That’s the estimated number of diaper changes the average baby will go through in his or her first 2.5 years of life. Few baby items compare to diapers in terms of frequency of use or level of necessity, but like most things related to baby care, it isn’t cut and dry, and the biggest debate centers on one simple question: cloth or disposable?
The cloth resurgence
Cloth ruled the market until after World War II, when Pampers began banking on post-war consumers’ desire for all things new, fast and convenient. By the end of the 1970s, Pampers was worth more than $1 billion, and today, most estimates credit disposables with about 96 percent of the diaper market. Convenience won parents over to disposables in decades past, but cloth diapers have made impressive strides. According to the Real Diaper Industry Association, cloth diapers saw a 30 percent increase in sales between 2000 and 2007.
“The trend is cloth,” says Fatimah Faraj, store manager of Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique in Raleigh. “A lot of people are figuring out that we need to be more green and earth friendly and do what’s best for our children.”
Although numerous studies show the environmental aspect of the disposable vs. cloth debate is a wash when comparing the tangible waste of disposables to the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, cloth-users note that trading in the non-biodegradable disposables benefits more than the environment. “You can’t look at a package of diapers and see what’s in them,” Faraj says. “Many of them have chemicals that aren’t things we would choose to put against our children’s skin if we knew they were there.”
There are cost savings as well. Outfitting a child in disposables will run parents thousands of dollars. “For about $300 to $500 you can buy all the diapers your child will need from birth through potty training, and then you can use [the cloth diapers] on additional children,” says Christina Foster, owner of Hip Bottoms Cloth Diapers in Winston-Salem. “Also, their bums are just so much cuter in cloth.”
For Lindsey and Rich Kenny, Durham parents of a 6-month-old son, the financial savings were a big motivator. “I remember the first diaper run I made when Asa was 2 weeks old,” Lindsey says. “I came home having spent $100 on diapers that lasted us one month. That’s when I was able to convince Rich of the financial benefit to cloth diapering.”
“I feel like Asa does much better with cloth diapers,” Rich adds. “You have natural fiber against his skin versus synthetic chemicals. I feel like he’s a happier baby because of it.”
What about the mess?
Environmental and cost issues aside, many parents’ reluctance to make the switch lies in a single fear — the mess. Rachel Noto, Raleigh mother of 4-year-old and 18-month-old daughters, used disposables with her first daughter but transitioned to cloth when looking for something that wouldn’t irritate her baby’s sensitive skin. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,” she says. “I was anticipating a lot of stress as far as laundry was concerned, but you pretty much live in the laundry room anyway when you have little kids. ... They’re practically as easy as using disposables.”
Rich Kenny agrees. “It’s a lot easier than I thought it would be,” he says. “It’s not too gross or too difficult to spray off the diapers before you throw them in the laundry.”
Fortunately, cloth diapering doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Noto’s family does what she refers to as “cloth diapering light.” Although the majority of the diapering for her 18-month-old is cloth, they do use disposables when they have a babysitter or go to church. Many daycares aren’t cloth-diaper friendly, either, so disposables come into play.
The leap is the hardest part, says Priscilla LeCompte, co-owner of All About Baby Boutique in Greensboro. “Even if you only get four [cloth] diapers and are still using disposables at other times, trying it is the best way to figure out if it is right for you and what fits well for you and your family.” Foster emphasizes, “It is a very personal decision and one that is different for each family.”
Starting with cloth
“Find somebody who used them who can help you navigate,” says Noto, who started the Facebook group Triangle Cloth Diapering. Noto also credits the staff at Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique, The Diapering Doula in Morrisville and The Red Hen in Chapel Hill. “The whole [cloth diapering] community is really supportive,” she says. “I was worried that I wasn’t as hard core as some who use cloth diapers, but it doesn’t matter whether you do both cloth and some disposable.”
Faraj says Sweetbottoms recommends starting with 24 diapers, which allows for washing every other day. Other startup supplies include two wet bags or pale liners for the home, which allows one to wash while the other is used; two wet bags for the diaper bag; cloth-diaper-safe detergent; and cloth-diaper-safe diaper cream. Once babies are on solid foods, parents should also consider a diaper sprayer and/or flushable, biodegradable liners.
“These aren’t your grandma’s diapers,” LeCompte says. “The most popular styles are definitely the pocket where you stuff the absorbent material into the diaper and top stays dry against baby’s skin. We also have people that love the all-in-one where the cloth diaper is almost like a disposable, without the chemicals and throwing it away, so you use it and wash it.”
Finding what fits
Ultimately, when it comes to diapers, it’s about finding what works for you, your budget and your family. If, in the end, the choice is cloth, remember that there’s a learning curve, but the reward — and savings — can be sweet.
“I remember Rich coming home one day and saying, ‘Can’t we use cloth wipes or something?’ “ Lindsey Kenny says. “I knew he was hooked.”
The choice to go with cloth is just the first in a line of diapering decisions. Fatimah Faraj, store manager of Sweetbottoms Baby Boutique in Raleigh, defines the terms.
* All-in-ones: Both the diaper and diaper cover are in one piece. You put it on and take it off like a disposable. How many you’ll need: 24
* All-in-twos: The two pieces — cover and diaper — are separate, with the diaper fitting into the cover. The diaper is changed every time, but the cover can be reused about two to three times. How many you’ll need: 24 diapers, eight to 10 diaper covers
* Pockets: This style features a cover with a fleece piece inside that keeps babies dry, into which you stuff a diaper. You change the whole system each time. How many you’ll need: 24, purchased all together
* Fitteds: Fitteds are an inside piece used mainly for over night, and it’s especially good for heavy-wetters. The fitted is used underneath a cover. How many you’ll need: two to three
* Basic prefolds: These are large pieces of fabric that have been prefolded, though it will take additional folding and pinning to make them fit your baby. Prefolds are used with a cover. How many you’ll need: 24 prefolds, eight to 10 covers
* Traditional flats: This is the old-fashioned cloth diaper to a tee: a large piece of fabric you fold and pin to fit your baby. It is used with a cover. How many you’ll need: 24 flats, eight to 10 covers
By the numbers
3,796: Number of disposable diapers the average child will use in his or her first years of life
24: Number of cloth diapers a baby needs in his or her first years of life
40.3 million: Number of disposable diapers used every day in the United States
96: Percentage of American babies who wear disposable diapers (compared to 6 percent in China and 2 percent in India)
$1,000: Average cost for a baby’s first year of disposable diapers
$700-$800: Average cost for a baby’s first year of cloth diapers
$700-$800: Average cost for 2.5 years of cloth diapering
$2,500: Average cost for 2.5 years of disposable diapers
Sources: Consumer Reports, ABC News, Mother Jones, BabyCenter.com