Cloth Nappies (Diapers): Helpful Tips

Sunshine is now five years old and has been out of nappies for years. When we were in the middle of using cloth nappies, I wanted to write about our experience but couldn’t quite get the distance needed to create a reflective piece that might help other families considering going for cloth. Then, life continued and I never got around to it. Last month, I came across a forum thread on asking about experiences using cloth and it finally got me thinking about things enough to share my experiences. You can read my original post and the full thread on ‘environmentally friendly diapers’ here. I hope that this can be useful to families looking for information when deciding whether to choose cloth nappies or diapers.

As readers will know, we adopted, so I have no experience of cloth nappies for infants since we only met our son when he was a toddler. When he came home, we immediately switched him to corn-based disposables for a few weeks. While they have plastic tape tabs, we did not have any sort of facility to safely compost them anyway, so they were the best option available for nappies destined for the landfill. Social workers strongly advised us to go for several months with our chosen disposables, but we wanted him to become familiar with the look and feel of the nappies so we left a clean stack sitting around after a few weeks. He soon wanted to try them on and use them, so we followed his lead. He preferred the soft fabric of the nappies to the plastic feeling (even the corn-based ones have that plastic feel) nappies. We used the biodegradable nappies when camping/travelling for more than a day, or when he would be in the care of someone unprepared to stick the dirty nappies in the dry bag for us.

How did we consider environmental impact?

When we were preparing to become parents, I made it clear to my wife that I wouldn’t budge on cloth nappying. We were both raised in cloth nappies so all I had to do was to show her that there were options that we would find more convenient than the folding and pinning she didn’t want to do. 

We talked through the following:

  • Energy use in production and when maintaining the nappy supply
  • Keeping resources out of the landfill and in use for as long as possible
  • Price over the lifetime of child’s nappy use
  • Convenience of using pre-folded nappies
  • Once they’re purchased, they’re ours so we cannot run out (in our early days of sleep deprivation, we were so glad that we didn’t have to leave the house or pay for more)
  • How the process could work (I sought advice from my mom and a friend who had cloth nappied) in our small rental home
  • Materials in our home and against our child’s skin. The pre-folds we chose have plastic in their waterproof layer, and some are cotton or blended with synthetics, but we felt that this was a better balance than endless (mostly) biodegradable disposables heading to the landfill.

In all of these categories, cloth nappies win in the comparison. Once you purchase a set of cloth nappies, for instance, the product is made and there is no further environmental demand on: virgin materials to create the nappies you’ll need next month/year; the water, oil/gas/diesel used to fuel the factories and shipping the nappies, etcerera.

What type of nappy and how many?

Knowing we would be choosing pre-folded nappies over the flat fabric, I researched the types available and chose the style that have a series of snaps/poppers to allow them to fit infants through toddlers and chose one brand to target. I focused on one brand to make sure that all parts would be interchangeable, and so our son would be used to how they fit.

I chose a UK brand called ‘Totsbots’ as they seemed to have good durability and high resale rate. I headed to eBay. My guidelines were that the nappies needed to look in good order (i.e. no fraying) and that after bidding and shipping, each nappy shouldn’t cost me more than 1/3 of the price of what I would pay for a new one of the same brand. Apparently, these are considered ‘collectable’ and I would see some designs listed at very high prices. Since none of the designs were going to be out-right offensive, I just focused on the quality and price. In the end, I spent £75 on our supply of (23-ish) nappies, inserts, and liners. They secured at the sides with either snaps or Velcro. When my son was younger I didn’t notice a difference in ease of use. When he got a bit older and started to take his nappies off, we preferred using the Velcro closures as he couldn’t just pull indiscriminately to ‘free’ himself.

A friend said that around 25 was the perfect number, and we had 23-ish and I definitely agree. It allowed us to have a stack clean, a bag waiting to be washed, and a day’s supply drying. This way, none go for longer than two days waiting to be washed. We bought two brand new swim nappies direct from the company and they were a great part of our system because we knew how they would fit and were cared for in exactly the same way. I recognise our privilege in being able to front the cash for the nappies, even if they are cheaper second hand. I think that besides the initial ‘ew’ factor of ‘dealing with’ dirty nappies, what puts most people that I’ve spoken to (friends and family) off from choosing it for their children is the initial outlay. Some also have concerns that they won’t be able to keep it going. For me, any single nappy not purchased brand new and made from from virgin materials then kept out of the landfill, is a win. Depending upon your area, there may also be nappy libraries where you can try different styles, second-hand children’s clothing stores that sell used/pre-loved nappies, and some local authorities in the UK provide a ‘set up pack’ of cloth nappies to families that qualify. It’s worth searching in your area to see what is available if ebay is out of reach financially.

As I awaited my ebay orders, I had a nice moment of social connection with a neighbour. She knocked on my door one day saying that she had one of my deliveries! The seller noticed my address and asked her colleague/my neighbour if she would mind dropping them off. We connected in a new way and talked about parenthood, and I heard about her cloth nappy experience as well.

What we learned

Although a few of the nappies I bought came with boosters/inserts (and a few washable liners), it took us a few weeks of using the nappies to realise the value of both. Luckily, we have a local second hand store that specialises in baby and childrens’ items and they sold both inserts and liners for 50p-£1 each. I found that we needed more inserts/boosters than we thought. This is particularly true for toddlerhood, when they can really soak nappies. If we were around the house and he wasn’t near potty training, we’d use one insert for day time. For travel we would use two and three for bedtime. They’re also easy to make with old felted sweaters or other wool fabric. When I made the first stack of inserts from a felted sweater, I made them exactly the same size as the pre-made inserts not realising that my fabric wasn’t done shrinking. If you decide to make yours, either make sure the fabric is completely done shrinking or make them larger than the factory made inserts. The fabric liners, which really are integral to the whole system, were crucial for dealing with poo. It was far easier to pick up a cloth liner and dangle that over the toilet to empty and rinse it than holding a full nappy up.

Nappy with handmade wool boosters

I’ve also head concerns about skin irritation and cloth nappies. In my experience, this is likely to arise from the laundry detergent used or the length of time a child sits in a wet nappy. Ideally, when they ‘go’, they get changed. This pattern of feeling a wet nappy and then getting changed is also helpful for potty training. The only time our son’s skin would be irritated was if he was using the disposables or if he fell asleep in the car home at night after a day away somewhere and it was several hours until we could change him. We used the Weleda calendula nappy cream recommended by a friend and it was very soothing. I planned on making some but the tube we had was so efficient at healing and we needed it so infrequently, that we still have the same tube and he’s been out of nappies for more than three years.

How did we wash and dry the cloth nappies?

Our washing and drying process evolved over time. We had two dry bags for the process, the type that closes at the top used for outdoor activities. We kept a small one in our nappy bag for when we were out and placed a large one by the washing machine. All dirty nappies would be transferred to the dry bag to build up enough to wash. The urine-soaked ones could be washed at a lower temperature than the ‘soiled’ ones, so while we’d put them in the bag together (folded closed), we’d often pull out the wet ones to wash with our clothes until we had enough of the poo nappies to wash with things like towels. We learned to not lean too close to the dry bag if it hadn’t been opened in more than a day because the ammonia really builds up. We also learned to never let any dirty nappies sit for more than two days before washing. We were a few weeks into the system when I read that the bicarbonate of soda/baking soda in homemade laundry detergent can degrade the waterproofing, so we reluctantly switched to the special detergent sold for cloth nappies. Eventually, we just chanced it with soap nuts and they seemed to work fine. We used a combination of soap nuts and the commercial powder.

For drying, it was fairly easy in the spring and summer when we could hang them outside on dry days or have them on the airer with the back door open on wet days. We live in Scotland and rain is a constant companion. When the rainy autumns came, and it was too cold to keep the back door open for air circulation to the drying rack, we had too many to dry on the racks near the radiators so we had to think of something else. Because of the waterproofing layer, they couldn’t be dried directly on the radiators. This led us to needing to buy an electric heated drying rack/airer. We didn’t really want to get into this level of energy use, but it was the only way we had of getting the nappies dry. Trying to dry them in humid climates is probably where the pre-folds lose points compared to the traditional flat fabric nappies. In any case, the heated airers only get as hot as a very hot summer day so we didn’t think they would damage the waterproofing compared to radiators or a dryer (which we didn’t have anyway).

A friend of mine who used cloth nappies with her two is also a science teacher. She was interested in seeing how much energy the heated airer/drying rack that she bought used compared to her washing machine. She put identical loads through her dryer and also her airer and found that the airer used far less energy according to her smart meter. When it came time to admit that we needed to buy the heated airer, I bought the same kind as hers so I could at least quiet those thoughts. As another poster in the original forum said, so much of parenting is about convenience when you need to focus on keeping your child safe and healthy. I’d also say it’s about wondering if you’re doing the right thing for your child and the world around you, particularly in choosing conveniences.

I loved cloth nappies for potty training. My son already knew what it felt like to be in wet cloth so had the skills to recognise that he had already gone and then we just needed to work from there. He was mostly naked in the house when learning (unless it was too cold), mainly because he just refused to keep wearing nappies one day so we went and bought a potty. Before we switched him to pants we used the nappies without inserts when out of the house. We called them big kid nappies like that. We also made sure we used the Velcro closures instead of the snaps at this stage as he was then able to open and close them himself. It was nice to know that when we would be in town we could just undo the nappy, have him use a toilet and then put the same unused nappy back on. Another benefit of cloth here is that traditional (or even biodegradable) disposables would be wasted (they rarely stick closed again) if a child removes a clean nappy to go to the toilet. With cloth, we just close it back up and go on with our day!

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