Disposable Diapers & Cloth Nappies

After the topic of immunisation vaccines, diapers (nicknamed “nappies”) are perhaps one of the next contentious and controversial subjects of mothering discussions?

Today there are so many options, that to the novice first-time mum-to-be it can seem virtually impossible to come to grips and fathom which is the best option to choose – bearing in mind as I say in my book Oh Baby “at the end of the day most mums eventually get hooked on their own individualised nappy system and stick to it”.

However, in this article I will try to summarise succinctly the various options available to assist the decision-making process – and these days the two major alternatives are Disposable Nappies or Modern Cloth Nappies (MCNs).

Inarguably having a couple of dozen MCNs instead of buying thousands of disposables, is cheaper – some quote from just $500 of inexpensive Cloth Nappies, instead of up to $3000 per baby for good-quality Disposable , Diapers – bearing in mind that a typical infant can need its nappy changed 2000 times just in the first year! Cloth Nappies are also recognised to be more environmentally friendly in comparison to Disposable’s impact of adding an estimated 1½ – 2 tonnes of landfill waste per baby. However, increasingly manufacturers of Disposables have addressed environmental issues by using more eco-friendly materials, but if the organic infant stool is left in the diaper (not flushed into sewerage) then mixing it with the inorganic nappy materials does hinder the nappy breakdown and emits greenhouse gases.

In fairness Cloth Nappies do also have an impact on our environment with the detergents, energy and water required to clean them – but these can be compared to the chemicals, energy and water required to manufacturer disposable diaper materials and products.
It’s all a bit of a hornets nest of a topic!  

So, appreciating it is simply impossible to explain the differences factually, without someone pointing a finger to bias, I will preface this article by acknowledging that my own young-adult children are of the age that today’s MCN Cloth Nappy varieties were not available when I needed them. Subsequently generalised opinions in this article originate from surveying “the girlfriends” with younger children for their experiences and in no way reflect the opinion of this writer.  

Disposable Nappies
Disposables come in many sizes, such as Newborn (extra small), Infant (small), Crawler (medium), Toddler (large), Walker (extra large) and Pre-Schooler. Some disposables also offer different structural and aesthetic designs for boys and girls.

Within Disposable options there is huge variety from low-cost economy brands to costlier expensive-quality brands – and bulk-buying volume pricing too. Generally, costs do reflect product quality, such as the absorbency core (holding a little or a lot), material breathability (reducing chances of nappy-rash), and other “features” such as resealable fasteners and elasticated waistband and “leak guard” leg cuffs.

Some brands also have incentive “Clubs” to receive product discounts and rewards for the volume purchased.

The marketable attribute of Disposables can be the high-tech absorbency features, but disposables are also conveniently easy-peasy for Mums in that they don’t add to her washing loads. This can make disposables virtually essentially in the first six weeks particularly, because with 3-4 hourly feeding and sleep deprivation, any labour-saving item can also be a sanity-saving item. It is so important in the first few weeks for a Mum to be able to simply focus on assisting her infant’s feeding and sleep regimes, without putting huge “supermum” pressures on a parent to also be washing and reusing nappies.

My one strong piece of recommendation is this: Regardless of your long-term plans use disposable nappies for the first six weeks (until your life has smoothed out into a predictable schedule in which you feel you have time to ‘breathe’ again, and until babe has gotten through their initial very rapid growth period of typically going from 3½ to 5 kilos in a very short time outgrowing the smallest nappies).

Modern Cloth Nappies (MCNs)
Cloth Nappies come in four main design varieties, known as the Prefold, the Fitted, the Pocket or the All-In-One … long-gone are the old-fashioned flat white nappies with safety pins!

Prefolds are a rectangular cloth nappy sewn in layers, with usually six or eight layers in the centre, and four layers on the edges. Prefolds come in various fabrics such as bleached/unbleached cotton or hemp, and can be used like an old-fashioned nappy fixed with snappi-type clips, or they can be folded to create a ‘pad’ for using inside a breathable velcro/snap polyurethane-laminate-type waterproof over-nap leak-proof cover – nothing like the old plastic pants used to be! The big advantage with Prefolds is that they are generally the most economical Cloth Nappy, and can be particularly ideal for a newborn nappy.

Fitteds have elasticated legs, fasteners at the waist, an absorbent center and some have a stay-dry inner microfleece layer. Fitteds come in various colours, patterns and fabrics, such as natural cotton, hemp or bamboo, or manmade microfibre. They need a waterproof over-nap cover (such as mentioned above), and although they vary in absorbency, some say Fitteds can be one of the most absorbent and leak-proof Cloth Nappy option. Fitteds are especially good as overnight nappies, and for “explosive excretions” because they fit so snugly around the leg.

Pockets have a polyurethane-laminate-type waterproof outer layer, lined with velour or a stay-dry fabric (such as microfleece or suede-cloth), and a “pocket” opening between. Inserted into the pocket can be a huge variety of “absorbency” depending on personal preference, such as a folded flat nappy, prefold, microfiber, BKT (burley knit terry), hemp or bamboo inserts. Pockets come in lots of style varieties and sizes because it’s important to get a good fit.
They are a popular style of Cloth Nappy because they are so customizably versatile, in that you can adjust the amount of absorbency inserted (such as trim for daytime use and thicker for overnight use) – and they are very quick to dry, especially if used with a microfibre insert.

All-In-Ones (AIOs) look the most like a disposable diaper, as they have the nappy absorbency core and waterproof cover outer all sewn in together – often with a polyurethane-laminate-like stay-dry pocket. Some say AIOs make great daytime nappies, are less bulky for going out, and are the easiest Cloth Nappy to use because they are most like a disposable to put on.

In conclusion, it is an important point to note, that your decision doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. For example, taking a middle-path viewpoint of using just 2-3 cloth nappies daily can save over 2000 disposables turning into landfill over 2½ years. However, at the end of the day, the particular nappy regime you will end up deciding upon as best suiting your individual lifestyle philosophies, will probably involve a little initial “trial and error” until you “perfect your system”!

Love & Light, Kathy

Kathy Fray is a New Zealand writer and midwife, author of the best-selling “OH BABY…Birth, Babies & Motherhood Uncensored”, and internationally popular “OH GROW UP…Toddlers to PreTeens Decoded”, and body-mind-spirit manuscript award-winning “OH GOD – WHAT THE HELL DO I TELL THEM?! Guide for vaguely spiritual Parents”.

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