Cloth diapers versus disposable diapers -- the debate rages on. Many factors affect the choice of one over the other as parents wrestle with questions like: Which is easiest and most cost effective? Which will be best for the baby? And for a certain cohort, which is better for the environment?
There's no one right answer for every family. In an effort to provide some guidance for the perplexed, we queried a non-random sample of mothers and poked around on the Internet for a few facts. Here is what we learned:
Cloth diapers have been used on babies for hundreds of years but now bear the unmistakable markings of the 21st century. There's not only a profusion of brands but an assortment of styles. Parents.com identifies the four most popular types of cloth diapers: pre-fold (thicker layer in center, used inside plastic pants or as insert), pocket (two layers sandwiching a pocket for absorbent insert, a.k.a. soaker), fitted (absorbent all over and requiring waterproof cover), and all-in-one (one-piece diaper with waterproof shell). Mothers we spoke with who prefer cloth diapers opt for the pocket design.
Cloth diapers have a lot going for them. For starters, they're a one-time investment. Many cloth diapers are adjustable so you only need to buy one stash that will last from newborn through potty training. The mothers we interviewed said they kept between 17 and 27 diapers on hand. Most also use cloth wipes or baby washcloths to clean baby bottoms, which also reduces budget drain. Additionally, they're arguably easier on the environment and perhaps easier on children's skin. More on these matters later.
The major downside to cloth diapers is cleanup. "They are more work," said one mother of three. "Washing, rinsing yucky diapers, and stuffing diapers (with soakers) takes time. I think pocket cloth diapers are user friendly (no pins or folding), but it's the laundering that's the most difficult. It seems that most cloth moms have their own routine -- it's not a run-them-through-the-washer one-time deal. I wash cold, hot, then double rinse, then air dry the pockets, tumble dry the inserts."
Parents who like cloth diapers but not the maintenance can sign on with a diaper delivery/pickup service. None of the cloth-diaper partisans we interviewed, however, had done so.
First introduced in the 1940's, disposables have come a long way since. Ongoing product innovation has led to throw-away diapers that are relatively thin, superabsorbent, resistant to leakage, lightweight, easy to fasten, and size- and shape-appropriate for little bodies. And they offer unparalleled convenience: Change the diaper and it's gone -- no washing, rinsing, or drying.
"I like using disposable diapers mainly because of convenience," reported a mother of two. "When they're dirty I can just throw them away, not carry them around in a bag and clean them out when I get home." Another source tried cloth diapers with her third child but ultimately reverted to disposables due to the time required to care for reusable diapers. "Cloth was easy at first when I was home," she explained, "but when I went back to work it was horrible. I couldn't keep up with the laundry and the baby was staying with grandparents during the day and they used disposables, so I ended up switching."
About the cost … A price comparison between cloth and disposable diapers crowns the former as the money-saving winner. A blog post at Mint Life reports that cloth diapers cost about $216 less than disposable diapers in the first year of a child's life after accounting for the upfront cost of reusables and laundry-associated expenses (detergent, water, electricity). The savings increase in subsequent years, the post continues, because the big capital investment has already been made; the supply of throw-aways, by contrast, needs constant replenishment.
A detailed chart at Diaper Decisions shows how much cheaper cloth diapers are, regardless whether pre-fold, pocket, all-in-one, or fitted. The site estimates the average cost per change of using a cloth diaper ranges from 6 cents with pre-folds up to 23 cents with pocket diapers (including laundry costs) compared with 36 cents for name-brand disposables bought at a major discount retailer. Cloth diapers prove even cheaper when recycled for another child. (Using a diaper service rather than the DIY approach is probably more expensive. In Madison, WI, for example, the charge for four weekly deliveries of 80 diapers is $72, with a $2 surcharge for an additional 10 diapers.)
Our interviewees confirmed that price was a primary reason for choosing reusable diapers. One estimated she saved more than $1,500 a year by shunning disposables. When the cost of cloth wipes and extra laundry was factored in, the savings dropped but were still considerable.
The cheapest way to assemble a stash of cloth diapers is to buy them gently used from friends and relatives or at a diaper swap. The mother of three we spoke with spent about $150 on diapers acquired through a co-op (some gently used) and from a friend (never used and bought at a discount). Another of our sources agrees that second-hand diapers are cost effective.
Despite the savings with cloth, many parents stick with disposable diapers out of convenience and strive to cut costs by using coupons or buying in bulk, either online or from a warehouse club like Sam's Club or Costco. One interviewee who uses eco-friendly, disposable Honest diapers did a price comparison against warehouse club diapers and Pampers and found the Honest brand to be cheaper than the name brand and only slightly more expensive than the club diapers after adding the cost of wipes; she noted that her online order for Honest diapers comes with chemical-free wipes.
Diapers and the Environment.
For some parents the environment looms large in their choice between cloth diapers and disposable diapers. Two of our respondents noted the extraordinary amount of time (hundreds of years) needed for a throw-away to decompose in a landfill and said this was a factor in favor of reusable diapers.
WebMD, meanwhile, asserts that both cloth diapers and disposable diapers stress the environment -- disposable by creating waste that breaks down very slowly and cloth by using more electricity, water, and, if a commercial diaper service is involved, fuel to power the delivery truck. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Protection Agency are neutral about which type of diaper is better for the environment.
Diapers and Baby Well-being.
Many parents doubt the safety of chemicals used in disposable diapers and worry they can cause chronic diaper rash. WebMD downplays concerns about the chemicals and points out that many pediatricians find disposable diapers better at preventing diaper rash because they're more absorbent and keep babies drier.
Expert opinion aside, several mothers we spoke with said cloth diapers seem to best protect against diaper rash. One explained that she planned to use cloth for her third child partly for environmental reasons but also in an effort to forestall the type of diaper rash that afflicted the first two, who wore brand-name disposables. She tried the eco-friendly Honest brand, however, and found that it works wonders. Another interviewee told us she believes "that cloth is gentler to baby's skin" and relies on disposables only when traveling or attending an older child's soccer games. Diaper rash occasionally flares at these times but when back to the cloth routine, she said, the rash clears up on its own.
The Big Decision.
So, what's it to be? Clearly, each family must consider the factors in light of its own situation. If cutting costs take precedence, cloth diapers are the way to go. If saving time takes priority, disposable diapers are best. If you're concerned about the environment, cloth may be in your future, and there are many ways to make cloth diapers even greener -- by buying organic cotton cloth diapers or using flushable biodegradable liners, for example. If diaper rash is the top concern, experiment with both, as well as with the different throw-away and reusable brands, to see which is best for your child.