New babies come with lots of surprises: how impossibly tiny their little toenails are, how much personality they have before they even say a word, and how inaccurate the phrase “sleeping like a baby” is. But perhaps the biggest shock is how many diapers a baby uses in one day. Whether breast- or formula-fed, babies consume so many calories in their first year of life, and, much to parents’ chagrin, what goes in must come out.
These days, the main diaper options are still cloth or disposable, though there are a number of choices within those categories. Is one better than another? Here is a look at the pros and cons of both kinds of diapers.
Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers
Cloth diapers are inarguably better for the environment than disposables. Yes, they still require water and energy for near-constant washing, but using cloth diapers will divert over 3,000 diapers from the waste stream in a baby’s first year. A few brands of disposable diapers are now made to biodegrade, but the average, run-of-the-mill type will forever sit in a landfill among millions of other diapers.
Most cloth diapers are free of the dyes, perfumes and chemicals that disposables are made with. A baby’s skin is extremely sensitive and cloth can be gentler than disposable, though because disposables are usually more absorbent than cloth, they are sometimes more adept at keeping rash-inducing moisture away from skin. Beyond diaper rash, some parents are concerned about the substances used in disposable diapers, including dioxin and sodium polyacrylate, which some research shows to cause toxic responses.
Though they require a more substantial investment up front, cloth diapers save money in the long run. Disposable diapers cost about $60 per month in the first year, and though buying on sale or at wholesale club stores can help save money, the costs really add up. Cloth diapers cost between $5 and $30 each, and of course laundering (whether in-home or a cloth diaper pick-up service) adds up as well. Still, the average cost for cloth diapering comes to about $500 per year, about $250 less than disposables. For any subsequent children, there is no cost except for laundry.
Long gone are the rubber pants many of us associate with cloth diapering. These days, cloth diapers come in expandable sizes, a range of fabrics, an infinite variety of cute colors and patterns, and many different configurations. There are cloth diapers with snaps or Velcro fasteners, ones with removable cloth liners (so you don’t need to wash the entire diaper for a small amount of wetness), and cloth diapers with disposable inserts. Disposable diapers often sport licensed cartoon characters, though some brands are now coming out with less commercial designs.
For most parents, this is what it all boils down to. By their very nature, disposable diapers are just more convenient. They are easier to pack, easier to get rid of if you’re out in the world, and require no clean-up besides emptying the diaper pail into the garbage. For having such teeny bodies, babies can make huge messes in their diapers, and figuring out what to do with a severely soiled cloth diaper can be tricky. Many day-care centers or in-home caregivers are hesitant to deal with cloth diapers, and family and in-laws often seem bewildered or even annoyed by the choice. No matter the strides modern cloth diapers have made in terms of ease of use, they just can’t compare to the straightforward convenience of disposables.
In our opinion, cloth diapers are the winners on nearly every front, especially in terms of environmental impact. But when it comes to nearly all aspects of parenting—including diapering—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You and your family are free to choose what’s best for you on any given day. Perhaps that means disposable diapers, cloth diapers, or some combination of the two.