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The nappy debate

The age old debate - disposable - versus - reusable nappies.
A nappy war is raging between those who provide disposables and those who believe that switching to reusable cloth nappies is the only way forward. As a parent it can be incredibly difficult to know which nappies to use, especially with all the nappy propaganda flying about! Both sides claim their nappies are more environmentally friendly as well as being best for your baby and kinder to your wallet - but in this time of nappy confusion, which side should you support?

Disposable Nappies

It is currently estimated that between 80 and 90% of the nappies used in the UK are disposable and you can understand why. They are quick and easy to change, light to carry, available wherever you go in the world (within reason of course) and used nappies can simply be thrown away. Additionally, the technology which disposable nappy manufacturers use to keep your baby dry and comfortable is ever advancing, plus you're not forever tied to your washing machine like previous generations of mothers. From a convenience point of view disposable nappies can't be beaten. However, as with anything that seems too good to be true there is usually a catch and disposable nappies are no exception.

Approximately 8 million nappies are thrown away each day, contributing to about 4% if the UK's total waste. We are running out of room in landfill sites and as the plastic used in disposable nappies may take up to 500 years to degrade, the impact this 'convenience' product has on the environment is only just coming to light. Additionally, increasingly sophisticated chemicals are used in the production of nappies and although nappy manufacturers apply strict tests to ensure that their nappies are safe for public use, the long term effect of the chemicals used in disposables on children and the environment has not yet been established.

Biodegradable nappies with minimal chemicals are becoming more widely available and these can provide a convenient alternative to regular disposables for those with an ecological conscience but little time! These do tend to be more expensive though.

Reusable Nappies

For many, reusable nappies conjure up images of mothers slaving away soaking, bleaching and washing nappies. However, things have moved on a lot in recent years, both in terms of reusable nappies themselves and the way you wash them. Although traditional square terry towelling nappies are still widely available, pre-folded nappies used with washable or biodegradable liners and brightly coloured waterproof wraps are now the nappy choice for many.

Additionally, whether you choose to soak or not, modern washing machines will adequately clean even the dirtiest nappy at 60 degrees and soaked nappies at 40 degrees. By using an energy efficient washing machine and leaving nappies to dry naturally, you will not only save on your electricity bill, but also reduce the impact of your nappy cycle on the environment. By using eco-detergents in the wash and substituting regular fabric softener with white vinegar you will not only reduce the number of chemicals to which your baby is exposed, but will also have softer, more absorbent nappies.

One of the main reasons parents give for not using disposables is a lack of time. Although, initially reusable nappies may take longer to fit than disposables, once you are practiced this difference becomes minimal, especially as many cloth nappies now have poppers or Velcro fastenings to make this easier. Additionally, nappy laundry services are now widely available and involve a company picking up soiled nappies and dropping off clean ones once a week - taking all of the effort out of using reusables.

It is true that reusable nappies are initially more expensive to purchase, however research has found that even when the cost of washing and drying is taken into consideration, you could save over £500 over your baby's nappy wearing life when compared to disposables. When you consider that reusables can be used on other children or even sold (there is a surprisingly large market for second hand reusables) they become even more economical.

Research carried out in 2008 by the Environmental Agency found that reusable nappies are up to 40% better for the environment than disposables. This is because of the reduced pressure on landfill sites, which are struggling to cope with the estimated 690,000 tonnes of nappy waste each year. The Environment Agency also recommend that you wash at 60 degrees or less, never iron or tumble-dry your nappies, and pass them on to a second child if possible - this will all help to reduce the impact on the environment (and on your energy bills).

In Conclusion

In conclusion, in terms of 'the nappy debate' the evidence is inconclusive - there are clear advantages and disadvantages associated with both types of nappy. Although logic would dictate that reusable nappies are better for the environment, it's not always convenient to use cloth, especially when you are travelling or your baby is poorly.

Ultimately, the decision is yours - there is no clear winner and which type of nappy you choose to use will depend on your lifestyle and your child care philosophies. Many find that by using a combination of disposable and reusable nappies they are able to strike a balance between convenience and what's best for their baby, their wallet and the environment!

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We used Terry nappies for our son. We purchased a dozen. He is now 28 and I still use the terry nappies for hair towels, mopping spills on a carpet and a million and one other uses. They are so absorbent, wash beautifully and still as white as when we bought them. So if you want to know how economical they are this should answer that question.

I found muslin liners really useful and they can be used on their own with plastic wrap type outer when potty training. We still have some muslins as well!

Don't dismiss disposables though, when considering chemicals in disposables remember washing powder, however well you rinse, will always leave a residue in cloth nappies, that's why you can smell it when they are clean.

As for nappy rash, much easier to control in disposables than terries and, in my experience, putting cream on babies' bottoms can cause more problems because it can itself cause irritation and bacteria build up.

The best combination I found was to use non-lanolin, non-fragranced babywipes not soap and water. No cream on bottoms. Medium Terry nappies with muslin liner and have some disposables for when going to events and family days out - treat them as a luxury.

We looked after many babies as foster carers and, comparing terries with disposables, it seems there are equal but different benefits.

My advice, for what it's worth, try the terries. If you can't get on with them they will still serve you well for many years and not be a waste of money if you change to disposables. When using terries don't use the really thick ones, that just means you don't change them so often increasing the risk of nappy rash - a misnomer as it is really amonia burn from urine. Go for middle of the road terries change often, keep your baby well hydrated.

Most importantly. ENJOY your baby and children. Spend as much time with them as you can. Forget the housework, play with them, take them out every day to your local park. Don't moan when your children are off school - before you know it they will be grown up and gone. Make the most of them, that's why you had them in the first place isn't it?

Trust me, there is nothing worse than hearing parents moaning that they will be glad when the children go back to school. And if you are a new Mum reading this, I am sure every Mum says they wouldn't say that.

Thank you for reading this. I hope it is helpful. I had the benefit of lots of relatives to offer advice when I was a new mum and I wouldn't have been able to manage without my fantastic Mum in the first couple of weeks. I know not everyone is so lucky.
by MummyX 20th Jun 2013, 3:44pm
I'd love to use the reusables, and would like to hear from others about how easy it is when changing nappies while out & about ..I'd imagine you could usually give them a quick rinse in a toilet, but presumably you have soiled/wet inserts to carry around for the rest of the day ..
by apsara 9th Feb 2011, 8:53am
Hi. I am a big fan of reusables and I just wanted to clear up a few misconceptions, that even this article has raised. There is much much more to cloth nappies than just terries and prefolds as suggested in this article. There are ones called packet nappies which go on and off like a disposable. the waterproof bit is built in so you dont have to mess arround with an extra waterproof wrap, and the whole nappy goes into the macine. You are not supposed to soak your nappies anymore as it has been proven to degrade the nappies and shorten their life. We now just pop the nappy into a nappy bucket with a lid until you have enough for a wash. usually every other day depending on how many nappies you have. You usually wash nappies at 40 degrees, but wash them at 60 if your child has a bug to kill all of the germs, so you are saving money their too. The only thing about a cloth nappy that is less convenient about a disposable is instead of throwing it away, you have to do an extra load of washing every couple of days, but IMO if that means that I reduce the amount of chemicals that my baby comes into contact with then so be it. I also agree with the post saying that disposables smell. They have a horrid chemically smell about them which you do not have with cloth.
by reddwarf 13th Sep 2010, 9:53am
My son Joshua wear Pampers and hes size is 3.
by VanessaAngela 12th Aug 2010, 10:43am
Hi I don't have children yet but have several friends with children and 3 nephews and 2 nieces. I also work in a Nursery so am interested in anything child related especially nappies. I agree with everything people say about real nappies and working with children has put me off disposables. They smell, they rub the skin causing marks and redness, they are always soaked and everytime I change a nappy at work most children need cream on because off a sore bottom. I also read the other day that disposables uses tons of crude oil, don't biodegrade, and thr insides use wood pulp made from 4 and a half trees and are more expensive to produce. I was shocked and this put me off disposables even more, I also know someone who used pampers and the wee leaked from it and then she changed into another pampers nappy and the baby then pooed, again another leak - not impressive at all. My Granny used cloth nappies on 7 babies and never had a problem with nappy rash or soreness and found them convient, good and cheap - although back then disposables weren't invented so she had no choice, but if they were good enough for children then when you had to soak and boil they are good enough now. Real nappies are cheaper, easy to use if you are organised, better for the enviornment all round, chemical free meaning kinder to skin, can be used for the next baby or passed onto friends and family, and just as absorbent. You put a liner in to catch the poo which is flushed down the toilet avoiding the smell, you don't need to soak and you put into the machine as if you were doing your normal wash, you don't need special products just normal non-bio washing powder and a normal amount. From what I have read real nappies are fantastic so why don't more people use them.
by AuntySammy 14th Oct 2009, 10:20am
I don't use re-usable nappies but I do use the Eco Bio-digradeable ones you can get from Boots and Tesco. They're just as good as Pampers and Huggies (which I've also tried) and they're actually better than Pampers! I'd recommend them, and they're the same price too :) I think it's a good compromise.
by LuckyMummy2 13th Oct 2009, 9:09am
does anyone know wat are the best/cheapest reuseable nappies to use. thanks if you do
by jaffacake 14th Apr 2009, 12:48pm
by bobbybibbington 25th Feb 2009, 9:28am
i know terry nappies are a lot more hard work than disposable ones but just think of your baby more comfort and nicer feel surely a little bit more effort is worth your baby been happy
by tots 26th Jan 2009, 9:40am
make reusable nappies free then more people will use them
by jellybean12 1st Dec 2008, 9:25am
Before I was pregnant I didn't really think about what type of nappies I'd use until a friend said in horror "your not going to add to the landfill with 5000 nappies are you?"
So I have been investigating the options. One argument is that all the washing you have to do with reusable can cause pollution. I talked to my hubby who is definitely the one to ask as he does environmental impact assessments for a living. He reckons that s not only a problem that the landfills are filling up with nappies. What you have to consider is the life cycle of the nappy. e.g. the chemicals and bleaches in production ,the transport pollution, energy used to make them etc, etc and then it takes about 100 years for a nappy to biodegrade. Which brings us to another problem that effects the environment that is the harmful chemicals that are produced in landfill that pollute our air. Asking hubby about the daily washing he reckons that you can buy environmentally friendly washing powders and the water we used does go to treatments plants any way. You can also put your machine on at night to save on the electric bill. Not to say that I would never use a disposable and I have not got a clue what it will be like using reusable nappies. But I am going to give it a go. As I am bringing a child into the world I have to at least try to make it a good place to be. Hope this doesnt sound preachy and you find this informative. Good Luck what ever you choice is.
by JacksterWood 21st Apr 2008, 8:39am
I think that people use disposable nappies because they just can't be bothered. I used real nappies and found them very easy to use. It also meant that my washing machine was full rather than always half loads ,which saves energy anyway. The only time that my daughter has ever had nappy rash was when I have had to use a 'normal' disposable in an emergency. I am convinced that this is because of all the chemicals that are used in disposable nappies. There were times when I would need to use a disposable nappy, if we went out for the day, to save space but there are also disposable nappies that are made from recycled materials and that are 70% biodegradeble and no chemicals in them. You can get them in Boots , Waitrose and some Tesco shops. They do not cost anymore than pampers etc but they cannot afford to advertise. Too many people cannot be bothered with this world because they 'aren't going to be alive when things happen' well, if you are going to have children at least care about what world they will have to live in. I think it is just pure lazyness to be honest. We have washing machines nowadays. My mum had three kids all in real nappy's and no washing machine. If its good enough for her its good enough for me !
by ROZ879 12th Mar 2008, 8:35am
I am amazed at the excuses people come up with for using disposibles - Elizabeth may feel the reusable nappies conjure up all sorts of nasty images, but the truth of the matter is that reusables are really straightforward to use.

I have been using reusables for six months now and nothing could be easier. I simply put the dirty nappy in the dry bucket, chuck it all in the washing machine when full (about every two days) and then hang out to dry - about as much bother as going to the shop to buy a pack of disposables. My baby has only had nappy rash when she's been ill (thrush and diarrhoea), so I don't think reusables can be blamed for that - all the babies I know have had nappy rash from time to time. I have had the occasional leak, but then so have all the mum's using dispoable's that I know. The nappies I use never fall down and soak up the poo and wee just fine.

Personally, I wouldn't use a nappy washing service because the nappies they use (prefolds) don't wrap around the bum (I have used a few different brands and found Motherease the best) and therefore will be more likely to leak, also washing services usually come only once a week, which means having a lot of dirty nappies hanging around.

In my mum's day people did not have washing machines and had to use the laundrette, now I can fully appreiciate that that would be a pain, but if you have a washing machine then I really don't see what the problem is. I live in a flat with no outside drying space, and have not found using reusable nappies a problem - that fact that my daughter is continually throwing up (over herself, me, anyone else in the vague area, the sofa etc.) makes a lot more washing than the nappies.

Reusable nappies are cheaper than even the cheapest supermarket brands, so much so that using them saves enough money to pay for the washing machine, (and if you had a conscience you wouldn't shop at Tesco, but that's another matter), and erm... I'm not sure why Elizabeth thinks that disposibles are some how healthier for babies. Disposables work by having a heady concoction of chemicals right next to your baby's skin - I for one am not happy with these chemicals rubbing up against my daughter's skin. If you care about the world you are bringing your child into and the state of the world s/he will have to live in then you'll choose real nappies.

One last thing to say - you were looking for a cheap option, but what you don't consider is that by getting disposables that have to be collected by the council and landfilled at more cost, the savings you are making are paid for by all the people that live in your town through increased council tax, whether they use disposables or reusables, or even if they don't have chilldren at all. Is that a fair choice to make?
by eggysoldiers 27th Sep 2007, 8:29am
I have used disposables on holiday, but I actually find that both my children got nappy rash. Sometimes with disposables, after a full night, that toxic gel stuff got all over the little one's bum. Does anyone know what that is and what's in it? I have two buckets, one for poo and one for wee. I clean the soiled nappies in warm water and napisan before putting them into the bucket and I wash them at 40 with napisan when the bucket is full or the nappy draw is close to empty. I have never had stained nappies. I don't have to run out and buy nappies all the time and I also don't have a bin full of poo which I find more un-hygenic than a nappy bucket! While I was pregnant I worked at a nursery and the smell of the old nappies in the bins outside was so bad I went and bought re-usable nappies. I have now used them for two babies and they are all as white as the day I got them! I think what people forget is that people who use disposables still have mountains of washing to do, and they also still use the dryer!
by tomizzymum 28th Jul 2007, 1:19pm
Okay, we have four months to go before our first bundle of joy joins us in the world and have been umming and arring over which to use disposables, biodegradables or reusable nappies so we've been doing some asking around with friends and people who have had babies, most of them have gone straight into disposable nappies for the reason that one it's less time consuming and secondly reusable nappies conjure up the image of lots of wet nappies sitting around waiting to be washed or dried, large pots or buckets full of dirty nappies soaking and once the cleaning side of things are over and done with, the reusable nappies don't soak up the wee and poo properly and is always giving nappy rash to your child or the nappy is always falling down or dosen't fit properly.
It was intresting to hear one very good friend of ours say that they decided to go with reusable nappies straight off when they had there baby, who was born around two months ago and they said it was okay at first they sent the dirty ones away to be cleaned and had clean ones sent back, so I thought brilliant we should go with those, then they said that after a while when the clean nappies came back they were poo stained still, so they complained and sent them back to be washed again and when they came back they were still stained. So now they have gone on to the disposable nappies, they tried the more popular brands such as huggies and pampers and yes they were fine but expensive in the long run, so they tried tescos own brand and apart from being cheaper the nappies were just as good as the more expensive brands.
So because there is less time, not alot of room in the house and money is rather sparss, the only conclusion is to use supermarket own brand dissposible nappies, yes it is adding to the landfill mass but until supermarkets make their own biodegradable nappies or the companies who make biodegradable nappies start bringing their prices down, we will have to go with the cheaper disposible nappies because money dosen't grow on trees and what is more important is that of the health of our babies and children.
Elizabeth, SW England
by AskBaby8795 12th Dec 2006, 9:57am