Nappies and the environment

The collective bottoms of a nation of 600,000 or so Aussie bubs aged less than two are clad in around 4,800,000 nappies every day. That’s a lot of nappies.

Changing nappies is arguably one of the least favourite parenting jobs — and if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a “poonami”, you’ll know why. It’s an explosion of poo of mammoth proportions, leaving parents shaking their heads wondering how so much of something so stinky can come out of something so tiny and cute. Thankfully we have nappies, which are there to collect all matter of posterior body waste until your baby is toilet trained.

Nappies come in many different materials and styles and they can be reusable or single use (disposable). Single-use nappies are usually made with synthetic polymers and wood pulp. Reusable nappies are made from cotton, terrycloth, bamboo, fleece, hemp or muslin.  

Before nappies

Prior to the advent of the modern-day nappy, infantswere wrapped in milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins, strips of linen or wool. Early Inuit civilisations used nappies made from reindeer moss, hair and possibly even wood shavings.

In parts of the modern world, not all babies wear nappies (or diapers as they’re also known). In China, for example, children wear split-crotch pants, otherwise known as kaidangku, so they can squat and use the toilet when they need to.

There is also a practice that is used the world over called “elimination communication”, which is tuning into a baby’s rhythms and behaviours so parents can anticipate when they need to go to the toilet. The parent picks the baby up and takes them to the toilet. Babies are essentially nappy-free.

The great nappy debate: reusable or disposable?

Parents don’t have to choose one or the other. Some use both — cloth most of the time, and single-use nappies when they are out and about or on holiday because of the convenience.

Reusable nappies are made from cotton, terrycloth, bamboo, fleece, hemp or muslin.

Cost, of course, is a factor when it comes to nappies. Disposable nappies are expensive. During the first few years of a baby’s life, according to the Raising Children Network, a baby will wear around 6000 disposables. At around 0.50c each that adds up to approximately $3000. In contrast, two-dozen cloth nappies at around $30 each will cost $720, but then you also need to factor in washing and labour costs.

Disposable nappies are convenient. You just remove them and pop them into the bin, and there’s less mess to clean up afterwards. But one of the real issues with disposable nappies is that, unlike other plastics, they aren’t recyclable, so they can find their way into landfill.

The good news is there are disposable nappies you can buy that are biodegradable. To qualify, according to the Australasian Bioplastics Association, they must meet Australian standards (a minimum of 90 per cent biodegradation of plastic materials within 180 days in compost).

As for the non-biodegradable kind, cutting-edge science is working to reduce the impact of disposables on the planet. Earlier this year, innovative Italian engineers embarked on a pilot program that aims to recover and reuse the plastic components of disposable nappies. The program will be rolled out to consumers in Italy in the form of individual nappy bins that will be collected and processed.

The rise of the modern cloth nappy

Reusable nappies have come a long way since the basic cloth squares that were folded around a baby’s bottom and fastened with safety pins. These days the traditional terrycloth nappy is called a flat nappy. And just like earlier versions of it, you still need an outer waterproof cover.

Pre-fold nappies are another popular option that are great for newborns. They’re rectangular-shaped and have three layers — the middle is extra absorbent. They can be used on their own or to boost the absorbency of other nappies. You also don’t need safety pins, as these and flat nappies can be secured by snappi nappy fasteners.

Then there’s the modern cloth nappy (MCN). They’re usually fastened with snap fasteners or Velcro. They’re shaped nappies that are reusable so they’re kind to the environment, and there are so many different styles and colours. They are undeniably cute to boot!

  • All-in-one nappies (AIO) Easy to use, these look like a disposable and are, as the name suggests, all in one. They have an outer waterproof layer and absorbent layers inside. The whole nappy is washed.
  • All-in-two nappies (AIT) These come in two parts. The super absorbent inserts snaps onto a cover, which you don’t have to wash every time.
  • Pocket nappy These have an internal pocket inside the outer shell that you slide an absorbent layer into. They’re very flexible, so you can add as many layers as your baby needs.
  • Fitted nappy These often have an elasticised waist and legs, and are made of very absorbent natural materials. The whole nappy is absorbent, but needs a waterproof cover. They’re popular for night-time use.

Care, maintenance & removal

Regardless of which nappy you choose for your baby, you’ll need to dispose of the contents after your baby has worn it.

To encourage your child to toilet train, parents shouldn’t be afraid to give their toddler the opportunity to sit on the toilet or potty from two years of age at key times such as on waking and before bath time.

Fiona Ward, from the Australian Nappy Association and Darlings Downunder, says the best way to dispose of the contents of the nappy is in the toilet. “Most disposable packets actually state this,” she says. “Newborn poo is water-soluble, so it doesn’t need removal, but once it’s more solid, tip it into the toilet or spray off the nappy with a nappy hose that attaches to your toilet. Rinse off [any] excess under the laundry tap.”

Most detergents will do a good job of washing cloth nappies; just make sure you use enough of it, suggests Ward. “Some parents think they shouldn’t use too much detergent in case of ‘build up’, but that’s old advice,” she says. “The most important thing about detergents is to use enough for a heavily soiled load.”

When washing nappies, fabric softeners should be avoided. As Ward explains, they can directly impact on the absorbency, which is, of course, critical. “Softeners work by coating the fibres of the fabric to make them feel softer, but this residue left on the fabric actually reduces the absorbency,” she says.

When drying your baby’s nappies in a tumble dryer, make sure you use low heat. In summer when nappies are dry, bring them in — if they’re left in scorching heat for too long it can compromise their waterproofing material.

A potential issue with any kind of nappy is nappy rash, but Ward says there are ways to avoid it. Ensuring your baby’s skin is clean and dry before putting on a new nappy helps, as does frequent nappy changes. “Plenty of naked time can help, too,” she says. Skin sensitivity, a family history of eczema and disposable wipes can all contribute, so Ward advises ditching the disposable wipes and using reusable wipes with water.

Using modern cloth nappies can also help. Ward says many of these have a “stay dry” fabric layer between the baby and the absorbent layers, which reduces the feeling of wetness against the skin. If the nappy doesn’t have one, add a reusable micro-fleece liner, which wicks moisture away to the absorbent layer underneath.

“If your baby does have a rash, it’s important to rule out things like fungal (thrush/yeast) or bacterial infections, so see your GP for a persistent rash,” says Ward.

Change time tips

Nappy change time can be special for both parents and baby, but it’s also a time when you need to keep your baby safe if they’re on a change table. Here are some tips to make change time easier, provided by Fiona Ward from the Australian Nappy Association.

  • Have reusable wipes in a container that you can open with one hand, or run a couple of wipes under the tap on your way to the change table.
  • Have somewhere to put the dirty nappy when you take it off and the reusable wipes once they’re used (a wet bag hanging on the change table is popular).
  • Make sure there’s a clean nappy ready to go (ie already assembled or already folded if you use flats — and set to the right size).
  • Once your baby is changed and safe off the change table, then you can deal with the dirty nappy.

Don’t like changing nappies or toilet training?

Parents can outsource jobs like babysitting, teaching the kids music, dance or even baby martial arts, so why not changing nappies? The Nappy 999 service, launched by British-based website, is an Uber-style peer-to-peer nappy change service, at a cost of $9 per nappy. They claim anywhere in the UK they’ll have someone on site within 10 minutes.

And that’s not all. When your baby is ready to graduate to toilet training, there’s even someone you can call on for that. In New York, NYC Potty Training is helping busy parents teach kids how to use the loo.

Elimination communication

Babies enjoy being nappy-free. They grin and gurgle, kicking their little legs about with glee. There is a way your baby can be nappy-free — it’s all about tuning into your baby’s signals and natural rhythms, so you know when they need to go to the toilet.

Taj Jackson and partner Punya have two children: Hazel, aged 16 months, and Asher, aged four years. “I’d heard about the process of elimination communication, which is all about being in tune with your child, and the idea appealed to us so we thought we’d give it a go,” says Taj. She said they developed a verbal cue. “For Asher, we’d use cues like the sound ‘pssss’ — that’s the cue for wee, and ‘poooo’ for doing a poo — you kind of stretch the word out.” The idea is to catch them as they go to do it. “With Asher, you’d see he’d be grunting or squatting —the first time we just held him over a bucket and thought, wow, that works — that’s cool.”

Hazel is really getting the hang of it too, says Taj. “She’d come up to me with a very serious little face and say ‘poooo’. I drop everything, put her on the potty and she goes. There haven’t really been any big mishaps — having timber floors helps though,” conceded Taj. “No pooey nappies for us — that has a lot of appeal!”

From nappies to toilet training

Toilet training has changed over the past few decades. This has a lot to do with the advent of disposable nappies, according to National Continence Helpline advisor and maternal child health nurse Janine Armocida. “When disposable nappies were not available or weren’t used as much, toddlers felt wet and uncomfortable when they wet or dirtied their cloth nappy,” she says. “Parents also had a strong motivation to help their toddler toilet train earlier because it meant less washing!”

To encourage your child to toilet train,Armocidasays parents shouldn’t be afraid to give their toddler the opportunity to sit on the toilet or potty from two years of age (or before, if they ask) at key times such as on waking and before bath time. “You’re helping your toddler become comfortable with sitting on the toilet or potty,” she says. “But never force your child or get them to sit any longer than three to five minutes at any time.”

And if the child does as they are asked, acknowledge that, says Armocida. Reward their effort with a high five, kiss and cuddle or a sticker. Even if they don’t do anything, it’s a positive because they have done as you asked.” 

Nappy wars

As for who invented the disposable nappy, there are two contenders. Valerie Hunter Gordon in the UK created the first nappy after her third child was born, as she was fed up with washing traditional nappies. The two-part garments were made out of cotton wool, old nylon parachutes and tissue wadding. They applied for a patent in 1948.

Across the Atlantic, Marion Donovan’s family were in the business of inventing. In 1946 she invented a waterproof nappy cover, and it’s claimed years later, the disposable nappy, but it proved to be quite a hard sell. She took her project to every large manufacturer in the country, but they thought it was impractical. Then, in 1961, Victor Mills drew on her inspiration to createthe disposable Pampers nappies.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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