The Dirty Decision: All You Need to Know About Diapers

There are many joys to having a new baby: the smell of their little head; their adorable tiny body; their sweet little baby snuggles. I’m willing to bet that the sheer volume of dirty diapers your tiny newborn produces is probably not a source of that baby bliss! Fortunately for us parents, there are many diaper options to contain the mess, including cloth, eco-friendly disposables, conventional disposables and even hybrid options. Our first child was cloth diapered for almost three years (yes, he was a late potty trainer!), and now with our second we’ve chosen to use primarily earth-friendly disposables. But how do you choose which kind of diaper is right for you? We break down the pros and cons for each option below.

Disposable Diapers

There are two major kinds of disposables: earth-friendly and conventional. Conventional disposable diapers are made from plastics and petro-chemical-based absorbing agents, and are bleached white with chlorine. Byproducts of this bleaching process include dioxins, which the Environmental Protection Agency list as cancer-causing toxic chemicals. Conventional diapers also include innocuous sounding “fragrances,” which are unfortunately anything but. Perfumes added to conventional disposable diapers may include phthalates, a chemical that is linked to reproductive problems (especially in boys and men) and more recently to asthma. In addition, some parents find that the chemicals used in conventional disposables just aren’t very nice on baby’s sensitive skin. One of the biggest plusses of disposables is their convenience, but their throwaway nature means that they do end up in the landfill. 

Newer to the market are earth-friendly disposable diapers. These diapers, like Earth’s Best®, use corn and wheat as absorbent material, and are not bleached by chlorine. And unlike conventional diapers, most earth-friendly disposables are latex free, dye-free and perfume-free, making them gentler on your baby’s skin and free of the toxic chemicals in conventional diapers. They’re also made with fewer petrochemicals than conventional disposables. Eco-friendly disposables are a great choice for parents who are concerned about the environment and their baby’s health but who aren’t ready to take the leap to cloth. The cons: eco-friendly diapers tend to be a bit pricier than their conventional disposable counterparts.

Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers are making a comeback in a big way. Green-minded parents choose cloth as an option to avoid adding diapers to the landfill and to protect their baby’s delicate skin from the sometimes-harsh chemicals of conventional disposable diapers. There are several cloth diaper options to choose from. Pre-foldsare large squares of cloth diaper material (usually cotton) that must be folded and pinned (these days, safety pins are out, and Snappis or Boingo diaper fasteners are in). Pre-folds are typically cheaper but require a bit of a learning curve to figure out the best folds to use to keep the blowouts at bay – speaking from experience, this was especially difficult when we were sleep-addled new parents. Generally, you’ll also need a washable, waterproof diaper cover to use with pre-folds. (These are usually made from polyester or wool and come in cute patterns and colors.)  All-in-one cloth diapers are a little easier to get the hang of – they are diaper-shaped and don’t require any fancy folding or a special diaper cover, but they tend to be a more expensive choice. For any cloth diaper option, you can launder your own, or you can go with one of the cloth diaper laundering and delivery services that are popping up in many areas. It’s also increasingly easier to find organic cloth diapers to cut down on the pesticides that go into growing the cotton for cotton diapers.

The cons to cloth: the water and electricity footprint required for washing the diapers is not insignificant, although this can be somewhat reduced if you are using a high-efficiency washing machine like those used by commercial diaper services. If you’re using a diaper service, the eco-footprint of the trucks or cars that deliver your weekly batch of fresh diapers should be taken into account, as well. And if you wash your own diapers, the time commitment can be considerable: trust us when we tell you that time is a valuable commodity as a new parent (as is sleep, of course). Note also that cloth diapering may not work for your nighttime diapering needs. We were not able to keep my son, a heavy wetter when he was an infant, in cloth diapers at night; it affected his sleep dramatically. A switch to nighttime disposables helped. Another con is that many daycares and pre-schools are not cloth-diapering friendly and require disposable diapers, although it may be worth it to ask your facility about changing their policies if this is important to you.

Making the Decision that is Right for You

Something to keep in mind is that your diapering decision doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. With my first child, we cloth diapered during the day and used earth-friendly disposables at night and when we traveled. When he went to pre-school, we switched almost exclusively to earth-friendly disposables until he (finally) potty trained. With my baby daughter, we are currently using earth-friendly disposables, but we may switch to cloth diapering for daytime for a few years, until she potty trains or heads to preschool (whichever comes first). Ultimately, you’ll have to make the diaper decision that is right for your family, one that best suits your needs and your values. It’s a dirty decision, but fortunately the diaper years are short. She’ll be heading to college before you know it!