Diapering Decisions: Cloth or Disposable?


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Nearly 3,800. That's the estimated number of diaper changes the average baby will go through in his or her first 2½ years of life. Few baby items compare to diapers in terms of frequency of use or level of necessity, but like most items or issues related to baby care, it isn't cut and dry, and the biggest debate centers on one simple question: Cloth or disposable?

The cloth resurgence

Cloth ruled the market until after World War II, when Pampers began banking on post-war consumers' desire for all things new, fast and convenient. By the end of the 1970s, Pampers was worth more than $1 billion and today, most estimates credit disposables with about 96 percent of the diaper market. Convenience won parents over to disposables in decades past, but cloth diapers have made impressive strides. According to the Real Diaper Industry Association, cloth diapers saw a 30 percent increase in sales between 2000 and 2007.

"The trend is cloth," says Fatimah Faraj, store manager of Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique in Raleigh. "A lot of people are figuring out that we need to be more green and earth friendly and do what's best for our children."

Although numerous studies show the environmental aspect of the disposable vs. cloth debate is a wash when comparing the tangible waste of disposables to the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, cloth-users note that trading in the non-biodegradable disposables   benefits more than the environment. "You can't look at a package of diapers and see what's in them," Faraj says. "Many of them have chemicals that aren't things we would choose to put against our children's skin if we knew they were there."

It's cheaper, too. Outfitting a child in disposables will run parents thousands of dollars. "For about $300 to $500 you can buy all the diapers your child will need from birth through potty training, and then you can use [the cloth diapers] on additional children," says Christina Foster, owner of Hip Bottoms Cloth Diapers in Winston-Salem. "Also, their bums are just so much cuter in cloth."

For Lindsey and Rich Kenny, Durham parents of a 6-month-old son, the financial

savings were a big motivator. "I remember the first diaper run I made when Asa was 2 weeks old," Lindsey says. "I came home having spent $100 on diapers that lasted us one month. That's when I was able to convince Rich of the financial benefit to cloth diapering."

"I feel like Asa does much better with cloth diapers," Rich adds. "You have natural fiber against his skin versus synthetic chemicals. I feel like he's a happier baby because of it."

What about the mess?

Environmental and cost issues aside, many parents' reluctance to make the switch lies in a single fear - the mess. Rachel Noto, Raleigh mother of 4-year-old and 18-month-old daughters, used disposables with her first daughter but transitioned to cloth when looking for something that wouldn't irritate her baby's sensitive skin.

"I was anticipating a lot of stress as far as laundry was concerned, but you pretty much live in the laundry room anyway when you have little kids," she says. "They're practically as easy as using disposables."

Rich Kenny agrees. "It's a lot easier than I thought it would be," he says. "It's not too gross or too difficult to spray off the diapers before you throw them in the laundry."

Fortunately, cloth diapering doesn't have to be all or nothing. Noto's family does what she refers to as "cloth diapering light." Although the majority of the diapering for her 18-month-old is cloth, they use disposables when they have a babysitter or go to church. Many day cares aren't cloth-diaper friendly, either.

Taking the leap is the hardest part, says Priscilla LeCompte, co-owner of All About Baby Boutique in Greensboro. "Even if you only get four [cloth] diapers and are still using disposables at other times, trying it is the best way to figure out if it is right for you and what fits well for you and your family."

Starting with cloth

"Find somebody who used them who can help you navigate," says Noto, who started the Facebook group Triangle Cloth Diapering. "The whole [cloth diapering] community is really supportive," she says. "I was worried that I wasn't as hard-core as some who use cloth diapers, but it doesn't matter whether you do both cloth and some disposable."

Faraj recommends starting with 24 diapers, which allows for washing every other day. Other startup supplies include two wet bags or pail liners for the home; two wet bags for the diaper bag; cloth-diaper-safe detergent; and cloth-diaper-safe diaper cream. Once babies are on solid foods, consider a diaper sprayer and/or flushable, biodegradable liners.

Finding what fits

Ultimately, when it comes to diapers, it's about finding what works for you, your budget and your family. If, in the end, the choice is cloth, remember there's a learning curve. But the reward - and savings - can be sweet.

"I remember Rich coming home one day and saying, 'Can't we use cloth wipes or something?'" Lindsey Kenny says. "I knew he was hooked."

Katrina Tauchen is a freelance writer, editor and Durham mom who is currently on her own diapering adventure with her 7-month-old daugher. She also blogs at splashofsomething.com.

Cloth Diapering: What You Will Need

The choice to go with cloth is just the first in a line of diapering decisions. Fatimah Faraj, store manager of Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique in Raleigh, defines the terms.

  • All-in-ones: Both the diaper and diaper cover are in one piece. Goes on and off like a disposable. You'll need: 24.
  • All-in-twos: The two pieces - cover and diaper - are separate, with the diaper fitting into the cover. The diaper is changed every time, but the cover can be reused two to three times. You'll need: 24 diapers and 10 diaper covers.
  • Pockets: Features a cover with a fleece piece inside to keep babies dry, into which you stuff a diaper; change the system each time. You'll need: 24, purchased all together.
  • Fitteds: An inside piece used underneath a cover, mainly for overnight; especially good for heavy-wetters. You'll need: two to three.
  • Basic prefolds: Large pieces of prefolded fabric, though it takes additional folding and pinning to make them fit your baby; used with a cover. You'll need: 24 prefolds, 10 covers.
  • Traditional flats: The old-fashioned cloth diaper: a large piece of fabric you fold and pin to fit your baby; used with a cover. You'll need: 24 flats, 10 covers.

By the Numbers

3,796  Number of disposable diapers the average child will use in his or her first years of life.

24    Number of cloth diapers a baby needs in his or her first years of life.

40.3 million   Number of disposable diapers used every day in the U.S.

96 percent    Percentage of American babies who wear disposable diapers (compared to 6 percent in China and 2 percent in India).

$1,000  Average cost for a baby's first year of disposable diapers.

$700-$800  Average cost for a baby's first year of cloth diapers.    .

$700-$800   Average cost for 2.5 years of cloth diapering.

$2,500 Average cost for 2.5 years of disposable diapers.

Sources: Consumer Reports, ABC News, Mother Jones, BabyCenter.com

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