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THE JOY OF CLOTH DIAPERS
Which Is Better for the Baby?With all the focus on environmental issues, the baby often getsoverlooked in a discussion of cloth versus disposable diapers. Allparents want to do what's best for their baby, but many people aren'taware of, or don't consider, the short-term and long-term health effectsof their diapering choice.Although the disposable diaper industry spends millions of dollars on adcampaigns touting the fact that their diapers feel drier, there is nobenefit to the baby in terms of diaper rash. In fact, diaper rash iscaused by numerous factors ranging from food irritations to soaps usedon the baby's skin, and the number one factor in preventing it isfrequent diaper changes. For this reason, babies in disposable diapersmay experience more diaper rash; because the diapers feel dry, parentstend to change them as infrequently as every four to five hours. Butthough the outer layer may appear dry, bacteria from the urine is stillpresent in the baby's diaper, and still comes in contact with the baby'sskin. 5) Furthermore, plastic does not "breathe" to let out the ammoniaformed in the bacterial breakdown of urine, while a cotton diaper andnylon or wool wrap are breathable, allowing air to circulate to thebaby's skin, keeping it healthy.

Of more serious concern are the toxic chemicals present in disposablediapers. Dioxin, which in various forms has been shown to cause cancer,birth defects, liver damage, and skin diseases, is a by-product of thepaper-bleaching process used in manufacturing disposable diapers, andtrace quantities may exist in the diapers themselves.6)And what about the material that makes "superabsorbent" diapers soabsorbent? If you've ever used disposable diapers, you've probablynoticed beads of clear gel on your baby's genitals after a diaperchange. Superabsorbent diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, whichabsorbs up to 100 times its weight in water. Sodium polyacrylate is thesame substance that was removed from tampons in 1985 because of its linkto toxic shock syndrome.7) No studies have been done on the long-termeffects of this chemical being in contact with a baby's reproductiveorgans 24 hours a day for upwards of two years.

Neither type of diaper can claim to be more sanitary. In the early1990s, right around the time many states were considering offeringincentives to hospitals and daycare centers to switch to cloth diapers,disposable diaper manufacturers attempted to prove that cloth diaperscontribute more to the spread of bacteria. In fact, it is thecaregiver's hand-washing habits, and not the type of diapers, that isthe deciding factor. "The research in this area was funded by specialinterests," points out Janet Primomo, RN, PhD, associate professor ofnursing at the University of Washington, Tacoma. "It's not a question ofwhether cloth or disposables are more sanitary-it all depends onpractices and procedures, such as hand washing habits and what kind ofstorage containers are used."

There is, however, a more serious threat of contamination fromdisposable diapers, because of human sewage going into landfills. Thedisposal of human waste in residential garbage is technicallyprohibited, and instructions on disposable diaper packaging recommendthat you shake out any fecal matter into the toilet before disposing ofit; but in practice this is almost never done. Live viruses in thefeces, such as the polio vaccine, can live in landfills for a longperiod, and if there were ever any leakage, could potentiallycontaminate a community's drinking water. So far, there has been noevidence of contamination-this is more of a concern in Third Worldcountries, where landfills aren't as well constructed, and disposablediapers are being marketed aggressively.

What About the Inconvenience of Cloth Diapering? It's true that the thought of rinsing, soaking, and laundering dozens ofcloth diapers a week is overwhelming to most new parents. But if you'rea parent, you're doing laundry around the clock anyway, and what's a fewmore loads a week? However, it's not for everyone-and that's wherediaper services come in. Many parents don't realize that with a diaperservice there's no rinsing or soaking involved. You don't even need toflush solids away-you simply throw the soiled diaper directly into adiaper pail lined with a garbage liner. Once a week, you put the bag ofdirties out, and a bag of fresh, clean diapers is delivered to yourdoor. Can that really be considered less convenient than throwing adisposable diaper in the trash and taking an extra garbage can out tothe curb each week? In fact, with a diaper service there's the addedconvenience of not having to remember to buy diapers-you simply neverrun out.

Yes, you do have to rinse out the occasional soiled diaper cover, andtote back soiled diapers from an outing. But this is really no moreinconvenient than sorting glass and cardboard for recycling, and most ofus don't think twice about that. And you don't have to be a purist. Ipersonally feel that disposable diapers (preferably the chemical-freevariety) have their place when I'm traveling and not close to launderingfacilities.

Even home laundering diapers isn't necessarily as time-consuming as youmay think. Ginny Caldwell of Ecobaby argues that it takes less time todump a load of cloth diapers into the washing machine and transfer themto the dryer than it does to shop for disposables, load them into thecar, unload them at home, and take out an extra garbage can once a week.

But Isn't a Diaper Service Expensive?Although a diaper service seems like a luxury, in fact it can costconsiderably less than using disposables-and home-laundered clothdiapers are, of course, the cheapest alternative of all. Each week, many parents think nothing of buying a pack of disposables,whose cost is often hidden in the grocery bill. But when you add it upover the entire diapering period, the costs are substantial. The figure,of course, depends on the number of diaper changes a day (as pointed outearlier, babies in disposables are often changed less frequently-at theexpense of the baby's health) and the age at toilet training. Butassuming an average two and a half-year diapering period, and an averageof eight to ten diaper changes a day (based on every hour for newborns,every two hours for toddlers) this translates to 7,000 to 9,000 diapersover the diapering period. At an average price of $.24 per disposablediaper (premium diapers cost closer to $.33 apiece), the price tag fordisposable diapering is around $2,000, plus several hundred dollars forgarbage disposal costs of an additional can per week.

By contrast, diaper services charge anywhere from $10.00 to $15.00 aweek, depending on the part of the country you're in. This works out to$1,300 to $2,000 over two and a half years, for clean diapers deliveredto your door each week, the use of wraps in whatever size you need atthe time, and a diaper pail. If you have more than one child in diapers,the price drops considerably (usually by 75 percent) for the secondchild.

Home diapering, on the other hand, can be done for as little as $400, oras much as $1,200, depending on the type of products you buy. Well-madeproducts should last for subsequent children. Diapers can range anywherefrom $20.00 a dozen for diaper service-quality prefolds, up to $60.00 oreven $100 a dozen for fitted, contoured diapers with snaps or organiccotton diapers. You'll need somewhere between three and five dozen.Covers range from $4.00 to $18.00 apiece, depending on the quality andmaterial, and you'll need up to 25 (about five in each size range).Figuring in detergents and energy costs of about $.60 per load, theaverage parent will spend well under $1,000-usually more like $500-forhome diapering.

An Added Benefit: Earlier Potty-TrainingAnother advantage to cloth diapers is that they usually lead to earliertoilet training because the child actually knows when he or she is wet.Now that many children go straight from disposable diapers to disposablepull-ups, it's not uncommon to see four and five year olds who stillaren't completely potty-trained wearing pull-ups to school. This has anobvious impact on the child's self-esteem, not to mention the addedimpact on landfills.

"We get customers calling up to start a diaper service when their childis three and a half and not yet toilet trained," says Brian Smithson,president of the National Association of Diaper Services. In fact,several diaper services around the country are, as an incentive,starting to offer the service free after the 30th month if your child isnot toilet trained by then.

"We live in a fast-paced society where people don't want to deal withthe 'yuck' factor," adds Smithson. "Parents look at a diaper as acontainer that doesn't leak and can be left on for eight hours, insteadof looking at it as clothing worn on the most sensitive parts of thebody. Shouldn't we be changing babies when they wet?" Adds Erica, owner of Ease Diapers, "A diaper is not meantto be used as a toilet."

The "Bottom" LineAside from the environmental and health arguments, many parents feel, asI do, that cotton is a purer, softer, simpler choice than paper andplastic, and that if their babies could vote, they'd choose cloththemselves. In fact, my four year old, who has tried pull-ups at nightand inevitably wakes up with an itchy rash, has made it clear to me thatshe prefers cotton. Many cloth diaper companies are now offering adultsizes, as incontinent adults look for alternatives to the feeling of amushy mass of paper wadded between their legs.The bottom line is that choosing cloth diapers doesn't have to be adaunting prospect-it's simple, it's convenient, it's inexpensive. Andit's the best choice you can make for the health of your baby, and ofthe planet.

Written by: By Jane McConnell. Article originally appeared in Mothering Magazine.

Jane McConnell and her husband, Jeff Heyman, share the diaperingresponsiabilities for Jack (9 months), Henry (2), and Lucy (4). She worksas a part-time freelance writer and an associate editor for Motheringfrom her home in Boulder, Colorado.


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