The rise of reusable nappies…
Charlotte Loving on how to get started
As the world wakes up to the damage we are doing to the planet, we are reaching a turning point when it comes to single-use culture. The last two years have seen a huge rise in the number of people from all backgrounds taking more responsibility for the amount of waste we produce, and the choices we make in our daily lives.
There has been a massive backlash against plastic straws, cotton buds and takeaway cups, but whilst popularity has soared, it seems the final frontier is reusable nappies and wipes. We still throw away three billion nappies a year in the UK alone – a staggering figure. What is fantastic though, is that the more parents start to discover reusable nappies, the more the love for them spreads. I would like to share with you all you need to know to take the plunge, and hopefully you too will become a fan.
How to get started
A quick search online and you can become lost in forums, websites and reviews; it can all become a bit bamboozling. But, believe it or not, it really is simple! It is important to remember that there is not really much that can go wrong. The absolute worst thing you may have to deal with is a few leaks while you find your feet, which in the grand scheme of life with a baby, isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’m not going to promise anything too wild, but most people discover, once they have found their perfect match, that reusables are actually more reliable than disposables.
You may be able to find a local nappy library. Here you will meet experienced and enthusiastic cloth nappy users and you may also be able to borrow some nappies to trial for a short time with very little cost. Alternatively, you could seek out some second-hand bargains on Facebook or pick up some new nappies online or in a local shop.
It is true that reusable nappies are not one-size-fits-all – well they kind of are – but what works for one person may not work for another. The best way to test one out is to get it on your baby and see how well it holds up. If you are feeling nervous, try the first one at home and see how you go – it won’t be long before you are an expert! You’ll need about twenty nappies to go full time, but it only takes one to get started, and every one counts. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A great idea if you are planning a baby shower or if people want to buy you gifts, is for everyone to buy you a single nappy. This way you get to try lots of different styles and you get almost a full kit for nothing – much more useful than fifteen newborn babygrows in my opinion!
What if your baby hasn’t been born yet but you want to start straight away? Whilst I rarely advise parents to go out and buy one particular brand or a whole stash before their baby is born, it most certainly is not just possible, but can be satisfying and enjoyable to cloth straight from birth. For some it works to have a full kit sorted before baby arrives, but bear in mind that making a big investment upfront can put you under pressure to make it work. If you have spent a lot of money on a particular brand or style that doesn’t end up working for you, you may end up giving up entirely. My advice is to have a good selection of different types of nappy to try, as you may find you love different things at different stages. It is possible to grow your collection steadily, so you don’t need to part with a ton of cash in one go to make reusable nappies work for you.
Types of nappy
Reusable nappies fall into two broad categories: all-in-ones and two-parters. What you need to make up a nappy is simple: an absorbent inner and a waterproof outer. In an all-in-one (often abbreviated to AIO), the absorbent part and the waterproof part are sewn together, and the whole thing has to go in the wash at every nappy change.
With a two-parter (sometimes referred to as an all-in-two or AI2), the absorbent part and the waterproof part are separate. This means you can mix and match the different parts, and you can use the waterproof wrap repeatedly before having to wash it, although the absorbent part will need washing at every change.
Each brand will have its own take on these basic set-ups, but all you need to worry about is that there is enough absorbency and reliable waterproofing; everything else is just extra!
The two-part category is the broadest and covers everything from old-school flats like terry squares and muslins, to covers with snap-in pads or fitted nappies, which need a waterproof cover. Just to confuse matters further, you also get nappies that come apart but are treated like an all-in-one – like pocket nappies for example. These are the most popular style of nappy because they offer the convenience of an all-in-one with the economics of a two-part nappy. The inner pads, which are tucked inside a pocket at the back of the wrap during use, come away fully when not in use, which allows the outers to dry quickly, like a two-parter, whilst the whole thing has to be changed at every nappy change, like an all-in-one.
Often the best nappies for getting out of the starting blocks are simple flats and prefolds. The humble muslin is fantastic – most of us have drawers full of them but have no idea that they can be folded and pinned to make an absorbent nappy that is fully adjustable to your child – just add a waterproof cover and you are away. Two-part nappies like this are popular with newborns, because they present an economical choice when your baby is going through as many as twelve nappies a day! The waterproof wrap can be reused for up to three changes whilst the absorbent part gets washed each time, meaning you can save a little money in the process.
Most of the popular brands have a newborn equivalent that you can investigate, and this stage is a nice time to try different things and get a feel for what might work for you in the future. You could look into hiring or borrowing a newborn kit to get you started – the savings you can make are significant by choosing to reuse from birth due to the sheer volume of nappies you will get through! However, some people choose to wait until the six to eight-week mark when the one-size or birth-to-potty (BTP) options start to fit more reliably.
Arguably one of the best things about reusables is being able to use the same nappy on both a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old, and birth-to-potty nappies mean just that. It’s a huge bonus if you have two children in nappies and wonderful for passing nappies on to friends and family. You can still get sized reusables, which are useful if you want a more bespoke fit and don’t mind sizing up at regular intervals.
Although we call them birth-to-potty, these nappies generally tend to fit from about eight weeks onwards because newborns have such skinny legs! Generally speaking, these are a great investment, as they will see you all the way through, unless you delay potty training or have a large toddler.
Birth-to-potty nappies have the usual waistband fastening, either poppers or Velcro, plus a curious selection of poppers down the front of the nappy as well. This is known as the rise and it is here that you adjust the size to fit your little one perfectly. A common problem if leaks occur is that the rise needs to be adjusted, so it is always good to look at this (as well as your absorbency and the condition of your waterproof layer) if you start to get any issues.
Nappy language and abbreviations can make it all seem alien. There are so many materials and fabrics, it can be hard to know which is the best. Boosters, liners, PUL – what on earth does it all mean?! A nappy glossary, which can be found on most nappy websites, is a great thing to refer to, but here are the basics to get you started.
Absorbent inner. This part of the nappy can be made from microfibre, bamboo, cotton or hemp. Microfibre is quick to absorb and fast to dry, but more prone to compression leaks; bamboo is more absorbent but slower to dry; hemp more absorbent still; and cotton is somewhere in between. Charcoal can be added to fabrics to help reduce smells. Each fabric comes with its own environmental impact – such as the water used in the production of cotton, the way the bamboo is grown, or the possible release of microplastics when microfibre nappies or nappies with a PUL layer are washed. It’s important to choose the type of nappy that works with your lifestyle and addresses your priorities. For example, if you don’t have access to drying outside, you might consider a fast-drying mircrofibre, rather than a slow-drying bamboo, or, if you want the most sustainable option, you might prefer to use hemp or organic cotton. The important thing is not to get hung up on perfection and remember that whatever you choose, reusable nappies are considerably better for the environment than single-use ones.
Waterproof outer. This can be made with either a plastic-coated fabric called PUL, fleece, or real wool. Wool is naturally water-resistant and anti-bacterial, and it makes a great breathable and stylish nappy cover. In addition, it doesn’t need to be washed frequently, so it can be pretty low maintenance and a great option for avoiding synthetic materials.
Liners. Not to be confused with boosters, which are used to add absorbency, liners can be either disposable or reusable, and are made from either paper, fleece or silk. They can help wick moisture away from your baby’s behind to keep them feeling dryer for longer, and they help with disposing of any sticky waste. They are not essential but can be a useful item to have in your kit. Fleece liners are easy enough to make at home, but of course, all of the above can be bought ready-made for you.
Finally, we get to the bit we’ve all been waiting for. What on earth happens to the poo? And does choosing reusable mean you will be covered in it up to your elbows all day?! Unfortunately, you probably will spend at least some of your time as a parent covered in poo, but that won’t be down to the nappy choices you’ve made.
The truth is that the days of soaking nappies in buckets and stressing about their whiteness are long gone. We can still use buckets but there really is no need to soak anymore. In fact, most manufacturers actively discourage it. Pre-weaning, everything, even the poo, can just go straight in the washing machine. The even greater news is that this means that human waste is being dealt with the way it should be, in the sewage system, rather than languishing in landfill where it poses a groundwater contamination risk. It’s also not left in your dustbin for two weeks, an added bonus in the hot summer months!
Weaning is the time in a reusable nappy parent’s life that requires the most dedication. The poos that you will be graced with at this time may leave you questioning your life choices. The best method I have found for dispensing of the offensive material is to spray it off the nappy and into a bucket using the showerhead, then flush the dirty water down the toilet. But I have heard many tales of poo spatulas, toilet tissue and spoons being used to help persuade sticky poos into the toilet bowl. You too will find your method, and I wish you every luck in doing so.
Once the horror of weaning is over (please take my words with a pinch of salt – it really isn’t that bad!) you will be into the territory of “the roller” – where your toddler’s poos conveniently roll off the nappy and into the toilet with the most satisfying splosh that will ever grace your eardrums.
Quite possibly the most controversial topic when we get talking about reusable nappies; this subject can ignite a passion that is usually reserved for football stadiums! The best advice I can give is to pop the dirty nappies into either a wet bag or a bucket until you are ready to wash them. Once you are, stick them in your machine on a rinse or quick wash cycle – something up to about thirty minutes. Whether you want to add detergent at this point or not is up to you.
This first stage removes the worst of the soiling before you start your main wash. The dirty water will be drained away (make sure the machine turns off at the end of this cycle) and you can then add some more detergent and give the nappies a nice long wash – two hours or more – at anything from 30–60°C, depending on your manufacturers guidelines. Most people find consistent washing at 40°C with an occasional 60°C wash to be their happy place, but you will find yours and, if it works for you, don’t be tempted to change it just because someone else says so.
Please note that it is largely advised to wash at 60°C if your baby is under three months old, if you are sharing nappies between children or if your baby has had a tummy bug or an active vaccination recently.
Getting your nappies dry is another source of fun. All types of nappies have different drying speeds and this may impact on your choices. Hang them from anything you can find, but don’t put them directly on a radiator or a stove. Most will withstand the odd tumble dry, but obviously the more we do this the more we contribute to their wear and tear, and minimise the good things we are doing for the planet, so it is best avoided if possible. You can assist indoor drying by using a dehumidifier or heated airer, but most people find a regular clothes airer, or an airer that hangs over radiators, to be sufficient.
The best thing of all is to hang them outside, which all nappy lovers do at every opportunity and most are so excited by this we like to plaster pictures of nappies in sunny back gardens all over our social media! The great side effect of this is that the sun magically removes any stains that may not have been dealt with in the wash. Hopefully, with a good wash routine, you won’t be left with any stains but, if they do appear, don’t be tempted to bleach the nappies or treat them with anything harsh. A bit of natural sunlight – even on an overcast day through a window – will do the trick to remove any stains.
The community of cloth nappy users is a fantastic one. It is a place where you can find friendship and kindness both online and in the real world, with nappy natters, drop-ins and swap shops happening across the country. If you have a question or a problem, you can hit one of the many Facebook groups and find a hundred answers within a few clicks. Everyone will be happy to help you. My only word of caution about online forums is to remember that people often go there when things go wrong – so don’t be put off by all the troubleshooting! We don’t tend to post so much when things are going swimmingly, although we do try!
Hopefully you feel emboldened and empowered to give reusable nappies a go. My parting advice is this – talk to people! When you find someone passionate, they will be the most wonderful source of information for you, and new connections and friendships will surely come of it too. But, most importantly, if you are thinking about the switch, then all I have to say is thank you: you are making a choice that matters, and for that you are amazing.
Charlotte Loving is a mother of two daughters, one aged three and one due in March. Charlotte is the owner of Loving by Nature, a reusable nappy shop in Dorchester, Dorset. She founded the shop in 2018, after finding it very hard to find anywhere to get advice and buy reusable nappies face to face for her first baby.
Charlotte is passionate about spreading the word about reusable nappies, and believes that independent bricks and mortar shops are an important stepping stone in making them mainstream.