When we were expecting our first child, I knew cloth diapering was something we wanted to explore, for both environmental and financial reasons. I can still remember how adorable the stacks of neatly folded diapers looked—ready and waiting to be used before our daughter even arrived. There are many options when it comes to diapers, and it can be overwhelming. For some parents, a decision about diapers comes down to which brand of disposables works best for fit and absorption, or even which ones are on sale at the grocery store that week. For issues like skin sensitivity or environmental concerns, some parents go in search of cloth diapers. To settle the cloth vs. disposable diapers debate in your family, you’ll want to focus on a few key components: budget, time, and lifestyle.
There is an upfront cost to using cloth diapers—an average set that includes covers is around $350 to $600, while premium brands can range up to $800. There are added costs for supplies like diaper wet bags and cloth wipes, and don't forget the ongoing laundry costs—whether you’re sending them out or washing them at home. Disposables are less of an investment up front, but still a greater cost overall, with the average yearly cost of premium brand diapers coming in around $1,000. (Shop around to find the most competitive prices and bulk discounts.)
Cloth diapers have the benefit of durability, so a good set can be used for more than one child in a family. It’s also possible to buy the diapers and supplies secondhand.
Longtime cloth diaper user Nicole Spencer, from East Vancouver, is using the same cloth diapers for her one-year-old as she did for her now-three-year-old. The one-size hybrid style of cloth diapers she uses grows with the baby from birth to potty training, meaning Spencer only had to buy one set. (There are also two-size hybrid systems, which require you to buy a second set as your baby grows.)
For some parents, cloth diapers aren’t an option because of the time and inconvenience of having to wash them. That was the case for mom of two Kristi Lee from Oakville, Ont. “I never considered cloth diapers because of the extra work I would have to do on top of all my other household chores,” says Lee. “I think it takes a certain kind of person to use cloth diapers, and I knew I wasn’t that person.”
“There’s an idea that cloth diapers have pins, rubber covers and smelly pails,” says Kerri Wanner, mom of one and owner of Cozy Bums, a cloth diaper store in Prince George, BC. “But today’s cloth diapers can be as easy to use as disposables and as easy to clean as your clothes.” Yes, it means two or three extra loads of laundry each week, but some parents are fine with that.
The time you put into cleaning and prepping diapers varies somewhat by the type of diaper system you buy, says Wanner. An all-in-one system is most like a disposable diaper, with all layers contained in the diaper—you put it on the baby and take the whole diaper off when it’s time for a change. But because you go through a whole diaper with every change (rather than replacing an insert or liner), you’ll need more diapers, so there’s a higher upfront cost. The newer one-size hybrid style of cloth diapers uses an inner liner that increases absorption, lengthening the time between changes, and blends it with the all-in-one format that grows with the baby. Most cloth diapers come with a waterproof cover to protect clothing. You can also buy biodegradable disposable liners (around $7 for 100) so poop can be picked up and easily dumped into the toilet for flushing, saving time and minimizing mess.
A family can expect to use around 8,000 disposable diapers per child from birth to toilet training. While convenience is probably the most attractive feature of disposables, there’s a lot of waste. On the plus side, they’re becoming more environmentally friendly as cities introduce composting programs. Families of multiples, co-parents living in different homes, or those whose babes are with a caregiver or in daycare may find disposables more practical.
When a woman in my prenatal class overheard me say I was planning to use cloth diapers, we swapped phone numbers because she planned to do the same. We supported each other through the process. With our first, washing diapers wasn’t an issue. When our second child was born, we were living in a smaller space with a tiny stackable washer and dryer, so we switched to a cloth diaper service (which costs $17 to $21 a week) that picked up the soiled diapers from our porch and washed and returned them. Services like this are often available in larger cities.
For some families, the choice of cloth vs. disposable diapers may actually be a mix of both—cloth at home and disposables at night or while travelling. In the end, what works for your family will depend on what option you are most comfortable using until you can celebrate a fully potty-trained preschooler.