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Combating the Disposable Age with Cloth Diapers May 30, 2019 606 No Comments


Keeping Baby dry, clean and warm has been an age-old process, ranging back to times when infants were packed into nests of moss or other absorbent (and disposable) material. Finding a suitable material such as cloth, that will keep an infant dry and warm has always been a challenge – especially before the invention of flexible waterproof materials.

Diapering with Cloth before Pins

Cloth diapers fastened with strings, or simply knotted together at the corners have long been a staple for childcare. In rural communities or small villages, toddlers and preschool age children were often allowed to run about naked, or covered with a dress or shirt that allowed them to squat where ever the mood took them. As plumbing or outhouses became more the mode, it became the “in” thing to hold the baby over a bowl or potty seat, rather than allowing the child to eliminate where ever he or she pleased.

Diapers were laundered in accordance with the family laundry. Lye soap, in many cases, was used to wash just about everything. White clothing – including diapers – were often spread on green grass in bright sunlight to bleach out stains. Infant hygiene was probably about as good as the hygiene practiced by adults.

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Diaper Pins

In 1849, Walter Hunt invented the safety pin. Until then, pins were straight pins – liable to “bite” the wearer, while not terribly secure in clothing. Originally marketed as “dress pins”, the safety pin was made of one continuous wire that could have the sharp end secured under a tab. While better than previous options, diaper pins still had the potential for pinning the baby to the diaper.

The Search for Pinless Diapers

The search was on! How could diapers be easily and conveniently secured without pins? The Acme Shoulder diaper was one such effort – the diaper was held up by an elastic contraption over the shoulders. Before that, diapers were sometimes buttoned to the bottom of a shirt. Next, came diapers with buckles – that didn’t really catch on. But diapers with metal snaps, invented around the 1940s were popular. The only problems with them was that they didn’t adjust well to size changes, and baby could outgrow them far too quickly. Diapers with ties were also popular, and were a little more affordable than snaps.

The 1960s brought a new wrinkle for cloth diapers: diaper clips. These handy little things slip over the top of the diaper where it overlapped, and gripped the edges together. This was almost concurrent with that ever-popular garment closure: Velcro!

Disposable Diapers and Closures

Rubber diaper covers, soakers and finally the disposable diaper were also used in the 20th Century. Disposable diapers, however, were fastened on with pins until, in the early 1970s, someone discovered a way to add tapes to the diapers. This created a way to secure diapers so that they were not forever riding down on narrow infant hips – and getting stepped out of by enterprising toddlers!

Trouble in Diaper City

Although hailed as a blessing for busy moms everywhere, it soon became apparent that disposable diapers were a case of saving energy in one place and creating a problem in another. The first place where disposable diaper trouble showed up was on baby bottoms. When heat and moisture are held in close to an infant tushie, heat rash, reaction to ammonia, and outright sores can quickly develop. Whereas a leaky cloth diaper – even when soiled or wet – allows air to circulate, these wardrobe-saving modern inventions did nothing of the sort.

The next place where diaper trouble showed up was in the bathroom. Although initially touted as “flushable” it quickly became clear that trying to flush a disposable diaper, or even a diaper liner, was an instant invitation to a plumbing bill. On top of that, diaper liners, wet wipes and a host of other “disposables” have recently been shown to be a part of larger waste problems. For example, in London, a so-called “fatberg” the size of three city buses blocked a large sewer. Disposable diapers and wet wipes made up a large percentage of the massive plug.

Back to Cloth

Since disposable diapers clearly carried a bagful of troubles, that brings modern moms around full circle, back to cloth. Fortunately, there are tons of choices for diapering the modern baby bottom.

Flat diapers – just like the ones great-grandma used. Most are about 24” square. Fold in thirds, from the sides, then fold up the bottom one or two thirds – depending upon the size of the child. For little girls, put the extra folds in back, for boys put them in front. Fasten with pins or clips.

Prefolds – Been around since the mid-1940s, often available from diaper services. Use pins or clips to hold them on. Velcro diapers – works great until baby is old enough to grab the edges and yank. So…infant to about six months. Their life can be extended by adding a diaper cover with a sturdier closing mechanism.

Diapers with snaps – these are the super diapers of the modern age. Not only are snaps easy for almost anyone to use, on advanced diaper designs, the snaps can be used to adjust the size of the diaper from preemie to eighteen months or more.

More than that, these modern diapers are beyond cute. They come in all sorts of print fabrics and styles. Some have little pockets for inserting extra padding, while others have the padding built in. Be wary, however, some of these almost need an engineering degree to get them snapped together correctly!

It was from these latter-day cloth diapers that the online diaper boutiques were born. Enterprising seamstress moms not only whizzed together terminally cute bottom covers for their own little darlings, they advertised and sold their creations online. Their home-sewn creations could range from $30.00 per diaper and up. Sound pricey? Well, yes and no. When stacked up against a carton of use-once disposable diapers at $39.99 for a 74-count box, it initially sounds like a lot. But when you consider that a baby will use ten to twelve diapers per day, that box will only last a week or less.

Twenty-four cloth diapers at $35.00 each, works out to $840, which is a pretty steep up-front investment. But the cloth diapers can be washed and reused, over and over. Whereas those disposable diapers , quite aside from the environmental cost, will also work out to around $840.00. Savvy moms can often find second hand cloth diapers or make connections with a friend whose baby is into the esoteric realms of pull-ups and training pants, and be able to cut down on that diaper cost considerably.

Or, for the old-fashioned, penny pinching mom, you can buy a package of three Bird’s Eye flat cotton diapers for less than $12.00, which means that 24 old-style diapers would cost $96.00, add a nappie buckle fastener for $7.00, and you have six months’ worth of backside cover for $103.00, not counting laundry costs.

In practice, what many modern parents do is to use disposables for long trips, put ordinary cloth diapers on their little one for around home, and save the fancy pants for trips to the grocery or for play dates. The search for economical, labor saving, healthful solutions for infants has been going on for centuries, and will doubtless continue until the perfect solution is found.

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