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Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers

Before your baby is born, you should take time to make the great diaper decision: cloth or disposable? Both types have pluses and minuses, and neither option is clearly superior. Most parents today opt for disposable diapers, but some parents continue to swear by old-fashioned cloth. You may even go for a combination: cloth diapers at home and disposable when you go out. If you haven't already made up your mind, here are some factors to consider:

  • Cost. Disposable diapers typically cost as little as 20 cents each, and deluxe brands can cost as much as 50 cents or more. The average baby goes through about 7,000 diapers before toilet training, so that adds up to real money. In contrast, it only costs about 3 cents in water, power, and detergent to wash a cloth diaper. (If you use a diaper service, it pretty much eliminates the cost savings, though.) Over the long haul, you can save over $1,200 per child by using cloth diapers.

However, you should also consider what your time is worth. Cloth diapers can mean an extra hour of work every week. If an hour of your time is worth $10, those savings will essentially disappear.

  • Convenience. Disposable diapers are the clear winner when it comes to convenience. No pins, no pails, no folding, no washing. Disposable diapers are especially handy if you don't have a washer and dryer or if you're traveling.
  • Environmental impact. If you don't like the thought of throwing 7,000 diapers in a landfill, you might want to choose cloth diapers instead. A single cloth diaper can be reused up to 75 times, making it an attractive choice for people who want to cut down on trash. But there's a tradeoff: It takes about 50 gallons of water and a fair amount of energy to wash a load of cloth diapers. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a coalition of scientists and citizens dedicated to protecting the world's environment, says parents shouldn't worry too much about how their choice of diaper affects the environment. Other choices -- such as which car to buy -- are far more important, the group says.
  • Comfort. Disposable diapers are generally more absorbent than cloth diapers, so they can keep your baby's skin dry. On the downside, it can be harder to tell when a disposable diaper needs to be changed. Some parents get complacent and go for hours between changes, potentially setting their baby up for a diaper rash.

If you decide to use cloth diapers, choose a kind that has several layers of different types of fabric. These will absorb moisture better than a diaper with just a single layer of fabric. No matter what type of diaper you use, check them often and change them when they're wet or messy.

  • Leaks. Disposable diapers can soak up more urine than cloth diapers, so they are less prone to leak. They're a little bit better at holding in feces, too.

Either way you go, at some point there's probably a disposable diaper in your future. During toilet training some people opt for disposable pull-ups that fit the baby like underwear -- and they're handy for young children who occasionally wet the bed at night as well.

If you still can't decide, don't worry: you'll have 7,000 chances to find a diaper that's right for you and your baby.


University of Minnesota. Diaper choices. 2010.

Nemours Foundation. Baby Basics: Diapering Your Baby.

Real Diaper Association. Real Diaper Facts.

Union of Concerned Scientists. About UCS.

American Academy of Family Physicians. Diaper Rash: Tips on preventing and treating diaper rash. Updated March 2010.

Penn State University. Toilet learning.

Contemporary Pediatrics. Toilet Training: Getting it right the first time. March 2004.

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