Is your baby wearing the right nappy?

A 2002 study by the Ruth Puncheon Environment Agency in Wales, Great Britain, estimates that a child can be exposed to up to 48 different chemicals from disposable nappies and disposable wipes.

If you do choose to use disposable, make sure you follow the instructions on the packet and don’t throw the faeces away with the nappy. Raw sewerage in our landfill is a health hazard and is illegal.

While there are many products on the baby market that you may or not use, the one thing you will definitely need for your baby is a nappy. Not just one, but about 10 a day when your baby is first born; between six and eight a day once things settle down; and as little as three a day once they show signs of toilet training, which can be anywhere from one to four years of age (that’s up to 14,600 nappies!). So what kind of nappy should you get?

You want the best for your baby, so as with all the products you are considering, you may decide to ask other parents. The discussions you have had so far about the stroller, the cot and the highchair have all gone smoothly. People gave you their objective viewpoint without any judgement and you thanked them.

You may think it will be the same when discussing nappies. Not so. Here’s where the minefield is. Nappies have become one of those subjects like politics and religion — do we dare discuss it at the dinner table? Some passionately deny there are any environmental problems with disposables and laugh at anyone they see "struggling" with cloth nappies. Cloth nappy users, on the other hand, may look down on a disposable user because of the damage they’re doing to our environment.

So why has the nappy debate become so emotional? Partly, it’s because the nappy you use has become a moral issue rather than simply a practical one. None of us likes to be criticised for our parenting and, somewhere along the line, the type of nappy we use has become a statement about what we think is important. This makes it difficult to have any objective viewpoint on the subject. So if you want to do the best for your baby, what really is the best and most objective criteria by which you make that all-important decision — cloth or disposable?

Before you start, it’s important to acknowledge you will already have a viewpoint you’ve absorbed from media, advertising, your midwife, your family and friends. A powerful influence will be your own childhood — what your own mother used will be a factor. All these factors will influence what nappy you will use as a new parent and also raise questions for us as a society about what we are teaching the next generation by what we as parents are choosing now. Have you noticed, for example, that when buying a new doll at a toyshop these days, it comes with its own disposable nappy?

The good news is that since this debate began simmering about 10 years ago, about the same time the rate of disposable nappy use reached over 50 per cent for new parents, many new nappy options have hit the market to better deal with the environmental, social and practical dilemmas of nappy use.


Top tips to help you decide which nappy to buy


Convenience is probably the first criterion for any new parent. There are four popular types of nappies available: standard disposables, composting disposables, fitted-cloth nappies and terry towelling squares. You can buy disposable nappies from most supermarkets and chemists. These are made from layers of paper and plastic and contain gels that absorb the urine and faeces. Some are packaged in plastic and others come in cardboard boxes that are recyclable.

Disposables are appealing because you take a fresh nappy out of a packet, use it and throw it away. It suits our consumer society. The downside is it takes a lot of trees, gallons of water and a ton of chemicals to make them. A lot of people also complain that this makes them smell before the baby even uses the nappy. If all this sounds like a good reason not to use them, Choice magazine reported in 2004 that 89 per cent of all parents use disposables either part-time or full-time.

If you do choose to use disposable, make sure you follow the instructions on the packet and don’t throw the faeces away with the nappy. Raw sewage in our landfill is a health hazard and is illegal. While disposable nappy companies take care to tell you this in their instructions, the design of the nappy means it’s more likely people will throw the whole nappy, including the faeces, in the bin. The laws are there to protect our health. So use a loose, flushable liner in a disposable nappy so you can throw it away down the toilet easily. This will also protect your baby’s skin from the gels that make them so absorbent. No research has yet been done as the safety of these gels. You can also use a cotton liner inside a throwaway disposable nappy to protect your baby’s skin. Relatively new on the Australian market are two brands that are marketing their products as eco-friendly. One is from Europe, the other from the USA. These nappies have the same problems as mentioned above but they come unbleached or without gels and minimise the use of plastic in their manufacturing. They can be composted under strict conditions but you would need to be committed to this for a truly environmentally friendly effect. If you are still throwing them in the bin as with any traditional disposable, you are not really doing the environment any favours just because the packaging looks eco-friendly. If you are buying one of these brands because you think it’s better for the environment, you must compost it and separate the plastic tabs as per the instructions.

A Tasmanian company started making biodegradable disposables that are compostable 12 years ago. These take between 90 and 150 days to break down and are flushable and compostable, so do not fill our landfill if composted as per instructions. They are also easy to use but come in two parts, so have one more step than traditional disposables. You keep and wash the pants, and place the eco-disposable nappy in the pants. This design encourages you to dispose of the sewage in the toilet. The nappies are made from layers of non-chlorine bleached paper and contain a gel similar in composition to your garden water-absorbing granules. There were complaints in previous years that they did not work so well. In 2004, they released a new design, their most efficient and best design yet.

Fitted cloth nappies have been developed over the past two decades and are as easy to use as a disposable, but you get to re-use them. They are a response to the contemporary need for an easy-to-use nappy with no chemicals. Some brands are one size from newborn to toddler while other brands have small, medium and large sizes. They are very economical and easy to use. Fitted cloth nappies look like disposables; they have gathered elastic at the legs and use Velcro or snap closures. Adjustable in size, their quality and cost varies with the brand. Absorbent padding and nice bright colours make them attractive. Velcro, snap or pull-on nappy covers can be used as well. No folding or pinning is required, making them quicker and easier to use than terry-towelling nappies. They can be used over and over again and on more than one child in a family. The fabric eventually wears too thin after a couple of babies.

Many people find traditional square nappies to also be convenient with practice and a well-organised system. A ‘snappy’ or nappy pin can be purchased from baby shops and supermarkets to tie them in easily. They are a one-size-fits-all nappy and are by far the most economical, which is a big motivating factor. Some places can sell you muslin and flannelette square nappies, which many people find less bulky on a newborn baby and fit with less bulk inside fitted nappy covers.

Some disposable nappy fans advocate that fewer nappy changes are necessary, making these nappies highly convenient. The only danger with this idea is that there are children walking around with heavy loads from a nappy that needs changing, and gels are coming into direct contact with their skin.



If you choose a full-time disposable system, you will need to spend between AUD$4000 and $5000 on disposable nappies for one child from birth through to toilet training. If you use the toddler pull-on styles, the cost increases. So think about how many children you would like to have and do the sums. Can you afford it? Fitted cloth nappies for the same period for one baby will generally cost approximately AUD$400-$800. The cost depends on the quality, country of origin and fabric used. These nappies can then be used on second and third children, too. Square folding nappies in terry towelling, muslin or flannelette can cost under $100 to set up in the beginning. You have ongoing costs of nappy liners, fasteners and covers. This can add up to approximately $200-$400 over four years, depending on what you choose to additionally use. Flushable nappy liners, for example, are worth the extra because they help you dispose of faeces down the toilet.

Washing powders and a good environmentally friendly nappy soak cost approximately $120 a year. Choosing an earth-friendly detergent is cost-effective, has less packaging and is less expensive than standard supermarket detergents. In September 2004, Choice magazine printed a story on the cost of running a washing machine, detailing the difference between top and front loaders and the cost difference when using hot, warm or cold water. Another cost consideration is whether or not you will need to dry cloth nappies in the dryer or on a clothes line.



Waste disposal and environmental concerns

Disposable nappies require you to fill a bin every week with plastic, chemicals and packaging, often with raw sewage inside. Cloth nappies require you to use water, electricity and detergents. Which is better? I’ll leave that one for your mothers’ group and dinner table discussions. The truth is that there has never been an independent study to assess the facts. There is an urban myth about a "study" that proved disposables and cloth nappies were equally environmentally safe, but I am yet to find this study.

A Choice magazine survey in 1998 said that Australian babies go through 7196 nappies a day. One-quarter of parents surveyed said they only ever used cloth. One-quarter used disposables full-time and half used both. If half a million disposable nappies are used every year in Australia, and if it is true that they take approximately 200 years for just one to break down in landfill, it is our children’s grandchildren who will be dealing with the effects. Do we really want nappy waste to be the legacy of our era?

If you live on the land, you will be very conscious of water usage but you will equally be aware of rubbish costs. If you want to use cloth nappies, find out about the "dry" system for storing dirty nappies for washing. Or use a combination of cloth and eco-disposables. You have the land space to make a great compost to dispose of them correctly.

The cotton industry also uses a ton of chemicals and gallons of water when creating cloth nappies. So look out for organic cotton, which is slowly becoming more available. When weighed up against cost, transport, fuel and packaging, they still come out as using fewer resources than disposables to manufacture them. Eco-disposables are a great compromise when it comes to waste disposal, but the reality is that most councils are not prepared to deal with a composting system. This means it’s still up to you to ensure you separate plastic and compost the rest according the manufacturer’s instructions.



Our skin is the biggest organ in our body and it absorbs everything that we put on it. The skin of babies and the elderly is thinnest and therefore the most vulnerable to any creams, fabric, soaps or powders. Water and some nappy free time is the best thing for your baby’s skin between nappy changes. One of the main issues with nappies that people fear is nappy rash. Nappy rash is primarily caused by an acidic diet or skin trapped by warmth and wetness. Avoid tomatoes and orange juice for a start and speak to your naturopath further about a nappy-rash-free diet. Many babies also develop nappy rash from the gels used in disposables. In either case, use a cloth or biodegradable nappy liner to protect baby’s skin from rash. When using cloth nappies, use a cloth nappy liner that absorbs the wetness away from baby’s skin or a compostable disposable nappy liner that will protect baby’s skin and also lessen the mess at change time.

European scientists are currently researching a potential link between infertility and high scrotal temperature for baby boys in disposables. This research alone gives serious cause for concern when using disposables. Always give babies lots of nappy-free time where possible. Have some cloth nappies that they can lie and sit on with a bare bottom. Their skin is an organ that needs to breathe.

Trybutil Tin (TBT15), which makes disposable nappies absorbent, may lead to urinary tract infections. Some brands contain 3.5 times the allowable rate by the World Health Organization. This is the chemical believed to cause toxic shock syndrome from tampons in women. A 2002 study by the Ruth Puncheon Environment Agency in Wales, Great Britain, estimates a child can be exposed to up to 48 different chemicals from disposable nappies and disposable wipes.



Cloth nappies need to be washed every second day using a dry or wet system. It’s good to give yourself a day off washing with a well-organised system and enough nappies on hand.


Wet method

You need two buckets: one for faeces nappies, one for wet nappies. Half fill your bucket with cold water, add a pre-prepared nappy soaker or one-quarter cup of baking soda and vinegar. After shaking off any excess faeces into the toilet, simply toss nappies into the pail (if your child’s faeces are too wet to do this, consider a nappy liner that you can flush in a toilet, or use a Little Squirt, a hose that attaches to your toilet to squirt faeces easily into the toilet).

If you are using a wet pail, make sure you keep the lid closed and lock the laundry if you have toddlers who like to explore! When full, empty the whole bucket into the washing machine, water and all. Run nappies through a spin cycle to get rid of dirty water, then wash on longest cycle with your favourite earth-friendly detergent or half a cup of baking soda. Use vinegar or a pre-prepared fabric softener to soften fabric. You can also add a few drops of lavender or tea-tree, which make the fabrics smell nice and act as a natural disinfectant. Rinse out your nappy bucket with hot water and tea-tree or lavender oil to disinfect.


Dry method

This may be preferable if you have an inquisitive toddler in the house. Also great if you are the one doing the washing and may find a wet bucket too heavy to lift into the machine. The dry method is definitely better during a drought or if you rely on tank water. Also ideal if you live in a flat and need to carry your nappies downstairs for washing.

Sprinkle some baking soda in your nappy bucket. It’s optional to add a few drops of lavender or tea-tree oil as well. If you are using a disposable liner, throw the soiled liner in the toilet and toss the wet nappy into the bucket. If the nappy is soiled, toss the faeces into the toilet, run cold water over the nappy, spray some stain remover on the nappy if you wish and throw it into the bucket. Keep the lid closed. If you don’t like the smell, use lavender or tea-tree oil to keep the bucket smelling nice and to disinfect. When you are ready to wash, use the same instructions as for the wet method. Place nappies in dryer or hang in sun to dry. The sun also acts as a natural bleach to whiten nappies and will usually remove any minor colouring from faeces left on nappies.



Tips to make nappies a joy in your daily life

  • Toddlers love to help hang out nappies! Make this an activity in your day. Give them their own basket and washing line if they are particularly keen.
  • Enjoy the shopping! Nappies, like clothes, can be a fashion statement as well as practical. Choose colours and styles you like and which make you feel good about what you’re doing.
  • Buy in bulk — you’ll feel great about less packaging, money saved and clever budgeting.
  • If you’re using terry-towelling nappies, do the tuck-and-roll. My midwife showed me this tip, which I now pass on to hundreds of mums and dads. After folding your cloth nappies, tuck (or roll) the nappy up the thigh to create an "undies" look. This keeps babies’ legs unrestricted for movement and prevents any leaks.
  • Nappy liners are wonderful. Cloth dry-liners are inexpensive and keep babies’ bottoms really dry, no matter how wet the nappy is. Disposable nappy liners cannot be thrown down the toilet — they will clog your system — unless you get a biodegradable brand, and then they’re brilliant and mean you never have to wash faeces when using cloth nappies.
  • Nappy covers need to be breathable and not bulky. Try out a few until you find one you like. Avoid PVC and plastic, as the skin will not breathe in these fabrics.
  • Some nappy covers are now designed to hold a terry-towelling nappy in a rectangle pad shape, reducing the need for folding or using clips.


What you need to buy if using cloth nappies

  • A minimum of two dozen cloth nappies is absolutely necessary. Three dozen is better.
  • Some fitted nappies as well for outings or overnight use.
  • 6-8 nappy covers.
  • 20 washable nappy liners to increase absorbency.
  • 50 flushable nappy liners.
  • Bi-carb and vinegar or a pre-prepared nappy soaker.
  • One or two large nappy buckets.
  • One small bucket for nappy liners.
  • Two snappy or six nappy pins.


Tips for cloth nappies when you are out

Take a reusable waterproof nappy bag for wet nappies when you are out. Use brownpaper bags or biodegradable cellophane nappy bags for storing used eco-nappies. These can be washed and reused or composted. Take a wet face washer in a container for wiping bottoms! This can save you a small fortune instead of buying nappy wipes. Cotton wool makes a great disposable alternative that is chemical-free. Flushable nappy liners are great for disposing of faeces.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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