.
The Darlings Downunder website provides some very useful information in relation to the costs of cloth vs disposable nappy options. They indicate the below cost comparisons.
|Single use nappy at 39 cents each (based on 10 changes a day for 3 months)||$354.90|
|Single use nappy at 50 cents each (based on 5 changes a day for 27 months)||$2,025.00|
|Baby wipes at $5.95 (tub of 80) per fortnight||$386.75|
|One year night nappies for toddler 87c each||$317.55|
|Total cost of disposables for one child||$3, 084.20|
|24 reusable one-size nappies @ $26 each||$624.00|
|Reusable nappy liners||$36|
|Reusable nappy wipes||$43.80|
|Laundry costs over 2.5 years||$146.98|
|Total cost of reusable nappies for one child||$888.78|
When you factor in that the cloth nappies can be re-used for subsequent children, the cost benefit becomes very clear. To read more detailed cost breakdowns based on a range of nappy types and scenarios, click here: Cost of Cloth Nappies (darlingsdownunder.com.au)
Cloth nappies vs Disposable: Environmental Impact
Now here is an interesting concept to explore. Both cloth and disposable nappies have an impact on our environment. We know that each day millions of disposable nappies find their way into landfill but cloth nappies use water, detergents and energy such as a washing machine and clothes dryer. Both certainly have an impact – but which is less?
There have been several recent studies that have explored this issue and the results are consistently clear – reusable nappies are much better for the environment. Although cloth nappies require water and energy to launder them, the material costs, energy consumption and waste that is accumulated through the production of disposable nappies are far greater. The Australian Nappy Association makes this very clear through the below infographic.
For more information about the environmental impacts of cloth vs disposable nappies, check out the Australian Nappy Association website here: Are cloth nappies as bad for the environment as disposable nappies? | ANA (australiannappyassociation.org.au)
Cloth nappies vs Disposable: what’s better for babies?
Whilst it is clear that cloth nappies are better for the environment, many parents worry that they might not be as good for their baby as disposables. It is thought that disposables keep a baby’s bottom drier and therefore are more effective at keeping away nappy rash. In reality, as long as a nappy is changed frequently, nappy rash can be prevented regardless of what kind you are choosing to use.
Of course there can be exceptions to the rule. Some babies might experience skin irritation or allergic reactions to particular materials or chemicals and therefore do better with an alternative option. Some children’s bottoms might not like the material that cloth nappies are made of whilst other bottoms might react to the dyes and artificial materials within disposable nappies. There is no right or wrong answer here. It comes down to the individual.
If you are concerned about nappy rash, here is some great information about the prevention and treatment of this common condition. Nappy rash treatment and prevention | Raising Children Network
Cloth nappies vs Disposable: Usage – how many do I need?
As mentioned above, you can expect that your child will go through around 6000 nappy changes before they are toilet trained. That is 6000 disposable nappies that will end up in landfill if you choose that particular option. Alternatively, if you decide to go the cloth route, you will need around 20-24 nappies to begin with. How many you purchase might be dependent on your washing and drying routine as well as the climate where you live. It is a good idea to buy a few different types of cloth nappies to begin with so that you can get a feel for what you prefer before buying a huge bulk amount.
Personally, I really preferred the pocket style of nappies that were a one-size-fits all. I liked being able to adjust the level of absorbency and add extra boosters for overnight. The all-in-one kind of nappies often came in cute, appealing and fashionable designs but I didn’t find them as absorbent so changing needed to be more frequent – thus needing more nappies. I also liked the bamboo pre-fold nappies for tiny babies and used wool nappy covers to prevent leaks.
Cleaning cloth nappies; is it difficult?
This one seems to come down to personal preference. I tried both disposable and cloth – I didn’t mind the routine of putting cloth nappies in a bucket to soak, but my partner at the time had a different opinion – he was of the opinion that it was an extra step in our busy lives that we didn’t need, and that we could take steps to be environmentally conscious at home in other ways. Hence, we reverted back to disposables for a while, but the simple answer to this question is no. It’s an extra load of washing every couple of days and of course, this does depend a bit on the kind of cloth nappies you decide to use. If you are using the terry towelling method, there is a bigger process of soaking and washing whilst modern cloth nappies generally just sit in a bucket until they are washed. It all comes down to personal preference I guess.
Are cloth or disposable nappies more comfortable?
Truthfully, your baby should be very comfortable in either a cloth or disposable nappy. When it comes to comfort, there are a few important things to remember to make sure that your baby feels snug and content in their nappy. Regardless of the type of nappy you use, if the nappy is not put on the baby properly it will not be particularly comfortable. Always make sure that the nappy isn’t too tight around your baby’s belly and thighs and change it before it becomes too heavy and uncomfortable. The right size is definitely important for ensuring comfort as a nappy that is too small will feel tight and a nappy that is too big will produce excess bulk. If your baby seems unhappy, check that their nappy is fitted comfortably and properly.
Can you use cloth nappies on a newborn?
Absolutely! Cloth nappies are great on newborns. Bubblebubs Modern Cloth Nappies recommend that prefold are a great option for newborns as they will go through about 10-12 nappy changes each day. You can find more information about prefold nappies here: ☞ Fluff mail is just a click away! (bubblebubs.com.au)
Do cloth nappies leak a lot?
If you are using a cloth nappy correctly, it shouldn’t leak. Sometimes it might take a bit of trial and error to figure out which kind of nappy fits your baby best and how often they need changing. Don’t forget that no matter how well your baby’s nappy fits, you can expect that there will sometimes be leaks. This happens with both disposable and cloth nappies alike. It seems no parent is immune to that dreaded ‘poosami’ or ‘poo explosion’, also known as a ‘Number Three’ – especially during those newborn months.
What are disposable nappies made of?
Disposable nappies are made up of a number of layers and materials. In most cases, there are three main layers:
- A top sheet – the soft inner layer that sits against baby’s skin. This is usually made of polypropylene.
- A back sheet – This is the outer shell of the nappy which prevent the nappy from leaking.
- An absorbent core – The layer that contains the moisture. This is usually made of cellulose fluff pulp and sodium polyacrylate. The Cellulose pulp quickly absorbs the liquid and can hold liquid many times its own weight. When met with moisture, it turns the liquid into a gel.
If you would like to know more about what is in your baby’s disposable nappy, click here: What are your baby’s disposable nappies made from? – Which? News
So, which is better?
Cloth or disposable. Which is better? This is the ultimate question we are here to answer in the great nappy debate. So, here is a list of positives and negatives for both options for you to consider.
What are the advantages of using cloth nappies?
- They are non-toxic and don’t contain harsh chemicals or plastics.
- They have less negative impact on the environment than disposable nappies.
- They come in a variety of colours and designs.
- They are great for sensitive bottoms.
- They are cheaper in the long-term – especially if used for more than one child.
- They prevent unnecessary additions to landfill.
- Aid toilet training since your child can feel when they are wet or soiled.
- They come in a range of sizes.
Disadvantages of using cloth nappies?
- Can be more difficult to manage when travelling – particularly on a long trip.
- Washing them is more time consuming than throwing them out like disposables.
- You need to be careful to maintain hygiene when cleaning them and drying them can take time.
- The choice can be overwhelming. There are so many options and brands available now.
Advantages of using disposable nappies?
- They are just so convenient.
- There are some brands that offer biodegradable options.
- They are extremely easy to use.
- They are easily purchased at the supermarket.
- Some people consider them more sanitary than cloth nappies because of their single-use function.
- They can hold more liquid than a cloth nappy due to the crystals inside the nappy.
- They don’t need to be washed or dried.
Disadvantages of using disposable nappies?
- Most people dispose of them incorrectly. The poo should be tipped in the toilet and not wrapped up in the nappy but most people don’t do this. Human waste inside the nappy as it decomposes lets off a lot of methane and contributes to greenhouse gasses.
- Contain many harsh chemicals and materials.
- Significantly contribute to land fill.
- More expensive than cloth in the long term.
Whether you choose disposable or cloth nappies is completely a personal choice. For some people, the cost factor and the environmental impact are huge motivating factors to choose cloth nappies. For others who may be struggling for any number of reasons – doing it all alone, struggling with mental health, health issues with baby, the best thing to do is what is right for you! If disposable nappies are going to be better for your mental health because it takes away the chore of washing and drying cloth nappies, then that’s the better option for you! Cloth nappies have a heap of cute designs and styles, are clearly better for the environment and cheaper in the long run, but disposable are unequivocally much more convenient. If your baby is starting in a childcare centre, or a family day care service, most centres these days are very open to incorporating cloth nappies into their routine and learning how different ones work. You just need to have that conversation with the educators and most of the time, they will be happy for you to take several there for use on your baby.
So, we’ve had the great debate! The choice is yours! Have you tried both? Tell me what you prefer!