Monday, January 10, 2011
Nine reasons why cloth diapers are inferior (and one why they're better)
Today I'm veering away from my usual topic to discuss something much on my mind and daily routine these days: Baby stuff. At the end of the month, my wife and I have decided to to stop the diaper service we'd been using since Joel was born Oct. 1. It's not necessarily a permanent move; we're going to try a month of all disposable diapers and see how we feel about it.
The change is at my urging. We both wanted to pursue cloth diapering, a decision we made early in the pregnancy. We met with an excellent diaper service here in Indianapolis and signed up for three months of service. (For those who don't know what a diaper service does -- I didn't before -- they collect the dirty cloth diapers and deliver clean ones, so you don't have to wash them yourself or even buy diapers. You essentially rent them.)
But after three months, my opinion has evolved. Some of the benefits of cloth diapers have turned out not to be such a great improvement over disposable as hyped. And many, many downsides we didn't consider have cropped up.
So I thought I'd enumerate the reasons why I think cloth diapers aren't all they're cracked up to be.
You will be changing diapers ... a lot -- You'll often hear in commercials for disposable diapers a buzzword about "whisking" away wetness. Well, this is not just claptrap. Modern disposables have been engineered like an astronaut suit. Despite being thin and light, they can absorb a lot of urine. And they can do so without the baby feeling wet.
Not cloth diapers. As soon as a baby goes, he'll know it .. and so will you. The cotton diaper absorbs the pee, but holds it against his skin. No "whisking" of anything. The irritation the baby feels, and thus changings, are much more frequent than with a disposable.
The difference is even more pronounced if your child does not fall into "average" categories. Joel is an exceptionally large baby -- approaching 11 pounds at birth, and 19 pounds at three months old -- and as a result he goes a lot more. In a disposable he can often go several hours between changes. Whereas with cloth, it is not unusual for me to do six changes in less than an hour. (This is not an exaggeration.)
It's obviously a hassle for the parents, but more importantly I don't think it's good for the baby's mental and physical well-being to be constantly crying because he's wet and uncomfortable.
Leakage -- No matter how you fold your diapers -- and there are reams of Web sites with different methods, which we've studied -- cloth diapers leak more. We're mostly talking about feces here. Since cloth diapers are held essentially flat against baby's bottom, #2 has a tendency to squirt out the sides or back of the diaper (and on a couple of memorable occasions, out the front top). This dirties the diaper cover and probably whatever clothes baby was wearing, too. Disposables leak solid material, too, but in our experience much less often.
Clothes don't fit -- Normal baby clothes are difficult or impossible to fit around cloth diapers, which are much poofier than disposables -- I sometimes jokingly call Joel "M.C. Hammer" whenever he's got some onesie or sleeper stretched around his large, protruding pelvis.
It may not sound like a big deal, but unless you want to shell out for specialty clothing or knit your own, expect your kid to either look silly much of the time, or just not fit into most stuff.
Car seats, strollers, high chairs, swings, etc. don't fit, either -- Most child-restraint devices either attach to a seat belt that comes up between baby's legs, or has a solid post that fits snugly against his groin. Those extra few inches of diaper cloth can make it quite an ordeal to get baby to fit into car seats, high chairs, strollers, swings, and so forth. And these are high-ticket items where there isn't an alternative available. Not to mention the child's safety could be compromised by not fitting properly in his restraint seat.
Travel is restricted -- Traveling with a baby is never easy, but at least with disposable diapers you can pop one on him and throw away the old one. Not cloth -- you have to take all those large, bulky diapers and covers with you. And you have to hang onto the dirty ones until you get where you're going. And then you have to find someplace to wash them. Sound like fun?
Daycare is usually a no-cloth zone -- You'll find that few daycare operations will mess around with cloth diapers. Good luck finding one that will agree to use the cloth diapers and covers you provide, and save the smelly dirty ones for you to take home. Ditto for babysitters, friends, etc. who might watch baby short-term now and again.
Mom, I can't move! -- Joel had never flipped over on his own until we were visiting my parents for Christmas and were using all disposable diapers for the trip (for reasons listed above). We put him on his stomach, and all of a sudden he pushed himself over onto his back, several times in a row! We were amazed and pleased, and tried to repeat the feat upon returning home. Guess what -- those big, puffy pantaloons make it impossible for him to do it. Flipping over (back to front and front to back) is a major developmental milestone, and I think the cloth diapers hinder this process. I would expect similar problems with sitting up, crawling, standing, etc.
Dirty diapers = yechh -- Whether you're washing them yourself or have a diaper service, those nasty, stinky dirty cloths add up quickly. We haven't attempted to wash our own, but I can only imagine the drudgery of having to rinse out the poo, transfer them in and out of the washer and dryer, and folding them up. With our heavy-wetting baby, we'd have to do a load of wash every day, I should think.
Diaper service makes things much, much easier -- clean diapers arrive, neatly stacked and folded, once a week like magic. And the cost isn't bad: We pay $80 a month for 100 diapers per week. But, they only come once a week. What to do with those multiple bags of dirty cloth diapers? We didn't want them in the house -- even in the basement, we figure the smell would seep out. And there are curious pets about. So you've got to find someplace where the elements won't get at them.
In our case, we ended up putting them out on the front porch. That's where the diaper service collects them anyway. And we figure it's better than the garage. But it probably hasn't done too much for our image with neighbors, mailman and delivery services (which come back pretty much daily because of my work).
Cost savings are not that huge (if they exist at all) -- This is just a cursory calculation of the cost of disposable vs. cloth diapers. Your results may vary. But I'll just say if you think you're going to be pocketing thousands of extra dollars during the course of infancy, you'll be disappointed.
As I said, the diaper service costs $80 a month. But you have to purchase the diaper covers yourself. And you'll need to buy more every time the child graduates to the next size. (Joel is already onto the third size, which goes up to 35 pounds.) We've already invested about $200 in covers -- which we get to keep, even after they're too small.
If you're a member of a wholesaler chain like Costco or Sam's, disposables can be bought in bulk pretty cheap. I did a price check, and 228 Huggies (size 3) at Costco is $50, or just under 22 cents apiece.
But you have to factor in that you'll be doing fewer changes with disposable than cloth. My estimate is we only do 60 percent as many changes. So our heavy-wetting boy who goes through 15-18 cloth diapers a day will need nine to 11 disposables. By my calculation, that means we'll spend somewhere between $60 and $72 a month on disposables.
So even without factoring in the cost of the covers, it's actually less expensive to go disposable. Even if I'm wrong and we use disposables at a 1:1 ratio as cloth, the savings is quite minimal.
If you're hardcore and decide to eschew a service to wash the diapers yourself, you've still got to buy them -- and again, you're obligated to buy a whole new batch every time baby goes up a size. And then you've got to figure in the water, detergent and electricity to wash them, not to mention all the extra time you'll spend.
The only way I can see cloth being a major savings over disposable is if you have multiple children in a row and re-use them.
Environmental impact -- This, as far as I can see, is the one area where cloth diapers are have an unmitigated advantage. The impact on our environment to landfill all those disposable diapers is huge, no denying. But even if you're using cloth exclusively and every other baby in the neighborhood has their butt swaddled in disposables, your individual effort will not make a significant impact on the collective result.
I'm not anti-cloth diaper. For the right family and the right baby, I think they can be a good option. We may go back to cloth ourselves in the future, at least partially. But I wanted to lay out some of our real-world experiences so others can know exactly what they're getting into.
P.S. I changed Joel's cloth diaper seven times while I wrote this blog post.