Diaper Wars: Cloth vs. Disposable

That was the title of my eighth grade science project; I won second place. It was inspired by the birth of my nephew. He and his mother were living with us at the time, and while he mostly stayed in disposables, cloth was occasionally used. I did tests on absorbency. I wrote off to Kimberly-Clark (the makers of Huggies) for environmental impact information. I cost compared. And with some help from my sister, surveyed about 30 women who had recently had babies.

That was seventeen years ago. The little baby who inspired it all is now a senior in high school, and I have had two babies of my own with another one on the way soon. A lot has changed with diapering since then. In the world of disposables, the exteriors are no longer that rubbery plastic material and you can actually adjust the tabs without completely tearing apart the diaper. But most people do not realize the dramatic changes in cloth diapers. When people hear cloth, they immediately think of diaper pins and pull up rubber pants, but those things are practically gone with the wind.

I was first re-introduced to cloth diapering by my good friend Kelly. (She also introduced me to the pros of breastfeeding, stay-at-home motherhood, and the idea of homeschooling.) She started using cloth with her first baby. She told me how she bought Chinese pre-fold cloth diapers and used them by setting them in a diaper cover that velcroed on like a disposable diaper. While it sounded a lot nicer than the old way, I was still very hesitant about going down the cloth diapering path myself. As a thirteen-year-old I had thought I might use cloth some on my own kids, especially since in my science project conclusion I stated that using a mix of cloth and disposable offers absorbency at crucial times while being more cost effective and environmentally friendly. Once I was 25 and overwhelmed with having my own child then trying to use cloth just seemed like too much stress.

Well, due to a change in our financial situation that will start this Fall, I decided to give cloth diapers another look. It has just been depressing to have our new grocery budget blown on an eighteen-dollar economy-box of diapers every two weeks. And those are just for the two-year-old. A newborn will go through twice as many diapers in the first year, and I don’t know how long it will take the two-year-old to potty train.

After doing a lot investigating on-line of the various types and costs of cloth diapers available (you would be astounded at the choices), I decided that Kelly had made the most economical decision in going with the Chinese pre-folds. I should have never doubted her frugal soul or her research capabilities. I am now the proud owner of two dozen small cloth diapers and six small diaper covers. As an added encouragement, Kelly generously purchased one dozen medium cloth diapers and two regular-sized diaper covers for me.

I decided to test out the larger-sized cloth on my two-year-old a bit. So far, she has liked them pretty well. As I plan to do with the new baby, we’ve used cloth at home during the day and disposables at night and for trips of an hour or more. We’ve had one major leak in cloth, but she had peed so much that she might have over-flowed a disposable as well (too much sweet tea the day before). Ironically, we’ve also had one major leak in disposable since then due to a bad position she settled into while asleep.

The initial cost of purchasing cloth diapers and covers is not really much cheaper than a year’s worth of disposables. They really become more cost-effective in the second year, since the medium diaper/regular cover fits from about four months until about three years of age. And if you use them on successive children, they really save you money. Even though we plan on this being our last baby, I decided to bite the money bullet. I figure it is better to pay the money while we have it now in order to cut our expenses when our budget gets tighter in a few months. While I will not be using cloth exclusively, I hope to cut our normal amount spent on disposables at least in half.

Cloth does have a slightly different learning curve. The most overwhelming thing for me has been the washing instructions. Bleach is considered a no-no these days, as it eats through the diapers. And when you buy new diapers, you have to wash them four to six times in order to make them fluffy and absorbent. You need a diaper pail handy for soiled ones, and I’m still working on the best way to clean out the poop. The swirly method my mother taught me doesn’t work as well as I remember. Cloth is a little bulkier than disposable, so little pants are filled out a bit more. My two-year-old is in the “I want to be naked all the time” stage, so that hasn’t been too big of an issue so far.

Even many die-hard cloth users, recommend using disposables for the first week or so after birth. That tar-like poop that newborns produce apparently really stains the cloth diapers bad, and it is kind of discouraging the first time you pretty white diaper gets even a little stain. Apparently, though, the sweet-smelling mustard-yellow poop of breastfed babies does not usually stain them. I had already planned on starting out with disposables during that time while little bits and I get our nursing situation figured out.

It’s kind of funny, though, that what started out as grade-school science project is becoming my reality seventeen years later. I must admit that it was the only science project in school that I was every enthusiastic about and that I ever felt I really learned anything by doing. Maybe because it was something that had real significance in my life rather than just being some random thing that my partner and I picked because it fulfilled a school requirement and didn’t look too expensive or overwhelming. Thank goodness my kids will not have to experience the torture of mandatory science fair projects…but here I go segueing into another homeschooling post.

Explore posts in the same categories: Pregnancy/Childbirth/Babies


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5 Comments on “Diaper Wars: Cloth vs. Disposable”

  1. Kelly Says:

    In the fairness of full disclosure, I had a friend who bleached the heck out of her diapers, and they didn’t seem to deteriorate any faster than mine. This friend had a very elaborate washing process that involved one rinse, a long soak in hot water with bleach, another rinse, a hot wash cycle with detergent, a hot wash cycle with just vinegar, and one last rinse cycle. So not only did she use bleach, but in effect, her diapers were washed twice as much as mine.

    I doubt if bleaching every now and then would harm them too much, especially if the bleach was diluted in water.

  2. Laura Witten Says:

    I’m allergic to bleach – don’t use it in my house AT ALL. I use only safe and natural cleaning products from Melaleuca – no bleach, ammonia, phosphates or caustic chemicals of any type. That has nothing to do with the comment I was about to make, but the previous comment made me think about bleach. šŸ™‚

    There is a great article comparing the types of cloth diapers to disposables in the current Parents magazine. I’m thinking about going cloth next time around – it will use more water, but we use well water anyway and it wouldn’t be that wasteful. I’ll let you try it for a while before I decide – after all I’m not even pregnant yet!

  3. Laura Says:

    If you want to get stains out with out bleach use the sun! It’s great for naturally bleaching stains from your diapers, and you save on electricty, bonus! If you find they are stiff when they come in off the line you can fluff in the dryer for softness.


  4. Kelly Says:

    I’d have to disagree with you on the Parenting article, Laura. He started off with the diaper and pins combo, which is why no one uses cloth diapers. To be fair, he then goes online and discovers that the pins are outdated, but he made it seem as if All-in-ones are the only alternative, when they are the most expensive, and most difficult to launder. He finished with the quasi-disposables, which I’ve never heard of.

    The article never mentioned using prefolds in a velcro cover, which is what most people who cloth diaper use. They used the AIOs for the cost survey, which makes cloth seem much more expensive than it is. They had $15 per diaper listed, when my cost is around $8 per diaper, which is almost half the price.

    I thought is was more of a joke article, with the emphasis being on the zany antics of the father who tries cloth. (Look, he’s duct-taping a diaper!)

  5. Autumn Says:

    Like you, I only remember one science project I did. At the time, my parents had a compost pile- how incredibly green of them 15+ yrs ago. My project basically showed the decomp rate of various items… Anyways! This is about cloth lol. Prefolds and covers are a great way to cloth diaper economically. If you aren’t already a member of Diaperswappers, it is a great place to learn and buy/sell cloth diapers.

    Autumn Beck

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