Different types of nappy
Cloth and other reusables
There are several different types of reusable nappies:
Cloth squares: these are folded and fastened with pins or clips, and work best with a good-quality waterproof cover/pilcher. They fit snugly and are made of fabric that absorbs liquid, usually cotton (terry, flannelette), and also hemp, bamboo or a blend. Detergent makes some cloth nappies go hard over time, so using a wool mix is better.
All-in-ones: these have a waterproof layer on the outside or near the outside layer. They’re as easy to use as disposables, but a lot cheaper. They don’t need extensive soaking or bleaching and can be fastened with velcro, clips or press studs.
Pocket nappies: these have a water-resistant outer fitted shell, with a layer sewn to the shell along three sides and open at one end. Absorbent inserts are placed between the shell and the layer to absorb the liquid. The absorbency level can be adjusted with inserts made of different materials.
Disposable nappies generally consist of 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.
These use a non-chemical absorption method. When you throw them away, they break down completely in landfill over time. They’re made from a variety of materials, such as bamboo, fabrics and paper pulp. These nappies are better for the environment, but are often more expensive than non-biodegradable disposables.
Cost and convenience
When weighing up the pros and cons of disposable vs reusable nappies, you might want to think about some of the following questions:
What about financial costs? Cloth nappies are generally cheaper, but you might switch between types over the life of your baby, so it’s worth taking a look at the costs. You can do your own breakdown of the cost differences between reusable and disposable nappies – work out how many disposable nappies are in the packet and how many nappies you use every day. This will show you how much you’re spending on disposable nappies.
Will you want to wash nappies rather than throw them away? For example, you might consider the time spent washing versus the smell of soiled nappies in your bin.
What about when you’re out and about? Will you find reusables or disposables more convenient? Does this matter to you?
What type of nappy will perform the best? Is one type likely to result in less leakage or fewer daily changes? For example, reusable nappies will need to be changed more frequently than highly absorbent disposable nappies.
What are the environmental costs? Are environmentally friendly options important to you?
It’s difficult to compare the environmental costs of reusable and disposable nappies. Both have some environmental impact.
Some reusable nappies are made of cotton, and there’s some concern about the amount of pesticides and water used in the growing of this staple crop. Using a hemp or bamboo nappy can overcome this problem, or you could use hand-me-downs from a friend or family member.
Other environmental costs might be those involved with rinsing and washing nappies. This releases detergents into the environment. Hot water and energy are also consumed in washing and drying nappies.
You can reduce the environmental impact of reusables by:
- only flushing nappy liners that are soiled with poo
- using biodegradable, phosphate-free detergents
- buying more nappies initially and washing full loads
- washing your nappies on a cold water cycle and drying them in the sun
- not using fabric softener
- purchasing electricity on a green tariff
- using a front-loading washing machine.
Disposable nappies create hundreds of thousands of tonnes of landfill around the world every year. They use chemicals in their manufacture and disposal. They can also cause fecal pollution when you throw them away.
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.
Research on environmental impacts
One of the most widely quoted surveys assessing the environmental impact of disposables and reusables was done in 2005 by the UK Government Environment Agency. It found that, overall, no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance. No study has been completed for nappies used in Australia.
Effects on child development
There are concerns about child development on either side of the nappy debate. Some parents feel that reusables are too bulky and uncomfortable. Some believe they cause bandy legs in newborns, but there’s no research to support this.
Other people argue that disposables don’t provide enough padding or absorption for newly mobile babies or unsteady toddlers, whereas reusables provide support that improves a child’s hip development. Again, this isn’t backed up by evidence.
Some parents worry that super-absorbent disposable nappies will delay toilet training. The thinking is that, if baby doesn’t like having a very wet cloth nappy, she’ll be motivated to get out of nappies sooner. There are few actual studies and little conclusive evidence for this idea, however.
The production of disposable nappies creates a by-product called dioxin. This toxic substance is known to cause cancer, various diseases and other health risks. The amount of dioxin in the nappy itself isn’t enough to cause harm, but dioxin in the environment might be harmful.
Two other concerns related to disposable nappies are impotence and testicular cancer. Some people believe that increased scrotal temperature in the warm plastic could cause impotence, and that there is an increased risk of testicular cancer in adulthood. Research has found no link with the use of disposable nappies and these health issues.
Another concern is that disposables can cause nappy rash, but researchers have found no conclusive evidence to back this up.