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Why I Choose Cloth
by Angelique Mullen
Spring 2006

Before my daughter was born over four years ago, I had every intention of using cloth diapers. As a frugal, environmentally sensitive person, I thought reusable diapers were the most eco-friendly and cost effective choice on the market. My husband agreed, and we established an order with the local diaper service company, bought a diaper pail and some covers, and waited for our baby to be born.

However, it didn’t exactly work out the way I planned. During those first few weeks of her life, I felt unprepared for the number of diaper changes we would experience. The baby books and the doctors all say that newborns need to be changed ten times a day on average. For us, it felt like twenty times a day! The minute we would change her, she would need to be changed again it seemed. I thought it was easier to diaper our daughter in disposables, since we had been given several packs of them from a friend and we got used to them. With all that we had to remember with respect to baby care, I didn’t want to be bothered with cloth diapers during the first few weeks. When my husband finally talked me into putting one on our daughter’s bottom, I found it to be too big and bulky, not to mention uncomfortable-looking. The covers didn’t fit right, and she leaked. I was turned off. For the first five months, we used cloth only a fraction of the time, at my husband’s insistence. When it was my turn to change her diaper, I would always put her back in disposables.

I was secretly disappointed. I had always dreamed of being a natural mama - using cloth diapers, exclusively breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and making my own baby food. I didn’t believe in playpens, junk food, and toxic chemicals in the home. Still, I felt like a failure. Reusing and recycling are important to me, and diapering with cloth seemed like such a loving thing to do for the planet and my baby. It was hard for me to fail at cloth diapering because it was like I had given in to the consumerist culture I had always despised. Although I was elated to be a new mother, I started to feel like I had lost touch with a part of myself.

When my daughter was five months old, it all changed for me. It was getting ridiculous paying for the diaper service while only using a small portion of the diapers we received every week. In the meantime, we were buying and throwing away a lot of disposables. My husband really wanted us to use cloth, but he tried to talk me into canceling the diaper service to save money since we were paying for both. I didn’t like this idea because I wasn't ready to give up on cloth, although I knew something had to change.

It was at this time that I attended a Friday parenting workshop when I came across a woman who embodied what I wanted to be as a mother. She sat on the floor quietly nursing her baby. She wore a sling, and carried a diaper bag stuffed with cloth diapers. I asked her about cloth diapering, and the adorable wrap that covered her son’s bottom. It was a cute print wrap with yellow and blue whales, and it didn’t look uncomfortable at all. We talked for a little while. She ended up giving me a cloth diaper pep talk. She told me that she thought disposables leaked way more than cloth, that it was all in the way you secure the cloth diaper and how snug you wrap the cover. She explained that Snappis were easier than pins, and that shaking poop off a diaper was no big deal. She encouraged me not to be afraid of bulk. She also told me where to buy good wraps and diapering supplies online. This woman seemed so easy-going and relaxed, and there was a happy confidence about her that inspired me.

That night, I decided I had to get used to cloth diapering, if not for the Earth than for myself. I had to know that I was capable of sacrificing convenience for the common good. I made a pact with myself that I would use nothing but cloth for that entire weekend, even when we were out and about. It was such a success, that we began cloth diapering full-time and never looked back. There have been no regrets. In fact, we eventually gave up the service to buy our own diapers and, four years later, we are now diapering our newborn son in cloth.

Several months after this encounter, a friend and I were discussing the environmental issues of diapering. My friend, who used disposable diapers on her daughter, said, “I’ve heard that there really is no difference between cloth and disposable as far as the environment goes, so you might as well go with the more convenient.” Even though I knew instinctively that she was wrong, that cloth diapers were better for the environment than throwaway diapers, I didn’t know what to say because I had no facts to back me up. This led to some late night research on the Internet by me and a self-proclaimed “Diaper Diatribe” that I wrote for our family’s website. What I found out about diapers surprised me, and as my research grew, I became more passionate about the issue. This eventually led me to seek out the other founders of Real Diaper Association.

There are many reasons why cloth is a better choice for baby’s bottoms and why we have chosen to diaper our children in cloth. Most of you are familiar with these reasons. For one, it is so much more soft and pure than plastic-paper diapers as cloth does not contain sodium polyacrylate (SAP), a type of super absorbent polymer, which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbent tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome. Because SAP wicks moisture away from baby’s skin, parents think their babies are dry, when in fact they are sitting in urine. The urine is still in the disposable, as it would be in cloth, but in a gel-like form. So instead of a wet cotton diaper, they get a thick heavy disposable. Sitting in urine too long can cause bacteria growth, which can then lead to diaper rash. Newborns should be changed every hour and older babies every 3-4 hours, no matter what kind of diaper they are wearing. When we put our son in cloth, we know when he is wet, which means we change him before he develops skin irritation on his bottom.

By choosing cloth, we are avoiding an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process that has been found in disposable diapers - dioxin. It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S.

We also choose cloth because of its obvious environmental benefits. Cloth diapering is the ultimate form of recycling, yet many parents like my friend are under the impression that cloth is no better than disposables. That is simply not true. In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags. And this was almost twenty years ago! No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone. Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste. In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste.

One of the things I had to set my friend straight about during our lunch was that cloth diapers are not equally wasteful, a falsehood perpetuated by disposable diaper companies. The fact is, throwaway diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp. The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth. Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby each year.

We recently had a baby boy who was born very small (less than 6 pounds). Although we brought newborn-sized prefold diapers to the hospital, they were much too large for his tiny frame. Instead of getting discouraged, I looked at our diaper stash and decided to get creative. At the suggestion of another RDA member, I decided to diaper my son in cheap washcloths while he was still little enough. I also cut up a few of my daughter’s old large prefolds. Since I only had a few covers that fit over these, I would often have him cover-less. This worked like a charm and it was only a matter of days before the washcloths were too small. Now, at nine weeks, my rapidly growing son has outgrown even the newborn prefolds and is now wearing infant sizes, along with all kinds of fitteds and pocket diapers.

New parents today face a challenge when they decide to cloth diaper their new baby. A decade ago, diaper services were more common and it was easier to buy covers and supplies at local stores. Today, the prices of the remaining diaper services have risen because the companies often have a wider area of delivery, a result of other services going out of business. For me, the cost of diapering with a service versus using disposables was about the same, which is why we eventually decided to wash diapers ourselves. However, the diaper services are wonderful because they are very convenient, and they do the “dirty work” for you. It is sad that many areas of the country do not have services that deliver anymore. The only way for people in those areas to cloth diaper is to wash their own, a task many people are not willing to undergo.

As a society, our attitudes about diapering have changed. Even our language has changed, as it seems that people now refer to disposables as "normal" diapers. People are also afraid of the poop factor. I have experienced this personally with some of the mothers I encounter on the playground. So many of them look at me in shock when they find out that I wash my baby's diapers. They ask me, in all seriousness, “What do you do with the poop?” I try to explain that it really isn’t a big deal, that I just shake it over, or sometimes dunk it in the toilet, then throw the diaper in a dry pail, and wash the diapers every couple of days. I explain that mothers have been diapering with cloth for many generations and our own mothers used cloth. However, these moms seem horrified at the thought of having to interact in any possible way with their child’s feces. To me and the others like yourselves who cloth diaper, this is just part of life. It seems to me that if the mother isn’t willing to do the dirty work, no one will. The time has come for families to become educated.

Every month, families across the world are throwing hundreds of disposable diapers away. At the same time older children are being taught in school to take care of the Earth. Being a parent is exhausting, and the thought of cloth diapering can be overwhelming to someone not used to the idea. To some, like the mothers I encounter at the playground, it seems “yucky”. However, we know that the personal choices of the public are creating this problem. The only way people are going to change is through education about their diapering choices.

We make choices in everything we buy and consume. Almost every product we purchase and bring into our lives will have some impact on the environment of our planet. We need to determine which products are less harmful. These days, parents can choose to use disposable bibs, changing mats, wipes, and plastic mats that lay down on a restaurant table. It seems sanitary, but where do these items go when they are thrown away after only one use? They end up in a landfill that gets more and more crowded. By keeping these things in our minds, we start to realize everything is a choice. Diapering is also a choice. As someone who struggled to make this choice, I can tell you unequivocally that it is one I do not regret. No doubt many of you did not struggle the way I did. Some of you might find my early struggle perplexing because cloth diapering came naturally to you. Regardless of how we got here, it is now up to us to educate other parents. Like the mother who inspired and encouraged me to use cloth, we can be that support for other struggling parents. The words of Mohandas Gandhi are just as true today as they were seventy years ago. We must be the change we wish to see in the world.


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