Cloth Versus Disposable Or, Will My Baby Be Eating Lunchables?


Becoming a parent has made me soft. It’s made me ignore, at least temporarily, the things I used to strive for in my pre-baby life. Like writing my dissertation, sleeping nine hours a night, finishing a thought.

It has made me ignore my commitment to doing what I think is best for this great green earth and all the great green people on it. And the non-green ones, too. For example:

  • It has made me take longer, hotter showers (I deserve it, I say).
  • It has made me leave the air conditioning on for the sake of the baby (he needs a consistent temperature, I tell myself) when it would be perfectly bearable without it and when I never would have turned it on before.
  • It has made me keep a nightlight on in the baby’s room even during the day because it’s hard to reach to turn off, particularly when holding said baby.
  • It has made me use paper plates, but just sometimes.
  • It has made me run the dishwasher each night even though it’s only half full (must sanitize baby bottles, of course).
  • It has made me bottle feed instead of breast (this one could not be helped).
  • But worst of all: it has made me use disposable diapers instead of cotton.

Not that using cotton diapers is so clearly better than using disposable. Before we made our decision to use cloth we did a lot of research. While cloth diaper advocates insist that using cloth is no-questions-about-it better for the earth, non-interested parties have questions. What about water waste? Detergent use? The cost (in money and resources) of washing cloth diapers in hot water? If you can’t line dry them, which we can’t, what about running the dryer long enough to get those absorbent little buggers completely dry? The ILEA comes down on the question by suggesting that the best answer depends on your community’s situation. Disposables, they argue, use 29% less energy over their lifecycle than do cloth diapers (if home laundered, which is the only option here in Columbus and in most of the country since diaper services have gone by the wayside) but occupy twice as much landfill space.

In the end, though, we still decided that cloth would be the better route for us. We didn’t like the idea of putting all that additional plastic and other synthetic material into the landfills. Even more than that, we didn’t like the idea of introducing all that untreated waste into the landfills. We didn’t like the idea of our kid wearing whatever chemicals they put in disposable diapers to make them so absorbent. And after some number crunching, we discovered that using cloth would, over the long term, save us more than $1000 (for each kid we have).

My mother-in-law and her sisters thought we were crazy. They sent us packages of disposables in the weeks before our son was born. No matter how many times we explained how much easier cloth diapers have gotten to use over the last thirty years, how many more options there are available and how little work cloth needs to be, they still insisted that we would hate using them.

You never want to admit that your mother-in-law is right, even if you really love your mother-in-law, which I do. The worst still is when your mother-in-law is right about something that you really believed she wouldn’t be right about because it relates to one of your “core principles.”

We did decide before Evan was born that we would use disposables until his umbilical cord stump had fallen off since the diapers we’d gotten weren’t really small enough to accommodate our need to protect his belly button. But our plan was to start using them within a couple of weeks of his birth.

And use them we did, once or twice. But even though we had gotten the newborn size cloth diapers and covers, meant especially for babies as small as ours, they were way too big for him. The diaper part hung out of the cover at least four inches in the back, creeping up past Evan’s shoulder blades. And despite the fact that his onesies were all way too big for him at the time, they barely fit over his giant cloth diapers. He looked like a pear or one of those small dolls that’s rounded at the bottom so that it won’t tip over. He was uncomfortable, and I don’t blame him!

So we decided to give it a few more weeks with the disposables. At six weeks, we tried the cloth again. The diapers were still too big for him but now some of the covers were already too small. Each time I put Evan in one, it leaked all over his clothes, swaddling blanket, and bed sheets. Or all over me. I promised myself we’d do one a day for awhile, and then two, and then gradually make the switch.

But Evan hated them. He was so uncomfortable with them on. After wearing an ice pack and industrial-sized maxi in the hospital after he was born, I felt for the kid. It’s no fun feeling like you’ve got a queen-sized mattress between your legs. Especially, I imagine, if that queen-sized mattress is soaked in your own urine. Poor kid.

So now we’re at three months and Evan’s still wearing just disposables. I really don’t mind washing the cloth ones. Whenever Evan poops on the changing table (which is surprisingly often), I “catch it” with the cloth diapers and washing them, even when they’re poop-sodden, is no big deal. One cold-water rinse with baking soda, one hot/cold wash with dye-free Purex. It’s so easy even a teenaged boy not yet skilled in the hows and whys of laundry care could do it.

And yet I’m convinced that Evan hates them. Could I be projecting? Could I secretly hate them? Or is it that I can’t help but think that I would hate them if I were the one who had to wear them? Is this just misplaced empathy?

Perhaps it is.

But it’s got me thinking. Hard. Thinking about how I reconcile my parenting self – the version of me that wants my son to be comfortable, healthy, and happy – with my pre-parenting self – the version of me that wanted to practice low-impact parenting. The version of me who wanted to get back to the simple things, the basics. Will I start buying baby food in plastic containers when it comes time for solids, preferring the ease of pre-made food to the trouble of making baby food myself? Will Evan, like my nieces, refuse to eat much of the homemade food, preferring the store-bought variety instead?

My instinct is to tell myself to go with the flow. Don’t scrutinize every single decision and just do what works on a day-to-day basis. Parenting is hard enough and there’s so much guilt that comes along with it already. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself. But then I think of the slippery slope that puts me on. When does this mindless, convenient lifestyle change back into the life I had imagined for us? Disposable diapers turn into plastic food containers turn into Lunchables? My very worst nightmare. Seriously.

But am I ready to start now? What compromises can I make? What am I flat unwilling to compromise on?

These are questions I can’t answer yet. They’re questions I need to ask and then ask again until the answers come to me. And come to me they will, I’m sure. And when they do, you’ll hear about it. Rest assured.

(Edited to add: I do recognize that there are options available to us that don’t require those bulky, mattress-like cloth prefolds. I know that there are all-in-one cloth diapers that wouldn’t be so bulky in my kid’s nether region. But I also know that these are expensive. A starter “kit” for these costs at least $400, which we can afford on disposables because it’s spread out over 15 to 20 weeks but which we can’t really just plunk down all at once, especially when we’re concerned about whether they’ll work for us.)


5 Responses to “Cloth Versus Disposable Or, Will My Baby Be Eating Lunchables?”

  1. 1 Stefania

    That photo of the cloth dipe shoved down your baby’s bum is just too too much! So cute!!! I love a cloth-diapered baby. They just seem snugglier for some reason…but despite that, we used disposables. I wish I had the fortitude for cloth diapering.

  2. 2 bubandpie

    This is another approach to a question that has been floating around lately about where our responsibility to do what’s best for our children ends, and our responsibility to the world as a whole begins. To what extent is it justifiable to secure for your child privileges not available to others – especially when these privileges are in limited supply?

    I think, we don’t endanger our children on principle. We don’t withhold things they need to fulfill their potential on principle. We don’t make them really, unnecessarily miserable on principle.

    Someone commented recently at my place, “Don’t sacrifice your children for the greater good.” I agree with that – but not everybody did.

  3. 3 Lawyer Mama

    I was a much better parent before I had children. I knew exactly what I would and “should” do. But the reality of parenting makes you constantly confront what’s best for your child and what’s best for the world or society or the environment, etc…. It never ends.

    We use cloth diapers occasionally. When one of the kiddos had a nasty diaper rash they were awfully handy. And they make great urp cloths!

  4. 4 Christina

    Oh, I’ve made lots of those decisions, then reversed them once the kids were actually here. I had entertained the idea of cloth diapers once, but disposables turned out to be the easier option, and so that’s what we went with.

    It’s even worse with the second baby, because you keep telling yourself, “I’ll do it differently this time…” but then when faced with lack of sleep and time, and another little person who is nothing like the first one, you find yourself wondering what happened to your grand plans.

    There are still some things I won’t compromise on. For example, this time around I’m dedicated to organic baby food or homemade baby food. And I’ve thrown out all my Avent bottles that had toxic chemicals in the plastic.

  5. 5 Patois

    I, too, was not only a better citizen of the earth but a better parent before I became a parent. The simple act of becoming a parent the first time — not to mention the incredibly selfish three times I’ve taken it on — has doomed the earth, I know. But I still try my best to make it up to the earth as best I can.

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