Why I Choose Cloth Diapers

by Michelle Kennedy

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It was an ordinary afternoon at the basketball field. I was on the bleachers watching my oldest (again) play and was simultaneously wrestling my almost two-year-old (he arches his back and slams his head into my chest and I snuggle him to keep him from falling down a flight of bleacher stairs). I checked his diaper and proceeded to change him in a secluded spot. There was nothing unusual so far, but when I turned my head to retrieve his new diaper, I noticed several moms looking over my shoulder. I looked up from my spot on the floor and said, "Hi," in an obviously-confused manner.

"What are you doing?" one of the ladies said.

"Changing Jack's diaper," I replied, trying not to "crack wise" as my grandmother would have said.

"What is that?" another lady said, pointing to Jack's diaper.

"A diaper," I said, wondering if I had to start speaking slowly and loudly too. And then it dawned on me why they were looking at me so strangely.

"Oh," I said. "It's a cloth diaper."

"Really?" one of the mom's asked. "You do that?"

"Yeah," I said. "I have for years."

"Gross," was one mother's reply. "I could never do that," another said. "I wish I could," said another, "but it's just too much."

Their reactions shouldn't have surprised me, but they did a little. I mean, I understand thinking that cloth diapers can be a hassle, but to not even recognize one when they saw it?

After the initial shock wore off, I proceeded to give the other mothers a small class. I like to call it "Cloth Diapers 101."

The first question is always, "Why do I use cloth diapers?" Why wouldn't I?

Let's first put aside the fact that cloth diapers are really soft and it's the only thing I can imagine putting next to my baby's even softer skin. Let's look at a disposable diaper. A disposable diaper contains traces of dioxin, a very toxic chemical bi-product of the paper-bleaching process. It is a carcinogenic chemical and is classified by the EPA as being the most toxic of all the cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries.

Disposables also contain Tributyl-tin (TBT), a known toxic pollutant said to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.

Disposables have that lovely gel inside them, sodium polyacrylate, which is a super absorbent polymer that has been linked to Toxic Shock Syndrome.

If I spend so much time making sure that my baby only tries one food at a time to prevent food allergies, how on Earth can I validate putting this stuff on an area of extreme sensitivity.

There is also that whole environmental issue that often comes up. According to Carl Lehrburger, author of Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues: "In 1988, over 18 billion diapers were sold and consumed in the United States that year. The instructions on a disposable diaper package advice that all fecal matter should be deposited in the toilet before discarding, yet less than one half of one percent of all waste from single-use diapers goes into the sewage system. Over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill. In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags."

Further, disposables generate 60 times more solid waste and use 20 times more raw materials like crude oil and wood pulp than cloth diapers.

In 1991, an attempt towards recycling disposable diapers was made in the city of Seattle, involving 800 families, 30 day care centers, a hospital and a Seattle-based recycler for a period of one year. The conclusion made by Procter & Gamble was that recycling disposable diapers was not an economically feasible task on any scale.

"But I can't be responsible for the whole world," one mom said.

"No," I replied, "but we can be responsible for our part in it. Besides, cloth diapers are way cheaper than disposables."

"No, they're not, they are so expensive to buy," she said.

"At first," I replied. "But I purchased five dozen diapers for Matt 14 years ago and I am still using diapers that I used on him on Jack. I've bought a dozen or two for each kid in between, but that's it."

Cloth diapers are only around $60 a dozen. If one does the math out, for let's say two children (I have five, and any math done for five children is daunting). Buy five dozen diapers at $60 a dozen off eBay. That's $300. Buy 10 pairs of nylon cover pants with maximum price of $10 a piece, but again, you can always get them cheaper than that at thrift stores, yard sales or online. That's another $100. Some diaper pins at $2. You get a total of $402.00. And both kids are diapered for as long as need be. And then you have to do the laundry, but you were going to do the laundry anyway. So adding a couple of loads a week (and small ones at that) shouldn't add too much to the mix.

$400 compared to disposables, which cost approximately $20 a package or $15 if you buy cheap ones. A newborn baby will get at least 12 changes a day! And a toddler will take six to eight. So, let's say 10 diapers a day on average for 28 months. That's 8,540 diapers. Wow! I did a little comparison shopping and found that one can get 140 diapers for approximately $35. That's about 25 cents a piece for a diaper. Multiply that by 8,540 and that's a whopping $2135 spent on disposables over a two year (ish) period. I don't know about you, but I can think of a lot of ways to spend $2000. And that's bargain shopping. That doesn't count the $10 you have to spend on a quick package of 10 diapers at the convenience store because you ran out.

My new friends at the basketball game were shocked. They thought of themselves as being a pretty frugal bunch, but had never calculated the personal financial cost of using disposables.

"But what about diaper rash?" one of the moms asked.

For me personally, I have had five children in cloth diapers and not one has ever had a diaper rash problem. Once in a while, one will get a little redness, but it's nothing that can't be helped with a little Lansinoh or A&D Ointment. I have babysat for a lot of kids and the worse cases of diaper rash were on kids who were in disposables and usually those kids were left in their diapers a little too long. Further, I don't put a cover on my baby's diaper unless we are going out somewhere and we need to prevent leakage. Otherwise, my baby is in a pinned, organic cotton diaper, with air circulating and not a rash in sight.

My system for cloth diapering is almost as simple as disposable diapering. I keep a five-gallon bucket in the bathroom (which is also my laundry room) half-filled with water and a couple of spoonfuls of baking soda. When a diaper is wet, it comes off the baby and gets thrown in the bucket. A new diaper is put on the baby. Done. If the diaper is a little more, shall we say, involved, then it gets dunked in the toilet before being placed in the bucket.

If we are out and about, the offending diaper gets placed in a resealable bag and then placed in the bucket when we get home.

And that's it. I do a load of diapers probably every two or three days. They are small loads with hot water and no bleach. In the winter, I use the dryer or hang by the woodstove. In the spring, summer and fall, I hang them outside.

Believe it or not, where I live, using cloth is actually more convenient than using disposables because I live very far from the nearest grocery store and our local stores do not always carry diapers. Being able to just run upstairs and run a load of laundry is much easier than strapping the kids in the car, buying gas, going to the grocery store, spending the money on the diapers, and then driving all the way home.

"But what about the poop?" a mom asked me again. Is it really so inconceivable that we must sometimes have to deal with poop? I know many women who clean out litter boxes and carry little bags around behind their dogs without so much as an "ick" but their own child's poop? Blech! Poop is not that big a deal. Even with a disposable, you still have to look at it, smell it and clean it off a baby. You can't get away from it. And with a disposable, you are supposed to put the offensive matter into a toilet before throwing it away. It's just that no one ever does. If you can clean up after your dog, why not your child?

As it was once said (on a bumper sticker) "Poop Happens."


The Real Diaper Association - realdiaperassociation.org
Ecobaby - ecobaby.com

Updated October 2013

Michelle Kennedy is the author of 11 books, the Founding Editor of Organically Inclined, and the mother of five (almost six) children. Please write to her at mailto:misha@mishakennedy.com.

Take the Next Step:

  • Compare what you would shell out for disposables versus cloth diapers in the first year of your baby's life, using the above calculations as a guideline. Then decide if cloth diapering is something you'd like to try.

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