Why One Green-Minded Mama Chose Cloth Diapers


This post comes to you courtesy of my good friend Beth, who chose cloth diapers for her ridiculously adorable daughter, Melby.

Before my daughter was even conceived, I'd made several decisions about my eventual child: I would give birth naturally, she wouldn't have sugar until at least her second birthday, she wouldn't even know technology existed, maybe ever, because we'd spend so much time deeply present with each other, we would use cloth diapers, and her name would be Melby. Most of that was undone almost immediately, when I had to be induced, subsequently mainlined her secondhand sugar through eating exclusively Doritos and cookies for the first several months of her life, and have basically taken a photo of her every waking moment, my phone just inches from her head, drenching her tiny brain in radiation, just because she is so damn cute. However, her name is Melby, and, unlike the rest of my near immediate failures, we have been using cloth diapers since she was born.

Cloth Diapering 101

Cloth diapers, for the uninitiated, are the most basic concept, made nearly impossible by the barrage of options now available. At its simplest, a cloth diaper is a reusable folded piece of cloth inside of a waterproof cover. You replace the cloth regularly, as you would a disposable diaper, while the cover only needs to be washed occasionally just for general cleanliness or in the case of an epic blow out. Of course, in the internet era, there are now millions of options, and you could spend the rest of your life sussing out which insert and cover and specific combination of the two are the absolute best. I nearly went insane doing so, and settled upon the most basic version, which is a prefold-- a rectangular piece of cloth that you fold and hold in place with a claw-toothed rubber device and then cover with a waterproof cover with adjustable snaps to accommodate baby as she grows.

Much like all the unsolicited advice that comes with an impending child, whenever the cloth diapers came up while Melbs was in utero, people responded generally with some version of disbelief, caution, and confusion. Most of it ended in the worried question, Are you sure you want to do that??  People who had attempted cloth warned me that they had given up for one reason or another. The majority of people who hadn't just didn't understand why new parents would add something to their list of things to do or why they would involve themselves any more intimately with bodily fluid than already required. What I figured is: there are endless things to do as it is, and you can't avoid being covered in bodily fluids anyway, so why not be a little green?


Why I Chose to Go With Cloth

I initially chose cloth for the most obvious reason: the environment. There is a lot of discussion around whether cloth is actually better. People run numbers about the carbon footprint of electricity and water usage in laundering cloth diapers; they argue about the toxic impact of detergent and softener usage; they make lists of numbers side by side, digging down into the minutiae of things I could never actually quantify or compare. I am not a scientist or a mathematician. At this point, I am really just working on keeping my baby alive.

But at the end of the day, however the numbers stack up, it just feels better to me to reuse a product rather than to throw something away every single time it's used. In fact, I think in a culture where nearly everything is disposable, perhaps the most important element of the cloth diaper is the attitude you naturally assume in using it. It is a financial and energetic investment-- one that requires regular care, and that emotional investment means you are inherently more intentional about your belongings. There is no way to quantify that. Caring about your things instead of looking at them all as eventual trash is literally invaluable, both financially and environmentally.

As I used cloth diapers, I learned more about the other benefits. Firstly, they get wet. Real wet. And then baby pretty much demands being changed. This may seem like a deficit to some people. It can definitely be inconvenient if you want to run thousands of errands without having to unpack the abyss of the diaper bag, but for me, there is something terrifying about a product that can soak up a bucket's worth of pee and still feel dry to a child. Children, who are raised with cloth diapers, are said to potty train more quickly and easily, simply because they feel when they are wet. I pee, I feel wetness. That is a body awareness and connection that I want to be intentional about cultivating for Melby from the start, an understanding of what her body does and how it makes her feel. I know that might sound terribly hippie, but I think it's important. Just like we are often disconnected from the life cycle of our things, we can also be disconnected from the cycles of ourselves, and some very rudimentary, initial association of your body's actions and the physical feelings attached to those actions seems important to me.

Secondly, what makes those disposable diapers so absorbent so that baby can't feel it during my thousands of errands? I actually looked it up and one popular diaper brand answered and said "hydrogel, sodium polyacrylate, polyacrylate absorbents." I don't know what any of that is. Referring back to my previous admission that I am not a scientist, I won't pretend to know anything about those words. They sound scary but might just be complex names for innocuous things. I do know, however, that I'd much rather have some simple layers of unbleached cotton rather than bleached synthetic materials plus sodium polyacrylate in eternal contact with my baby’s precious, untainted body.

Lastly, if you care for them, cloth diaper are infinitely less expensive than disposables. I could go into epic detail about that as well, but the financial logic of reusable versus disposable is pretty straightforward and, at this point, I should probably give it a rest.

But Before I Do That, A Confession...

After all this evangelizing, it's time for a humbling admission: at night, I use disposables. At almost five months old, Melby sleeps a brilliant 12 hours per night, waking up only once. That's a lot of hours sitting in your own pee, and despite my every single environmental, health, and body-conscious argument leading up to this, I really, really like my sleep. You can cloth diaper a baby overnight successfully, but I wanted the peace of mind of knowing her little buns weren't marinating in urine, so that is where I drew my line. We use 30 disposable diapers per month.

I wrestled with that for a while. It felt shameful to know, share, and celebrate all the reasons to cloth diaper and then to willingly ignore it at regular intervals. But much like I understand how and strive to nourish my body with real, whole foods, I also had a Rice Krispie treat and coffee for breakfast today, and that, more than anything, is example of the reasons I mostly cloth diaper and also sometimes do not. I think it is best for my baby and for the world. I am also human and recognize and feel that parenting is hard. So the majority of the time, I make that intentional choice. The rest of the time, I am likely peacefully lying in my own drool thanks to the sodium polyacrylate in terrifying proximity to her skin. At the end of the day, I think the global and personal impact of what we're doing is still important. It is not perfect, and likely never will be.

I learned from the get go that, especially with parenting, nothing ever quite goes as I planned. Nothing is perfect. I cannot keep my daughter from every toxin, chemical, and artificial experience. My finances and, more importantly, my sanity will simply not allow for it. The best I can do is make conscientious choices and hope that, in doing so, she will learn to do the same. Cloth diapering was just one step in that process.

As a novice parent, I feel assured that she will recognize the thoughtful sacrifices I've made for her, turn out confident, healthy, and well-adjusted because of them, and thank me profusely for all I've done for her throughout her teenage years.

Or maybe, as in all things, I still have a bit to learn about that, too.