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Diapers Demystified What are the differences between cloth and disposable baby diapers, and which is best for your baby?

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When it comes to choosing diapers, you’ll find two types of parents: the ones who are committed to cloth diapering and the ones who are determined to use disposable diapers.

How do you decide which type of diaper is best for your baby?


“Look at your priorities,” says Jocelyn Albertson, a certified birth and postpartum doula who provides educational classes through The Flourish Fund (theflourishfund.com), a new experiential baby registry. Albertson and other parenting experts share the pros and cons of cloth and disposable diapers to help you make the right choice for your family.

Image via Laboko/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Deep Dive Into Disposables

When most of us think about diapers, disposable ones such as Pampers, Luvs and Huggies are what come to mind. They are more popular than cloth diapers, making up approximately 95% of diaper use, according to The Green Guide.

“The vast majority of U.S. parents choose disposable diapers, at least for some of the time … especially in the beginning when a baby can have a poopy diaper after each feed,” says Sharon Mazel, who co-authored the fourth and fifth editions of “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” and other books in the series.

Disposable diapers allow for quick, easy diaper changes. However, with convenience comes cost. Disposable diapers cost about $2,500 over the duration of the time babies are in diapers. If you want to use disposable diapers that are more environmentally friendly, such as those made by Honest or Seventh Generation, the cost can be even higher.

Pros

• Ease of Use: Since disposable diapers are so common, most people already know how to use them. There won’t be a learning curve for your babysitter, family members or child care provider. Plus, the ability to change a diaper and toss it on the fly is key for many parents.

• Timesaving: No washing or drying is required with disposable diapers—and less laundry at this stage of baby’s life is a good thing.

Cons

• Chemicals: Disposable diapers are typically made with bleach and dyes (the dyes are what makes the cute patterns), although some more natural diapers use less chemicals than others. “You can’t get rid of all chemicals because that’s what keeps the disposable diapers absorbent and prevents them from leaking,” says Albertson.

• Cost: You could easily buy and discard several thousand disposable diapers before your child learns to use the toilet. Is it any wonder why the industry enjoys
approximately $30 billion or more in annual revenues?

• Environment: Disposable diapers are said to make up about 50% of a family’s waste. Approximately 3.6 tons of disposable diaper waste will end up in landfills, according to a report in the journal Advances in Technical Nonwovens.

Image via Stephanie Phillips/E+/Getty Images Plus

Cloth Diaper Characteristics

While disposable diapers are more widely used, cloth diapers are making a comeback.

“To succeed with cloth diapering, you must have the information,” says Albertson, who cloth diapered both her daughters. “Like everything, if you don’t have the support you won’t stick with it.”
Prefolds are the most basic form of cloth diapers as well as the most economical—about $2 each. Folded into an absorbent rectangle, they sit inside a waterproof diaper cover, which you purchase separately. When it’s time for a diaper change, simply swap out the soiled prefold for a clean one and wipe off the diaper cover.

Pocket diapers have a built-in absorbent pocket for removable inserts and all-in-one diapers, where the absorbent layer is already attached to the waterproof outer layer. Both can only be used once before washing, and they tend to cost a few dollars more than the combined price of a prefold and a diaper cover. Still, they are less expensive than disposable diapers.

While cost is a big benefit, the downside to cloth diapers is the commitment. Cloth diapers require a lot of washing, but you can make the process easier (see sidebar on opposite page).

Pros

• Earlier Potty Training: Some people believe that babies who wear cloth diapers potty train earlier because they can feel the wetness.

• Natural: Prefolds, inserts or all-in-ones are made from cotton, terry cloth or flannel without any dyes or gels.

• Reusable: You can use the same cloth diapers with each of your kids. The upfront cost may be more than disposable, but you can find long-term savings, especially if you plan to have more than one child.

Cons

• More Diaper Changes: Since they aren’t made with chemicals, cloth diapers are less absorbent than disposables. Be prepared to change baby’s diaper more often. You’ll also have several more loads of laundry each week, which, besides being time consuming, can result in higher water and increased electricity bills.

• The Inconvenience Factor: Learning how to use cloth diapers requires a little more effort than disposables, and some daycare providers are reluctant to allow them. Also, if you have to change a cloth diaper while you’re out, you’re stuck with it until you get home.

While some parents swear that cloth diapers prevent diaper rash better than disposables, there’s no compelling evidence for this claim, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Diaper rashes can happen to all babies,” Mazel says. “The best way to prevent diaper rash is to change your baby’s diaper often, and after cleaning your baby’s bottom, let it dry completely.
I use the diaper to fan the baby’s tush before applying diaper cream or ointment. Otherwise, you’d just be trapping in more moisture, leading to discomfort and a greater chance of rash for your baby.”

Different Choices for Different Parents

If you’re still on the fence, you can consider another option: hybrid diapers. These diapers pair reusable cloth diaper covers with disposable inserts. Hybrid diapers are more convenient than cloth diapers and less wasteful than disposable ones. Pampers Pure Protection Hybrid Diapers, for example, produce 25% less landfill waste compared to their Pure Protection disposable diapers, according to the Pampers website.

In the end, deciding on diapers is going to come down to what’s best for your family. Parents should weigh the pros and cons, figure out their priorities and make the choice that works for them. While not everyone will agree on what type of diapers is best, everyone agrees that diaper decisions are an individual choice.

Diaper Insecurity Amid COVID-19

Diapers are a necessity, but they aren’t necessarily affordable for everyone. With the COVID-19 pandemic, diaper insecurity is at a high. According to the National Diaper Bank Network, local banks experienced a 300% increase in diaper demands and other essentials for babies.

“Here in Baltimore, we have seen demand for diapers skyrocket,” says Amina Weiskerger, executive director at ShareBaby, a nonprofit providing basic items to low-income children. “We increased our distribution by 300%, (which) continues to persist as diaper prices remain high.”

Prior to COVID-19, an estimated one in three families faced diaper need, but Weiskerger says that the needs are so much greater as a result of lockdowns,
job losses, supply scarcity and illness.

Diaper with Pin: Kevin Mayer

About Aliza Friedlander

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