This article first appeared in JUNO magazine.
Author: Georgina Cunliffe.
Introduction – Why choose cloth nappies?
The reasons why parents choose to use washable nappies are many and varied. In the UK a typical child will use nappies for 33 months and in that time you will spend on average £800 on disposable nappies. This takes into account multi-buy deals and supermarket own brands too. A cloth nappy user will spend around £500 during the same period and that includes your washing costs at current energy prices. Many local authorities also have incentive schemes in place that can mean an even bigger saving.
90% of disposable nappies go into domestic landfill. That’s 690,000 tonnes a year! And what’s worse is that those 8 million nappies a day will take around 500 years to biodegrade. It would be irresponsible of me to present washable nappies as an entirely ecological alternative but reusable nappies can be significantly better for the environment depending on how they are used and washed.
TriButylTin, sodium polyacrylate and bleach are just some of the chemicals used in disposable nappies. Companies are under no obligation to disclose what is used in the nappies that spend 24 hours a day in direct contact with your child’s most sensitive areas. Cloth nappies are typically made from cotton (often organic) and bamboo. Acrylic fleece and plastic poppers are also frequently used too.
If you ask me then cloth nappies are a lot prettier too!
The world of reusable nappies can be a daunting, jargon-filled place that puts many people off before they’ve even started. Hopefully, by explaining the different types available to you, things will be made clearer and easier to understand. Firstly I will briefly explain sizing.
You’ll see terms like OSFM/A (one-size-fits-most/all) and BTP (birth-to-potty). These are nappies that are size adjustable as your child grows. This can be with lines of vertical poppers on the front to adjust the rise (height) of the nappy or with adjustable elastic in the legs. Alongside their OneSize nappies many companies also produce a Newborn size as sometimes a size adjustable nappy just won’t quite go small enough for a newborn.
There are also sized nappies which usually have a specific weight range. So, for example, a Size 1 will fit from 7lbs-12lbs, a Size 2 will fit 12lbs–20lbs and a Size 3 will fit 20lbs+. This is a guideline only and I have known many children skip from a Size 1 to Size 3 or from a Small to a Large.
These are very easy-to-use option. A simple large rectangle of cotton fabric that can be folded to best suit your child’s needs and then placed inside a waterproof outer cover. If you have a young baby that is often on their back then more absorbency at the back is a benefit, whereas a toddler boy who is running round is likely to wet at the front so simply have extra absorbency there.
Waterproof outer covers are no longer the sweaty, rubber pants of yesteryear. A breathable PUL (PolyUrathane Laminate) layer will keep baby dry and these outer wraps come a funky range of patterns and colours. There is also no need to change the outer wrap at every nappy change unless it is soiled. The PUL can be damaged by direct heat and so it is not advisable to place these on radiators or heated rails. They don’t require much drying time though as they are obviously not absorbent. The prefold inserts can be dried in whatever manner you wish and as they are flat they often dry very quickly on a washing line or airer.
These are shaped more like a disposable nappy. Made of entirely absorbent fabric these too require a waterproof wrap on top. Fitted nappies come in a variety of fabrics. Typically bamboo, cotton and mirofibre.
Bamboo is a wonderfully absorbent fabric that can hold large quantities of liquid, however it does take a little longer to absorb. This also means drying time is longer but they can be placed directly on a radiator to speed things up.
Cotton absorbs more quickly but doesn’t hold quite a much. Drying time is a little quicker though.
Microfibre soaks things up like a sponge but doesn’t quite hold as much. There’s an added bonus though as they almost spin dry in your washing machine!
Once a nappy is wet there would obviously then be wetness in contact with baby’s skin. This a concern of many parents but if you simply line the nappy with a biodegradable or washable liner then this adds a dry barrier. It also makes the disposal of solids easier and protects the nappy from severe staining. ‘Solids?!’ I hear you cry! Yes, you will have to deal with poop. Whether using disposable or cloth nappies there will be the occasional poo-splosion. But a properly lined nappy will just mean lifting out the liner and flushing it away. If you use a washable liner then holding it in the toilet as you flush should knock all the solids off.
These are a complete nappy system that has it’s own absorbent insert that usually poppers to the waterproof outer. Typically the entire nappy is replaced at each nappy change. Sometimes this particular design of nappy can have a compatible booster that adds extra absorbency for night-time use or larger toddlers. The fact that the inserts can be separated means they can be dried with extra heat and the outer can be put on a washing line or airer.
These are a very simple and very popular option. The outer layer is PUL lined and the inside is entirely polyester fleece which is not at all absorbent, therefore keeping all moisture away from your baby’s skin. There is then a pocket in between these layers which you can stuff with any boosters/inserts that you like. A pocket nappy usually comes with it’s own inserts. More often than not it’s one or two microfibre pads although some do come with bamboo ones. Perhaps, at this point, it would be useful to mention layering the inserts. I mentioned that different fabrics have different speeds of absorbency. This is why many people layer their inserts with microfibre on top to wick the moisture away quickly and bamboo or cotton underneath to hold larger quantities and reduce the frequency of nappy changes.
These are the most like disposable nappies that you will find. Everything is contained within one unit meaning nothing needs to be reunited after washing. Often the inside of the nappy folds out to decrease drying time but this remains attached to the nappy at all times. Because of this inability to separate the individual parts it does mean that all-in-one nappies cannot be dried on a radiator, heated rail or tumble dryer. This ability to unfold the nappy does help to minimise drying time and is a very popular option among many parents.
Washing nappies these days is a simple task. There’s no need to soak your nappies in chemicals or vinegar. Lining an airtight bucket with a mesh bag and just throwing in the nappy after each change will be sufficient. Then no more effort is required than lifting out the bag and carrying it to the washing machine. A cold rinse will remove the worst of the stains and then a simple wash cycle, using minimal powder will do the job. Ecological alternatives are used by many cloth nappy users; Ecoegg and Soapnuts have been proven to work as well as powder on even the grubbiest nappies.
Last week my toddler asked me; “Mummy, why that lady put a nappy in the bin? I go tell her…”. It pleases me to know that she will grow up questioning whether or not something really does NEED to be thrown away when there is a reusable alternative. There’s no denying that to get your child from birth to potty training in washable nappies requires a little more time and effort. If you do strive for a chemical-free, less wasteful and environmentally conscious lifestyle then I think it’s well worth it.
How nappy libraries can help you
Across the UK there is a growing network of Nappy Libraries. Some are run by Councils, some by retailers, some by parents. They all have the same goal; to help make choosing or switching to washable nappies an easier experience for everyone. Whether it’s offering advise or problem solving you will find their love of cloth nappies infectious! A great number of libraries will have nappies available for you to try out. Some will have a selection that you can take away to find out what’s best for your little one. Others have long-term loans available to you. For the details of your nearest library simply type ‘UK Cloth Nappy Libraries’ into Google and follow the GoogleMap link.
Are washable nappies greener?
The Environment Agency did a 2012 study into the environmental impact of washable nappies when compared to disposables. They concluded that if you observe a few simple rules then the environmental impact is considerably less when using cloth;
Wash full loads every 3-4 days
Wash at 40 degrees or less
Use half the usual dose of detergent
Line or airer dry
Re-use for subsequent children