The Bottom Line: Cloth Diapers or Disposables?

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Diapers have come a long way, baby! Especially when you think back to ancient times and imagine babies wrapped in plant leaves, animal skins, moss, linens, or whatever was handy to try to contain … you know, the stuff that belongs in a diaper.

By the late 1800s, cloth diapers made of linen or flannel were widely used in Europe and the U.S., folded and held in place with sharp safety pins. The first disposable diaper, basically an absorbent cellulose pad held in place by a pair of rubber pants, was invented in Sweden in 1942.

By the time disposable diapers reached the mass market in the 1950s, lower manufacturing costs allowed them to compete with the price of cloth diapers. And the Great Diaper Debate was on.

How to Choose

Let’s start with the numbers. If this is your first baby, the sheer number of diapers your little one will need during their first 2 years may come as quite a shock. On average:

  • Newborns use about 10 diapers every 24 hours
  • Older babies go through about 6 to 8 diapers a day
  • Most babies in the U.S. use a total of about 8,000 diapers

As you can see, the cost of diapers can certainly put a strain on your household budget. But cost is only one factor to consider when buying diapers. Like most baby-related issues, you’ll find plenty of information and lots of differing opinions about whether cloth or disposable diapers are the best choice. We hope you’ll find the following facts helpful when it’s time for you to choose.

Diaper Facts: Cloth

Pros:

  • Cloth diapers are available in many styles, shapes, and materials, including prefolded and all-in-one styles that look more like a disposable
  • Cloth diapers don’t contain dyes, gels, or chemicals (found in some disposables) that can irritate some babies’ skin
  • Cloth diapers can be reused if you have another child or donated to a cloth diaper charity
  • Because toddlers in cloth diapers notice they are wet sooner, they may be willing to start potty training sooner

Cons:

  • Cloth diapers are less absorbent than disposables, so you will need to change them more often
  • They can be messy, although you can buy flushable disposable liners for faster cleanup
  • Doing more loads of laundry will increase your power and water bills
  • Bringing dirty diapers home to wash after an outing can be smelly and unpleasant
  • Because cloth diapers aren’t as absorbent, some babies may experience diaper rash

Diaper Facts: Disposables

Pros:

  • Attached closure tabs can make diaper changes faster and easier
  • Choosing a diaper based on the baby’s weight and age ensures a better fit
  • Superabsorbent materials keep babies drier, meaning fewer diaper changes
  • Disposing of dirty diapers when you’re out is easier than bringing cloth diapers home to wash

Cons:

  • Disposables account for 3.5 million tons of landfill waste a year
  • Some babies may have an allergic reaction to chemicals, dyes, or gels in disposable materials
  • Pulling too tightly on closure tabs may cause them to rip away from the diaper
  • Because toddlers are less likely to feel wet and uncomfortable in disposables, they may be more resistant to potty training

Let’s Talk Money

Now that you know more about what’s great and not so great about both cloth and disposable diapers, let’s talk about the costs. Here’s a quick look at what you might expect to pay for cloth or disposables over the first 2 years of your baby’s life:

  • Disposable diapers will cost about $2,000 to $3,000 per baby
  • Cloth diapers will cost about $800 to $1,000 if you wash them at home
  • If you use a diaper laundering service, you can expect to pay about $2,500 to $2,800 for cloth diapers, which is within the range of using disposables.

The Bottom Line

Here’s the best news: Even if you prefer one type of diaper over the other, you are absolutely free to have both cloth and disposables on hand to use at different times. For example:

  • Some parents prefer disposables for newborns, who are too small for a one-size cloth diaper, transitioning them to cloth as they grow
  • You can use cloth during the day and disposables at night to make diaper changes a little easier at 3 a.m. when you’re barely awake
  • Disposables are also a good choice when you’re running errands or traveling

When you have a new baby, the one thing that should not stress you out is having to choose between cloth and disposable diapers. Simply find out as much as you can about both, decide what makes the best sense for you and your family, then stock up and get ready to enjoy spending time with your sweet little baby.

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