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Cloth diapering 101 (these aren’t your mama’s cloth diapers)

Cloth diapers.

I have met hundreds of parents and almost all of them are curious–and confused–about cloth diapers. As one student asked looking at my display table, “That cute thing is a CLOTH diaper?” Indeed, cloth diapers aren’t the ugly, bulky things held together by safety pins that many of us grew up with.

Your baby is likely to use over 7,000 diapers before he or she is (cross your fingers) potty trained. Diapering (though in part about fashion) does also have a major impact on the health of the planet and on the health of your child.

Most of the friends I know that are using cloth diapers did not, actually, choose to use them to be green. Of course, they liked this aspect of it, but they chose to use them in most cases because they wanted to 1) save money or 2) protect the health of their baby.

Indeed, over the course of a few years, cloth diapering will save you about $2,000 versus using disposables. (And, if you use your cloth diapers again for another child you will be saving an additional $2,000 to $3,000 with each child). Babies who wear cloth diapers versus disposables also get fewer diaper rashes without having to use barrier creams, thus you can save even more than that by not buying diaper creams and using reusable, cloth diaper wipes.

I will summarize the research this way: cloth is better for the environment. This doesn’t mean that cloth diapering doesn’t have an impact on the environment. There are ways, however, to make the impact FAR less for cloth that just don’t exist for disposable.

Disposable diapers are dumped in landfills where they virtually never break down and where the fecal matter (which is supposed to be dumped in the toilet before disposable but almost never is) can release bacteria and live viruses into the surrounding environment. Also, trees, plastic, chlorine bleach, and absorbent gels— usually sodium polyarcylate (SAP)—are used when making disposable diapers and there is a major environmental impact associated with each of these elements, from old- growth forest depletion to the production of dioxin, a pervasive toxin, which ends up in the environment and next to your baby’s sensitive skin.

Cloth is also better for baby. They get fewer rashes when not exposed to the dyes and perfumes of disposable diapers, you don’t have to use barrier creams, and they tend to potty train earlier. There have been studies that suggest disposable diapers release VOCs including toluene, ethylbenzen, xylene and dipentene, all of which have been linked to toxic health effects with long-term or high level exposure. As well, SAP used in disposable diapers absorbs all of the natural oils and moisture in a baby’s developing skin (and has been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome) and studies have found dioxin, a toxic byproduct of bleaching, in trace amounts in disposable diapers.

The green parent will primarily use cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers, but it doesn’t have to be like the cloth diapering of old. Today’s cloth diapers are cute, soft, easy to use, and absorbent.

For those parents that traditional cloth diapering just won’t work for (like one woman I met who was having triplets and didn’t have a washer or dryer!) there are also systems like the flushable-cloth combo, the gDiaper. And for occasional use there are disposable diapers that don’t use chlorine bleach, plastic, or virgin wood. (These disposable diapers still won’t break down in a landfill and they still have a larger environmental footprint in most cases than cloth, but they don’t have as many ill health effects and don’t, for instance, use old-growth trees, so they are definitely better than mainstream disposable diapers.)

And, for the adventurous green parent, there is elimination communication—a.k.a. baby potty training—that will drastically reduce, or eliminate, your need for diapers.

Conservation washing! The key elements are: only do full loads of laundry (either getting the diapers clean enough to wash with other clothes or doing full loads of just diapers), avoiding harsh cleaners (e.g. no chlorine bleach and no phosphates), and minimizing energy by using cold water and line drying as often as possible. (Most home washing-machines do not get hot enough to kill off infectious bacterial and viral illnesses—160 degrees. If you need to sterilize your diapers try drying them on high heat for at least 10 minutes, washing them with 10 to 12 drops of tea tree oil, or boiling the diapers.)

If you have a front-loading washer that will greatly reduce water and energy use also.

Here are a few tips:

1. Buy a sprayer that attaches to your toilet. This allows you to spray the cloth diaper over the toilet and flush down anything icky. (You can get these at many hardware stores or at Be By Baby!).
2. Get a couple of pails for putting the cloth diapers into. You can do a dry pail (just pile the diapers in, maybe with a little baking soda to help keep down odors) or use a wet pail which is full of water (and, once again, maybe some baking soda).
3. Have a supply of cotton or felt wipes that are reusable. Use an insulated coffee carafe or some other device to keep warm water in (you can put a couple of drops of Dr. Bronners, gentle cleanser, or essential oil in with the water). Then you can clean your baby right at the changing table and never have to use disposable wipes. Just wash the wipes along with your diapers.
4. Buy enough cloth diapers for YOUR lifestyle. If you do laundry all the time anyway, you will only need about 12 diapers (two days worth). If you only do laundry once a week, you will need more.
5. Try out a variety of cloth diaper styles. Some are bulky but really easy to use. Some are contoured but involve an extra step when putting on. Some are more absorbent, but harder to maintain. Some have organic cotton, some use polyester blends. Some wick almost as well as disposables, some breath well but don’t wick. There is one out there that will work for your baby and your lifestyle.
6. When you find a diaper you like, make your biggest investment in size medium. Many diapers are just newborn or one-size fits all. Others have small, medium, or large sizes. For most babies, mediums will fit for almost their entire diaper-wearing life.
7. Find a non-soap detergent that works. Buy lots. (For most cloth diapers, you are better-off using a laundry detergent that isn’t soap-based and thus doesn’t leave residue).
8. Find cloth diapering friends. Ask them questions! Share stories! Learn tricks!

Like most parenting choices, cloth diapering doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario. Even using cloth part-time will help ease the burden on the health of your child and on the health of the planet.

Let’s start by sharing stories and asking questions. Tell me what you do at your house and which are your favorite cloth diapers. Let’s here your issues, your successes, and your questions.


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