Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Cloth Diapers - Advantages and Disadvantages

The "Fancy" Cloth Diapers - The folded diaper cloth is inserted into the decorated liner
While we used only disposable diapers with our first baby (who's now 3) we've used almost only cloth diapers with our most recent baby.  Throughout North America, including Mexico, there seems to be a small but growing trend to go back to cloth diapers, along with breast-feeding, etc.  The good news is that this makes cloth diapers more available   The bad news is that as soon as something becomes associated with a "natural" or "organic" lifestyle, it becomes more expensive.  The better news, however, is that even with more expensive cloth diapers, it's still much cheaper than even discount disposable diapers.

Our baby wearing one of these nice cloth diapers
When we tell people we are using cloth diapers, we get varying reactions, including, "Are you crazy?  What's the point of making so much work for yourself?", "That's neat, but it's just too much work for me", and, very rarely, "Wow, we're doing that, too."  Both of our mothers were very enthusiastic about the idea, but kind of shook their heads at the fancy and expensive cloth diapers we ordered over the internet; they both thought it would work just as well to use traditional diaper cloth and the nylon shorts.

We are now using both traditional cloth diapers (composed of a cloth, safety pins, and nylon liner shorts) and our collection of "fancy" diapers; the truth is at first the traditional cloth diapers were all we wanted, but we couldn't find the nylon shorts anywhere (diaper cloth is easy enough to find at any fabric store.)  So, we looked on the internet and ordered some nice hand-made cloth diapers with colourful designs.  My parents live in a Mennonite community in Canada, so finding the nylon shorts was easy enough.  My mother sent some to us by mail, and they work great.

Generally speaking, the following are the advantages of cloth diapers, from what we have found:

  • They reduce garbage considerably
  • They are much better for the baby's skin (they're made of cotton.)  With our second baby, we haven't had a single diaper rash, even living in a hot, humid climate.  With our first, living in a cool, fresh climate (Mexico City) he had rashes quite often using disposable diapers.
  • They are cheap.  For the nicer designed ones, a package of 12, which is usually meets our needs with a daily wash cycle, we spent about $200 dollars; even cheap disposable diapers run up close to $100 per month, so in three months that money and more has been saved back.  The price of the detergent (which is a very simple detergent) is negligible, and since the daily wash load of diapers fits into the "small" or "medium" setting on the machine, our water bill hasn't risen noticeably.
  • They look nice (our "fancy" internet diapers.)
 The disadvantages are:

  • They need to be washed every day. But once you're in the rhythm of this, it's five minutes in the morning to start the machine, and another 20 minutes to hang them and fold them.
  • "Solids" need to rinsed out.  But this is usually only one diaper a day.  It's also just a matter of a quick rinse; the machine does the real work.  As my mother-in-law says, "It's just milk, anyway."
  • You need to carry the dirty diapers with you when your out and about.  The cloth diapers we bought over the internet close up very nicely and don't let odours out.  The biggest problem is the bulk of carrying them.  We still haven't tried the traditional cloth diapers, but we'll probably just save those for at home.
  • They take a little longer to put on.  The fancy ones from the internet go on just as quickly as disposables, but take a few minutes to prepare (inserting the diaper cloth into the decorated liners), which my wife usually does ahead of time.  The traditional ones are only slow when you first start, and once you get the hang of it are almost as fast as the other ones.
  • If you're using the traditional ones, they need to be changed immediately.  The fancy ones have an extra liner and help keep moisture away from the skin a little longer.  In any case, it's best for the baby's skin to change any diaper (even disposables) immediately, so this really shouldn't be an issue.
The components of a traditional clothe diaper - cloth, safety pins, and nylon liner "shorts"

As you notice, I have a "but" for every disadvantage.  The truth of the matter is, my wife and I are NOT super fanatics for "natural" trends; we try to do a little, but will give something up quite readily if it doesn't look like it's worth the trouble (I'm not proud of this, it's just to put this into perspective.)  Cloth diapers are much easier to use than most people imagine.

In terms of the environmental point, some people will argue that the water used is as bad or worse than the garbage generated by the disposable diapers. This is especially true here on the Yucatan Peninsula, where otherwise correctly treated and disposed waste water still damages the coral reef.  However, besides the huge factor that it's still better for the baby's skin, the water used for washing is equal to about 2 flushes of the toilet, or for what many people is a standard shower.  While waste water and clean water usage is a real issue, it should be addressed in terms of rain water collection and alternative treatment and disposal methods, since even without washing diapers, it's still just as big of an issue.  It should not be used as an excuse not to use cloth diapers.
Our baby using a traditional cloth diaper.

(I know some people who consider themselves people who "care about nature" but don't recycle, don't use alternative products and don't use in any other environment-friendly activity in their lifestyle, since for everyone of them, they've found a opinion that feels that the alternative is worse than the normal main-stream practice.  So, care for environment seems to mean, for these people, doing everything like we are now, and discouraging any alternatives.  I see this as a cop-out to avoid saying that they just can't be bothered. I'm less concerned when people say they just feel they're too busy, or don't care much; at least they're being honest, and those problems can be addressed by making things easier.)

Back to the main point, we're fans of cloth diaper use (both fancy and traditional), and we would recommend it to anyone who is wondering.  Our baby's skin is better, we're saving money, we're doing one more little thing to reduce garbage, and our effort has been minimal.  I would only recommend that anyone interested who has never changed a cloth diaper before use the fancier ones, to start at least. The nylon shorts for the traditional ones are harder to find these days, and if you prepare the the fancy ones ahead of time, they're really easy to change.  Since they come with neat designs and look really nice, it's also easier to get excited about them; motivation is important since our modern lifestyle makes it hard to "get into" something like this.  (The novelty wears off after a few times of washing the "solids" out, but excitement can give the routine a nice and necessary boost at the beginning.)
Our diapers drying inside (after washing!) on a rainy day - we don't have a dryer.


  1. Very cool. Well written. --Lee White

  2. We use cloth, too! We started when our daughter was 3 months old, as that's when she could fit into the ones we bought. I think I only have 3 or 4 other friends who cloth diaper their babies as well, so I've heard many of the objections. I had other parents (who hadn't used cloth) try to dissuade me before the baby was even born!

  3. I'm in too!!!!! And happy to know ur doing it!! Using cloth diapers is just rewarding when you have a mountain of them after they're dry... I always think all of that had been garbage... And "that" means money too...
    I had the shorts made by a friend, they're not as effective as the originals but they work well with a plastic cover :D
    Nowadays it's also easy to get flushable liners for the solids!!!! It saved my life and diapers!!!
    Thanks Jacob for the note and enjoy it, cause as you say it's easier than many would think!!! Hugs for Cecy too!!! :D


  4. I also live in Mexico and just today another mom was sharing her diapering woes and I suggested cloth diapers. She had never heard of the "modern" kind and was in total shock. This is a well traveled, educated mom by the way. She suggested that I look more into it to share the "word" to other moms that might be interested. Thanks for the tips.

  5. Yes, it's good to spread the word! Most parents are kind of unsure about the idea, since it looks like a lot of work - as I point out in the post, it's less work than it looks. I think the idea is catching on more and more.

  6. So how do I find cloth diapers and the shorts in Mexico? I live near Guadalajara. My sister-in-law is having her fourth after twin girls who will be 15 this spring and a boy who will be 13 about the same time. Saludos. Nanette