I came across a remarkably detailed post at The Thrift Store Cloth Diaper Project about how to make your own cloth diapers from thrift store finds and got to thinking about nappies, not a subject on my mind these days when grandparenthood is still off in the future. But as I wrote in a section on “Nappies” in The Green Home (1995), not long after I’d had babies wearing them:

When you have a leaky little one you get obsessed with nappies. Fathers swop notes on the best type, and friends report on which shop has your favourite brand at 50p off.

This lead me to a fascinating exchange about the introduction of disposable nappies, or diapers, in China, yet another of the environmental issues just coming to that vast population. Traditionally, Chinese babies wear no diapers at all, just little split trousers so they can do their business without getting undressed. I have no experience with the practical side of this but have seen plenty of children peeing outside with the help of a parent. Here’s the article about “‘Pampering’ Babies.”

And here’s how my section in The Green Home continues:

Of course I’m talking about disposable plastic and paper nappies, not the terry nappies our mothers or grandmothers boiled in a copper. 65% of babies are now put into disposable nappies and approximately nine million are used every day in Britain – used and discarded. But unfortunately, not disposed of. Disposable nappies simply are not disposable. They are non degradable, a potential health hazard, and they contribute to the depletion of limited timber and petroleum reserves. Anyone who has used disposables will remember how the dustbins were suddenly twice as full. It is estimated that four per cent of household solid waste is made up of soiled nappies. For every pound we spend on disposable nappies, taxpayers will spend 10p on disposal. (The issue does not involve only baby nappies. The Japanese, as well as the Americans, are concerned about the additional burden of disposable nappies worn by the incontinent aged, in an ageing society.)

I understand why people use disposables, and I have used them myself. After all, everyone else seems to, including the maternity ward at your local hospital. This tacit medical endorsement, fortified by the free samples given to new mothers, is enough to convince many parents that disposables are the correct thing to use. Because disposables save time and effort they can seem worth the expense, though it is considerable: some 1500 for a child potty trained by age two and a half.

Modern sanitation involves the separation of sewage from other waste, but with disposable nappies huge amounts of faecal matter are treated as part of the household rubbish rather than being processed through the sewage system, though when one considers that raw sewage is piped offshore near many British beaches, perhaps this is an idle concern.
Nappies may be yet another source of groundwater contamination from landfill sites. ‘Leachate containing viruses from human feces (including live vaccines from routine childhood immunizations) can leak into the earth and pollute underground water supplies. In addition to the potential of groundwater contamination, airborne viruses carried by flies and other insects contribute to an unhealthy and unsanitary situation,’ concluded a study by disposal specialist Carl Lehrburger.

Nappy rash was virtually unknown before plastic pants became common in the 1950s, and the mother whose child has recurrently raw and painful bottom will know that it is essential to get the child out of ‘ordinary’, ie disposable, nappies. Doctors suggest leaving the child bare as much as possible (a good rule for any baby) and at least temporarily switching to cloth nappies.’ Keeps baby drier’ means that his blanket or your knee is kept dry while the moisture is sealed inside the nappy, next to baby’s skin. Because of the high cost of disposables they may not be changed often enough (12 15 times a day is recommended for newborns which would cost nearly ú20 a week!).

Cloth tips

Terry nappies are very absorbent, but I found the standard 24 inch squares awkward to handle and pin. The new fitted cloth nappies, with shaped nylon covers, are easier to use. Although the initial expense of using cloth nappies and covers is much greater than buying a bag of disposables at the supermarket, in the long run you should cut costs by about half, even taking laundering into account, and subsequent babies add nothing to the total.

Cloth Diaper Checklist

With modern washing machines and dryers, using cloth nappies should be much easier for us than it was for our mothers. Here’s how:
1 Make sure you have enough nappies, 3 to 4 dozen. You will also need a covered pail to hold rinsed nappies until wash time (which will be nearly every day, while your baby is small), a supply of borax and a gentle washing powder. Gauze liners make cleaning easier use them rather than disposable paper liners.
3 Half fill the pail with a mild borax solution to disinfect the nappies, and reduce odours and staining.
4 Wet nappies can go straight into the nappy pail you can rinse them first if you like and soiled nappies should be shaken or scraped (with an old knife or spoon) and then rinsed in the toilet bowl. Into the pail with borax solution.
5 When ready to wash, drain the excess solution into the toilet, then use a spin cycle to drain dirty water. Then a hot wash, and double rinse don’t overload the machine.
6 Inside, you may want to use a tumble dryer (if you have one) on high heat to help sterilization. Tumbling also makes the nappies softer than drying on a rack or over a radiator. Dry outside whenever you can: sunlight acts as a natural disinfectant and gentle bleach.
7 Try to avoid plastic pants. Terry nappies can sometimes be used on their own. ‘Soakers’ are knitted wool or fabric covers which offer moderation protection.
7 Let your baby go bare whenever you can, inside and out.
8 Don’t feel guilty about using a disposable occasionally. But a pox on those scented plastic bags made to wrap disposables for disposal!

Enterprising women have started nappy services all over the country, and the Women’s Environmental Network, or the Yellow Pages, can help you find one. The cost falls midway between washing your own and using disposables. A nappy service provides cloth nappies and regular pick up and collection. You hand over your pail of rinsed nappies, and in return get a pile of bouncy fresh ones, washed and dried in high temperature machines. What a delightful alternative.