Some parents like modern cloth nappies. Cloth nappies can have less of an environmental impact and cost less than disposables – especially if you use them with other children.
There are several types of cloth nappies.
Cloth or ‘terry’ squares
These cloth nappies are made of fabric that absorbs liquid, usually terry or flannelette cotton, hemp, bamboo or a blend. They fit snugly but work best with a leak-proof cover. They can be a bit bulky. You fold or fasten these cloth nappies with pins or clips. They dry quickly. The squares fit children of all ages. These nappies are the cheapest to buy.
These cloth nappies are made of soft layers of fabric, such as cotton or bamboo, which are folded over into a pad shape and placed inside a fitted, leak-proof cover. They’re not bulky, but they’re less absorbent than other types of reusable nappies. They dry quickly. You might need two or three different sizes. Pre-folds are quite cheap.
These are also called contoured or shaped nappies. They can be made of layers of cotton, fleece, hemp or bamboo. Used with a leak-proof cover, they usually fasten with velcro or press studs. Some have an absorbent insert. Fitted nappies come in one-size-fits-most and different sizes. They’re easy to change. They’re slower to dry and more expensive than cloth squares and pre-folds.
These cloth nappies have a leak-proof outer shell sewn together with a soft inner layer. Inserts are placed in the ‘pocket’ between the shell and the inner layer to absorb liquid. Inserts can be made of different materials, which absorb different amounts of liquid. They’re easy to use and dry quickly, but the inserts need to be removed before washing and put back in afterwards. They come in one-size-fits-most and different sizes.
These cloth nappies combine a water-resistant outside layer sewn together with an absorbent inner layer, so there’s no need for a cover or separate layers. They’re shaped and can be fastened with velcro, clips or press studs. Being all-in-one, they’re simple to use but slower to dry. They’re generally the most expensive type of reusable nappy.
All-in-twos or ‘snap-in-ones’
These cloth nappies have a leak-proof shell and one or more absorbent ‘snap-in’ layers or ‘boosters’, which you take apart for washing. They dry faster than all-in-ones.
Deciding on cloth nappies
If you think you want to use cloth nappies for your baby, you’ll need around 20-24 nappies to start with, depending on your washing and drying routine, climate and season.
It’s a good idea to try a few different types before you buy one type in bulk. You can do this by:
- buying a single nappy in the styles you like
- buying a trial pack from a company that sells samples
- hiring a trial pack from a nappy library – this service is offered by nappy companies and some community groups and councils
- asking friends or family if they have any nappies that you could try.
There’s currently no Australian standard for modern cloth nappies, so it’s worth checking the warranty and after-sales service before you buy. Overseas imports can vary in quality.
Disposable nappies generally have a plastic outer layer, a layer of super-absorbent chemicals and an inner liner.
They come in different packet sizes and are made for a range of ages.
Disposable nappies are quick and easy to use and fasten.
If you think you want to use disposable nappies, it’s a good idea to try a few different brands to see which one best suits your baby and budget.
You’ll need up to 12 nappies a day for a newborn and 6-8 a day for a toddler.
Biodegradable disposable nappies
These disposable nappies are made from different materials, such as bamboo, fabrics and paper pulp.
They use a non-chemical absorption method. When you throw them away, they decompose more quickly than ordinary disposable nappies. These nappies are better for the environment than ordinary disposable nappies, but are often more expensive.
You might not want to choose one nappy type over another – some parents use a combination of cloth and disposable nappies. Only you will be able to work out what type, style and size is best for your baby.
Cost and convenience
If you’re wondering about what type of nappy to use, you might want to think about some of the following issues.
With cloth nappies, washing and drying costs depend on:
- what type of washing machine you use
- whether you use warm, hot or cold water
- what detergent you use
- whether you use a clothes dryer.
Using one set of cloth or reusable nappies with cool water washing and line-drying is about half the cost of disposables.
If you buy sized nappies rather than one-size-fits-most, you’ll need to buy another set or two later on, but if you can use your reusable nappies on more than one child, your cost savings will add up.
If you want to work out how much money you spend on disposables or compare different brands, work out how many disposable nappies are in a packet and how many you use every day.
Washing nappies versus throwing away
You might weigh up the time you’ll spend washing cloth nappies versus the smell of soiled disposable nappies in your bin.
You could also consider a nappy washing service. This is a convenient and environmentally friendly option if it’s available where you live. It will add to your costs.
When you’re out and about
Disposable nappies might be more convenient than cloth nappies when you’re out. Does this matter to you? You could consider using cloth nappies at home and disposables when you’re out.
Things to think about include whether one type of nappy will leak less or need fewer changes. For example, you’ll need to change cloth nappies more often than highly absorbent disposable nappies. You could consider using cloth nappies during the day and disposables overnight.
Both disposable and cloth nappies have an impact on the environment.
Disposable nappies create hundreds of thousands of tonnes of landfill around the world every year. They also have a global warming impact from their manufacture and disposal. Their manufacture actually has the biggest impact.
The biggest environmental impact of cloth nappies happens during their use. They use detergents, water and energy during rinsing, washing and drying.
A study by the UK’s Environment Agency found that cloth nappies could be nearly 40% better for the environment than disposables in terms of global warming impact if they’re used on a second child, washed in full loads, dried on a line outside and washed at 60°C or less.
But they could also be 50% worse for the environment if they’re used for just one child and always dried in a clothes dryer.
Reducing environmental costs
You can reduce the environmental impact of cloth nappies by:
- only flushing nappy liners that are soiled with poo
- using biodegradable, phosphate-free detergents
- buying plenty of nappies so that you can wait for a full load of washing without running out of clean nappies
- washing your nappies on a cold water cycle and drying them on a line outside
- not using fabric softener
- using a front-loading washing machine, which will use less water
- using them on a second child.
You can reduce the environmental impact of disposables by flushing poo, rather than putting it in the bin. You could also think about using biodegradable nappies, which break down more effectively in landfill.
All babies can get nappy rash. There’s no significant difference in nappy rash between babies wearing disposables and babies wearing cloth nappies. The best way to avoid nappy rash is to change your baby’s nappy regularly.
Some parents worry that super-absorbent disposable nappies will delay toilet training because their baby doesn’t feel wet. But there are few actual studies and little conclusive evidence for this idea.
There’s also no research to say that any type of nappy causes bandy legs or problems with hip development.