Kindred’s Ultimate Nappy Guide

Tips on choosing a nappy
Facts on disposable nappies – See The Disposable Story
Cloth nappy options
Washing tips
Price and waste disposal
Healthy choices for your baby

The nappy you choose for your baby is an important parenting decision, not only for your baby, but also for the earth. The most-used component of your baby routine, nappies not only affect the most sensitive part of your baby’s body but also affect the ecosystem as a whole. Uninformed use of nappies has a great cost to your baby’s health and to the environment.

In recent years much has changed in the world of nappies. With the advent of eco-disposables, the conversation is moving away from the old disposable vs cloth debate, to a new dialogue about our increased ecological options. Note also that a growing number of mothers are choosing a nappy-free approach. The key now is in finding what’s right for you, your budget, your baby, your lifestyle and ultimately for the environment.

While a small sector of the parenting community use 100 per cent cloth products, most parents find it impossible to ignore disposable products—not just nappies, but nappy wipes, swimmers, breast pads and more. There are now disposable versions of items our mothers would never dreamed of throwing away. Disposables are very convenient, cost a lot more than cloth, contain chemicals and create tonnes of non-biodegradable rubbish. But knowing this has not been enough to cause a switch to cloth on a large scale. Until now, it has taken strong and passionate people to go against the grain and keep disposables out of their lifestyle. Using disposable products becomes habitual, so it is up to our generation to determine how relevant they will be in our lives.

Modern, environmentally-conscious parents began combining cloth and disposable products in the search for an ideal balance of health, environment, cost and convenience. Eco-investors in the baby industry have responded to this trend by investing in a combination of biodegradable disposable products and cloth products, while on the other hand the modern cloth nappy movement has flourished—opposing disposable products entirely. The success of both industries demonstrates that parents do care about health and environment and are looking for the best option.

The disposable investors argue it’s too hard to give up the convenience of disposable products so we have to work on better ways to dispose of them and make them biodegradable. Cloth advocates argue passionately that it’s just as convenient to use cloth and education is all that is required. What is important above all, whether cloth or disposable, is to ensure that the primary concern of business and manufacturers is both the environmental impact of their products and their impact on the health of our children. As consumers, we can ensure our dollars only go to businesses that maintain this integrity.

The cloth and disposable nappy discussions in the mainstream media and parent groups around the country indicate that an intelligent discussion is gaining momentum. The environment is the key trend right now; it’s helping to bring a lot of topics under scrutiny in a healthy way. With 250,000 babies born every year in Australia, it is heartening to see our babies’ health and environment discussed with such passion.

How to choose a nappy?

There are five criteria to help you decide what nappy you need:

1. Convenience: It needs to be easy to use

2. Price: It needs to suit your budget

3. Environmental: What does it cost the environment?

4. Health: It needs to be good for your baby

5. Care and maintenance: It needs to be simple and organised

1: Convenience: It needs to be easy to use

There are four styles of nappies on the market: standard disposables, eco-disposables, modern cloth nappies and traditional terry towelling square nappies.

You can buy standard disposable nappies from most supermarkets and chemists. These are made from layers of paper and plastic and contain gels that retain moisture. Looking the same as mainstream disposables but with significant differences, eco-disposables are available with limited release at some Australian supermarkets but are primarily sold online or in health food stores.

Modern cloth nappies developed over the last two decades and are now very efficient in design. Available primarily online, they are a response to the contemporary need for an easy-to-use cloth nappy. They retail between $15–50 each, depending on the quality, country of origin, fabric used and whether it’s a business or cottage industry. Some brands are one-size-fits-all (from newborn to toddler) and other brands come in small, medium and large sizes. They are economical and easy to use, and can be re-used on more than one child. Modern or fitted cloth nappies look like disposables; they have gathered elastic at the legs and use Velcro or snap closures. Velcro, snap, or pull-on nappy covers can be used as well. No folding or pinning is required.

While most cloth nappy brands are found only online, the retail chain Babies Galore recently became the first mainstream baby store to embrace both modern cloth and eco-disposables. This shows a significant shift in the mainstream thinking and consumer choices. As the nappy of choice, cloth is  still in the minority but this is changing fast due to better designs, better information and a passionate drive from the creators.

With practice and a well-organised system, many people find traditional square nappies are convenient. Ask your mum what folding techniques and tips she can give you. Share these with other mums, or else consult the internet. Terry towelling nappies are available at most major department stores and online.

2: Price: It needs to suit your budget

If you choose a full-time disposable (or eco-disposable) system, you will need to spend between AU$3,000-5,000 on disposable nappies for one child from birth through toilet training.

Then there are accessories like wipes, change mats and swimmers, which are an added cost.

Fitted-cloth nappies for the same period for one baby will generally cost AU$400-800; these nappies can sometimes be used on second and third children too!

Square nappies in terry towelling, muslin or flannelette that you fold cost under $200 to set up in the beginning. You also have ongoing costs of nappy liners, fasteners and covers but these are minimal.

Environmentally friendly washing powders and nappy soak costs approximately $120/year. Environmentally-safe washing products are surprisingly cost-effective compared to their conventional counterparts and sometimes cheaper, too. Additional costs of hot water, electricity and wear on the washer need to be considered at approximately $10 a week.

3: Environmental: What does it cost the earth?

According to My Planet recycling, an estimated 91 per cent of Australian parents choose disposable nappies, with 800 million of them taking up 145,000 cubic metres of landfill each year. Given that conventional disposables can take as long as 500 years to break down, the environmental and public health implications are immense.

There have long been arguments around about cloth and disposable nappies being equally environmentally safe. In 2005, a UK Environment Agency report concluded that ‘overall there are no environmental benefits to using either disposable or washable nappies’. After a four-year study involving more than 2,000 parents, the agency found that ‘there is little or nothing to choose between them’. The findings were attacked as ‘seriously flawed’ by the Women’s Environmental Network, who questioned how the disposal of about three billion nappies each year in Britain’s landfill sites could be comparable with using washables.

When this report was produced, it was met with loud protests from cloth nappy advocates. The list of flaws was longer than the terms of reference. Environmentalists agree that there still has not been a worthy report looking at this issue with complete accountability or independence. Manufacturing a packet of disposable nappies may use similar or fewer resources than a set of cloth nappies,  but if you need to buy three years of packets vs one set of cloth, the differences seem too obvious to mention. Until an independent study  that looks at all factors is undertaken, you need to use your own sensibilities and look at the facts you have on waste, cost, health and landfill.

The new eco-disposables promise to be part of the solution to the landfill nightmare. While they are biodegradable, few are 100 per cent. Read the packaging carefully. Many parents feel that any improvement in biodegradability is a step in the right direction towards reducing landfill issues, and will not be as concerned about percentages. However, some are more earnest and look for a guaranteed 100 per cent biodegradable/compostable nappy. Even though Standards Australia has developed Australian Standards for biodegradable plastics in 2006, no independent body monitors the veracity of the eco-disposable biodegradability.

At the moment, your only guarantee of 100 per cent biodegradability—if you want to be sure—is to compost a sample yourself and see if it completely breaks down. You need to compost properly, in the right soil and compost conditions.

It’s a popular misconception that biodegradable materials break down in landfill sites. Some do, some don’t. Each situation depends on conditions of the landfilll and how it’s treated by that particular council. Rubbish deposited in landfills is compressed and sealed under tonnes of soil. This minimises oxygen and moisture, which are essential requirements for microbial decomposition. For biodegradable materials to effectively decompose, they need to be treated like compost. In response, city councils are implementing waste-minimisation programs including composting, so the pressure is now on for eco-disposables to make themselves truly compostable.

If you choose a conventional or eco-disposable nappy, make sure you follow the instructions on the packet and don’t throw the poo away with the nappy. Raw sewerage in our landfills is a health hazard and is illegal. While disposable nappy companies take care in telling you this in their instructions, the design of the nappy means it is more likely people will throw the whole nappy, poo and all away in the bin. Untreated sewerage is a health hazard and leaks into the ground water.

4: Health: It needs to be good for your baby

People’s main concern with nappies is nappy rash. Nappy rash is primarily caused by an acidic diet or skin trapped by warmth and wet. Speak to a naturopath for advice on your diet and give your baby lots of nappy-free time. When using cloth nappies, use a cloth or disposable nappy liner that absorbs the wetness away from baby’s skin or a compostable disposable nappy liner that will protect the skin and also ease the mess at change time.

If your baby regularly gets a rash in a disposable nappy, it could be chemical burn or other reaction to the bleach and gels in disposable nappies. Many parents put up with this thinking it is nappy rash but our baby’s sensitive skin can react to these ingredients. Try an eco-disposable, which uses a lot less gel. Cloth nappies have no gels at all. Many parents who switch to cloth report an instant improvement in their baby’s skin condition.

5: Care and maintenance: It needs to be simple and organised

The big appeal of disposable nappies is no washing. The action of taking a fresh, clean nappy out of a packet, using it, throwing it away and grabbing another one equally neat and clean is very seductive. When it comes to throwing them away, however, the horror of a full and smelly nappy bin tells another story. Many councils are now reducing their pickups to fortnightly as well, which is creating a longer-lasting stench in wheelie bins. This experience has led many parents to wonder, how bad is it washing nappies? The fear and hassle about this chore has been blown so out of proportion that simple instructions are now required to assist parents. So here is the good news—it is simple to wash cloth nappies. Here are some tips to keep it simple:

Cloth nappies need to be washed every second day using a dry or wet system. You can have a day off washing if you have a well-organised system and enough nappies on hand. Bleach products have traditionally been used to whiten nappies when soaking but if you are concerned about environmental impact, don’t use whitening products. Modern cloth nappies are less likely to require bleach and there are many environmentally-safe and cost-effective soakers available online and in health food stores.

Wet Method

Fill your bucket about a quarter to half full with warm water; add a half cup each of baking soda and vinegar, or an environmentally-friendly pre-wash soak. At nappy change time, shake any excess poo into the toilet and toss the wet nappy straight in the solution. If your child’s poos are too wet to do this, consider a flushable nappy liner or a little squirt (see glossary).

Keep the lid closed in a wet pail and lock the laundry if you have toddlers who like to explore. When your bucket is full, empty the whole bucket into the washing machine, water and all (top loaders only). Run nappies through a spin cycle to get rid of dirty water, and then wash on the longest cycle (hot/cold) with earth-friendly detergent or a half-cup of baking soda. Use a half-cup of vinegar or an organic fabric softener (a personal choice but not necessary).

Or, instead of fabric softener, add a few drops of lavender or tea-tree oil to make the fabric smell nice and act as a natural disinfectant. Sun-drying will also bleach the nappies and diminish any minor poo stains still on the nappies. Rinse out your nappy bucket with hot water and optionally with tea tree or lavender to disinfect. You do not need to be overly-concerned about disinfecting change areas and buckets. In your own home, normal cleaning and hygiene procedures will be sufficient.

Dry Method

This may be preferable if you have an inquisitive toddler in the house. Also great if you find a wet bucket too heavy to lift into the machine in terms of
your back! It’s a better system during a drought or if you rely on tank water.

If you are using a disposable liner, throw it in the toilet and toss the wet nappy into the bucket. If the nappy is soiled, toss the poo 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 to keep the bucket smelling nice and to disinfect. Wash as above.

Nappy covers can be washed along with your nappies, or you can prolong their life by soaking them separately and hand-washing them in a bucket. If you soak poo ones for half an hour, they are easy to hand wash when you are ready. Wet ones can be hand-washed quickly and hung to dry so they can be reused on the same day. If using machine wash, use a warm/gentle cycle and always consult washing instructions.

Take a reusable waterproof nappy bag for wet nappies when you are away from home. Or use brown paper bags or biodegradable cellophane nappy bags to store used nappies. These can be washed, reused or composted. Take a wet face washer in a container for wiping bottoms. This can save you a small fortune over buying nappy wipes. Flushable nappy liners are great for when you are out of the house or for every nappy change so you don’t need to store stinky, wet nappies.

Most of all, remember to have fun! You will change your baby’s nappy many times per day so make a nice change area in your home, a place where you can chat and play with your baby and enjoy nappy time—it doesn’t have to be a chore! 

Responsible use of disposable nappies

If you are using disposable nappies, there are some very simple things you can do to help make your habits more environmentally friendly. Here are some of them.

Poo goes in the loo!

Use a flushable or cloth nappy liner inside your disposable nappy to collect the poo. You can toss it in the toilet before throwing the nappy away. Or you can use a little squirt (see glossary, page 28) to wash poo off your disposable. Human waste is dealt with efficiently in sewerage systems and this is where it should always go. Liners also provide another barrier between your baby’s skin and gel in the nappy that can contact the skin. The effect of gels in nappies is still unknown.


Placing a disposable nappy inside a plastic bag after using it enormously increases the years it will take to break down. Using biodegradable nappy bags or brown paper bags for disposal will have a significant impact on environmental waste. Always use nappy bins where provided. If you want to compost your disposable nappies, place the poo in the loo first.

The politics and passion of modern cloth nappies

If you are looking for nappies online, you will enter the domain of WAHM’s (work-at-home-mums). You can find up to 100 cloth nappy companies online in Australia and New Zealand alone. They range from small one-product sites to mini-supermarkets selling multiple brands.
At least 65 cloth nappy brands exist in Australia and New Zealand and more are appearing every day. Most of these are small cottage industries. There are informational and parent forum web sites where you learn about your modern cloth nappy options in detail or chat to other mums about your nappy questions.

Most companies provide lengthy and passionate information about using cloth nappies, why it is better and easy to use cloth and why some designs are better than others. Most websites have a few key issues in common. They don’t do it for money, they do if for love. They are passionate advocates of cloth being best and with their help you can have the best possible nappy experience. It is an inspiring world of internet nappy passion.

The variety and number of sites tell us one very important fact; there is no perfect nappy for all babies. What you love for one baby may be different for your next child. Our babies are individuals. Like us, they have differently shaped bodies, different toilet habits, and different temperaments. All these things, including your own temperament and ideas, will influence the nappies you like.

Nappy Forums (created by and for mums)

A nappy forum is a place you can go and get independent information from mums and dads about their experience with nappies. People love to share their personal experiences and passions about nappies on forums. Like a good salesperson, they may steer you towards a nappy that you can end up loving or one that may not suit you, so a passionate forum discussion could be helpful or not.
The best advice is to remain open and spend time on the forums to get a good cross-section of opinions.

Published in Kindred, issue 23, Sept 07




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