What Everybody Ought To Know About Cloth Nappies

cloth nappies

“Cloth nappies….what?”


“Don’t you have to boil them?”

“How much?”

“It will take too long, I don’t have the time.”

These are among the various comments that we at Croydon Real Nappy Network (CRNN www.croydonrealnappies.org.uk) regularly hear at our stalls in the local hospital and around the borough. We also have lots of positive interactions from the many eco-minded parents-to-be, who have often had a quick (or sometimes long) ‘google’ and arrive armed with questions.

On the surface, washable nappies may seem a fairly straightforward topic, but for the novice embarking on environmentally friendly options for their new baby, this topic can appear convoluted. New words – wrap, all-in-one, nippa, birth-to-potty – as well as all the different styles, makes and colours can make this more confusing that it should be. To compound this, very few washable nappies are available in high street shops, so it is difficult for anyone to really get a feel for what they’re like when looking online.

So what are they and why use them? Well, quite simply, washable nappies are just that – washable. They are also called cloth nappies or reusables but are all the same in that they are designed to be washed after use and re-used thousands of times. Made mostly from natural fibres such as cotton, wool, hemp, bamboo (although some synthetics are used too such as fleece*) and with non-PVC waterproof covers, they are the most cost effective and least environmentally damaging nappy option for babies and children (if you choose to use nappies at all, and most of us in this part of the world do. Elimination communication is the practice of knowing when your baby needs to wee etc. and holding them over an appropriate receptacle).

*fleece can be made from recycled plastic, which comes from items such as soft-drinks bottles, so is also quite a ‘green’ product.

Benefits Of Reusable Cloth Nappies

The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN www.wen.org.uk) carried out a complete life cycle analysis of various kinds of cloth nappy, starting with growing the plants through to transporting, washing, drying and eventual disposal. Although now dated, it showed how much money in real terms can be saved by using them.

Another huge benefit of using washables is the reduction in use of synthetic, non-biodegradable and often oil-based, single use nappies (disposables). Many parents are genuinely concerned about this aspect and we find that more often than not, it is their main reason for wanting to use reusables, with health risks coming in a close second.

Health risks you say? How can a nappy be dangerous? Well, it’s fiendishly difficult to find out what ingredients are used in disposables but the absorbent chemical gels were enough to make me search elsewhere. And is there still PVC (including hormone disrupting phthalates) in the waterproof cover? That was the clincher for me – none of those near my new baby’s thin skin, thank you very much, right on top of all those reproductive organs with all their hormones.

And more research is definitely needed into overheating baby boys’ testes. If overheating does damage the sperm (the testes are outside the body to keep them cooler) then cooler, cloth nappies have to be the way forward.

Not forgetting the added bonus that cloth-bummed babies potty-train earlier. Although not strictly a health risk, late potty training is becoming more of an issue as schools require children to be out of nappies by the time they start school, but increasing numbers are not these days.

Buying Cloth Nappies

So, where to get these wonderfully planet and baby-friendly cloth nappies? Mostly online is the short answer, which is why we at CRNN (and many other nappy networks throughout the country) spend considerable time and effort showing anyone who is interested a large selection of washable nappies.

They come in a huge variety of styles, sizes, colours and prices. Fancy a waterproof cover with a football strip emblazoned across it? Or a cute puppy or flower? They’re all possible, at a price of course. But for ‘ordinary’ functional nappies, there’s something to suit every pocket – although the more expensive, modern designs are more popular.

So Why Isn’t Everyone Using Them?

Mostly for a combination of the sentiments expressed in the opening comments. People don’t know that cloth nappies exist these days, they just go with what they can see in the shops – disposables. If you don’t know that an alternative exists, then you won’t think of searching for it (often).

If washables are known about, they are often considered ‘old-fashioned’. While Terry towelling squares (and similar nappies) are still available, functional and cheap, more modern designs are on sale in a huge variety of colours, shapes and styles. People just need to know to look for them.

Then there’s the poo. Well, as the saying goes, poo happens (or something like that anyway!). Every person on the planet deals with poo every day so what’s the big deal with your baby’s poo? Just the idea of it really, I think. It has to be dealt with and it’s often a way to know and see that your child is healthy. No poo – could be a problem. Runny poo – could be a problem. OK poo – things are probably ticking over nicely inside your little one. Not an exact science admittedly, but you get the picture.

cloth nappies drying on a washing line
Cloth nappies are not as big a deal as you may think, wash them in the machine and hang them up to dry – done!

Boiling nappies – no need with these ones, your washing machine does the job just fine. Tumble drying – no need either, they dry on the line or on airing racks (besides which tumble drying would destroy the waterproof membranes).

Cost is the last major stumbling block. On average, washables are around £15 each, so if you go for 2 dozen, that’s £180 (many are cheaper though). This is an investment and should be seen as such from the beginning. If used all the time (and not everyone does this) then they will have paid for themselves in a few months, compared to regularly throwing money at disposables for around two and a half years, to be discarded after one use.

Washables can be used by subsequent children, thereby reducing household expenditure even more, and there’s even a market for used ones, see here for details – (http://www.realnappiesforlondon.org.uk/exchange/).

So will parents using cloth nappies be stuck changing nappies and washing them all day? Of course not! It will add a few extra minutes as the washing machine is loaded or nappies hung out but when a new baby arrives, everything changes. If cloth nappies are part of your new routine, it won’t be as big a change as you thought it would be.

About CRNN

How do we help? After several years of providing information and support to anyone interested in using washables, we decided to set up our own voucher scheme. Many other groups (mostly county councils) already do this as part of their waste reduction policy.

We have found that when families can try out some cloth nappies for free (through our £30 vouchers), they then have more confidence when choosing a particular type in which to invest. They are less concerned that their money will be wasted on a product that they won’t use while being reassured of good value for money and better health benefits for their child and the planet.

At CRNN, we are always on the lookout for new sources of funding (to help 10 families costs £300) so if any of you lovely people would like to support a good cause, then here we are! Green Steve did – why not you?

Grace (1 Posts)

Grace is part of a team who run the Croydon Real Nappy Network - saving the planet from the bottom up!

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