24 June 2012

Cloth v Disposable - That is the question

In the latest Bright Ideas newsletter Erica asked the question "cloth V disposable nappies" and the answers came flooding in!  I have to admit it's been a few years since I had to make this decision so I was interested in the answers. What surprised me most was the number of answers that said cloth were just as expensive as disposable and way too much work.

Back in my day (doesn't that make me sound old?) I had a choice of cloth or disposables. The disposables were expensive, very expensive. And the cloth were either towelling or flannelette squares.

I opted for the towelling, flannelette was just to thin to be absorbent enough for my satisfaction.  I also had just the one choice: use plastic pants (pilchers they used to be called) or Fluffies, made from micro fleece, for over-pants. I went with the micro fleece - they were soft on baby, extremely waterproof and flexible enough to fit around legs and waist for leaks and they washed and dried very quickly.

I remember after AJ was born Mum stayed for a week. It was lovely, I was able to look after my new baby and rest when he did. Then she went home, which was OK. The fridge and freezer were full, the house fairly sparkled and all the washing and ironing was up to date. I waved her off, confident that all would be well. She had left us in a very good place.

So the first morning after she'd gone I was sitting down, gazing tenderly at my beautiful, sleeping baby. And it hit me. Nappies! I would have to do the nappies! Since we'd come home from hospital Mum had been doing the nappies. I would take off the wet or dirty one and it would miraculously be replaced by a nice, soft, clean, fluffy, folded nappy. Oops!

I laugh about it now but at the time it was panic stations.

Actually I didn't mind doing nappies. They really weren't hard or expensive (I don't know why everyone thinks soaking cloth nappies is expensive, it really isn't).

I had a nappy bucket with a lid, which lived in the laundry sink (never, ever, ever leave a nappy bucket, even with a tight lid, full or empty, anywhere a baby or toddler can get into it or use it to climb on). Thankfully we had a bypass for the washing machine so I wasn't lifting it in and out all the time. 

Every morning I would empty the nappy bucket into the washing machine and run the nappies through the rinse cycle, with the water level set to full and on cold rinse.  There may only have been a dozen nappies but they needed the water to let them swish around and rinse properly, so full water it was.

While the nappies were rinsing and spinning I would rinse the bucket and refill it with hot water. Add in two level caps of nappy soaker and it was ready to go!

Now the direction on the soaker I used (which was the Jewel generic) was two capfuls to 15 litres of water and that would be enough to soak 6 nappies. Yeah right!

I soaked as many nappies as would fit in the bucket.

It went like this:

Wet nappies and liners were put straight into the bucket.

Dirty nappies had the liner emptied into the toilet and then into the bin. If the nappy was stained I would rub it with laundry soap, give it a scrub with a nail brush, rinse and drop into the bucket.

In summer the nappies were line dried, in winter the house looked like a Chinese laundry - clotheshorses and nappies all over the place.

They would dry overnight and next morning I'd fold them and put them back on the change table, ready to be used again.

It only took a few minutes a day to have soft, clean, white nappies and it only cost around 70c a week for the soaker. The only hot water used was to fill the nappy bucket each morning and even doing the high water level rinse the water bill didn't go up noticeably.

For me, cloth nappies were by far the cheaper alternative.

I did use disposable liners. I cut them in half, they were way too big, and they were soaked and washed and re-used until the fell apart. One box of 100 liners ($1.99) lasted me almost two years - that's a lot of nappy changes.

I saved disposable nappies for when we went to Sydney. Wayne's mum wasn't set up for cloth nappies so I'd buy a bulk pack of disposables and cringe at the price. I hated the way they'd fill the rubbish bin and sit, stagnating and fermenting, until the rubbish was collected. Disposables meant having to buy nappy sacks (or finding other bags to put them in) and that grated a little too, what a waste to pay for a bag just to throw it out, almost as much as it grated to spend money we couldn't really afford just to throw out a nappy.

And even back then, nappies in landfill were a problem.

My babies never had nappy rash in cloth and the nappies were always white. The secret wasto never let them sit in a dirty or wet nappy and the rinsing - always on high water level. They needed a goodly amount of water to rinse thoroughly.  Properly rinsed they would dry white and soft, and with no residues from soaker or soap there was nothing to irritate baby's bottom.

I loved my cloth nappies and they were used for tiny bottoms and as over-the shoulder protection for me, I used them as liners in the pram and to wipe up dribbles and burps. 

I started with three dozen and added a dozen when Tom was born and another dozen when Hannah was born.

I still have a dozen stashed in the linen cupboard. I use them as dusters and polishing cloths and to wipe up spills.

The other four dozen were in such good condition when I had finished with them that the went to the local volunteer fire brigade to use as kerchiefs.  The fire fighters would wet them then fold them into a triangle and tie them around their nose and mouth when they were working in thick smoke.

Now Mums have the choice of traditional cloth, disposables or MCNs .

How convenient are the MCNs. An all-in-one solution to one of a new mother's biggest problems.

Yes if I were to do it all over again, I would still go cloth, MCN cloth, without a doubt. But cloth all the way.

I received so many replies to Erica's question, and the have all been uploaded to the Nappies and Toilet Training page in the Tip Store.


  1. your post brought back such great memories of watching all my whiter than whiter nappies drying on my clothesline. I took great pride in watching them hanging out to dry.
    My Daughter is 37 now and while disposable nappies were available they were like oversized Sanitary napkins and fitted inside a pair of plastic pants. And they leaked as I discovered during my first weekend away with my new baby. I thought I would be saving myself from having to wash nappies but instead I had to wash everything baby had on and then wash out the cot as well, definitely not worth the money.
    Disposables have come along way since then but if I had to do it all over again I would use cloth every time...

  2. I had about 9 dozen Dri Glo cloth nappies, various colors. They used to make 10 colors.
    my kids are 7 & 8 now, But it was so cheap.
    Fluffies came in pink, white, blue & lemon.
    Cloth nappies are easy to fold and wash.
    Lucky when I did have kids, I had so much baby stuff, I didn't have to buy anything.

  3. http://dirtydiaperlaundry.com/take-the-flats-and-handwashing-challenge-may-23-30/
    this is over now but I thought I'd give you the link. They did it in 2011 and in 2012 and I think its a very good idea esp as it is a very cheap option. I was a cloth user and loved them, one of the saddest parts was when my youngest was toilet trained :(

  4. We used modern cloth nappies (Baby Beehinds) for our boy and we just loved them. No need to use bleaches or even soak them. We just rinsed them off with a high pressure trigger hose connected to our toilet (a "Little Squirt"). They "dry soak" (no water) in a bucket and then every couple of days we put them in the washing machine with 1/2 the usual amount of laundry powder. So cheap and so easy.

    Don't be put off by the disposable nappy propaganda which says that using a bit of water to wash your nappies is worse than disposables sitting in landfill for millions of years! (It takes at least 2 litres of water to make every disposable nappy anyway).

    Now our boy is toilet trained in the day but still requires a nighttime nappy. We now use "Super Undies" and all-in-one pull up nappy. He loves them and they save us a packet!

    Cloth nappies all the way!

  5. Kath your article took me back on my own identical journey a typical situation for the time. I was listenibg to a radio article on this issue, the expert being interviewd mentioned how Australians are more laid back about toilet training time, interestingly the consequence was another 12 months vs the rest of the world in disposable nappies.

  6. That sounds exactly like my mother did for six of us! Disposable nappies were just coming in when my younger brothers were born, though when my sister (sibling #7) was born, disposables (and my parents' budget) had reached a point that Mum decided cloth nappies weren't worth the work. But personally, I think that's because she insisted on using a twin-tub washing machine and hand-rinsing all the washing. I was so glad to lose that method when I moved out!

    I'm thinking ahead to this, as I'll be married early next year and hopefully starting to have children the year after, so my questions are:

    Where do you get traditional cloth nappies and the fluffies/pilchers?

    What is in the soaking mixture? Can you just use an ordinary (inc MOO) washing powder or soap in the water?


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