Friday, January 7, 2011

Cloth Diapering Part I: The “Whys"

Before Sly was born, I started trying to sell Tom on the idea of using cloth diapers, rather than disposables. I had had the advantage of once serving as a nanny/babysitter to a baby who wore them, so I felt comfortable with the idea. Ultimately, the biggest selling point for Tom (and for me too) was the amount of money you can save by going that route. But after four months of cloth-diapering, we've noticed several other great benefits. For the record, we've used disposables too. We especially relied on them in Sly's first couple weeks, when babies go through many diapers a day. And we still keep some in the diaper bag for traveling.

Why we like cloth diapers:

1. They cost less.
The average cost of diapering a baby in disposables until he's potty trained is $1500-$2500 (estimates vary widely from different sources!). So far, we've spent less than $200 on all our cloth diapers and covers. And we intentionally bought ones with adjustable sizes so they will grow with the baby, so we don't expect to need many more. One
thing I haven’t accounted for yet is the cost of laundering the cloth diapers. Unfortunately, I don't have any clear facts on this one.

I have found these estimations for cost of heating the water:
Electric water heater: approx. $0.34/load
Gas water heater: approx. $0.10/load

And this estimation for water usage:
"The amount of water used per week to wash cloth diapers at home is about the same amount consumed by and adult flushing the toilet four or five times daily for a week."

Not hugely helpful, I admit. But I do know this: since we are currently renting our house and don't pay the water bill, it makes a lot of sense for us financially. It's recommended that you use special detergent which is completely free of all dyes, phosphates, etc. We bought a box for $11, and are only halfway done with it. Considering that we will still have all the cloth diapers from our initial investment and can reuse them for ALL our future children, there is potential for some huge savings.

2. They produce less waste.
This one is pretty obvious. Disposable diapers are one of the largest contributors to landfills. Two billion TONS a year. And it's not just the paper and plastic that's filling the landfills, but a heck of a lot of untreated urine and feces.

The waste from cloth diapers goes straight into the water treatment plants, where it belongs. And should the diapers ever finally reach the end of their life, they are at least biodegradable.

3. Fewer diaper changes.
I know this is going to sound bad. But most days, in a 24-hour period, Sly only gets four diaper changes. Yes, this means he's chilling in a wet diaper a lot of the time. But he doesn't seem to mind one way or the other, and he's had very little problem with rashes. So I don't see a need to change him more, for now. This one might vary from baby to baby, though. With disposables, we've noticed major leaking problems if he's not changed every 2-3 hours (see next item).

4. Less Leaking.
We’ve had very few leaks with cloth diapers. The few times they’ve happened, it was our fault anyways. If you don’t tuck the diaper all the way inside the cover, urine can wick onto the baby’s clothes. When we stayed with Tom’s parents over Thanksgiving, we used disposables all week, since his mom had purchased a pack of them. Sly’s diapers leaked SO MANY TIMES. I had only packed enough outfits for him to wear one each day. We ended up having to do two loads of emergency laundry, so he would have pee-free clothes to wear! So it looks like based on the number of ruined outfits, the laundry cost of disposables starts approaching the costs of cloth anyways! And that’s not to mention the up-the-back poop incidents we’ve had a couple times in disposables.

5. More comfortable.
Think about it - would you rather wear soft cotton underwear, or ones made from paper and plastic? Also, some babies have allergic reactions or develop rashes from the absorbent gel they use in disposables. They use that same weird gel stuff in the disposable breast pads for nursing mothers that catch leaks. And I know that sometimes I find it rather irritating on my skin. So do I really want that on my baby’s bum?

6. Less stinky.
This one surprised us. But when wearing the thicker cloth diapers, the “eau de baby” is much less noxious. You still know he has a dirty diaper, but you’re not overwhelmed by the stench of it as soon as you pick him up. Not a big deal, but a pleasant benefit.

7. Supposedly, potty training tends to happen earlier.
For this one, we have to just go on hearsay, since we aren't at that stage yet. But the super-absorbent gels in disposables make it so the child does not "feel" wet as easily. They have a tougher time associating the discomfort of being wet with having to pee, and so it takes longer for them to learn to use the potty. Makes sense - but I'll have to let you know how this goes for us down the line.

We love using cloth so far, and have found the slight inconveniences to be totally worth it. I like never having to spend more money on diapers, and it makes me feel good not to be adding to our weekly trash with disposables.

I hate how disposable diapers have come to be thought of by most people as "real diapers" with cloth being the exception. Cloth diapers just "work better." Let me draw an analogy with dinner plates. Would you rather eat off a nice sturdy real plate (one made from ceramic or porcelain, or whathaveyou), or a crappy paper plate that bends and leaks under the weight of your food? Sure, paper plates are convenient if you're at a picnic or on-the-go somewhere, but they’re not for everyday use. You may have to put a little work into real plates, since they need to be washed when you're done using them, but it's really not a big deal. Better than using an inferior product that you have to keep going to the store to buy. That's how I think of diapers.

Today, 95% of diapering households use disposables. Why is this? I could go into a tirade about our convenience-seeking disposable-minded culture, but I won’t. What it comes down to is that most people are overwhelmed by the prospect of cloth diapers. Either they get scared off by the high start-up costs (“$20 for ONE diaper?! No way!"), they imagine that using them is very inconvenient or difficult, or they are frightened by the prospect of all that laundry. Yes, cloth diapering does take some commitment. There is more work and effort involved, in ways. But I think it’s worth it. In my next post, I’ll explain some of the “hows” of cloth diapers: what types exist, how to use them, how laundry works, etc.


  1. i have a feeling that in the future, you will become a major source of knowledge and experience for me. haha! this is such a great post though. I used to love cloth diapers firstly for their environmental goodness, but now it just seems so much more economical!!!

  2. My mom sometimes used the old fashioned cloth diapers that you fastened with a safety pin.