I can’t remember when I first learned about modern cloth diapering systems, but I’m sure when I first heard that people use cloth in the 21st century I probably thought it was ridiculous. Why would you make parenting harder than it needs to be? Why would you want to do any extra laundry? What about rashes? What about poop? Just why?
Let me just tell you, friends, cloth diapering ain’t what it used to be. Here are the three major factors that changed my mind (organized with the help of some alliteration, because that’s just who I am):
It doesn’t take long once you become a parent to realize that disposable diapers are so expensive. We used gifted disposables for the first two months of our baby’s life, and as we neared the end of our stash I priced out the “bulk” boxes of disposables. I was honestly kind of horrified when I did the math and realized how much we would be spending on diapers each month, especially considering they only last a few hours (or minutes, if your child is like mine and enjoys ruining several diapers in the span of one changing session). And as we had some candida (translate: yeast rash) issues, we had to change diapers even more often than some people might be able to get away with.
So here’s the thing. A full cloth diapering system – including the diapers, inserts, wet bags, powder detergent (least likely to cause build up and best at removing human waste), washer cleaning tablets, drying rack and clothes pins, etc. – is legitimately an investment. But it really depends on your situation. Do you have any basic sewing skills? Buy bulk flour sack towels, fold, and sew the edges together to create some inserts. You can have a stash of these and some covers (which can be bought used and then sanitized), make fleece liners by cutting up a blanket, and you’ve already knocked out the most expensive part of cloth diapering without having spent more than $150.
Anyway, I didn’t do that, but we still are going to come out in the end having saved at least a few hundred dollars – maybe a few thousand if we reuse them for any subsequent babies. And even if I estimate on the pricier end of things including utilities, extra laundry detergent, etc., we still will not have spent more on cloth diapering than we would have spent on disposables (especially if you factor in the ongoing cost of trash bags, disposable wipes, etc.). Worst case scenario, it’ll come out around the same total cost. But there are even more pros to consider, in that case:
I recommend reading this environmental impact report for more information comparing disposable and cloth diapers, but here are some key takeaways:
- “One baby produces one ton of trash over one year when using disposable diapers and . . . in a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste” (9).
- “After they end up at landfills, disposable diapers stay there for a long time. Because of the plastic and super-absorbance gel they contain, it takes hundreds of years for them to decompose when exposed to sunlight and air” (11). But keeping mind that disposable diapers (even the “biodegradable” ones) are hidden in plastic trash bags and buried under piles of other waste at the landfill, it likely takes much longer than this for them to break down.
While I can’t produce an entire treatise on environmental responsibility in one post, suffice it to say that we all (especially Christians) have plenty of good reasons to care for the earth, whether these reasons be spiritual or simply practical. We may be far separated from the tangible consequences of our waste here in Western civilization (think about it: when have you last visited the local landfill, and how long do you have to lay eyes on your trash after you tie the bag and lay it to the curb?). But this luxury won’t last forever, especially when the majority of things we throw away aren’t going to disappear for a long, long, long time to come.
I don’t say that to shame people who choose to use disposables. We used them for the first three months of our baby’s life because we could only afford to purchase one-size cloth diapers, which don’t usually fit babies under 10 pounds, and I just didn’t know at the time that I could easily sew (almost) everything I needed to cloth diaper a newborn. It’s something I wish I had researched more while I was pregnant, but alas. We did what we had to do. I empathize with every parent who dutifully changes diapers all day no matter what kind of diapers they are. But I really did overestimate how complicated cloth diapering would be, and I wish I had done it from the start. Which brings me to my next point:
3. Ease? (Yes, ease.)
I may have to do one extra load of laundry every other day than what I had before, but let me tell you what I don’t have to do anymore now that we use cloth diapers:
- Try, always unsuccessfully, to estimate how many diapers of each size I’ll need to buy. I can’t predict growth spurts – or diaper shortages, or stores not accepting returns, etc. – any better than the next person. I have several grocery bags stuffed with diapers Iva outgrew before the pack was finished, as well as diapers that should have been the right size but didn’t fit her body type, resulting in leaks/blowouts (which led to extra laundry anyway, so).
- Actually buy diapers at the store, or run out of diapers in general. Once you have a system that fits your needs, you don’t have to think about diapers anymore. If I forget to dry diapers on wash day and we come up short, I don’t have to panic. I can just lay baby on a towel while I take care of business down the hallway. If you forget to buy disposable diapers because baby screamed through your whole shopping trip, or you run out before you can go to the store again, you’ve got a much bigger dilemma on your hands.
- Stuff a dirty, smelly diaper in the diaper bag after changing in public because there wasn’t anywhere to throw it away. Now I can change baby anywhere, wherever it’s most convenient, and I stuff dirty cloth diapers in a little wet bag that keeps all sights, smells, and liquids contained until I get back home.
All in all, diaper laundry (occasionally rinsing the particularly bad ones, two wash cycles, machine drying inserts, hanging covers, and stuffing/folding at the end) takes me less than 1 hour of active labor. Again, I think we overestimate how much time it will take us to do these things, especially once we find a rhythm. And I also think we underestimate how convenient disposables are once we factor in everything.
Obviously, there is no system of diapering . . . or feeding, or sleeping . . . that is 100% without effort or some inconvenience. That’s why parenting is hard, right? We can only do our research and make the best decisions we can in light of our knowledge and instincts. This is why I’ve become passionate about training as a doula in the past several months. There are so many parenting norms in our culture that are taken for granted and never questioned when it comes to birth choices, feeding choices, sleeping choices, and so on. Diapering is just another one of those things that I think we as parents don’t think twice about until we see someone else doing so, which is why I wanted to write this post (and hopefully some similar ones in the future).
Make cloth mainstream again!