The Great Nappy Debate

Nappy changing is something that you have to get used to as a new parent. On average, children will have 6,300 nappy changes before they are toilet trained, so it makes sense to choose the easy option and go for the quick and easy option of disposable nappies. Its only common sense isn’t it?

“No it isn’t,” say more and more new parents who are opting for re-usable cloth nappies and one of the reasons given in this age of austerity is financial.

“We always wanted three children,” said Jude, now expecting her fourth, “And we could see that the savings would add up pretty quickly. My husband didn’t need any convincing when he saw the sums! Some of the nappies are starting to look a bit threadbare though and I’m not sure they will survive long enough to see our next one through to potty training.”

Parents who use cloth nappies can save around £600 for their first child and around £900 for subsequent children who wear the same nappies. Using a nappy laundering service reduces these savings but they can still be substantial.

Interestingly, cost can also put parents off using cloth nappies. Getting started with all the bits (nappies, liners, waterproof outers etc.) can cost around £100. Richard, a father of two explained “We considered using them but the initial cost pushed us away. If they had been cheaper, maybe…”

“Disposables are much more absorbent and so reduce nappy rash” say many parents. A lot of research supports this claim, but users of cloth nappies can point to health benefits too. Some research suggests that disposable nappies can increase the chance of girls acquiring a urine infection and boys becoming infertile or getting testicular cancer in later life.

“Re-usable nappies are better for the environment” claim campaigners, pointing out that used disposables take several centuries to rot down, all the time leaking methane into the atmosphere and raw sewage into rivers.

“It remains indisputable that disposables contribute greatly to landfill and we are running out of landfill space on our tiny island,” says Rachel, environmental campaigner and mother. The cost of nappies in landfill is now so high that many councils offer cash incentives to parents to not use disposables.

Other parents are not quite so sure. “We had a discussion at our NCT class about the ‘greenness’ of reusables,” said new mother, Caroline, “the need to use an electric washing machine, detergents, growing and transporting the cotton.  We weren’t sure which was better.”

Even the experts aren’t too sure about this one. In 2008, the Environment Agency looked at every aspect of both kinds of nappies; manufacture, use, laundering and final disposal and were unable to find a clear winner. Variations in the temperature of the wash, the efficiency of the washing machine and whether the nappies were dried on a line all affect their environmental impact greatly.
In the end they decided that re-usables could be greener, but this was not always the case.

“Disposables are much more convenient,” claim many parents, and this is what wins over the majority to using them.
Caroline continued, “We started with disposables and ended up thinking ‘too many other things to worry about with a new baby’ and went for what we perceived as the easier option. I ended up using disposables though I still feel guilty sometimes.”

Even many committed users of cloth nappies would agree with this and will often use disposable nappies from time to time.
Some parents only put their children in disposables overnight. Their greater absorbency means that overnight nappy changes are less likely to be needed. Holidays are another time that they might switch to disposables.

Eva and Glen, parents of three young children, are typical. They started using cloth nappies for environmental reasons and initially used them exclusively. “We used to take it all on holiday with us, all the bits and pieces, the nappy bucket, everything,” Eva explained. “Now we are a bit more relaxed and use them about 70% of the time.”
With so many factors to consider, it’s no wonder that parents can find it hard to make up their minds. Still, there will be plenty of time to think about it during the next 6,300 nappy changes.