The reasons why parents choose to use washable nappies are many and varied. In the UK a typical child will use nappies for 33 months and in that time a parent will spend approximately £800 on disposable nappies. This takes into account multi-buy deals and supermarket own brands. A parent who chooses washable nappies will spend around £500 during the same period, and that includes laundry costs at current energy prices. Many local authorities have incentive schemes for using washable nappies, which can mean an even bigger saving.
A staggering 90% of disposable nappies go into domestic landfill. That’s 690,000 tonnes a year! And what’s worse is that those 8 million nappies a day will take around 500 years to break down. It would be irresponsible of me to present washable nappies as an entirely ecological alternative, but reusable nappies can be significantly better for the environment, depending on how they are used and washed.
Tributyltin, sodium polyacrylate and bleach are just a few of the chemicals used in disposable nappies. Manufacturers are under no obligation to disclose what is in the nappies that spend 24 hours a day in direct contact with a child’s most sensitive areas. Cloth nappies are typically made from cotton (often organic) and bamboo. Acrylic fleece and plastic poppers are also frequently used in cloth nappy systems.
Washing nappies these days is a simple task. There’s no need to soak them in chemicals or vinegar. Lining an airtight bucket with a mesh bag and throwing in the nappy after each change is sufficient. After that, no more effort is required than lifting out the bag and carrying it to the washing machine. A cold rinse will remove the worst of the stains and then a simple wash cycle using minimal powder will do the job.
The world of washable nappies can be a daunting, jargon-filled place that puts many people off before they’ve even started. Hopefully, an explanation of the different types available will make things clearer and easier to understand.
First, sizing: You’ll see terms like OSFM/A (one-size-fits-most/all) and BTP (birth-to-potty). These are nappies that are size-adjustable as your child gro
ws. This can be using vertical lines of poppers on the front to adjust the rise (height) of the nappy, or with adjustable elastic in the legs. Alongside their one-size nappies, many companies also produce a newborn size, as sometimes a size-adjustable nappy won’t quite go small enough for a newborn. There are also nappies designed for a specific size or weight range. So, for example, a size 1 will fit from 7lb to 12lb, a size 2 will fit from 12lb to 20lb, and a size 3 will fit 20lb+. This is a guide only, and I have known many children skip from a size 1 to a size 3 (or from a small to a large nappy).
How nappy libraries can help you
Across the UK there is a growing network of nappy libraries. Some are run by councils, some by retailers, some by parents. They all have the same goal: to help make choosing or switching to washable nappies an easier experience for everyone. Whether they are offering advice or solving a problem, you will find their love of cloth nappies infectious! A great number of libraries will have nappies available for you to try out. Some will have a selection that you can take away to find out what’s best for your little one. Others offer long-term nappy loans.
For details of your nearest library go to www.greatbritishnappyhunt.co.uk, which has a link to the national map.
TYPES OF WASHABLE NAPPY
These are very easy to use. They consist of a simple large rectangle of cotton fabric that can be folded to best suit your child’s needs and then placed inside a waterproof outer cover. If you have a young baby who is often on his or her back, more absorbency at the back is a benefit, whereas a toddler boy who is running around is likely to wet at the front, so the nappy can be folded to have extra absorbency there. These nappies can be dried in whatever manner you wish, and as they are flat they often dry very quickly on a washing line or airer.
Waterproof outer covers are no longer the sweaty rubber pants of yesteryear. A breathable polyurethane laminate (PUL) layer will keep your baby dry, and these outer wraps come in a funky range of patterns and colours. There is no need to change the outer wrap at every nappy change, unless it is soiled. The PUL can be damaged by direct heat, so it is advisable not to place them on radiators or heated rails. They don’t require much drying time, though, as they are not absorbent.
These are shaped more like a disposable nappy. Made of entirely absorbent fabric, they require a waterproof wrap on top. Fitted nappies come in a variety of fabrics, typically bamboo, cotton and microfibre.
Bamboo is a wonderfully absorbent fibre that can hold large quantities of liquid, but it does take a little longer to absorb. This also means drying time is longer, but nappies can be placed directly on a radiator to speed things up.
Cotton absorbs more quickly than bamboo, but doesn’t hold quite as much. Drying time is a little shorter, though.
Microfibre soaks liquid up like a sponge, but has less capacity than other fibres. Nappies made from this have the added bonus that they almost spin dry in your washing machine!
Once a nappy is wet there will obviously be moisture in contact with the baby’s skin. This is a concern of many parents, but simply lining the nappy with a biodegradable or washable liner adds a dry barrier. It also makes the disposal of solids easier and protects the nappy from severe staining. “Solids?!” I hear you cry! Yes, you will have to deal with poop. Whether using disposable or cloth nappies there will be the occasional poo-splosion. But if you use a properly lined nappy it will just mean lifting out the liner and flushing it away. If you use a washable liner, holding it in the toilet as you flush should knock all the solids off.
This is a complete nappy system that has its own absorbent insert, which usually poppers to the waterproof outer. Typically the entire nappy is replaced at each nappy change. Sometimes this design of nappy can have a compatible booster that adds extra absorbency for night-time use or for larger toddlers. Because the inserts can be separated, they can be dried with extra heat and the outer can be put on a washing line or airer.
This is a very simple and very popular option. The outer layer is PUL-lined and the inside is made of polyester fleece, which is not at all absorbent and thus keeps all moisture away from your baby’s skin. In between these layers is a pocket, which you can stuff with any boosters/inserts that you like. A pocket nappy usually comes with its own inserts. More often than not these consist of one or two microfibre pads, although some are bamboo.
Because different fabrics have different speeds of absorbency, many people layer their inserts with microfibre on top to wick the moisture away quickly, and bamboo or cotton underneath to hold larger quantities and reduce the frequency of nappy changes.
These are the most like disposable nappies that you will find. Everything is contained within one unit, so nothing needs to be reunited after washing. Often the inside folds out to decrease drying time, but it remains attached to the nappy. This inability to separate the individual parts means that all-in-one nappies cannot be dried on a radiator or heated rail, or in a tumble dryer. Nevertheless, this type of nappy is very popular.
There’s no denying that to get your child from birth to potty in washable nappies requires a little more time and effort than if you opt for disposables. If you do strive for a chemical-free, less wasteful and environmentally conscious lifestyle, I think it’s well worth it.
Are washable nappies greener?
In 2008 the Environment Agency published a study comparing washable nappies with disposables. They concluded that the environmental impact is considerably less when using cloth, if a few simple rules are observed: wash fuller loads, at 60 °C or less, line-dry outside whenever possible, tumble-dry as little as possible, and reuse nappies on other children.
The full research paper can be found at
Georgina Cunliffe is the founder of Bristol Cloth Nappy Library. She is a working mum who lives with her husband, parents and daughter, Nellie.
First published in Issue 36 (Summer 2014) of JUNO: