Why I’ve decided to use cloth nappies

cloth nappy covers

This is a rather presumptuous post, given that we’re still months away from D-day and I’ve literally never changed a nappy in my life. Nevertheless, I’m strangely confident, thanks to the time I’ve spent learning the difference between a flat and all-in-one. I’ve already bought a small stash of various kinds of reusable cloth nappies (diapers to my North American friends).

You might have assumed reusable nappies would be a forgone conclusion for a waste reduction fanatic like myself. Truly, I’m not a martyr. My decision to go with cloth nappies didn’t happen without some trepidation.

In the beginning, I was afraid…

I didn’t know anything about cloth nappies, let alone nappies (let alone babies), except that disposables contaminate our apartment building’s yellow lidded recycling bin with alarming frequency. And boy do they stink. So while I knew nothing about reusables, I knew I categorically disliked disposables.

And yet… reusable nappies? Wouldn’t that be gross? And so the research began.

My initial fears around cloth nappies soon gave way to horror, but at the toileting habits of children, full stop. The pace of changes is absurd. Thrice in ten minutes anyone?True story. The way new parents casually talk about poo is disconcerting. But if you don’t want to change nappies, and never talk about bodily functions, don’t have kids. No nappy can save you, disposable or otherwise, for the 4,000 to 6,000 nappy changes a child will need by the age of two and a half years. And yet, as a friend of mine, a new mom, helpfully reminded me, changing a nappy is one of the easier chores, ha.

Why it made sense to go with cloth nappies.

Disposable nappies are in the news for all the wrong reasons, like this or this. We all hate ’em! Yet 95% of Aussies will use them on their children, sending a collective 2 billion disposable nappies to landfill a year. Ironically, if you mention reusables, reactions can range from dismissiveness to disgust. As I’ve learned with root canals, the biggest fear mongering comes from those without first hand experience.

Lifecycle analysis is tricky and beyond my capabilities. Disposables have an enormous landfill and plastic footprint, while cloth nappies use water and pesticides for fibre growing and washing, plus laundry detergents. Government resources and studies favour reusables, while disposable nappy producers claim disposables are not so bad. Go figure. I won’t claim that reusables are perfect, but I am persuaded by the following:

  • A lot less plastic is being produced and sent to landfill with cloth.
  • Human waste should be sent through sewerage for treatment rather than to landfill. Although the contents of disposable nappies are meant to be rinsed or put in the toilet before being tossed, who is actually doing this? I reckon disposables wouldn’t seem so convenient if used responsibly.
  • Disposables labeled as ‘environmentally friendly’ that ‘break down in landfill’ conveniently ignore how landfills work. If the fibres are breaking down, so is the human waste, creating methane. And although it’s technically possible to recycle nappies and sanitary products, it doesn’t seem like this is economically viable in Australia. So when it comes to ‘eco’ disposables, my reaction is, why even bother?
  • Reusables can be passed along, sold or reused for a second child, meaning a stash of a few dozen reusables could save 12,000 disposables from landfill (and another few thousand dollars).
  • I’d prefer to tuck $3,000 into an interest accruing savings account for the little one than throw the same money in the trash. Even though Aldi may promote $0.14 a nappy, it’s pennywise, pound foolish over the long term.
  • Disposables are smellier and leakier than cloth, say many people with experience using both types. If your kid soils their clothing thanks to a leaky disposable, you’re doing ‘cloth’ laundry anyway.
  • We’re adding a (drooly, messy) human to the mix. There will be more laundry no matter what. Luckily, my machine does the washing and all I do is push some buttons, feed it detergent and hang the load to dry. Truly, do we ever appreciate running water and modern washing machines as much as we ought to?
  • With a child in tow, I imagine doing laundry at home will be an easier task than a trip to the shops to buy more disposables.
  • We have a good laundry set up with a relatively new, front loading washing machine that we can program for overnight and eco cycle washing. Plus, a nifty solar powered dryer (yes, I’m simply referring to the almighty sun shining down on the clothesline).
  • You can repurpose old tea towels and tee shirts as extra ‘booster’ inserts. Or conversely, you can repurpose old nappy inserts as cleaning rags.
  • I’ve been using reusable period products for years, including cloth, and I would never go back. I’m convinced of their effectiveness.

Worn out cloth nappies will eventually need to be disposed, but a couple dozen nappies after heavy use seems a pittance next to 6000 – 12,000 disposable nappies. Yes?

Which is the best cloth nappy system?

Choosing a type of nappy system to use was overwhelming, but mostly because of all the strange new terminology (MCN, boosters, doublers, prefolds, OSFM, packet, AI2, soakers, flats, etc.) that I promise eventually makes sense. Most of these are different words for the same things.

cloth nappies

Ultimately nappies are pointless unless they are two things: absorbent and waterproof. We can achieve this in a number of ways, without the super absorbent polymers that are the norm in all disposable nappies. In the simplest terms, the options for reusable nappies are:

Flats: large, absorbent ‘flat’ sheets, often terry towel, folded in smaller origami shapes and fastened onto the baby with a snappy thingy, then covered with a waterproof cover, either a plastic coated fabric (PUL) or lanolinised wool. They are usually the cheapest option and the one your grandmother would recognise.

Prefolds: A more modern take on flats. The difference is that the absorbent insert is ‘pre-folded’ and stitched to a smaller size. Prefolds require less folding before fastening on the baby and putting on the waterproof cover. Many moms say they are useful for getting a good fit on newborns who may not yet fit a larger one size nappy.

All-in-ones and pocket styles: These nappies look most like disposables, meaning the absorbent layer is either stuffed, snapped or permanently sewn into the outer shell before putting on the child. They are usually the most expensive option, but are often favoured for carer settings, as they are the most obvious type of reusable nappy for a newbie to figure out. These are sold in sized or one size fits most (OSFM) styles with rise snaps on the front so the nappy can grow with the kid.

Keep in mind that most cloth nappies fall somewhere along this spectrum rather than neatly into one category. Which is actually great, because it means there’s a style to suit every preference and budget.

At first I assumed an all-in-one nappy would be easiest, since I was very focused on ease at the time of changing. Flats and prefolds looked too complicated. This changed when I found the Facebook groups. I read comments from other posters and once I knew the terminology better, searched for specific threads about brands, styles and issues. I started to be able to visualise the process in more detail and came to the conclusion that ‘ease’ should encompass how effective the style is to contain the goods and to launder, not just how easy it is to get the nappy on the kid. Flats and prefolds are valued for quicker drying times, modularity and low cost.

I asked friends and family for their advice. Two of my sisters in law have toddlers in nearly full time cloth nappies. My dear friend who is both a midwife and waste reduction enthusiast shared her insights from lending her nappy library to new moms. My takeaways are that whatever the style you choose, it’s all very doable, and there is no universal favourite style. It will depend on your baby, your support system, your living situation, your tolerance for folding/stuffing, and preferences around materials to use. You will find parents raving about every possible option and brand, and that’s because I’m sure they all work. Just like a reusable grocery bag, the best one is the one you use.

cloth nappies
The inserts lineup – a wide range of options.

I bought a variety of styles, including several different types of prefolds with covers, plus all in one pocket style nappies. I didn’t buy any flats. I also bought a selection of different brands to test the fit. I’ll see what I prefer and then sell or pass along what doesn’t work for us. I have been working to the assumption that I should have around 30 cloth nappies to be able to wash every second day and allowing for drying time.

Some advice from a cloth nappy newbie

Start early, take your time and don’t panic

If you have the luxury, do your research before the baby is born to let it all sink in. If you can, visit a physical shop with a few different styles or take a 101 workshop – check with your council or the Australian Nappy Association for local events. Many nappy brands look similar online and don’t give a great image or a clear description of the interior insert configuration. In that scenario, you may end up impulse buying based on the prints rather than the function.

Find support

Not everyone will have close friends or family with cloth nappy experience, or even willing partners. Luckily, helpful strangers have created safe spaces and deep knowledge bases around cloth nappies online. I’ve found the following to be excellent resources:

Figure out what ease means to you

Your definition of ease may be different to mine, but at minimum, think beyond the moment of changing to how you will wash and dry, if you’ll have help, and how much you want to spend.

Don’t think of it as all or nothing

Perfect is the enemy of better. If you have to use disposables some or all the time for travel, carers, sick or disabled children, or other situations, I’m not here to make you feel bad about it. Many people that I know who do cloth are ‘mostly cloth’. Some start from birth, others wait a few weeks or months to get to know the ropes of being a new parent before diving in to cloth.

Cloth nappies, the new (old fashioned) normal?

You can buy disposables nearly everywhere today, including the grocery store, but you’ll only find reusables if you’re looking for them. Maybe surprisingly, reusables were the norm not so long ago. My Australian partner was in cloth nappies, as were many of his generation. Disposables were used occasionally, but too expensive for full time. It’s probably true that their mothers weren’t also juggling dual career households in expensive Sydney. It’s a different social landscape when both parents need to earn an income and there is still all the labour to contend with in the home. But that’s why it’s especially nice when there is an option available that can reduce costs significantly over the long term – money saved is hours of the day we don’t have to spend working outside the home. Let’s also remember that the pervasive unequal distribution of household chores in dual parent households is so much bigger than nappies. Disposables haven’t managed to crack that nut anyway.

When I started looking into cloth, one of the unconscious assumptions I’d made was that of course disposables would be more effective and pleasant to use than cloth. I had the impression I’d be suffering through cloth. Even mainstream articles seem to imply that cloth is cute but less effective, which I suspect is the writer’s lack of first hand experience coming through. Because nothing could be further from the accounts of thousands of parents in the Facebook groups I’ve mentioned earlier. People who have experience with both styles frequently comment on how smelly and leaky disposables are.

I’ll give an update after I’ve actually used the nappies. The best laid plans right? If you’ve used cloth or are thinking about it, I’d love to hear your experience, whether good or bad.

2 thoughts on “Why I’ve decided to use cloth nappies

  1. You might be overprepared… 🙂 We are a cloth nappy family (21 month old, close to potty training) and it’s truly easier than it would seem before starting. You’re absolutely right about needing to find the ease that works for your family; the following is what I’ve learned works for mine:

    Stuffing is wasted time when there’s so much else to do, especially when we were so busy in the beginning nursing and dealing with sleep deprivation. Those two realities are more significant than nappies, despite the concrete immediacy of waste, especially when you need to wake up often at night to nurse. You can always use prefolds with the envelop style covers, or lay the flat insert on the inside of the cover instead of stuffing it inside. Plus, I think not having to unstuff a poopy nappy makes cleaning easier, especially if either partner is not excited about having to deal with the rinse in the toilet.

    Similarly, fasteners (pins or the plastic ones) were also challenging because of the extra time they require and the fact that the covers already do an adequate job of keeping the inserts in place. I imagine that some children are more wriggly than others; ours is on the higher end, from about 9 mos. onward, and sometimes simply getting the cover closed is a struggle.

    In the beginning when our baby was tiny, having closer to 40 inserts was incredibly useful because being able to push laundry to every third day aided adjustments to all of the big and small emergent changes that having an infant entails. Newborns can go through a diaper an hour. We ended up using twelve covers, and that was enough for us to be able to keep on top of because the covers often can last through changing 2-3 inserts.

    We use disposable nappies at night, with cloth from time-to-time. The issues of cloth night time nappies seems to depend a lot on family sleeping arrangements (bed sharing or not) and whether or not leaks will affect any one other than the baby, and whether or not the baby will wake up as a result of the wetness. Ours does sometimes; bwe also bed share. We buy bamboo disposables, so that’s our trying-to-be-responsible middle road. We have also traveled for long periods (~2 weeks) with both cloth nappies and disposables depending on the washing facilities available.

    Final thought: I imagine that you’re already planning on using cloth wipes, but if you aren’t, they are the last piece of waste-reduction with nappies. Cut up some t-shirts, stick them in a glass jar and wet with water, wash them with the nappies.

    Good luck — you’ll be a boss! It sounds like you have a robust support network. The only standard that matters is the one that’s good enough for the time being. And congratulations!!!

    1. Thanks Julia, it’s sooooo encouraging to hear from others who are far along in the process. I already suspect I might prefer the prefolds and covers to pockets ;). I’m always drawn to the efficiencies of modular design (and things that are cheap, ha). And you bet I’m definitely planning to do reusable wipes. It’s giving new purpose to old textiles. Holey shirt? Ripped pillowcase – into the nappy basket they go!

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