The Only Safe Option: Cloth Diapers for Babies

There are many joys of motherhood: Baby’s round toes, cherubic smile, twinkling eyes, contented gurgles….

When my child was born, the hospital provided disposable diapers for him. But after a few days, I began to feel guilty about used diapers ending up in a landfill and started looking for alternatives.

Cloth seemed a sane alternative although no one I knew had used cloth diapers. I finally ordered some from BumBerry. However, the fact is that, for generations, cloth diaper use has been the norm, fashioned from the soft fabric from the old sarees of our mothers and grandmothers.

Cloth diapers, I found, are great. But they aren’t as popular as they should be, despite having really cute designs – ranging from Spider Man, to ladybugs, to construction machines, to minions, to pugmarks and more – printed on them. Not many are aware of their existence. Some have misconceptions about them, and some just don’t care.

Cloth diapers

Cloth diapers consist of two layers – an outer and an inner. Waterproof cloth diapers have an outer layer that prevents fluids from leaking out; it’s called PUL (short for polyurethane laminate). PUL comes in various colours and prints and is what makes your diaper attractive. The inner layer is made of skin-friendly material and either is an insert or comes pre-stitched on the diaper.

And disposable ones?

Disposable diapers are layered too. The outer layer is a polyethylene film (like plastic wraps) and the inner is polypropylene. Between them is a water-absorbent layer, usually a matrix made out of wood pulp and sodium polyacrylate (SPA).

So why choose cloth over disposable?

Watch this video:

Cloth is a better choice to avoid a cocktail of chemicals sitting near your baby’s skin. It’s cheaper. It’s friendlier, when it comes to the Environment. And it’s more colourful!

You prevent harmful chemicals touching your baby’s skin

Dioxin is a carcinogen released when chlorine is used to bleach diaper pads. The World Health Organization states that dioxin can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

SPA is used in the inner layer. Have you seen ads for diapers claiming to contain a super-absorbent gel that guarantees 12-hour protection? Well, that’s the gel. The polymer can absorb 300 times its weight of tap water and is a known eye/lung irritant. Sometimes, the crystals leak out and end up affecting the skin.

Phthalates, known to be endocrine disruptors, are used to create the outer layer. They are released when they come in contact with liquids.

Besides, the cartoon characters printed on the diaper (which look nice) use dyes that can irritate your baby’s skin and cause rashes.

Cloth saves you money

Some quick math will reveal the number of diapers that we end up using on our babies in the first three years. For night-only usage, the figure comes to 1,620 diapers, considering an average of 1.5 diapers per night for 36 months. Increase this to 5 diapers to cover full-time diapering, and the figure goes up to 5,400 diapers. Web sites declare the price per diaper to be Rs 10, on average.

So, on disposables, you end up spending Rs 16,200-Rs 54,000 in the first three years.

Compare this to cloth diapers, which cost, on average, Rs 600, including a pocket diaper + two inserts, or a cover + pre-folds/flats. For night-time diapering, you might need, on rotation, a maximum of four diapers, which amounts to Rs 2,400. Even if the cost of laundry and detergent are included, this turns out to be more economical.

On full-time diapering, with a recommended number of 20 diapers, the spend is about Rs 18,000.

There are parents who manage full-time diapering with 10 covers and 20 flats. Check out this video that explains budget cloth diapering: 


You save precious natural resources and prevent waste

Made from laminated plastics, diaper production is an energy- and water-intensive process. Recycling and disposal pose problems as well. Crude oil is used for making the plastic outer and inner layers. The manufacturing process releases a lot of toxins and gases – naphthalene, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and other greenhouse gases. One study has established that, over the course of two and half years, disposable diapers produce 16 kg of packaging waste for every ton of diapers.

When all the resources used for disposable vs. cloth diapers are considered, disposables:

  • Create 2.3 times more water waste
  • Use 3.5 times more energy
  • Use 8.3 times more non-renewable raw materials
  • Use 90 times more renewable raw materials (like tree pulp and cotton)
  • Use anywhere between four and 30 times as much land for growing or mining raw materials
  • You reduce the load on our landfills

Most disposable diapers are slow to biodegrade. It takes approximately 500 years for a single diaper to decompose! In a landfill, the plastic, along with the faecal matter, is slow to decompose and is a biohazard, as it is bound to seep into the groundwater system. Disposable diapers represent yet another of our convenience-driven, short-sighted choices that are an excuse for washing our hands of the problem of waste. So-called biodegradable diapers need specific conditions of temperature and humidity to break down, which do not happen in our landfills.

Arguments against cloth diapering (that aren’t true)

I’ve heard people say that washing diapers and using water to do the washing are two big deterrents in using cloth diapers. But we do wash our clothes daily, don’t we? And we don’t use disposable clothes every day! Moreover, the amount of water used in washing a cloth diaper is certainly small, compared to the water needed to manufacture the mounds of disposable nappies that flood the market.

Some parents feel using a cloth diaper is not a feasible solution while travelling. Yet if you look at some cloth diaper moms, you will see that a well-planned trip can take care of even a 36-hour train journey!

“What about when I leave my child at the play school?” you might ask. Well, just like you have the play school attendants collect your little one’s personal belongings after school, you can ask them to collect the diapers in a bag and hand those over to you.

You can wash the diapers when you reach home. Just remove the poo and, once there are enough diapers for a wash load, turn on the machine. Some moms do the washing only once in two or three days. If you’re willing to put in some effort, you can hand-wash the diapers, too.

So what are you waiting for? Start your cloth diaper journey today and let me know how it goes!




Shyamala Madhavan


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