Before you decided to venture into the world of parenting, you may have found diaper talk comical, the appropriate butt (sorry) of jokes. But as a new parent, you swiftly realized that babies, even little tiny babies, pee and poop a lot, and diapers began to earn new respect in your eyes. You also promptly learned that the condition of your baby’s hindquarters is no laughing matter when her comfort and hygiene is concerned. And considering that a child typically goes through anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000 diapers from the time she’s born until she’s toilet trained, you’re about to get up close and personal with a whole bunch of them. If you haven’t already, chances are you too will get deeply, even passionately, involved in the Great Diaper Debates.
What’s all the fuss about? Well, you have two fundamental choices when it comes to diapers: disposables, which are thrown away after they get wet or soiled, and non-disposables, typically known as cloth diapers, which get cleaned after each use. Which option you choose has a good deal to with personal philosophy (i.e., how you feel about chemicals and plastic, as well as your concern about the environment), but there are many practical considerations as well. And even when you’ve settled on a particular category, there are still decisions to be made, such as whether you’ll wash cloth diapers at home or use a service, or which of the myriad types–ultrathin, overnight, supreme, premium–of disposables to buy. So read on; the article is designed to help you get to the bottom (sorry again) of this matter.
No one is neutral about disposable diapers. They’re either reviled as Mother Earth’s worst enemy or hailed as a parent’s best friend. Make that many parents’ best friend. Consumer Reports estimates that 95 percent of American moms and dads elect to use them on their babies.
Disposable diapers are generally made of some combination of paper pulp, plastic, and super-absorbent chemicals. They come pre-folded and have little sticky or Velcro tabs that hold them shut. Even the most fumble-fingered novice can figure out how to put them on and, when the diaper is soiled, you simply shake out any fecal matter into the toilet and then toss them in some form of a trash receptacle.
Although manufacturers market many different varieties, disposable diapers fall into three general types: basic, which tend to be bulkier than most parents like; ultrathins, which, as the name implies, are thinner and more absorbent; and premium (or supreme), which are thin, highly absorbent, and often have cloth like covers and special fasteners that are easier to reclose after a quick diaper check. A fourth type–overnight–really is a souped-up premium. All come in different sizes keyed to a baby’s weight and age, and their styles vary a little–you’ll have to experiment to see which type fits your baby best.
The advantages of disposables
Disposable diapers are extremely easy to put on and remove, readily available, and preferred by daycare centers both because of convenience and hygiene. They hold much more urine and can fit more snugly than cloth diapers, preventing leakage. Although there is some debate whether cloth or disposables are better at warding off diaper rash and other skin irritations, many people maintain that disposables have the advantage because they absorb the urine quickly and lock it in layers away from a baby’s skin. Perhaps best of all, you won’t face stacks and stacks of urine- and feces-soiled diapers on laundry day if you wash your own.
The disadvantages of disposables
Sound perfect? Actually, disposables have a few downsides. First, they are more expensive than cloth diapers, even if you spring for a diaper service. Second, they fill up landfills with plastic material that is extremely slow to decompose and baby feces that pollute the ground water (remember, even with disposables you need to shake out the feces into the toilet). Third, in the past year, a German study suggested a possible link between disposable diapers and to both testicular cancer and low sperm counts–much more research is needed to establish an actual cause-and-effect relationship, but the widely publicized study gave many parents pause. Fourth, many parents don’t change disposables as often as they should because they think their baby is being kept dry. Finally, dirty diapers in your garbage or diaper pail can smell really, really bad after even a few days.
The bottom line
If you decide to go with disposables, keep in mind that your baby probably will go through 10-12 diapers a day at first. Laying in three or four packs of disposables (150-200 diapers), will save you repeated trips to the supermarket. To save money, you can buy in bulk–packages of 100 versus 20, for instance, or even cases versus individual packages. But be sure to check the actual price per diaper when you do; you might be surprised to find out that in some cases, especially when diapers go on sale, that the smaller packs may cost less per diaper than the economy size. You can also put every member of your extended family on a coupon alert, and stock up on diapers when they go on sale–even diapers the next couple of sizes up.
Reusable and made of soft cotton, these are the old-fashioned kind of diapers that your grandmother, and maybe even your mother, used. They come either pre-folded (with a center strip more absorbent than the outer strips) or flat (so you can fold them to the shape you want), and they have to be used with some kind of waterproof cover to keep your baby’s clothes dry. (Several brands also combine the cotton diaper with a built-in cover.)
The advantages of cloth diaper
Advocates of cotton diapers say they are more comfortable (i.e., softer), healthier (because they’re free of chemicals), and more environmentally friendly than disposables since they’re reusable and won’t end up clogging a landfill. In some ways, they are also more convenient: If you use a diaper service, they’ll bring you a nice pile of fresh, snowy-white diapers every week, and you don’t have to haul those bulky packages of disposables home from the store.
They also can save you a bundle of money. Disposable diapers cost between £0.15 and £0.25 apiece, which can set you back between £40 and £75 a month, depending on the age of your baby. Over the course of three years, you’ve shelled out about £1800 in diapers alone. Diaper services can cost up to £50 a month; over the course of three years you can spend some £1800 on the service, plus another £100 on wraps. But buying, say, four dozen diapers for your growing child, at about £25 per dozen, plus a range of diaper covers, can cost you as little as £300 for those same three years.
The disadvantages of cloth diaper
Before you pat yourself on the back for saving the earth and your family some bucks by going with cloth, you should realize that the argument is not that straightforward. For one thing, the environmental claim is debatable. Cotton diapers require both energy and water to wash, which can make them an ecological liability, especially in regions that don’t have a lot of those resources. Most cotton also requires heavy amounts of pesticides to grow, and diaper services may use harsh chemicals or chlorine for washing, none of which of which is good for the environment. Diaper-service trucks use gas to deliver their wares and disgorge pollutants into the air as they tootle around town. (You can buy organic cotton diapers to solve the pesticide problem, but they’re more expensive. If you forgo the diaper service, washing your own diapers in environmentally friendly detergents and drying them on a clothesline will reduce their ecological costs.)
Cloth diapers also entail extra work. If you have a diaper service, you must remember to put out your dirty diapers every week to be picked up, and you’ll probably need to fold the diapers before you put them away. If you buy your own cotton diapers, you’ll need to wash them. (This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds–you just shake out any fecal matter into the toilet, soak the dirty diapers in a pail of water with vinegar or baking soda, then throw them in the wash.)
As far as your baby’s comfort is concerned, if you’re not scrupulous about changing your baby’s diapers when they get wet, he can end up with a nasty case of diaper rash-you may dislike the idea of the chemically treated layers in disposables, but they do a good job of whisking moisture away from the skin. And unless you wrap very carefully, cotton diapers can leak more than disposables do. Finally, many daycare centers won’t use cotton–they insist on disposables because of convenience and hygiene concerns-so you might end up buying disposables for the center even if you use cloth at home.
The bottom line
If you decide to go with cloth, you can safely estimate that you’ll go through 10 to 12 diapers a day at first; having three or four dozen cloth diapers on hand will save you daily laundry bouts if you’re washing your own. If you elect to use a diaper service, ask friends about their experiences with local services to find a dependable and economical agency (one that uses earth-friendly detergents is another boon). The service typically will supply you with 50 to 60 diapers your first month. And don’t forget to lay in a supply of waterproof covers. They’re available in several styles, from plastic pants to plush, breathable fabric covers that hold the diaper in place and wrap up like a disposable.