Before we start, let’s be clear. The last thing we want to do is lay a guilt trip on anyone. Many of us wore disposables as kids, for the very good reason that they offered a generation of parents (i.e. our mums, obvs) liberation from the drudgery of washing old-fashioned terry cloth nappies, sometimes without easy access to washing machines and tumble dryers. But the uncomfortable truth is that disposables can take 200-500 years to decompose. Think of it. In the year 2220 (when your great-great-great-great-great-great grandkids might be living on Mars, for all we know) the nappies you throw in the bin today could still be kicking around on planet Earth.
So, what are the reusable alternatives, how much extra effort do they involve, and how do the stats stack up? Let’s see.
It's not a binary decision
You don’t need to bung your new baby in a reusable the minute they cut the cord. Most parents, especially new ones, find disposables handier for the first few weeks, when changes are more frequent and you’re trying to wrap your head around so much else. In fact, many huge fans of reusables still rely on disposables on a regular basis - for going through the night, for traveling, or on holidays.
Get words from the wise
It’s great to hear from others who’ve ‘reused’ successfully. If you haven’t a friend to ask, maybe someone in your antenatal group knows someone? Two of our favourite officionados are The Frugality’s Alex Stedman and Brittany, the NaturallyThriftyMom. Or join Facebook's Cloth Nappies UK Group, for been-there-changed-that advice and insights.
What are the different ‘systems’?
Reusable nappies pretty much fall into three categories:
- All-in-one: a nappy & a wrap, erm, all in one.
- Two-piece: an absorbent inner & a waterproof outer wrap.
- Pocket: wraps with absorbent middles & pockets for inserts & 'boosters'.
We think the trade-off is that an all-in-one is fractionally easier to use and the two-piece or pocket nappy is fractionally easier to clean. (If it isn’t dirty or wet, you don’t always have to wash the outer wrap.) We stock two types at KIDLY. The microfibre Bambino Mio Miosolo All-In-One and the Close Pop-in Pocket Nappy, that takes bamboo inserts and boosters (extra cloth for night-times, long journeys or big, er, spenders). For added eco creds, the waterproof fabric used in the entire Close Pop-in range is made from RPET, a low impact polyester material that is made from recycled plastic bottles.
How many, and what sizes?
Obviously, this depends on your baby's consuming / peeing / pooing habits, and how often you fancy putting a wash on. You might need between 15 and 20 all-in-ones, but a smaller number of two-piece or pocket nappies (as you wash the inserts and boosters more often than the outer wraps).
Some reusables come in different sizes, but the majority are called ‘one-size’ or ‘birth-to-potty’ nappies. To be totally honest, we think very few birth-to-potty nappies genuinely fit brilliantly from birth without leaking, so you’ll probably want some special small reusables. You can buy sample newborn kits to keep costs down, as you won’t need them for long. Or, start reusables when your baby’s a couple of months old and go straight into one-size nappies. (Used nappies will need storing between washes, so you’ll also want a lidded pot or bucket or a Wet Bag.)
What about washing?
Ok, so let's get down to business. Most people use a biodegradable liner to collect solids, which you can drop straight in the loo. Although the much more ecological thing to do is put it in your composter, if you have one. Or, check out the NaturallyThriftyMom's unmissable tips on flickable poo (!) and ‘dunk and swish’ techniques. All-in-ones go straight in the wash, but with two-piece or pocket nappies you don’t always have to wash the whole thing, just the inner layers. Whack them in a cold wash first, then wash once more at 60°C - if they’re only wet they can be washed at a lower temperature. You could also choose to bypass all the Widow Twankying and send them out to a nappy laundry service at an average weekly cost of £10-15.
Do the numbers add up?
The Go Real nappy information service estimates that it costs around £80 (using the cheapest brand of reusables) to kit out your baby with a basic set, plus around £1 a week to wash them. The Money Advice Service did a comparative reckoning with disposables and came out with: Average overall cost per child for own-brand disposables - £1875. Average overall cost for reusables - £400. Average overall saving - £1475. This saving more than doubles if you reuse them for the next baby. Not to be sniffed at. (Especially with a full nappy…)
Also, check whether your council runs a reusable nappy incentive scheme, which might be a starter pack, or £30-£50 off your set-up costs.
Try before you buy
There are lots of brands to choose from, so don’t invest in a whole pack of ten at first. Buy a single nappy, to see if it suits, or borrow from friends if you can. Check with the UK Nappy Network to see if there is a nappy library near you – they’re free, run by volunteers, offer demonstrations and can loan you kits to experiment with.
So, there you have it. There are lots of options and there’s lots of support out there. But reusables are a little bit like breastfeeding - it’s a wonderful system, if it works for you. However you decide to go, changing your baby shouldn’t be a major bummer. You can quote us on that.
In Britain, we used to call them ‘diapers’ too, and the word went to American with the Founding Fathers (and Mothers). The word ‘nappy’ is an abbreviation of ‘napkin’ and became more common here in the 19th century.
The UK throws away 3 billion disposable nappies a year - they make up 3-4% of all household waste.
So long as they’re in good nick, second hand cloth nappies can sell on quite well, helping you save even more money in the long term.