Cloth diapers were not a big decision for me; at least, deciding to use them was a no-brainer. Deciding which ones to buy was much more difficult (that’s a whole other issue!)
My mom used cloth with me and has often extolled the virtues of cloth diapering. She loved saving money, loved buying a product that could be reused instead of thrown away, loved how gentle the cloth was for my sensitive skin, and frankly, she loves doing laundry. So I always assumed I would use cloth, too. For the most part, I have.
With my first son, I used cloth exclusively at home but would use disposables when going out. Yes, you can use cloth “on the go,” but it’s easier not to. I also keep disposables on hand for babysitters/ church nursery workers. Again, you don’t have to do that, but I think of it as a courtesy.
Life has been much more hectic with my second son, and I’ve used cloth diapers less as a result. For one thing, we moved three times in the first 18 months after he was born. Also, keeping up with 2 kids keeps me very busy. I took a little time off from cloth during our first move, and since then, I’ve used them at least 50% of the time. I’m finally back to using them exclusively at home, and I’ve gone from buying a small pack of diapers each week to about one per month. That’s a pretty good savings either way.
Diaper companies like to claim that cloth diapering is not cost-effective. This is true if you buy the most expensive cloth diapers you can and use a diaper service. But the moms I know who use cloth diapers don’t do that.
That’s my experience, but you can find a more scientific price comparison here. This website’s conclusions include the energy costs of laundering in addition to the initial investment of the diapers themselves. They found that if a child wore cloth diapers washed at home, the parents would spend $550-800 over 2.5 years. That same child would cost between $1857 and $2375 wearing only disposables. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to only need diapers for 2.5 years. My first child was a late potty trainer, and pull-ups or large diapers are not cheap. But the cloth diapers and covers fit the whole time up until he was fully trained, which saved us even more money.
One argument against cloth is that it’s “inconvenient.” Yes, you do need to do an extra load of laundry every couple of days (or more, or less, depending on how well stocked you are). But diapers take much less hands-on time to launder than clothes or towels. They are already sorted; there’s no stain removal or pocket-searching to do; and there’s very little, if any folding/ sorting to do once they’re clean. Many parents like to just dump the clean diapers into an empty drawer and not bother with folding or sorting. I like to sort out the covers from the AIO’s and fold the pre-folds in half, and that takes me less than 5 minutes per load.
My supply lasts for a little over 2 days, so I do about 3-4 diaper loads per week. Each load takes me just a few minutes to load into the washer and move to the dryer. I pre-rinse soiled diapers with my “mini-shower” before throwing them into the pail, so all of the diapers are washed together.
They’re also convenient because you already have them. You don’t need to make a special trip to the store or bother with comparing coupons and sale prices to try to get a bargain. The 15-20 minutes I spend each week actively washing and putting away diapers is less time that it takes me to get the kids dressed and out the door to shop in the first place.
3. Skin Sensitivities
I have very sensitive skin, and my mother claimed that the cloth diapers were much easier on my delicate areas than disposables. Even though disposables have improved greatly over the last few decades, Mom is still right that cloth is better for babies prone to rashes. Disposables are designed to feel “dry” even when they’re wet. The problem with that is that the baby still has urine on his or her skin, and that urine can still irritate, even if the skin is dry to the touch. Parents who use cloth tend to change their babies more frequently, resulting in cleaner, healthier skin.
My younger son will inevitably develop diaper rash if he wears disposables all day, even with frequent changing, ointment, etc. When he spends most of his time in cloth diapers, diaper rash is very rare. And no, I don’t buy expensive baby-friendly detergent for my diapers; I make my own, which cost about $1 for 32 loads and deodorizes them beautifully.
4. Clean Home
You might not believe me, but my sons’ room is much cleaner and smells better when I’m only using cloth diapers. “But there are dirty diapers sitting around!” you might argue. Yes, there are diapers in the pail, just like there would be disposable diapers in a disposable diaper pail. The difference is that I wash my diapers and the liner that holds them more frequently than I dump the trash.
Also, I pre-rinse the diapers that have solid waste, so the cloth ones in the pail are already partially cleaned, unlike a pail full of disposables. The liner is breathable and washable, which also cuts back on the smell vs. a plastic trash bag. When I take out the liner, I spray out the pail with a vinegar-water solution and let it air dry while the diapers are being laundered. The result is a nursery that doesn’t have to smell like a nursery, without any fancy odor-eliminators or air fresheners.
Some parents are more organized and keep the poopy diapers separate or even follow the guidelines to rinse disposables first (yes, you’re supposed to do that. Who knew?) But they are still sitting there, stinking and full of germs, until someone throws them away. And I hate that smell that gets in the whole house when you pull out the bag and take it to the trash can outside. Yuck.
Also, if you have young children, you know that solid waste doesn’t always stay in the diaper. Or if you’re your toddler is like mine and loves to break into trash cans, it might not even stay in the diaper pail. With the mini-shower and cloth diaper system, I can rinse off any clothes or bedding that have been soiled and wash them with the diapers before adding them to the rest of the laundry. That way I don’t have to worry about contaminating clothes or bedding.
5. Clean Environment
Most people know that the main environmental impact of disposables is that they are put into landfills. What they may not realize is that the U.S. alone consumes roughly 18 billion disposable diapers per year, and each of those can take up to 450 years to fully decay (according to the EPA). But the other issue is the tremendous amount of resources that it takes to produce those diapers in the first place. As one writer explains, “Plastic disposables use 20 times more raw materials, 3 times more energy, 2 times more water and generate 60 times more solid waste than cloth diapers.”
Are cloth diapers really better for the environment? You do flush waste down the toilet, wash them, and dry them, so they do use some natural resources. I’ve heard many people quote the water/ energy argument against cloth diapers. It’s true that they are not “carbon-neutral” as such, and there is a lot of debate about what resources are used for what type of diaper. But how much power/ water you use to clean them depends on the equipment you use (how efficient it is) and how you use it (water/ dryer temperatures.) Parents can’t control how their disposables are manufactured, but they can choose how efficiently to clean the cloth diapers they already own.
For us, cloth diapers are a great solution for our desire to save money, cut back on waste, and create a healthier environment for our kids. However, the issues of time, cost, and resources are more complex than the few points I’ve made here. And, I’m not a cloth-diaper purist, but I’m glad to know that every time I do use one, I save a little money and do a little good at the same time.
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