Cloth vs Paper: To Enter the Fray?

Babies poo. A Lot. That’s one thing I do know about them. And in order to avoid messy stains and social exclusion, it’s imperative to have a way to contain that particular output. Nappies are the answer. Simple, right?

Well, yes. And no. Nappies indeed – this is not a post about elimination communication or other nappy avoidance techniques – but it’s not as simple as it might seem.

Traditionally, nappies were made of cloth. I grew up wearing terry towelling squares, folded and fastened with a big nappy pin, and plastic pants over the top. But sometime in the last 30 years there has been a massive shift towards disposable paper nappies. It’s a shift that many would argue has paralleled the general move towards a disposable society. It’s also a shift that has woven itself so deeply in to society that people now seem to expect all nappies to be made of paper. Despite growing up wearing cloth nappies myself, and dressing my dolls in them, if you’d asked me about nappies five years ago, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that you’d use anything other than a disposable paper one. Frequent television advertisements and supermarket aisles stacked high with endless varieties (super active mega dry new baby, anyone?) make them commonplace. The idea of bulky cloth nappies with no stay-dry top sheet could seem old fashioned in comparison.

But now that I’m about to have need of nappies in my life for the first time since toddlerhood, (yes, I really have been potty trained for a long time!) I’ve been rethinking.

Cloth nappies first re-entered my subconscious when Ian’s sister gave birth two years ago and elected to use cloth nappies with her daughter. Seeing them at her house was the first time that I realised so-called “modern cloth nappies” existed. And I was bowled over by their cuteness. Bright colours and soft, fluffy fabrics. She showed me a couple of times how you could change the inserts but reuse the outer and it was also plainly obvious that plastic pants were a thing of the past. But that was as far as my awareness went then. I didn’t properly consider the practicalities because it wasn’t something that was relevant to my life at that time.

Roll on two years to my pregnant self, and suddenly it was relevant. Those seeds that had been sown began to grow, and I chose to look in to what cloth nappies really entailed. Initially I was in a large part driven by how cute they were, how much nicer, softer and more fun than any white paper disposable whose Disney character printing just cannot compare. I also liked the idea that not using disposables would save an awful lot of space in landfill. I started to think about some of the advantages to using cloth.

As I looked in to it, it became plainly obvious that disposable vs cloth nappies is a contentious issue. There are arguments on both sides, and it seems that environmental benefits might not be so clear cut.

Opponents will argue that they’re no more environmentally friendly than disposables when you take in to account the carbon involved in producing them, then the environmental impact of washing them in terms of water and electricity used.  It’s difficult to make a direct comparison, because it depends on things like how often you wash, whether you tumble dry or line dry and how efficient your washing machine is. But one thing is certain, cloth nappies free up a lot of physical space in landfill site. I’m sceptical about some of the claims of how long it takes a traditional paper nappy to degrade, since they haven’t been around long enough to truly test the theory, but I do know that even so called eco-friendly disposables take time to break down and in the meantime we have to find space for them on our tiny little rock in the ocean.

Opponents will also argue that the cost savings are negligible. Again his depends very much on how you work it. Projected costs for use of disposables until average potty training age vary between £1500 to £2500. This is clearly dependent on which particular nappies you buy, whether you can get them on special offer and how long it actually takes your child to be totally out of nappies. Some cloth nappies are indeed expensive, running up to £20 per nappy. Laundry costs agin depend on how efficient your machine is and how often you wash, but many estimates seem to run in the region of 50p per week. However, you can  do cloth nappying cheaply if you stick to more basic types – especially the more old fashioned flat terry nappies with separate plastic covers (now poluyurethane laminate wraps, rather than plastic pants). The savings are increased if you save your nappies and use them for subsequent children.There is also a thriving pre-loved market which can both save you money starting out, and then make you money back if you sell your nappies on.

I’ve also had a number of people say to me “Yeah, see how long you last when you’ve got tons of washing to do….” I can’t really comment on this one until I’ve actually got to do it, but I’m taking for granted that with a new baby in the house the washing machine will be on near constantly anyway. I’m not totally convinced that putting nappies in the machine then taking them out and hanging them up is much more difficult than bagging up pooey disposables and carrying them down to the bin – which also involves going outside, even in the cold and rain. Plus the fact that you actually have to go out and buy them! Some people have tried to put me off by telling me all about how I’ll have to flick the poo down the loo. Doesn’t really put me off since as far as I knew you needed to do that with disposables too! And the same applies to bringing the dirty nappies home from a day out. If there is no bin to hand when you change the nappy, disposable or not, you’ll be bringing it home!

The final area of arguments are the health reasons. A few people have suggested that bulky cloth nappies cause bandy legs. First off, cloth nappies are a lot slimmer now than they used to be, but secondly these people are failing to consider that as recently as 30 years ago, cloth nappies were the norm. Disposables haven’t always existed. And I don’t see every person over the age of 30 (myself included!) walking around with bandy legs! What I do know is that disposables are stuffed full of chemical gels to allow them to be slimmer than cloth nappies. I’m not totally keen on the ides of encasing my newborns genitals in chemicals, especially since disposables haven’t been around long enough for us to really know what the long term effects might be

In then end, weighing it all up, I think the debate, for me, swings mainly in favour of cloth, or at the very least is too close to call. I’m swayed by the cuteness and think if it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my child. Also, people telling me that I can’t do something is like a red rag to a bull, and I want to do it just to prove them wrong. So we’ll be trying out cloth nappies. Even Ian is on board with at least giving them a shot. I also want to be realistic though. I think disposables have their place – being slimmer fitting and smaller to carry around. I expect we will use a balance. I anticipate using them for the messy meconium and also for long days out or holidays away where the inconvenience of lugging lots of bulky nappies doesn’t seem to be outweighed by the benefits.

I might regret wading in to it, but I’m willing to enter the fray and at least try it out before deciding whether or not it’s for me.


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