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Parenting 101: How do I choose between cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers?


The Great Diaper Debate

Children inspire a series of discussions, sometimes debates, and OK, face it, occasionally heated arguments between the most loyal and loving life partners. First comes the decision whether you are both mentally, physically and financially capable to take on the enormous responsibilities of parenting a child for at least 18 years. Then comes the discussion of how many bambinos you can you provide for, and whether to announce to anxious grandparents-to-be that you have started "trying". The joyous absence of ever-faithful Aunt Flow triggers a run to the library to check out every baby naming book ever written as you and your partner navigate the potential relation-ending decision of whether to name your sweet, soon-to-be-born baby girl after Recently Departed Dear Old Great Granny Ester or after the cute blond chick, Izzie, from Grey's.

Luckily, some decisions are easy... like whether to use reusable diapers or single use diapers. No brainer, right? Disposable diapers are easier. Or are they (Velcro seems pretty easy)? Disposable diapers leak less. Or do they (hemp seems pretty absorbent and elastic sure seems to hold everything in)?  Disposable diapers use less water (but does that offset the environmental impact of human waste wrapped in plastic and sitting in a landfill for 500 years)? The great diaper debate has been waged since Johnson and Johnson introduced the first disposable diaper into the US in 1949.

There are many factors that should be considered when caregivers choose between cloth diapers,  disposable diapers, flushable diapers, pick a combination of diapers or teach elimination communication.

WASTE: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an estimated 3.7 million tons of disposable diaper waste (1.5% of all waste) was generated in 2007.  In homes with a single child wearing disposable diapers, disposable diapers comprise 50% of household waste, according to the Women's Environmental Network (2003).

COST: Babies will use 4000-9000 diapers from birth until potty training.  Assuming a staggered consumption of 10-12 diapers per day for newborns, 8-10 diapers per day for infants, 6-8 diapers per day for toddlers, and 4-6 pull ups per day for potty learners, current cost estimates for single use diapers for one child are:

  • Generic or store brand: $1500
  • Brand name: $2000
  • Chlorine-free: $2500
  • Flushable diapers:$3000

Whereas, a complete set of traditional cloth diapers consisting of 3 dozen prefold diapers in two sizes, 3-5 waterproof diaper covers in three sizes, and fasteners can be purchased for as little as $300.  Modern cloth diapers are now available in a variety of fun colors and patterns, have attached waterproof outers, Velcro or snap waists and elastic at the legs and back, making cloth diapers as easy to use as disposable diapers.  Depending on the brand, style, and sizing, a complete set of modern cloth diapers can be purchased for $600-1500, and reused on a second child or resold. 

HEALTH: Have you even thought about what's in disposable diapers?  Besides tons of crude oil, wood, and chlorine, what about those absorbent gels that keep the disposable diapers trim fitting and "stay dry"?  The box of throwaway diapers just says to wipe them off baby's skin if they come in contact.  But what are they, exactly?  Have you ever wondered why there are special red human waste containers at the doctor's office, but caregivers send human waste to the landfill in the regular kitchen trash bag?  The box of throwaway diapers says to shake off the solid waste into the toilet before disposing of the diaper in the trash can.  Raise your many caregivers do that?   According to the Journal of Pediatrics (101: 721-723), there is no significant difference in the incidence of diaper rash between cloth and disposable diaper users.  In fact, many modern cloth diapers, such as locally owned Rump•a•Rooz, were developed by moms trying to find a solution of their child's ongoing diaper rash and allergies to disposable diapers.

ENVIRONMENT: Most cloth diaper users choose to launder their diapers at home, usually once every three days.  Compare your family's water bill next month to the December bill and you'll see how much greater of an impact watering your grass and garden during the summer months impacts your water bill than an extra two loads of laundry each week will.  Besides, you wash your clothes and dishes each week instead of buying new ones.  Why wouldn't you launder your diapers?  They are just underwear for babies.

Britain's recent Updated LifeCycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies 10/2008 found when cloth diapers are washed at temperatures of less than 140 degrees, occasionally hung to dry, and reused on a second child, the life cyle environmental impact of cloth diapers is in fact less than disposable diapers.

Every family needs to make an informed decision when it comes to choosing between cloth and disposable diapers.  Family finances, level of commitment to environmental footprint, and lifestyle can all impact the decision.  The popularity of cloth diapering is gaining momentum, as more and more hip, urban families are making the switch as soon as they discover how easy and inexpensive modern cloth diapers can be!

For more info: Sign up for the Cloth Diapering 101 class at eco•POLITAN to learn more about how easy, economical, and eco-responsible cloth diapering can be!  Visit the Real Diaper Association for additional information about choosing Real Diapers for Real Babies.


  • Heather Young 5 years ago

    Some very compelling arguments in this article!

  • Autumn 5 years ago

    For me and my family, there is no debate. It's simple, cloth is good, sposies are bad. Bad for the environment, bad for your budget, bad for your baby. Realistically, day care's pooh-pooh (pun intended) the idea of cloth over disposable. But who cares, it's your child. And really, cloth is easier than disposable. But there are many who disagree. Although the numbers for the cloth diapering band wagon are growing. And why not with all of the wonderful materials and beautiful styles out there, it's almost a baby fashion statement to wear cloth. For our family we chose cloth for health reasons. The chemicals found in a disposable are unbelievable and to think it's totally okay to place that against a babies sensitive skin all of which are absorbed into their newborn system. And we question why our children have so many learning and behavior issues? One should wonder. What to know more? Visit

  • Charndra 5 years ago

    Hi Robin,
    it's great to read a balanced article on this issue - you've done research on it, especially to mention Baby Pottying in there.

    Though, I'd say:
    "There are many factors that should be considered when caregivers choose between cloth diapers, disposable diapers, flushable diapers, pick a combination of diapers or *combine ANY diaper use with practicing elimination communication."

    EC is done in conjunction with diapers until you have the confidence and communication to skip them for alternatives like reusable cloth training pants or undies!

    May I offer a link to my resources helping families ease into EC part-time? I am really enthusiastic about helping families ease into baby pottying as a way to reduce diaper washing and waste.

    I have put together a free introductory series of emails - a guided tour about the best attitudes to adopt when beginning EC. It's very popular!

    Just Google Part Time Diaper Free!