Cloth Vs. Disposable Diapers

baby wearing a diaper

Cloth Vs. Disposable Diapers

Bringing a baby home involves a ton of decisions. How should you decorate the nursery? What should you name your child? Which car seat is best? Crib or bassinet? How much money should you save for college? Cloth diapers or disposable diapers? 

While we can’t help you and your partner agree on a name, we can give you the lowdown on diapers so you can make the right choice for your family.

The Great Diaper Debate: Which is Better?

Like most things baby-related, the best choice for your baby depends on you. What works for your sister-in-law may not work for you. Being informed is the easiest way to decide what choice to make.

Disposable Diapers

After becoming widely available in the late 1960s and early 1970s, disposable diapers are now the norm in much of the world. In fact, 95% of mothers in the U.S. solely use disposable diapers for their children. 

You can find disposable diapers in most drug stores and with numerous options. Want a diaper with a mild scent? Got it. Prefer a dye-free and scent-free option? No problem. Have a heavy wetter? Got ya covered.

As the name suggests, disposable diapers are not reusable. After they’re soiled, pitch it and forget it.

Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers were first introduced in the early 1800s. These diapers were simply a piece of folded linen knotted around the baby’s bottom. After the invention of safety pins, pins (yikes!) held the diaper in place. Parents in the 1800 and 1900s used wool soakers or rubber pants to keep clothing dry and to prevent leaks.

Thankfully today’s cloth diapers aren’t what your grandmother or mother used. Modern cloth diapers are similar in style to disposable diapers. They come in fun prints, different styles, and are much easier to use (and much more comfortable, we’re sure).

Costs: Pay Now, or Pay Later

When it comes to babies, it seems like the first thing that comes to mind is money. Childcare, medical bills, education, clothing, and diapering all top the list of expenses. And for good reason.

According to the National Diaper Bank Network, the average baby uses eight to 12 diapers a day. Most children wear diapers until they’re potty trained – typically around age 3. This means that, on average, a child will go through 11,000 diapers in their lifetime.

Disposable diapers

The cost per diaper depends on the brand, size, and location of where you purchase diapers. However, on average, you can expect to spend $0.25 per diaper. At a rate of 11,000 diapers in a child’s lifetime, parents will shell out around $2,750 in the first three years for diapers alone. And if your baby outgrows a size before they’ve gone through the package…well, that’s more money in the shitter.

Cloth diapers  

The price of a single cloth diaper can vary depending on the brand and style. The prices range anywhere from $5 to $25 per diaper (unless you’re lucky enough to be gifted new or hand-me-down diapers). Since babies average 10 diapers a day, you’ll likely want to buy enough diapers to get you through between washings. If you purchase 30 diapers at $15 a pop, you will pay only $450.

One real advantage of cloth diapers is their adjustability. Thanks to their adjustable snaps, a one-size cloth diaper can fit your child from birth to potty training. There’s no need to get larger sizes or worry about how soon your kid will outgrow them. 

Plan to have more than one kid? Cloth diapers are durable. With proper care, they can cover at least 2 kids’ bums until they are potty trained. Already have a little one learning how to use the potty? Check out these 5 Potty Training Books for Kids that will help you through that big transition! 

Winner: Cloth diapers

The obvious winner in this round is cloth. While the initial investment can feel like a burden, using cloth diapers over a span of three years can save you $2,300.

Cleaning: It’s a Shitty Job, but Someone’s Gotta Do It

Tiny baby toes. Little fingers. Adorable yawns. What’s not to love about babies? Oh yeah… poop. There is that. Who knew something so small could produce such a big smell?

Diaper changes are likely on the bottom of everyone’s list of enjoyable tasks. Here’s what to expect when cleaning those little butts: 

Disposable diapers

When it comes to cleaning disposable diapers, it’s a moot point. After the baby sets off a bomb in the diaper, simply clean the baby, change the diaper, and toss the explosive into the garbage. That’s it. 

Cloth diapers  

Washing cloth diapers requires a larger time commitment. According to healthline, here are the steps you’ll need to take:

Step 1: Remove any solid waste

For formula-fed babies, or for babies who have had solids introduced into their diets, you’ll need to dump, drop, scrape, or spray the solid poops into the toilet before storing the diaper (breastfed babies have water-soluble poop which doesn’t require any special treatment). 

Some parents use a diaper sprayer (sprayers that attach to your toilet like mini-showerheads) while others swish the diaper around in the toilet’s bowl. Even using a spray bottle full of tap water will work. Just be sure to spray or swish to remove the poop.

You can also buy biodegradable liners to place in the cloth diapers to help with removing solids. These liners act as barriers for poop so you can fold up the liners and toss, flush, or wash them instead of spraying or swishing the diapers.

Step 2: Store the dirty diapers in a diaper pail or bag until you’re ready to wash

There are numerous cloth diaper pails on the market that contain larger openings and a wet bag. Wet bags are washable and keep any liquid (from baby or from rinsing) contained.

Step 3: Wash those puppies!

You’ll need to wash soiled diapers roughly every other day. If you wait too long, stains can set in. And let’s face it…they’re dirty diapers. They’ll start smelling soon.

The specific wash cycle will depend on the manufacturer’s recommendations, but typically you’ll want to start with a cold rinse followed by a very hot cycle with cloth-friendly detergent.

Step 4: Drying

Many cloth diapers are able to go into the dryer on low settings, but be aware that doing so will cause more wear and tear as time goes on.

The best method for drying diapers is on a line outside in the sun. The sun naturally reduces staining and helps defeat bacteria. 

Option 2: Diaper Services

Sound like a lot of work? You can also choose to pay for a diaper service. Many areas have cleaning services that will pick up the dirties and deliver them back to your home once they are clean and fresh. If you’re willing to pay extra for it, cleaning cloth diapers can be almost as easy as using disposable diapers!

Winner: Disposable diapers

Hands down, when it comes to cleaning diapers, disposables win. There’s simply no cleaning involved. Can’t beat that. 

Environmental Impact: Little Feet, Big Footprint

Don’t let those tiny feet fool you. According to the BBC, in the developed world, the carbon footprint of a child is roughly 58.6 metric tons annually. In the age of climate crisis, many parents are seeking ways to minimize their impact on the environment. Diapers are a good place to start.

Disposable diapers

There’s no easy way to say it: disposable diapers have an incredible impact on the environment. Sciencedirect estimates that disposable diapers constitute about 4% of solid waste and are the third-largest single consumer item in landfills.

Each year, 3.5 million tons of used diapers find their way to the landfill…which is about 92% of disposable diapers. The other 8%? Well, I’m sure we’ve all seen them on the side of a road, in a park, or some other unsavory location…

Oh, and that diaper you just threw away will outlive you. And your child. And your child’s child. In fact, the diapers you wore as a baby are likely still intact, sitting in a landfill. It’s estimated that disposables need at least 500 years to fully decompose. As they degrade, diapers also put off methane and other gasses and chemicals into the environment. No bueno.

Filling up landfills is only one of the environmental impacts disposables have. Making disposable diapers also requires water and trees. Studies indicate that up to 200,000 trees are lost each year to make disposable diapers for babies in the U.S. alone. And to make a single diaper? One disposable requires approximately 9 gallons of water to manufacture. Multiply that by 11,000 diapers…yikes.

Diapers are Made of What? It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Wondering why throw-away diapers take so long to decompose? Modern disposables contain more materials and parts than you might realize. The outer lining of most disposable diapers is made from polyethylene film – basically plastic wrap. The inside of these diapers contains bleached wood pulp and super-absorbent polymers. This stuff can soak up to 30 times its weight in urine…impressive!

Disposables can also contain a number of other chemicals including dyes, perfumes, dioxins, sodium polyacrylate, adhesives, phthalates, petroleum, and tributyltin (TBT). Thankfully, many pediatricians and other experts agree that disposables are perfectly safe to use.

To avoid these ingredients, simply look for diapers that are dye-free, perfume-free, or chlorine-free. Some diapers also use bioplastic made from renewable resources instead of petroleum. Expect the price of these diapers to be higher.

Cloth diapers  

Modern cloth diapers are typically made up of a waterproof PUL (plastic material) diaper cover and inner absorbent material. The absorbent inserts can be made of synthetic microfiber or natural fibers such as cotton, hemp, or bamboo blends. There are also plastic-free options like prefolds or wool covers which are more environmentally friendly.

Hemp and bamboo are far kinder to the environment. Both can be commercially grown without much impact. Hemp grows in various soil, it doesn’t need much water to live, and it doesn’t require fertilizers or pesticides.

As we mentioned before, cloth diapers can be reused countless times and for multiple children. When you don’t need them anymore, you can donate them, sell them, or even use them for rags.

Winner: Cloth diapers

From manufacturing to reusability, cloth diapers take the cake. If limiting your carbon footprint is important to you, cloth diapers are a no-brainer.

Rest assured that no matter what you choose, someone will criticize your choice. Don’t worry about what your neighbors, coworkers, inlaws, or Karens of the world say. Find what works for you. Remember, the best decision for your baby is the one you make!