Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers

Now that Baby Hart’s due date is less than seven weeks away, the issue of diapering is something that we’ve started to seriously think about. There are two basic choices: cloth diapers and disposable diapers. (Well, technically there’s a third choice that involves just holding your baby over the toilet whenever they need to go — you can read more about that philosophy here — but we don’t really consider that a practical solution.)

Cloth diapering, on the other hand, is something we’ve been seriously considering. And not just because of how cute and puffy a colorful cloth diaper looks on baby:

Baby in a cloth diaper: Awwww. Image from here.

All cuteness factors aside, we’ve actually been doing some research on cloth diapering lately, and there seem to be some serious practical benefits that are making it look pretty attractive compared to using disposables.

First of all, until pretty recently, I’d assumed that cloth diapering involved complicated folding configurations, multiple layers, and the awkward use of safety pins. But it seems that cloth diapers have come a long way in modern times — some of today’s designs involve a single piece that look like they’d be as simple and hassle-free as putting on a disposable:

Diagram of an all-in-one cloth diaper by bumGenius. Image from here.

Of course there’s still the matter of actually washing them, which is no doubt much more work than just tossing out the diaper once you’re through with it. But when considering the costs of cloth diapering vs. disposable diapering, it looks like that added effort can translate into some pretty big savings.

The exact numbers vary from one article to another, but here are some estimates I’ve found while attempting to research how much money can be saved by re-washing cloth diapers instead of using disposables:

  • $199.62 according to this article, based on 4,065 diaper changes over the course of two years. They assume a cost of $705.53 for building up the cloth diaper stash and take the cost of doing laundry into account.
  • $1,117.40 according to this article, based on 6,840 diaper changes over the course of 30 months. This is assuming a cost of $610.20 to build up the cloth diaper stash, though it doesn’t factor in any costs of doing laundry.
  • $1,163.87 according to this article, based on some 6,700 diaper changes over 2.5 years. This assumes a whopping $1,413.48 (!!!) spent on cloth diapers and factors in the cost of doing laundry.
  • $2,293.00 according to this article, which assumes 9,000 diaper changes from birth to potty training. The savings figure is based on spending $750.00 on a cloth diaper stash and factors in the costs of doing laundry.

It’s a pretty wide range, and assumptions about the number of diaper changes, the amount initially spent on cloth diapers, the cost of your brand of disposables, and the costs of doing laundry all affect how much you can expect to save. But by all accounts the savings end up somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars — I’ve yet to see anything claiming that using disposables is cheaper — and that sum of money is definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Then there are the environmental issues. According to this article, some 28 billion disposable diapers are dumped into U.S. landfills every year. In addition to the natural resources consumed in producing these, and the fact that it takes them centuries to decompose, disposable diapers also leak human waste directly into the environment, bypassing any kind of sewage treatment process.

A lovely shot of landfill garbage. Image from here.

While it isn’t as tangible a benefit as saving boatloads of money, it would feel good to avoid contributing to the world’s environmental problems as much as possible.

(Granted, I have seen a few articles and blog posts asserting that cloth diapering and disposable diapering are roughly equivalent from an environmental perspective due to the water and energy consumed in washing the cloth diapers, but frankly, I don’t buy it. It just isn’t plausible to me that manufacturing a diaper out of plastic and wood pulp, shipping it out to your local retailer, using it once, and then trucking it off to a landfill to fester for the next 500 years could somehow be offset by the water and electricity it takes to do a fraction of a load of laundry.)

There is one undeniable advantage to using disposable diapers, though: the convenience factor. And even though we’re mostly sold on cloth diapering for the financial and environmental reasons, we’re a little nervous to commit to it out of a concern that it’ll be just too overwhelming for a couple of first-time parents like us.

What do you think? Is it unrealistically ambitious to try to go with cloth diapers instead of disposables? If anyone reading has firsthand experience with cloth diapering, especially with a first baby, I’d definitely be interested to hear your thoughts or advice in the comments.

8 Comments

  1. I used cloth diapers on Joe, and a diaper-laundering service, as well as disposables. The disposables were a must for traveling, back then, no way you wanted a stinky diaper in your car, not even the trunk! Cloth diapers were a LOT less easy to fasten than the one you picture, and didn’t save as much money due to the service cost, which I used because I was paranoid I’d not get the stains out safely. I used mostly disposables on the other 2 due to that, and the old style cloth diapers leaked due to lack of fit. There’s the 3rd benefit to cloth you didn’t mention: less likely baby will have rashes from the plastic. So I guess my vote is: cloth diapers mostly, with a travel pack of disposables.

  2. BTW, if you launder the diapers yourself (which I think I did for a bit with Geoff), rinse twice, especially if you use bleach for stains, to avoid any chemicals left in them. And do NOT leave them more than a day in the diaper pail, they get gross quickly, and can actually start decomposing!

  3. Thank goodness that complicated folding has gone! I remember panicking just as my mother-in-law was leaving to show me one more time how to fold! She was an OB nurse, and had stayed with us for a week after Dave was born.

    I’ve seen several articles about making your own diapers, similar to what Sarah pictured, with wool “soakers” in place of plastic pants.

    I think cloth is best, with disposables for emergencies or travel.

  4. My Bad! I’ve looked at the BumGenius diaper again, and don’t think it is an all in one. Which means for protecting clothing and bedding you’d still need a cover.

  5. We used a diaper service for your first six months because we were concerned about possible allergies and rashes. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to wash the cloth diapers completely enough to prevent a rash so that’s why we used a service. We had disposables – Huggies – for traveling. The only time you got a diaper rash was when we used Pampers – supposedly the “leading brand!!” The cloth “onesies” are incredible compared to the old cloth diaper with plastic pants over them that we used! Not to mention the potential mishap of stabbing the babe with the pins that had to be used to fasten the diaper! In my opinion, the initial outlay cost of stockpiling onesies would be money well spent compared to the cost of stockpiling disposables, and would be far better for the environment. I never knew it took so long for disposable diapers to decompose. I thought it was telephone books that took forever to rot!

  6. Hi- dont have any kids yet but every time I see this topic come up it really intrigues me. My parents apparently cloth-diapered me sometimes (the oldest) but none of my other sibs even got to try it out, because it was a lot of work (they didnt live anywhere near a “service” and it was still in the old days of pins and a square of cloth). But things have really changed and I would at least attempt to give it a try when I get to that point, especially for my first… I mean the worst that can happen is it doesnt work out for you and you switch to disposables, right? A while ago younghouselove had a post about diaper rinsing system that hooks up to your toilet making it even easier to get things clean – I’d recommend tracking down their post for even more info!! Good luck!

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