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Nappies: cloth nappies and disposable nappies

0-3 years

In the first few years of your child’s life, you’re going to change around 6000 nappies. Your choice of nappy will depend on what’s most important to you and your family. You might choose one type of nappy, or a combination of cloth nappies and disposable nappies.

Cloth nappies

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.

Pre-folds 
These cloth nappies are made of soft layers of fabric, like 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.

Fitted nappies 
These are also called contoured or shaped nappies. They can be made of layers of cotton, fleece, hemp or bamboo. You use them with a leak-proof cover, and 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.

Pocket nappies 
These cloth nappies have a leak-proof outer shell sewn together with a soft inner layer. There are inserts 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 you need to take out the inserts before washing and put them back in afterwards. They come in one-size-fits-most and different sizes. 

All-in-ones 
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. They’re simple to use but slower to dry.

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 whether 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

Disposable nappies generally have a plastic outer layer, a layer of super-absorbent chemicals and an inner liner. Disposable nappies are quick and easy to use and fasten.

They come in different packet sizes and are made for a range of ages.

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, like 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 they can be more expensive.

You might not want to choose one nappy type over another – some parents use a combination of cloth nappies and disposable nappies. Only you can decide what type, style and size is best for your baby.

Comparing cost and convenience of nappies

If you’re wondering about which type of nappy to use, you might want to think about some of the following issues.

Costs
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 reusable 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 you can get it 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.

Nappy performance 
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.

Environmental costs of nappies

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. And the manufacturing of disposable nappies uses a lot of water and energy, which adds to the global warming impact of nappies.

The biggest environmental impact of cloth nappies happens during their use. You have to use detergents, water and energy for rinsing, washing and drying cloth nappies.

Reducing environmental costs 
You can reduce the environmental impact of cloth nappies by:

  • not flushing nappy liners, even if they’re advertised as flushable
  • 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 easily in landfill.

Health issues related to nappies

Some babies can get nappy rash. The best way to avoid nappy rash is to change your baby’s nappy regularly. Using good-quality disposable nappies might also help if your baby has nappy rash, because disposable nappies are generally better at keeping babies’ bottoms drier.

Some parents worry that super-absorbent disposable nappies will delay toilet training because their babies don’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.

Video

Nappy changing

1:48

This short video demonstrates how to change disposable and cloth nappies. The video also has hygiene and general health tips about changing nappies and cleaning baby bottoms.

Video

Nappy changing for dads

3:00

This short video shows how to change a disposable nappy, especially for dads! It shows nappy changing steps from start to finish and includes the key points onscreen. Safety rule number one – never leave a baby unattended on a change table.

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Last updated or reviewed
07-07-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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