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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

What’s Best for Baby’s Bottom - Cloth Makes a Comeback

by Barb Amrhein

Millions of new parents in the 1960s thought they had found the answer to their prayers in the mess-free convenience of disposable diapers. Sales of Pampers, Huggies and other brands continued to soar during the following decades.

Sadly, so did a host of related problems: tons of soiled plastic diapers that could potentially contaminate groundwater packed the nation’s landfills; infant health concerns surfaced, including rashes, allergies and new respiratory and immune system worries; and delayed toilet training became an issue.

In more recent years, a growing number of parents have determined that the greenest, healthiest and most economical way to cover baby’s bottom is with cloth, and new products are truly innovative.

Not Your Nana’s Nappies

Today’s “smart cloth” reusable diapers sport snaps, buttons and Velcro, rather than pins, and include a naturally absorbent liner (often made of organic cotton or hemp fleece) under the cover. Much preferred over the rubber overpants of older products, these leaner, greener nappies use water-resistant covers of merino wool, nylon or polyurethane laminate that don’t leak, sag or smell (admittedly, even the use of smaller amounts of manufactured fabrics still isn’t perfect). Some diapers combine the liner and cover into one washable unit.

Cloth diapers cost more upfront than disposables—they range from $6 to $18 each—but offer long-term savings. According to the Sierra Club, most parents who opt for home laundering will spend a total of between $400 and $1,700 for diapers, laundry supplies, water and electricity to get baby from birth through toilet training; disposables can run up to $2,500. (Click on the Cloth Diaper Resources link at for a helpful cost comparison guide.)

Organic cotton diapers, the ultimate green choice because they help reduce pesticide use, are also more expensive than conventional cotton diapers, which is why budget-minded parents often elect to buy gently used diapers. Conventional cotton is considered an environmentally wasteful crop to grow (though its effluents are far less hazardous than those from the plastic, pulp and paper industries), so green diapers are frequently made of hemp or bamboo, natural fabrics that feel soft against baby’s skin.

Best for Mother Earth and Baby

Saving dollars is a key concern for most families, but caring parents’ need to both protect baby’s health and preserve the quality of the planet for their children are of equal importance. Yet, according to the National Geographic Society’s Green Guide, 95 percent of U.S. families still use disposables, which get sent to municipal landfills in the amount of 3.5 million tons per year. Along with the diapers goes the untreated sewage, creating potential health risks. In addition, dioxin, a toxic byproduct of pulp and paper bleaching used in making most disposables, is a concern. More, disposables consume virgin pulp from an estimated 250,000 trees every year—also going straight from babies’ bottoms into landfills.

The toxic stew smoldering underground isn’t the only uncomfortable problem—the Green Guide notes that aboveground, animal studies have linked emissions from disposable diapers’ fragrances and plastics with infant respiratory problems and symptoms of asthma. The biocide tributyltin, which can be absorbed through the skin and lead to immune system damage and disrupted hormone function, has been detected in disposables, and diapers are not routinely tested for the substance.

Most disposable diapers also contain polyacrylate crystals, or super absorbent polymers (SAP), that absorb up to 800 times their weight in liquid, turning into gel when wet and keeping baby dry and protected from diaper rash. If the diaper breaks open, though, the gel may end up on skin or in baby’s mouth, leading to skin or gastrointestinal irritation. Plus, because SAP allows diapers to retain lots of liquid while keeping baby’s bottom dry, the child may have a harder time recognizing when he or she is wet, and thus take longer to potty train than an infant wearing cloth.

Newest Innovations

New hybrid diapers now feature cloth outer pants that are free of latex, chlorine and fragrance, and smaller, disposable inserts made of absorbent wood pulp and polyacrylate (still a potential concern). The inserts can absorb up to 100 times their weight in liquid. Because they don’t contain plastic, many can be composted, thrown in the trash or even flushed, although not in septic systems. Hybrids can be useful for traveling and are accepted at some day care centers that don’t have the resources to deal with cloth diapers.

Companies that sell cloth diapers have reported sales increases of 25 to 50 percent over the past few years as eco-savvy parents convert from disposables. These new green moms and dads are determined to ensure an Earth- and baby-friendly “bottom” line.

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Barb Amrhein is an editor with Natural Awakenings.




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