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How to choose a diaper: one size does not fit all

My sister, pregnant with twins, emailed me last week saying she was
overwhelmed by all the options for non-disposable diapers and asked if
there was a particular type I’d recommend. My sister is an idealist, a
perfectionist and usually overworked, so I wrote back suggesting she
first buy a big bag of disposables. This may sound flip, but it wasn’t
my entire answer and it’s definitely a very different answer than I
would have given 2 and a half years ago when starting the diapering
process with my firstborn.

A hybrid diaper: part reusable, part disposable

When preparing for the birth of my
first daughter, I had high ideals for how I was going to save those 4.5
trees and 2 tons of garbage- an estimate of what it takes to diaper a
kid for 2 years- by avoiding disposables. Instead of relying on the
cloth of my own infancy, I was going to one-up my mother and go with
what I thought would be a labor-saving alternative: flushables. This
hybrid option called gdiapers, involving a reusable cloth cover with a
FSC-certified insert, was deemed green enough to become the first
consumer packaged good to be certified Cradle to Cradle back in 2006.

they don’t sell gdiapers in Spain (where I’ve been living since 2006),
I had my parents bring over several hundred flushable inserts along
with a few reusable cloth covers. Although I’d heard they can leak with
the small legs of newborns, technically they worked well for us (see video How do you flush a diaper?),
but when I realized how many diapers a baby goes through, especially a
newborn, I began to question whether it was worth the 30 cents per
diaper (about double the price of plastic disposables and considerably
more than cloth). I had also realized that I might not be saving myself
the labor involved with cleaning cloth, since I often had to clean the
poopy edges of the reusable covers.

DIY cloth nappies

So when my flushables ran
out, I switched to cloth. Intimidated by the variety and price tag of
many of the modern cloth diapers, I decided to make my own.

I’m not a
seamstress, but all I did was cut an old towel and t-shirt into small
pieces, fold a t-shirt piece around a towel strip (to make a soft outer
lining) and insert them into the plastic reusable covers my mother had
brought over to me. This worked great, especially when she was still
breastfeeding and her poop didn’t smell and had the easily-washable
consistency of yogurt.

Modern cloth: AIOs or prefolds… hemp or fleece

As she outgrew my homemade strips, I
decided to invest in more modern cloth nappies. Instead of trying to choose
between organic cotton all-in-ones (AIOs), hemp prefolds or fleece pocket diapers (see video), I decided to avoid the 10 to 20 dollar
investment per diaper and purchase a medley of already-used reusables.

I found a woman on craigslist selling about 50 cloth diapers of all
different types and sizes and I was soon in diaper heaven with the
simple pre-folded velcro-fastening cotton/hemp/fleece nappies, complete with liners and colorful designs.  (Note: I’m aware there’s debate over the water used for cloth diapers, but I question the statistics used, and their source. See my post Diaper wars for more.).

Disposables: let them sag

worked well for months until my diapers developed a build-up, either
from the hard water of Barcelona or my method of simply dumping the
poop-covered cloth into the washing machine without scraping first.
While looking for a recipe to strip my diapers (see video on Stripping diapers with salt, baking soda and vinegar), I switched back to disposables, but used each one to the fullest of its potential:

  • If you read the label, manufacturers tell you their disposables
    are good for up to 12 hours- thanks to the gel that wicks all moisture
    away from the tiny bottoms- so I took full advantage and didn’t change
    until a poo or the diaper nearly sagged to her knees.
  • To cut material use, I downsized my daughter from the larger 4 her weight called for to a 2 that fit just as well. (see video Breaking the disposable diaper size barrier).
    This may have been the luck of finding a different brand that fit her
    better, but it made me realize it’s worth taking a second look at size
    to be sure what they put on the package works for your child.

A wardrobe of options

Until my sister asked which type of diaper I’d recommend,
I hadn’t realized the oversimplicity of the question. It’s a bit like
asking someone what one type of shoe they’d recommend for all purposes:
perhaps some of us can get by with just a pair of sneakers, but most of
us need at least a few options in our wardrobe.

My guide to greener diaper options

  • To avoid eco-diapering burnout: have a pack of disposables on
    hand. Unless you’re prepared to be hardcore, it’s better to have them
    available to mix them in when necessary (travel, etc) so you don’t get
    fed up with the whole process and resort to them entirely.
  • If you want to go with cloth, buy enough so you aren’t washing
    all the time. Also, you can throw the pee diapers in with a normal load
    of wash.
  • Cloth can be expensive so consider buying secondhand.
  • If you’re not concerned about cost and they fit your child’s
    body without leaking, flushables (gdiapers) are a nice alternative. You
    may want more than just 2 covers so you don’t have to wash them by hand
    if they get leaked on.
  • Biodegradables are a more sustainable option for disposables,
    that is, if you plan to compost them either at home (just the pee
    diapers) or if your city offers commerical composting pickup. Be
    forewarned that this cornstarch-based option, from Nature Boy and Girl aka Nature Babycare, can be significantly more expensive.
  • For a more eco-friendly, or baby-friendly, disposable: there are
    several brands that offer them without chlorine bleach (Seventh
    or without the controversial superabsorbant polymer sodium polyacrylate, or SAP (Tushies).