I wrote the first draft of this post after we’d used cloth for six weeks. In true new parent style, I’ve finished it six months later. We’ve now we’ve avoided sending approximately 1,700 nappies to landfill. That’s already about 30% of all the nappies our boy will need until toilet training, or $680 saved.
I wrote about why I’ve chosen cloth nappies. Now here’s a snapshot of how it’s going so far.
How well do cloth nappies work?
A cloth nappy generally lasts two to three hours, which is the recommended time frame to change a baby anyway. We’ve occasionally pushed to four more by accident than intent and gotten away with it. At the beginning, we averaged twelve changes in 24 hours, but it got easier at about three months when we fell into a decent rhythm of eat, play, sleep. Now we average seven daily changes.
We haven’t had any mucky explosions like those memes designed to scare first time parents. A very small amount escaped on one occasion where we had a too loose waist + baby carrier, but literally, it was the smallest amount. We’d get occasional wee leaks as I learned how to tell if he needed changing, and when I’d squish him in a too small onsie. But hey, leaks happen with disposables. We haven’t needed larger clothing for his fluffy bum as long as the clothing has some stretch. Plus, no nappy rash to report.
My favourite cloth nappy styles
I love all the styles for different reasons. Flats weren’t on my radar, but I’m glad I bought a flannelette set on impulse to round out my stash. Quick to dry and cheap as chips, but also, the best for getting a perfect fit around the leg to contain everything. Paired with double gusseted covers, bombproof. We reuse covers a few times if they aren’t wet or soiled, which reduces laundry wear and tear and the number we needed to buy. Many of my flats are simply muslins or glorified towels, and will have uses beyond the baby years. On a tiny newborn, full sized flats can seem ultra bulky, but as they grow, they evolve to a less affronting nappy to baby ratio. I mostly used a Pickman fold for a front wetting boy, with a stay dry layer I made by cutting a larger piece of microfleece into large rectangles. This is a similar fabric to the lining of a pocket nappy. Not ideal from a fibre shedding perspective, but this is what worked for us. He outgrew being fussy when wet, so we don’t use them anymore except for overnight.
Our baby is long and slender and one size fits most (OSFM) nappies didn’t fit him snugly enough around the legs until after he hit 4.5kgs. Prior to that, we used our OSFM covers over flats.
At six months, we use a mix of pocket style nappies and prefolds under PUL covers, the latter mostly when we’re home. The pre-folds are just pad folded into the cover rather than snappy’d in an angel fold. Pockets are great for on the go, when it’s easier to pull out one piece from the nappy bag and do a quick change.
It will surprise no one that we also use cloth wipes. Nothing fancy. Orphaned terry socks work great by the way. One sock makes four small wipes.
It’s good to do a little research, like which brands work for slim vs chunky babies. How many brands or styles you try is really up to your tolerance level for tinkering and reselling anything that doesn’t work for you. As a waste educator, I enjoyed the discovery process. The Facebook group MCN Reviews Uncensored has honest user reviews of Australian available brands.
My cloth nappy wash routine
I’m much better at laundry thanks to Clean Cloth Nappies, a group of experienced cloth nappy users who share their knowledge to help those starting out to have a good experience. They are at cleanclothnappies.com or as a Facebook group under the same name.
I don’t find it useful to be a stark minimalist when it comes to the quantity of nappies in my rotation, which is inversely related to wash frequency. I think I have about 40 inserts. I sold my newborn fitteds when he outgrew them and bought a few more secondhand OFSM and inserts. In the beginning I washed every 2nd day and now every 3rd is fine. The absorbent inserts can take anywhere from a few hours to two days to dry – it depends if I hang them indoors or out, and on the weather. On a good day in the sun it might be just a few hours, but I’m often too lazy to venture that far and just hang them on the clothes airer indoors. Covers, even the pocket style, take next to no time to dry, and same for flats. Having some flats means not stressing if thick MCN inserts are dry yet.
I don’t pre-rinse anything coming off the baby, unless it’s super mucky, or I’m using someone else’s machine. Everything to date has been an innocuous, if brightly coloured, water soluble liquid. Babies can digest breastmilk so efficiently that there isn’t much in the nappy until they start eating solid food. Nappies go through a shorter prewash with a small amount of detergent and a titch of booster (oxygen bleach, which is essentially powdered hydrogen peroxide), then through a longer main wash, appropriately bulked to fill up the machine. Into the main wash go our socks, small towels, and kick around clothes.
I’m using Australian made Dirt detergent. I was sceptical of Dirt simply because this is a good jumping off point for evaluating self-styled environmentally-friendly products. When I saw positive reviews popping up for nappy laundry, I figured I’d give it a try. And it works. I also appreciate Dirt’s simple packaging return and refill model (Here’s a tip for affordable returns by post). The founder, Frankie, acknowledges that too often ‘recyclable’ packaging is not recycled, so reducing the amount of materials used in the first place is still very important. I found the wording of their refill program confusing, but essentially if you want to buy your goodies in refilled packaging, just let them know when you order and they will tag you as being okay to reuse an empty package returned by you or other customers. Send back your empties at any time – they are not refilling your packs specifically for you. One refillable pump container handles 30 standard loads but is only the size of a bottle of hand soap. I love that Dirt washed clothing and nappies smell like nothing at all.
I wash with hot water (60 degrees) because these are sanitary items and according to CCN, plant based detergents work better on hot washes. Now with extra hot washing, it’s valid to ask whether our electricity bill has jumped up. Not from nappies it hasn’t. From April to May we used 10.4 kwh daily. Last year for the same period, we used 8.9 kwh, which is still less than the average two person household in my area, according to my provider. Front loaders are more efficient than top loaders, as they heat cold water rather than using hot water from the tank. We use Powershop because the company supports the use of renewables.
I’ve questioned myself about the ‘extra’ water to launder cloth nappies. We are in drought, in spite of Sydney’s lush surrounds. Is my guilt warranted? Washing the dishes uses water, and we’re not switching to disposable plates any time soon. How do we decide when something is a waste of water or a use of water? I’ve already brought another human into the mix, which comes with an unavoidable lifetime of individual consumption, plus the baseline resources it takes in our society for hospitals, government, police, and everything that comes with our high standard of living. Then again, my one new human will replace an older human, and not even completely, since Australian fertility rates are declining. So while one the whole resource use per person is still far too high in our country, it seems silly to focus on nappies, which are a necessity whether cloth or otherwise. Disposable nappies have a water footprint too. I went looking for details and and course Sydney Water has a good breakdown of direct household water use, which is around 200L per person per day. Then there is the embedded water, which is the water from production of the food and materials we use every day – much harder to track down a stat for this, but the daily water footprint including household and embedded water for the average Brit is 4,645L (!). So an additional 35L (plus some for the detergent’s virtual footprint) per day for laundry that I use is marginal for a whole extra human. It’s actually nice that my boy’s water use is so low to begin with! As with many things, it’s all how you frame it, though I regret that some places around New South Wales are desperately low on water, this is no consolation. And it makes me deeply sad that it is so, as we’re not ‘saving’ water with disposables, we’re merely importing someone else’s water until they too become desperately low. I like that by washing nappies where I use them, I’m internalising the resource cost. How about we stop hosing driveways and watering lawns before we wag a finger at cloth nappy laundry? We could also not give away enormous aquifers of drinking water to foreign coal mine investors…just saying.
I’ve decided not to be bothered by it. We bathe our kid in the laundry sink and toss the water on the garden instead of using a hose. We bought a very efficient front loader a few years ago. Better ways to save water are to reduce meat consumption, turn taps off to lather up, say no to fast fashion, or let pee mellow in the bowl instead of flushing every single time. Don’t let perfect get in the way of better, I often remind myself.
Is it possible to travel with cloth nappies?
I’ve found day trips and short outings to be simple. We put dirty nappies in a wetbag and bring them home to wash. I replenish the bag as soon as I get home so I don’t have to futz around when trying to leave the house next. The size difference between two cloth nappies and two disposables is marginal, and I use the same size of nappy bag as everyone else I know.
What about long distance travel? I recently visited family in Canada for over a month. Since I knew I’d have access to laundry facilities, I brought 20 pocket nappies with me and left the prefolds at home. I checked one bag out of my allowance of two, and even with my ridiculous overpacking and a multi-season, multi-size baby wardrobe, there was plenty of room for nappies. It’s been completely manageable to use cloth, at least for this style of travel, which is to say, staying with family or friends and moving pretty slowly. The only concession I made was to use disposables on the flights, where I felt the additional absorbency might carry me through periods when I wouldn’t be able to change him (ascent, descent, seatbelt sign on), or he’d be better to remain asleep.
Cloth nappies for overnight
I used cloth overnight – up to 11 hours – from birth until four and a half months when my boy learned to roll. We started getting side leaks, night waking and 2am outfit and sleeping bag changes. This new and unfortunate routine started while in Canada, so I didn’t have my usual full stash of inserts to try to make a better overnight solution. So I tried disposables. It seemed to work and we had a few dry nights. Then we started getting leaks with disposables too! This was after trying a few different brands and me putting them on very carefully. Our stopgap solution became a disposable, plus a flat origami folded overtop, wrapped up with a Thirsties size two cover. Part of me feels vindicated that disposables weren’t the complete solution because it forced me to come up with a good cloth solution.
Back in Sydney, I was nervous to try cloth overnight again because I feared leaks would wake him up. When it became clear he had no intention of sleeping through the night anytime soon, I decided I’d be risking nothing to give cloth another whirl. I was also motivated by the dwindling stack of disposables – I did not want to buy more! Disposables may look slim when you put them on, but they fill a trash bag lightning fast.
With an arsenal of inserts to play with, I’ve put together a combination that has lasted without leaks for up to 13 hours of tummy sleep and up to five feeds. I used what I already had rather than buying any new night specific nappies, which can be pricey. My solution right now is a flannelette flat origami folded, a pre-fold, a thin booster insert and a long anchor insert borrowed from one of my pocket nappies (anchor to the front and folded over), all wrapped in a PUL cover large enough to wrap around this bulk.
Next, I’m keen to try a woollen cover over our nappies and find a cloth only solution. Wool can hold 35% of its weight without even feeling damp, so it wicks away moisture that would otherwise spread to clothing in case of leaks. My mother in law is knitting me a wool cover that we’ll trial over our nighttime setup.
Cloth from birth is worth it.
What I didn’t know about having a baby is that my day ebbs and flows according to naps and feeds, or skipped naps and feeds, ha. Trust me when I say that doing laundry seemed more possible than leaving the house many days. Cloth still relies on my labour, but I’m on leave from work right now and can’t easily do anything else in my fragmented days. I can fold nappies while watching my son. He liked one of the nappy patterns so much I fashioned it into a toy at one point.
With a baby, you’ll be doing more laundry regardless of nappies. Messy creatures that they are, soiling not just their clothes but yours too. Cloth doesn’t create that many more loads of laundry because you can chuck your miscellaneous items into the second wash (the main wash) instead of running a separate load.
From a waste avoidance and cost savings perspective, the greatest return on your efforts happens in the first six months because of the higher daily nappy count.
Cloth takes no more time to put on than disposables. If you need to encourage a partner, the best two pieces of advice I’ve heard are to hide the disposables or simply ‘forget’ to buy any, and to try velcro cover closures. Luckily, my partner has been supportive and we both change our share. I manage the washing and any folding/stuffing, while he handles the bragging to friends.
I’ve had nothing but positive reactions from friends, family and health care workers. Many from my parent’s generation remember using traditional terry towel flats, and are curious about the newer styles. Beautiful prints make nappies more akin to clothing than hazardous waste. There are supportive online communities. Friends I wouldn’t characterise as eco-warriors are doing it. It’s more common than I would have expected, and I hope it becomes more common still. To anyone considering cloth from birth, there is nothing to be afraid of. You’ll rarely have a chance to reduce your waste footprint so dramatically.
So there it is – some thoughts on our six months of cloth. I’d love to hear your experiences or questions in the comments below.