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The diaper debate



Photo: Kevin Phillips/Flickr

 

I would not have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. But there was Violet, a sweet little 9-week-old, just up from a nap and straddling the smallest potty I'd ever seen. Her mother was holding Violet's chubby thighs to steady her and making small "psss, psss, psss" sounds. And sure enough, within a couple of minutes, the newborn peed into her toilet.

So it seems that new moms and dads have yet another choice in the diaper dilemma: disposable, cloth or no diaper at all. For enviro-savvy Northwesterners trying to do right by Mother Earth as well as by their baby, it's a lot to consider.

The environmental ramifications of diapering are many: the trash sent to landfills, the chemicals and resources used to make the diapers, the water and energy used to wash and dry cloth diapers, and the gas used to transport them. And then there are the costs, convenience and health effects that go along with the different options.

 

Situational ethics

Numerous studies have tried to resolve whether cloth or disposable is greener, but generally there's little difference found, or cloth wins sometimes and disposable other times — usually according to who paid for the research.

So I put the disposable vs. cloth question to Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day, president and CEO of Seattle's sustainability-focused Bullitt Foundation, and a very wise guy.

"Diapers are an example of situational ethics," answered Hayes by e-mail. "Do you live in a place where water is scarce? Do you live in a place where landfill is scarce and distant? Do you have access to a good diaper service with efficient laundry equipment and efficient pick-up routes? If you wash cloth diapers yourself, can you dry them on a clothesline?"

For people living in the Puget Sound area, which has lots of water and clean energy, no nearby landfill and a longtime diaper service, the choice for Hayes was clear: Go with cloth.

Seattle-based Baby Diaper Service has been around since 1946 and has routes around the region. General Manager Dana Chavez used cloth on his own baby and believes that cloth diapers are healthier for children.

"Diapers are an example of situational ethics. Do you live in a place where water is scarce? Do you live in a place where landfill is scarce and distant? Do you have access to a good diaper service with efficient laundry equipment and efficient pick-up routes? If you wash cloth diapers yourself, can you dry them on a clothesline?"

"The No. 1 important thing is that children nowadays don't get changed frequently enough," he said. Disposables contain chemicals that are so absorbent that a child can pee three or four times before anyone — the child included — notices that they need changing.

"We want our children to recognize when they're wet," he said. He adds that such awareness can cut back on diaper rash and potentially motivate a child while going through potty training.

 

Cost

And then there's making or buying and then washing your own diapers — a decision that may be healthier for your pocketbook. One local diaper supply retailer crunched the numbers: It costs about $2,500 to use disposables from birth to potty training (at about 2½ years). Diaper service for that same time period could run as high as $3,000. But it costs only $500 to $700 to buy your own cloth diaper supplies, and about $5 more per month on your power bill.

Another diapering option is a product known as a hybrid. These diapers use a disposable, usually flushable, insert that's put inside of a waterproof cover similar to what's used with cloth diapers. The environmental benefit is there’s less waste than a regular disposable diaper, with the benefit of potentially less hassle than cloth.

The hybrid market has been growing in recent years and there are multiple brands available, including gDiapers, Flip, GroVia, SoftBums and Charlie Banana. 

 

Ease of use

We opted for cloth with our daughter. Outside of the diaper, we used a machine-washable cover.

Cloth is not as easy to use as disposables — you wind up toting around dirty diapers when you're on the go, and it's more challenging and important to shake the poop into the toilet when the diapers are dirty (although disposable-diaper users are supposed to toss their poop, too, to spare the landfills). But our daughter had little incidence of diaper rash and rarely had leaks. So we were happy with cloth.

That was until I met Violet. I'd heard of diaper-free babies, but the notion sounded insane.

But after spending part of an afternoon with Violet and her mom, Kerste Conner, the diaper-free approach almost seemed doable, maybe even rational. The idea is that people — and perhaps all mammals — don't want to be soiled and prefer to pee or poop away from themselves. Following that logic, most babies will signal with a specific cry or fussing when they need a bathroom break.

 

Elimination communication

The job of the caregiver is to learn to recognize that signal and put the baby on a toilet. The parent also gives a cue — in Conner's case, the "psss" sound — to help condition the child to associate the act with the sound. The practice also is called "elimination communication" because both the caregiver and the child are communicating.

The best time to start elimination communication (or "EC") is between zero and three months of age, though later is possible. It's not necessary to try to use it every time a child pees — part-time EC works. For parents unsure about the approach, practitioners suggest giving the baby the opportunity to use the potty after their longest nap of the day, a time at which they'll be most inclined to pee, and when they have a bowel movement, the approach of which can be easier to identify with grunts and gas.

It's best not to view EC as strictly diaperless, Conner said, but rather as an approach that uses fewer diapers — which can be significant, considering that conventionally diapered babies use between 3,000 and 7,000 diapers in their first few years.

Conner is now a mentor with Diaper Free Baby, an international nonprofit promoting the practice. She says there are several hundred families who belong to the group locally. But most people still think the approach is nuts.

"It can be a lonely thing to do in our culture," she said. But for her family, "it felt like the right thing."


Diaper stats

There are more diaper options than ever for your newborn baby, and it might take a little experimenting to figure out which choice matches your needs in terms of cost and convenience, as well as what best fits your baby’s bum. New babies are expected to use roughly 10 diapers a day, and hybrid and cloth diapers require the purchase of reusable covers. Here are some price estimates for newborn diapers based on products from big-name brands.

Disposables: .28 cents per diaper or $84 a month

  • Huggies 88 pack is about $25 on Amazon

Hybrids: .31 cents per diaper or $93 a month

  • gDiaper 60-insert pack is about $50

  • Six reusable covers cost about $95

Cloth (with a diaper service): .33 cents per diaper or $97.50 a month

  • Baby Diaper Service is $22.75 per week to provide 70 diapers, plus a one-time signup fee of $16

  • Six reusable covers cost about $50

Note: Prices don’t include tax or shipping


Diaper school

Feeling overwhelmed by diapering options? Most birth preparation and newborn care classes will offer a diaper primer, but if you’re looking to dig deeper into the business end of diapers and Elimination Communication, Sound Breastfeeding offers a comprehensive, hands-on look with a “What Goes In, Must Come Out” Diapering and Elimination Options class. Examples of available diapering options and lists of local resources will be available. $40 per person, $15 per additional support person/caregiver for the same baby. Register at soundbreastfeeding.com/classes/clothdiapering


Editor's note: This article was written by Lisa Stiffler, a Seattle-based environmental writer and mother, and first ran in 2011. But just as babies continue to be born, so does the dilemma around how to handle their waste and what to do when diapering causes skin problems. Let the debate and diapering continue.

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