Bob in my favourite style of nappy
I often find people have a big misconception about the amount of effort involved in using cloth nappies. I believe that this stems from experience of the old-fashioned ways of washing them, and hearing about this from older mothers. Before the advent of washing machines mothers would spend their whole day soaking, boiling, wringing and drying nappies. They didn't have reliably waterproof covers, so the nappies would soak through, and clothes and bedding would also have to be washed in this way. When the general population gained access to domestic washing machines this process changed, so that mothers were soaking the nappies in solution before washing, then hulking around a bucket full of water and wet cloth to drain off the fluid and get all the soaked nappies into the machine. Mothers who used these systems (and their daughters who have heard about this method) are often baffled as to why I would choose cloth when I could use a disposable product. After use I store my soiled nappies dry in a bin (sluiced in the toilet if they are particularly messy, but since Bob is exclusively breastfed and therefore poos yoghurt this isn't a problem for me), then tip them into the machine with a scoop of powder and they come out lovely and clean, and ready for the line or the tumble dryer. In the olden days nappies had to be run through the mangle, because being absorbent they pick up a lot of water in the wash. Today we have fast spin cycles on our washing machines that do the job for us. The combination of modern washing powders, washing machines and tumble dryers means that the process is nothing like that experienced by my grandmother, or even my mother.
Modern one-piece and pocket nappies
The composition of nappies has changed a lot in the last twenty years. Instead of the simple squares of fabric folded and pinned together by our mothers, I have a choice of many different shapes and styles of nappy, as well as alternatives to pins, and high quality waterproof covers. I can find the nappy that suits my child best by trying different styles from a nappy library like this one. My favourite for the boys is a shaped nappy that fixes with poppers, uses a poppered-in booster for heavy wetting (such as overnight), and I can combine with a gusseted, poppered waterproof pant. You can also use a fleece or flushable liner in the nappy, which makes it easy to get rid of poo. Fleece liners are especially brilliant because they allow all liquid to soak through to the nappy, so that the baby's bottom isn't wet. At no point do you actually have to touch poo, and I don't have a problem with leaks.
Modern flat and shaped nappies
A large, extra-absorbent fleece night nappy for older children
A lot of cloth nappy advocates bang on about the financial savings involved in choosing cloth nappies over disposables. There is no doubt that this is substantial. I have a massive stash of nappies, all bought second hand, and have spent around £50. Of course it is possible to spend a lot of money on first hand nappies, but it certainly wouldn't add up to the cost of using disposables. I wash my nappies every second or third day, along with my cloth wipes and anything else I feel could do with an especially thorough wash, such as Sausages' knickers or the terry squares I put over the changing mat. This is less than a full load in my 8kg washing machine, especially as I like to give Bob lots of nappy free time to kick around, and do a bit of elimination communication on the side. If you can't manage the extra laundry then you can use a cloth nappy service, which picks up dirty nappies once a week and replaces them with clean ones. There are definitely financial savings to be made. It's obvious that using reusable nappies saves us from ploughing extra waste into landfill and using vast amounts of hydrocarbons, but since many cloth nappies are made from non-organic cotton, hemp or bamboo, and extra electricity and water are required for laundering them, I don't have the information to say with certainty whether they are more environmentally friendly or not.
EDIT: the lovely Helena at Ely Nappy Library has messaged me to say that "An Environment Agency life cycle study from 2008 showed that reusable nappies are 40% better for the environment than disposables as long as they are washed no hotter than 60, mostly air dried and not ironed." How sweet of them, but who out there is ironing their nappies?!
Bob wearing a wool soaker I knitted myself, fixed with a modern replacement for nappy pins
(he's sneezing, not crying, don't worry!)
Have you had a go with cloth nappies? Please do share your experiences with us!
* I'm mostly going to ignore the phrase "real nappies," because I don't understand it and I think it sounds a bit superior. Feel free to illuminate me.