Friday, November 5, 2010

The Nappy Question

Because we live in the tropics, we thought it would be best to use cloth on our baby - that it would breathe better or something.  We didn't research the question, it just seemed the conscientious (and economical) thing to do, and hey, both our mums did cloth, so how hard could it be?

Then I discovered MCNs: modern cloth nappies, which are tailored in the shape of disposables with press studs or velcro sewn in to fasten them.  They were just so gosh darn cute, particularly when viewed through a haze of nesting hormones, that I thought - how can I not put my baby in these?  Even the names of cloth nappy companies are cute: Baby Beehinds, Pea Pods, Bummis, Itti Bitties, Cushie Tushies, Happy Heinies...  When I got my first delivery of MCNs through the mail, and saw how itsy bitsy the Baby Beehind Petites really were, I was blown away.

I remember sitting at my desk, thinking: I'm really going to have a baby.  And it's really going to fit into one of these.  Wow.

Some parents warned me that cloth nappies were more trouble than they're worth - and with all the washing and chemicals they're just as bad for the environment anyway.  But in my mind, that in no way outweighed the cute factor, which is not to be underestimated:

Bethany at 8 days in a BBH Petite Small.  Awww....

Bethany at 3 months in a funky Cushie Tushies All in One, One Size Fits All

But cloth nappying was not to be.  At almost 4 months we are using disposables.

So what's the low-down on cloth nappies, and what are your options?

Which is better for the environment?

Some of the studies that say cloth nappies are just as bad as disposables are outdated.  They assume that you have to soak your nappies and use a bleach like Napisan etc.  These days, with better washing machines, you can just dry pail your nappies (that means exactly what it sounds like, stick them in a bucket without water), scrape or rinse off the worst of the poo, and then chuck them in for a long cycle with ordinary environmentally friendly washing powder.  Make sure they dry well.  Hanging them in the sun will not only kill any bacteria but remove any stains.  When I was using cloth nappies, I only had to do 1 load every 1-2 days, washed at 60 degrees Celcius.

With these new washing methods, and even taking into account advances in disposables manufacture, it seems that cloth nappies do have a lower carbon footprint, provided that you always line dry, and particularly if you use the cloth nappies on more than one child.  Otherwise, cloth can be worse.  (See, for example, this 2008 British goverment study on the comparative environmental impacts of cloth and disposables).

My use of cloth nappies was going spectacularly well until the wet season came early and we got a monsoonal weekend in September.  The old fashioned terry cloth towelling squares dry fine indoors on a clothes horse, but MCNs take much longer to dry.  I've found hemp MCNs take about 36 hours on a clothes horse indoors with aircon on to reduce humidity, or half a day in the sun.  But when I hung bamboo MCNs on the line in the sun at 8am on a blazing hot, windy, dry season day, they were only just dry at sundown.  Inside, on a clothes horse, bamboo MCNs were still not properly dry after 3 days.

So, whether cloth nappies will improve your carbon footprint depends on your laundry habits, and the weather where you live.  But cloth nappies also have other environmental benefits, such as reduced landfill, and limitation of human waste leaking into the water table etc (provided you scrape it down the toilet and do not, as so many people do, rinse it into the laundry sink).

Which is better for your budget?

Nice MCNs ain't cheap.  Each nappy will set you back $20-$40 depending on the brand and whether you buy one with a pretty pattern etc.  If you buy One Size Fits Alls, then you need at least 24 nappies in total.  If you buy fitted nappies, then you need at least 24 in small, medium, and large.  That's between $480 and $2,880 depending on your choices, plus a few covers.  Covers are sized, and you probably need at least 2 of each size - so allow $50+ for covers.  But if you want to do really budget cloth - a set of terry cloth towelling nappies, plus two Snappi's (modern plastic fasteners, which replace safety pins - you can buy them at most chemists), plus a couple of covers, will probably set you back around $100.  You could also get a full set of second hand MCNs for about $250.

For cloth, you then need to factor in a bit of extra washing powder, wear and tear on the washing machine, and the extra power used for cleaning them.  It's not unrealistic to think you would reduce the life of your washing machine by several years through cloth nappying, so you probably need to budget at least half the cost of a new washing machine - say $300 - $600, depending on how fancy a washing machine you want.  Add $80 for additional power and washing powder (let's say 6 x $7 boxes of washing powder, plus about $40 additional power over 2.5 years), and $40 for some nappy bags when out and about.

That's a possible $520 for the most budget cloth solution, or up to about $3700 for a fancy-looking sized solution and maintaining a very nice washing machine.

Disposables fall somewhere in between this.  At an average of 7 changes a day (it starts off a lot more and drops below this over time), and assuming your child was completely toilet trained at 2.5 years, you would change about 6500 nappies.  If you buy nice nappies, like Huggies, on bulk buy specials, you can get 198 for about 30c a nappy.  You could spend a little bit more than this if you were so disorganised you couldn't manage to buy them when they were on special, or you might spend less if you bought a cheaper brand (CHOICE magazine has estimated 26-50c per nappy, but the higher end of that seems too high to me).  That's $1950 at 30c a day - from $1690 at 26c a nappie to $3250 if it really was 50c a day.  With more nappy brands on the market and improvements to manufacturing processes, the price per disposable nappy is unlikely to go up and indeed may continue to come down.  But then you have to factor in all the plastic bags you put pooey nappies in - they're about $7 for 100 - that's almost $200 assuming an average 3 poos a day over 2.5 years.  So let's say about $1800 to $3450, depending on the brand you buy.

The bottom line - if you really are living on a shoestring, you can save about $1300 with a budget cloth solution (compared to the most budget disposable option), but for the average family making average choices (eg. reasonably basic One Size Fits All MCNs and a mid-range washing machine, versus brand name disposables on special) cloth will save about $1000 over 2.5 years.  In reality it will be slightly less because you will use disposables on your newborn and when you travel, so maybe $900.  However, if you re-used your cloth nappies with a second child, cloth could save you thousands more... you just have to commit to cloth.  If you buy cloth nappies and end up using disposables instead, that's the most expensive of all.


The only inconvenience with disposables is that you can run out, so you need to keep stocking up ahead.

But without the soaking, cloth nappies not as inconvenient as they used to be.  I used a wastepaper sized bin lined with a large PUL nappy bag (I had 3 of these to rotate), and chucked used nappies in there.  The bag and all the nappies went in the washing machine together, which meant I didn't have to clean the nappy pail.  I would put on a load last thing at night, then first thing in the morning run an extra rinse cycle and hang them out to dry for the day.

I rinsed poo into the toilet just after a change with a little squirt (which is easily connected to your toilet and uses the cistern water).  I have to say I wasn't a fan of the little squirt.  The spray was very strong and I would usually end up with watery poo splashing on me and the floor.  In hindsight, I think a plastic spatula would probably be a better option.  I didn't mind a bit of poo on my hands, but on my clothes and floor meant cleaning up - plus I know the poo gets much nastier when they start solids.

Apart from this cleaning work, today's disposables have another thing going from them.  They suck the moisture away from the baby's skin so you don't have to change them as regularly.  So I do about 5 changes a day in disposables, but about 12 in cloth.  But more more importantly, for me disposables have saved tears and assisted sleep.  In cloth I am lucky to get Bethany to nap for 20 minutes, because she wees and wakes herself up, and if she wees and I don't get to her straight away, she bawls her little eyes out.  This is inconvenient if you are cooking or hanging laundry, but downright nasty if you are stuck in traffic.  For me, this (in combination with the arrival of the tropical wet season, which meant I had to constantly use the drier) was what convinced me to give up cloth.

You can get stay-dry cloth liners, and I understand they work well for many mums, but they are just not effective enough for the wee not to upset my baby.  If you are going to use cloth, they are much more convenient after about 6 weeks, when your baby starts pooing 1-3 times a day, rather than every single nappy.


I have had just as many leaks with disposables as with cloth.  Mind you, I tested a bunch of cloth brands and selected those which seemed to leak least.  For me, the Baby Beehind One Size Fits All hemp and bamboo nappies were fantastic at containing poo, and the Cushie Tushie One Size Fits All All in Ones were also great.  Pea Pods and Happy Heinies were a bit average, and Green Kids were a disaster.  It does depend a bit on the shape of the baby - eg chubby or skinny thighs.  I didn't have problems with the terry cloth towelling, but then I don't have a baby that's crawling or walking, which is where more tailored MCNs probably make the difference.

For Baby's Skin

Both seem just as breathable.  I haven't noticed either cloth or disposables have particularly led to issues, provided baby is washed and changed regularly and a barrier cream is used.  At worst, we've had a bit of heat rash after a couple of days without aircon.


In cloth nappies, I personally think Cushie Tushies and Baby Beehinds are awesome.  If you live in Australia, you can order an amazing range of nappies through Darlings Downunder, and I have found their service to be exceptional.  There is also a facebook group called Buy and Sell Your MCN's and eBay for second hand nappies. 

In disposables, I prefer Huggies, but mums with babies with longer thinner legs seem to prefer Babylove.  The Woolworths Select brand was pretty useless.  For newborns, the Huggies were particularly great because of the 'wetness indicator', so you could see at a glance whether they were wet. Other sizes of Huggies don't have this, but then when they get bigger you can feel whether the nappy's wet from the outside by feeling how firm / heavy it is.

Other Alternatives

In addition to usual disposable nappies, you can buy biodegradable disposable nappies.  These would be quite expensive to buy all the time, but may be a good choice for those using cloth for the occasional trip where disposable would be more convenient.  For example, Eenee compostables are about 80c a nappy, which works out to $5,200 over 2.5 years.

You can also try a technique called Elimination Communication (or EC).  This is like early toilet training, where you teach your baby to associate a sound and position (eg, the sound "ssss" and being placed over a potty) with weeing/pooing, and try to learn to read their signals for when they want to go.  It's what the do in cultures that don't use nappies.  It takes some patience and time in the beginning, but can result in big cost savings and no need for later toilet training if you can get it to work, as your baby is typically toilet trained by 18-24 months.  Here is an article on how to do EC.  Even if you do EC, however, you will still need nappies for sleeping, going out, and while your baby is learning.


  1. Hi Caroline
    That article is a good read, full of balanced info about a very important topic that millions of us have to make decisions about. I used the square cloth nappies with safety pins 30 years ago because we couldn't afford to use disposables and we liked to think we were environmentally responsible. But the cloth nappies were a pain and I spent many hours of drudgery in the washing process. Actually, that is another negative factor with cloth. I reckon, with cloth squares for 2 children, I spent at least 2,600 hours on that chore. Each load of 10-12 nappies, took about an hour and included scraping the poo, soaking to sterilise, cleaning the bucket and trough, hanging on the line, bringing them in and folding them.

    On a plumbers wage of say $80/hour, that's $208,000 of unpaid work ...mostly done by women.....and no super guarantee for doing that work either.
    [10 loads per week x 52 weeks in the year (no holidays) x 1hr per load x 5 years, = $208,000)

  2. Thanks for this article, which I came across looking for info on nappy use in the tropics. I'd just like to add that I've now been using a set of one the leading Australian brands of modern cloth nappies for three months here in Jakarta, which has an average relative humidity of between around 70 to 90 percent. The inner absorbers are certainly not fast-drying, but I usually get them on the outdoor line (breeze, no direct sun) by mid-morning, and they dry the same day. When I miss a daytime washing, they dry in about the same time indoors with the fan on them and with the help of very light air-con (thermostat set to about 28 degrees). I find zero nappy rash with them, whereas when I use disposables for trips out of the house, they cause a rash after more than three hours or so.. I believe in the Jakarta context they certainly have less environmental impact when you consider that much of the rubbish stream here ends up either burned or dumped in rivers, and less social impact when you consider the rubbish is always handled by folks making a living hand-picking through for recyclables.