If you think you know cloth diapers, you may want to think again. The last 15 years have produced an array of choices in cloth diapering that are easy and beneficial in so many ways. If you’re curious about cloth, find out why many parents are taking on that extra load of laundry—and loving it.
Jennifer Liptrot found the idea of cloth diapers daunting. That was, until she investigated her options. “Learning that there were no pins involved was a big factor in the decision to try cloth,” says Liptrot, one of the creators of DiaperPin.com, a website that provides information and support for parents who choose to use cloth diapers. “I also read about [cleaning methods for cloth diapers] and found them easier than I expected.” The more Liptrot learned about cloth diapers, the more she felt convinced that this was the diapering method best for her family.
Liptrot is not alone. The Real Diaper Association, a collective non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the use of cloth diapers, estimates that five to 10 percent of US babies are wearing cloth diapers at least some of the time.
So what are some of the reasons families choose cloth diapers for their babies and toddlers?
Because diapers have come a long way, baby
“One of the biggest myths about cloth diapers is that they are too hard to deal with,” says Linda Byerline, founder and CEO of Happy Heiny’s, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of modern cloth diapers and diaper covers. “What many moms don’t realize is that the cloth diapers made today are not exactly like they were even 15 years ago.”
The days of uncomfortable rubber pants and dangerous sharp pins are gone, says Byerline. “Most cloth diapers today are as easy to use as [any] disposable diaper.”
Today cloth diapers come in two basic systems, although you can find endless styles and materials used—fabrics include cotton, wool, and even hemp, and organic versions are available.
- Diapers with separate waterproof covers are available in flats (the large rectangle you may remember from childhood), or fitted (which are shaped to fit around your child’s body without folding).
- All-in-one diapers are fitted diapers with the waterproof cover sewn on. Many, if not most, of these diapers use Velcro, a tie, or snaps around the waist, eliminating the need for pins.
And that simplicity is what’s attracting many moms to cloth.”I was at the Green Festival [a fair put on across the country to promote socially responsible businesses, and environmental, social justice, and community organizations] in Washington, DC, last fall, and they had a lot of people who were surprised when they picked up fitted diapers, because they thought that diapers were what their grandmother had used—big, 36 inch fabric squares,” says Lori Taylor, founder of the Real Diaper Association. “When people saw these diapers, they saw ‘cute’ and ‘easy’, and a lot of them said, ‘I can make this choice!'”
Because they are easy to care for
Worried about washing? Don’t be, says Linda Pruitt, founder and owner of Vermont Diaper Company, a manufacturer of organic cloth diapering supplies. “Any mother will tell you that you are going to be doing laundry—breast milk leaks, babies spit up on sheets,” says Pruitt. “Caring for cloth today is no harder than doing any other load of laundry.”
“Today, we do not recommend that you use a wet pail filled with bleach like they used to,” says Byerline. (The ‘wet pail’ method was common in the days before modern washing machines. It’s not necessary anymore, and it’s also messy, hard to carry, and can even be a health hazard if not properly covered.) “We suggest just using a dry pail, and then you just put the dirty diapers in the wash, wash like you would wash every other load of clothes, put them in the dryer, and take them out.”
But what about those especially dirty diapers? Not a big deal, says Byerline. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you won’t need to do anything extra. After your baby starts solids (or if he or she is formula-fed), you’ll need to hold the diaper over the toilet to remove excess waste—most of the time, the bowel movement will fall right off the diaper. There’s no need to ‘swish’ a dirty diaper in the toilet bowl. (Actually, adds Byerline, even disposable diapers are supposed to be ‘dumped’ over the toilet before they are thrown away—this helps to keep feces in the sewage system, where it belongs.)
Finally, know that some cloth diapering families don’t have to worry about laundry at all. That’s because they have access to a diaper service, says Taylor. A diaper service is a professional laundry that rents cloth diapers. If you use a diaper service, they will deliver clean diapers to your home and pick up used diapers on a weekly basis. The diapers are then laundered using professional equipment—some going through as many as 14 washes before being dried.
“Diaper services are a great way to go for people who need to have something that doesn’t add any extra workload,” says Taylor. (Check the website of the National Association of Diaper Services, an organization that promotes high standards of diaper services across the country, to find one near you.)
Because cloth diapers don’t have to stay at home
Of course, parents aren’t the only ones who change diapers. If your baby attends or will attend a daycare center, you may be wondering if cloth diapers will be accepted. Right now, what’s known about cloth diapering and daycare is anecdotal, says Taylor. In fact, the Real Diaper Association is currently working on a survey to try to get a clearer picture of the use of cloth diapers in centers.
“We’ve heard some nightmare stories, but we’ve also heard stories where daycares are very accepting,” says Taylor. She recommends starting a dialogue with your daycare provider—a dialogue that is cooperative, not confrontational. Ask what kind of diapers will work for the daycare, and what you can do to help make it work.
“In my experience, daycares are receptive to cloth,” agrees Pruitt. “You just need to educate your provider. There are still so many cloth diapering misconceptions out there [that] most providers are amazed at how easy it is.”
Because they are an economical choice
Costs of cloth vary. According to the Real Diaper Association, a very basic set of prefolds and covers can be purchased for about $300, while a set of fitted diapers could run to over $1,000 or more. Diaper services are similarly priced, with two years of service typically running around $1,500. The Real Diaper Association estimates a cost of around $1,600 for two years of disposable diapers.
However, while there is an initial investment, cloth diapers quickly pay off. Since they can be used again and again and will last for years, second or even third children can be diapered for free. In addition, cloth diapers in good condition are often resold at places such as eBay. Byerline notes that it’s possible to earn back between 50-80 percent of the original cost, depending on the quality of the diapers.
There is one caution though. “Many moms end up spending more on cloth diapers than they expected,” says Liptrot. “Cloth diapers are cute and addicting!”
A final, interesting note—money spent on cloth diapers is usually money that goes to support small businesses. Diaper services in particular are struggling to survive, says Jack Shiffert of the National Association of Diaper Services. Diaper services are often family-run, and some have been around for 50 years or more. Shiffert estimates there are now only about 100 services in the US.
Because one family CAN make a difference
That tiny baby can make a huge impact on the earth. A 1991 report stated that over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby each year. “Using our petrochemical resources to diaper our babies is probably using those resources in the wrong way, when you consider that we have cotton, hemp, wool, and other renewable materials that can do the job perfectly well,” says Taylor.
“This year Americans will toss 27 billion disposable diapers into landfills,” says Pruitt. Once sent to a landfill, those diapers will be there a long time. According to the Real Diaper Association, it’s unknown how long a disposable diaper will take to decompose, but it is estimated to be between 250 to 500 years. And as mentioned earlier, disposable diapers containing fecal matter are supposed to have their contents shaken out over the toilet before they are thrown away. If this doesn’t happen, fecal matter that should enter the sewage system goes into the landfills, where it could seep into the ground water.
By choosing cloth diapers, says Taylor, a family can keep from adding diapers to the landfills, while keeping their impact on the earth lower by using renewable resources.
“Culturally, we are led to believe that an individual or an individual family cannot begin to have an impact on the woes of the world—especially the environmental woes,” says Pruitt. “In reality, that is exactly who will make a difference: real people, taking simple actions in their daily lives.”