The hand-me-down diapers are of the “fitted” variety (basically thick underpants of towel-like material around which is a waterproof outer layer that lasts several changes). We also bought an all-in-one diaper (the whole diaper needs to be washed at each change) and a hybrid diaper system consisting of one diaper and three inserts (you change the inserts and, depending on how much of a mess the baby makes, the actual diaper may stay clean). So far it has been a good experience, but we’ve had our challenges. Here are five things parents should know before making the decision whether to buy reusable diapers.
Start small, because cloth diapering isn’t for everyone. I know quite a few people who tried it and gave it up. The couple who handed us the kit found it exhausting. They are environmentally conscious people who couldn’t handle the workload and so ended up paying about $180 for something they didn’t use. I talked to a father in South Africa who had to give up cloth diapers because of a drought. I know a mom in Switzerland who abandoned washable diapers after using them for five months; when winter came, they just took too much time to dry. So, wait before buying an expensive kit. Start with two or three diapers to see whether it’s something you can handle, and only then buy in bulk. If it’s not, don’t feel bad about it. We’re all human.
It’s not always eco-friendly. A peer-reviewed study published in 2008 by the U.K. Environmental Agency found that “the environmental impacts of using shaped reusable nappies can be higher or lower than using disposables, depending on how they are laundered.” Using cloth diapers in an environmentally optimal way — washing them in full loads, without using a dryer, and reusing them on a second child — can reduce their carbon footprint by almost 40 percent compared with disposable diapers. But washing them in half-loads with a tumble dry might, in fact, defeat the purpose. (It should be noted that the study, which is a decade old, is based on data about diapers made of cotton, a notoriously water-hungry crop, while now diapers made from the more sustainable bamboo are easily available.) So if your primary motivation is environmental, using a dryer is out of the question. This means you’ll have to take into account the time diapers need to dry, which can be days. Also, you’ll need to wash them in full loads, which means you’ll have to wait for at least 8 to 10 dirty diapers to pile up before cleaning them, assuming you plan to wash them separately because poop is involved. Most people I know wash them separately, but we wash them with whites, adding laundry sanitizer.
You’re going to need a lot of them. Because to fulfill their environmental purpose, cloth diapers need to be washed in full loads and line-dried, you’re going to need a lot of them. An unscientific survey among my cloth-diaper-using friends showed that you’ll need about 20 to use them full time or mostly full time. This, of course, has financial implications. The number of diapers you’ll need depends on the model you choose; with pocket diapers, you’ll need fewer, because you can change just the insert (though that might not be true in the first months when infants tend to poop often and less solidly). The price of a single cloth diaper can vary, from about $5 to $20. Using cloth will most likely save you money in the long run, but it requires an initial investment that could be a burden.
They’re good for the baby’s skin — but only if you change them often. Cloth diapers are often praised for being good for the environment and good for the baby’s skin. However, they tend to be less absorbent than disposables, so you need to change them more often. We had some diaper-rash issues before I realized this.
They are cumbersome. This is something I wish someone had told me before I had bought newborn clothes. Washable diapers are cumbersome. They vary depending on the type, with “fitted” diapers tending to be more voluminous than all-in-one and pocket nappies. But they’re all considerably bigger than regular disposables. This means you might need to add an extra size to your baby’s outfits, especially in the first months. For us, cloth diapers and newborn-size clothes proved mutually exclusive, despite the fact that our daughter could wear newborn clothes with regular diapers.
Now I realize this can look quite discouraging. But the good news is that using cloth diapers isn’t as terrible as it sounds once you’ve established a routine. Most reassuringly, it gets better after the first months when the baby starts eating solid food and her stool becomes more solid. Just remember, start gradually. And if it’s not for you, don’t feel guilty: There are plenty of other things you can do for the environment. Buying used clothes and plastic toys is one of them.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to a hybrid diaper as a pocket diaper. This version has been corrected.