I’ve been thinking about nappies (known as diapers for our American friends) for a while now, and what the costs and benefits are in investing in cloth versus disposable.
If you’re a new Mum, you may have encountered numerous questions from me about it at some time or other… as I haven’t made up my mind about what I think it best (given a whole range of things I’m considering such as ease of use, convenience, environmental impact, health benefits and cost).
My general thoughts on the topic have been that I would plan to use disposables at first, when the baby is new and going through a thousand a day, then move to cloth / re-usable / home-washable when we’re at home, but still use disposables when out or travelling…
But… I don’t think you can really plan too far forward on these things, because you don’t really know what you’ll do until you’re in the situation.
So, I thought that before I go ahead and make any purchases it would be a good idea to find out what some of the research has to say on some of these issues.
There was an interesting study completed in Mauritius that found babies who had used disposable nappies were more likely to experience nappy rash.
Of the 400 parents surveyed, over 67% using solely disposables reported experiencing nappy rash (with 39% requiring medication consultation), over 31% who reported using disposable and cloth reported experiencing nappy rash, while just over 1% of parents who reported using exclusive cloth nappies reported that their infant experienced an episode of nappy rash.
Interestingly, the study also found a relationship between stopping breastfeeding early with increased likelihood of nappy rash and also reported introducing cereals and diet changes during an infants’ first year of life having an impact on likelihood of experiencing rash.
The study did also mention that the prevalence of nappy rash increased with age, with most babies experiencing nappy rash between 7-12 months old.
Using barrier creams and “going bare” for more than an hour a day was also thought to make some difference in reducing the risk of nappy rash, but the results on that front were not enough to really draw any conclusions.
I found it interesting that many parents in the study reported using natural remedies such as bathing the baby in salt water, applying coconut oil or feeding their babies arrow root, but these factors were not found to make any significant difference in reducing prevalence of rashes.
It is important to note though that this study was completed in a specific climate that is hot and humid for much of the year, which likely has an impact on the findings.
From a completely different angle, there are other studies that indicate disposable nappies are a more hygienic option in environments such as day care’s.
Some studies have also found that fecal contamination rates are higher in homes where care givers use cloth nappies.
So… to sum up, these findings really tell us that if you live in a warm, humid climate, then cloth nappies could be handy in reducing your babies experience of nappy rash.
Although it’s not always humid here in Western Australia, our weather is pretty warm for a good portion of the year, and based on the last summer, we were hit pretty hard on the humidity front.
The down side unfortunately is the possibility of fecal contamination, and the trust that you put in to caregivers for quality hygiene practices.
From this point of view, I’m probably leaning towards cloth in the home environment and disposable everywhere else…
A Life Cycle Assessment conducted by the University of Queensland compared the environmental impact of disposable nappies to re-usable commercially laundered and re-usable home laundered nappies.
The results of the assessment, which took into account factors such as production, transportation, water usage, landfill / waste disposal and energy consumption, indicated that re-usable, home laundered nappies were the most environmentally friendly option (assuming they are soaked in hot water, washed in a front-loader machine on cold wash and line dried).
Commercially laundered re-usable and disposable nappies appeared similar in terms of their cost to the environment, with the commercially laundered re-usable nappies appearing perhaps slightly more environmentally friendly (however, there are potentially multiple factors which could affect the results depending on the brands, products or services compared).
So, based on the environmental perspective, it really depends on what products you use, how you use them and the way in which you launder and / or dispose of them that influences the environmental impact…
Given that it is possible to reduce some of the environment impact, from an environmental point of view, I am leaning towards re-usable, home laundered, but I can’t promise I’d stick to the cold-wash rule…!?
This section refers specifically to purchasing cost only (not cost associated with washing as that issue is already covered in the environment section).
A quick calculation indicates that investing in cloth nappies is slightly cheaper overall (that’s assuming, on average, a newborn goes through 10 nappies per day, an infant through 6 and a toddler through 5). This estimate may be slightly higher than average, as it is thought that most infants / toddlers go through approximately at least 3500 nappies prior to being toilet trained, but the estimate I’ve used here works out to a bit over 4600 nappies / usages.
For the calculation on cloth nappies, that’s assuming you would have enough nappies to have 1 whole set clean each day, with one set being laundered (and assuming purchase of 3 different sizes, rather than one-size-fits-all varieties).
Using these numbers (and hunting around for best bulk price discounts on nappies and the average price of cloth varieties that don’t require a water proof cover), there is a saving of approximately $600 over 2 years, if cloth nappes are used exclusively.
Even if you chose to use disposables for up to 6 months and then changed to cloth, there is still a saving of around $500 overall.
So, from a cloth perspective, there are definitely some savings to be made!
It is interesting to note that disposable nappies are used most commonly throughout the world (with the exception of a few countries) but the countries that typically use cloth nappies also tend to toilet train from a much younger age (before the baby reaches the age of 1!)
Which is interesting, because if you think about it from a cost perspective, the cost of disposable vs. cloth is much the same in the first 6 months (you might save maybe $100 by going cloth).
So, if everyone toilet trained early on, there would be savings either way, or, alternatively if you’re considering toilet training early, the cost perspective is almost irrelevant (but there are still environmental and health perspectives to consider!)
…but that’s really a completely different argument.
So, to weigh it all up from an environmental and cost perspective, I probably lean towards cloth, but from a health perspective, I’m not really convinced cloth is the way to go.
Like with anything, I really don’t know what I’d do until the situation presents itself, but I think I would be willing to give both a go.
How about you? Did you weigh up the costs and benefits of cloth versus disposable?
Look forward to hearing your thought’s and experiences below!
- Biranjia-Hurdoyal, S.D. & Pandamikum, L. (2015). A Study to Investigate the Prevalence of Nappy Rash among Babies Aged 0 to 36 Months Old in a Tropical Country. Austin Journal of Dermatology. 2(2)
- O’Brien, K., Olive, R., Hsu, Y., Morris, L., Bell, R. & Kendall, N. (2009). Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and Disposable Nappies in Australia. Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society Conference 2009. 6th Australian Conference on Life Cycle Assessment, Melbourne. pp 1-14.
- Thaman, L.A. & Eichenfield, L.F. (2014). Diapering Habits: A Global Perspective. Pediatric Dermatology. 31(1). pp15-18