Modern cloth nappies

Modern cloth nappies

When I talk to people about reusable modern cloth nappies/diapers I’m always faced with the question of whether they’re actually more environmentally friendly after water and energy use than disposables.

Really? That’s like saying using disposable cutlery and plates is better because washing them isn’t sustainable, but don’t mind the landfill. We seem to have forgotten the good old reduce, reuse, recycle mantra. Because at least with reusables we can choose renewable energy and recycled water to take responsibility for our consumption.

I think people question the environmental credentials rather than look in to reusables because its confusing, overwhelming for new parents, and washing nappies seems far too daunting and like too much of a commitment on top of looking after another life!

Below is a run down of the benefits of cloth nappies for those who still need convincing, and a guide to help the overwhelmed but well-intentioned.

Environmental benefits

A 2008 UK study found that when nappies were washed as per most brands instructions (full loads of laundry at 60 degrees celcius or lower and line dried) reusable modern cloth nappies had the lowest enviornmental impact. Based on ‘average’ nappy use disposable nappies produced 408.4 kg CO2e per year, while reusable nappies resulted in 370kg CO2e.

Based on this study, if you prefer convenience and are doing lots of short hot washes then tumble drying you end up having more of an impact than disposables. However, if you’re an eco concious parent who tries to minimise the impact of your washing habits (which I imagine most parents choosing reusable nappies would be) then modern cloth nappies have the lowest environmental impact.

Add to the argument that reusables can be used for multiple children and parents can choose to use renewable energy, recycled water, and efficient washing machines, and bubs don’t need pants in Summer because modern cloth nappies are so cute, reusables definitely come out as the environmentally friendlier option when laundered in a mindful way.

Cost benefits

If we use an average figure of six nappies a day, each child will use 3000 nappies between birth and toilet training at around three years.

The cost of disposables will work out between $2000 and $3000 per child depending on the brand you choose.

For reusable nappies if you’re washing every second day you need around 20 nappies. At around $30 each that’s $600 for the nappies themselves. The cost of laundering the nappies varies greatly depending on the machine and detergent you use. But if we take an average of $1000 over three years for washing, reusables are cheaper at $1600 per child, with a cost of $1000 with each subsequent child.

Health considerations

Resuable nappies are the only option where you can choose between synthetic stay-dry fabric, bamboo or cotton against bubs skin. Disposables mean more exposure to chemical substances which can disrupt the endocrine system.

Modern cloth nappies are the more environmentally friendly, economical and health concious option for one baby, but even moreso for multiple children.

Once you’ve decided to go ahead with modern cloth nappies you’re faced with so many different types and brands it’s overwhelming and hard to know where to start. So here’s a guide to make it simpler.


Modern cloth nappies come in three basic types – all-in-one, all-in-two and separates.

All-in-ones are the closest type of nappy to a disposable. They have the absorbant fabric sewn in so that once its dirty you take it off and put it in to the wash as is. They’re super simple for any carer to use, but are slower to dry than the other types.

There are two types of all-in-twos – snap-ins and pockets. Snap-ins have poppers that attach the absorbant fabric inside a waterproof polyurethane (PUL) nappy shell. The pocket version has an opening at the back which you stuff the absorbant material in. This allows the fabric to be separated from the shell to speed up drying time and allows the shell to be used over separated fitted nappies.

Separate nappies, either slimmer versions of the old fold style and fitted fabric nappies, require a waterproof shell (either PUL or lanolised wool). This allows pure organic cotton or bamboo to be against bubs skin, but does make change times a bit longer, especially if you have a squirmer, and more difficult for other carers (some day cares baulk at using these).


All-in-one All-in-two Separates
Ease of use *** ** *
Drying time * *** **
Bulkiness ** ** *
Fabric insert options * ** ***


Then in each category you can pick sized nappies (newborn, small, medium and large) or one-sized-fits-most. One-size-fits-most say they work from newborn (4kg) to toddlers ready for toilet training (15kg). In reality they’re too bulky to put on a newborn unless you want their legs sticking at right angles from their bodies. They’re more suitable from three months onwards. While one-size-fits-most might be a bit bulky, they have the benefit of being more economical and environmentally friendly as one set can take your child from around three months to three years. However, parents who prefer a slim-line tight fit or have multiple kids in nappies may prefer the sized approach.


In terms of fastening there are two options – either velcro or snaps. Velcro is quickest and easiest to use, however snaps are harder for your bubba to take off! If you use the old style pre-fold nappy you can now get ‘snappies’ to secure the nappy instead of safety pins.


Most modern cloth nappy shells have a waterproof polyurethane (PUL) layer or coating. The outside can be PUL (usually plain colours or prints), cotton (a great range of prints), or beautifully soft minky (bright colours snd simple prints).

The inserts can be cotton, bamboo, microfleece or other synthetics. The synthetics are better at drawing the liquid away from the skin (thereby reducing nappy rash), however does mean chemicals are in contact with bubs skin. Cotton won’t draw liquid away from the skin, but if you change it regularly won’t cause nappy rash. With bamboo be aware that the bamboo has been through chemical processing to produce the fabric and is therefore not as natural an option as cotton.

Boosters and inserts

Extra inserts, known as boosters, can be purchased to increase absorbancy. With all inserts they need to be soaked overnight then prewashed to increase their absorbancy.

Night nappies

Specific night nappies are produced to give super absorbancy to get you through the night without any changes. The extra absorbancy comes from extra layers of fabric, so these are super bulky. If your bub is feeding during the night, a toddler, or a heavy wetter, the nappy will be drenched in the morning, but it will have done its job!


For those that are squeemish about cleaning solids from the nappies you can purchase thin flushable bamboo liners that go straight in the loo.


You can also purchase hemp, cotton or terry wipes which are just like face washers. Use these with either a bit of warm water or some diluted castile soap in a foaming pump.


When you’re out and about you’ll need to take your dirty nappies with you. You can purchase small wetbags for wipes, medium wetbags that hold up to three nappies which will get you through most day trips, or large wetbags which hold up to eight nappies for whole days away (such as for kids in daycare). Some wetbags have just the one wet section, while others also incorporate a dry pocket to stash your clean nappies and wipes.

My system

We switched to reusables at three months. I have a total of 20 day nappies and four night nappies. I use one-size-fits-most all-in-two Bonnibuns Night Nappies, Bubblebubs Candies snap in nappies and Designer Bums pocket nappies because I can fold them so there are no synthetic materials against bubbas skin, they’re soft for her to wear, and they’re made by local mums. I chose the snap fastening because at four months bubba’s already pulling at them! They cost me around $500. We change nappies every three hours or so, giving us about five nappy changes during the day. We throw the dirty nappies in a dry lidded pail/bucket which I got for free from my local wholefoods store. I then chuck them in to wash with our clothes every second or third night. We use soap nuts and they always come out clean and soft. They dry on a clothes airer overnight and in summer are ready for use again the next day. It seems like a lot of options and variables to think through, but it becomes a pretty simple process once you’ve figured out a system that works for you.

Getting started

Every bub and every parent is different, so you’ll probably need to try a few different options to find what fits and works best for you both.

There are nappy libraries where you can hire a few different types of reusable nappies for a week to see what works for you.

Many people also sell second hand reusable nappies that are still in good condition, which is also an economical way to try some out and build a nappy stash.

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1 Comment

  1. Katie - July 19, 2013

    Nice to see someone using cloth nappies.. they are better on the skin for the children anyway.. I really dislike the way our ” throw away society” figures disposable nappies are the way to go. Thanks its great.

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