As the saying goes, all babies do for the first few months is eat, sleep and poop. Your little one has a lot to learn and mastering these three essential life functions is just the first step. Considering the average toilet-training age is 30 months and your tot will spend all his or her time up until that point in diapers, how you choose to deal with the poo is something to consider.
What I love about cloth diapers
When it came time for our family to weigh our diapering options, cloth stood out for a few very important reasons:
- Cost savings. Disposable diapers and wipes can be rather expensive, particularly when you consider where they end up – the trash bin. Some estimates figure that diapering with disposables could cost up to $3,000 per child. We thought that was a lot of money to quite literally throw away, which made the initial investment of $375 for 16 cloth diapers, 30 reusable wipes and three laundry bags look like a steal.
- Energy savings. One cradle-to-grave comparison of cloth and disposable diapers asserts that disposable diapers create 2.3 times more water waste, use 3.5 times more energy, 8.3 times more non-renewable raw materials, 90 times more renewable raw materials and 4-30 times as much land to grow or mine raw materials as cloth diapers. Furthermore, the amount of crude oil (more than 406 gallons) required to make the plastic for all the disposable diapers one child will use is more than the amount of oil you would need to lubricate every car you will own in your lifetime.
- Waste reduction. In 1998, an EPA study found that disposable diapers comprise 2.1 percent of landfill waste, or 3.4 million tons, each year. To put that in perspective, this is enough waste to reach to the moon and back nine times. When compared to reusable cloth diapers, which produce zero landfill waste, it's a no brainer.
- Health benefits. Disposable diapers are associated with higher scrotal temperatures, which could lead to fertility problems for boys later in life. Lab mice exposed to disposable diapers also exhibited asthma-like symptoms and eye, nose and throat irritation in a 1999 study. Disposable diapers may contain toxic chemicals, such as sodium polyacrylate, dioxin, phthalates and heavy metals, some of which can be absorbed through the skin.
The downside of cloth
Of course, there are some very practical counterpoints to exclusively using cloth diapers.
- Daycare restrictions. Some child care centers will only allow disposable diapers, citing health reasons or state regulations. However, more and more facilities are changing their policies to allow cloth diapers. When you're looking for a child care center, ask if they will allow cloth diapers or are willing to re-evaluate a policy that favors disposables. In reality, cloth diapers pose no more health risk than disposable ones. The only difference is that you take home a bag of dirty cloth diapers at the end of the day instead of the center throwing them away.
- Laundry. Washing cloth diapers and wipes does use more water and energy than you would if you didn't have to wash diapers. However, there are some ways to improve your laundry efficiency, such as waiting until you have a full load of diapers to wash, reducing the water level to match the size of the load or even using a diaper service if one is available where you live. You may find that the additional cost is negligible, depending on where you live, whether you use public or well water and drought conditions. Finally, the full accounting of energy and resource use referenced above supports that, over their lifetime, cloth diapers still use less than disposable diapers.
- Initial investment. Cloth diapers do require an initial investment of a few hundred dollars. It can sting a bit compared to the $45 one could spend on an economy-sized box of disposable diapers. Yet over the course of diapering your child until he or she is potty-trained, cloth diapers cost about one-tenth of what you will pay for disposables.
- Convenience. Disposable diapers are arguably more convenient. So are many things that we use once and throw away. The downside is that the momentary convenience has lasting consequences, both financial and environmental.
In the end, a compromise worked best for our family. We use cloth diapers at home and at daycare, but we keep a supply of disposables on hand for when we are away from home and don't want to lug around a bag full of dirty diapers, such as when we are on vacation and don't have easy access to laundry facilities. Whether to use cloth or disposable diapers is a choice for each family and depends on many factors. Only you can decide what is right for your family.