It’s unavoidable, unfortunately — your adorable little bundle of joy will also come with a lot of poop! Yep, a lot. It might seem pretty obvious to say you’ll need to get some diapers, but this is actually not as simple as it might seem — there are lots of options available. We’ll help you to figure out what you need, and the best choices for you.
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Your two basic options: Cloth and disposable
The eternal question: cloth or disposable? We’re not going to attempt to wrestle this one to the ground (plenty of discussion on this topic elsewhere on the internet), but here are the high-level considerations.
For convenience and absorption, nothing beats disposable diapers — as evidenced by the approximately 90% of American parents using them. Modern disposables are thin, lightweight, and super absorbent — able to absorb many times their weight in water.
The norm only a half century ago, cloth diapers are once again making a comeback — in a big way. Many modern parents who can’t stomach the environmental impact of using disposable diapers (6,000+ diapers into landfills per baby) are instead opting to use cloth. Cloth diapers are also much more cost-effective over the entire diapering lifecycle — on the order of hundreds of dollars rather than thousands. Plus, modern cloth diapers are pretty cute to boot!
How many diapers will I need?
Newborns typically go through 10-12 diapers per day; infants, 6-8 per day; toddlers 1-5 per day (even potty trained kids usually need an overnight diaper for another year or so). The average child goes through 5,000-8,000 diapers total by age 4.
Are disposable diapers safe for my baby?
What they’re made of
Mainstream disposable diapers at their core consist of a super-absorbent core sandwiched in between two thin layers of plastic. The absorbent core allows the diaper to hold many times its weight in water, while the outer plastic layer contains the wetness.
That’s enough information for many people, but if you’re interested in the nitty gritty details, read on. The top sheet (closest to baby’s skin) is a hydrophilic (liquid-permeable) nonwoven top sheet made of polypropylene. The absorbent core is typically composed of a mix of SAP (superabsorbent polymer, most commonly sodium polyacrylate) and wood pulp fluff. The bottom sheet (the outermost layer of the diaper) is made of a hydrophobic (water-impermeable) nonwoven polyethylene film; sometimes a thin layer of polypropylene is also added, to make it feel more cloth-like. A moisture-wicking Acquisition and Distribution Layer (ADL) may also be used as an intermediate layer between the top sheet and absorbent core, to move liquids quickly from baby’s bottom and distributing it evenly across the core. Additionally, a hydrophobic polypropylene nonwoven sheet is used in the leg cuffs to prevent leakage. The various trim items on a diaper (e.g. elastic, tape, adhesives) are also mainly derived from synthetic materials. Latex is sometimes used in elastic tape and threads. Dyes are sometimes added to create the cute characters/designs on diapers. Perfumes are sometimes added to provide a masking scent.
Many premium/”green” diapers use alternative materials in their diapers; in particular, they often feature top and bottom sheets made from plant-based (e.g. PLA/Ingeo biopolymers, corn starch-based bioplastics, bamboo) rather than petroleum-based materials. These materials are made renewable resources and are biodegradeable.
What that means for your baby’s safety
Polypropylene and polythelene are considered “safer” plastics, in that they are non-chlorinated and require the use of fewer toxic additives. They are not known to leach any chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer or disrupting hormones — unlike “unsafe” plastics such as PVC (often made with plasticizers such as phthalates), polystyrene, and polycarbonate (the bad kind containing BPA).
Most SAP (superabsorbent polymer, usually sodium polyacrylate) is made from acrylic acid or petroleum; some is vegetable based. Extensive research on this gel has shown it to be chemically inert, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, and non-irritating to the skin. It was banned from tampons in the 80s due to a presumed link to Toxic Shock Syndrome, however no causal relationship was ever established, and no baby has ever gotten TSS from a diaper. However, some parents get understandably skittish when gel crystals leak out and get onto baby’s skin. Some diapers use more SAP than others, and some diapers are better constructed than others; if you are concerned about SAP coming into contact with your baby’s skin, then you should choose your diaper accordingly.
The wood pulp in the absorbent core can be of legitimate health concern. Some wood pulp is processed using elemental chlorine bleaching (also called chlorine gas), which produces carcinogenic toxins including dioxin. These are harmful to the environment and can also remain in trace amounts in diapers. Although chlorine-based processing is on its way out, it is definitely still worthwhile to make sure that your diaper is chlorine-free. There are two alternative bleaching processes referred to as “chlorine free”:
- Elemental chlorine-free bleaching (ECF): Uses chlorine dioxide instead of chlorine gas. ECF bleaching can substantially reduce, but not fully eliminate, chlorinated organic compounds, including dioxins. ECF is far the most common process utilized in pulp production today worldwide.
- Totally Chlorine-Free (TCF): Uses an oxygen bleaching process, typically hydrogen peroxide. By removing chlorine from the process entirely, does not release any chlorinated organic compounds into the environment. Very rare; most TCF pulp is produced in Sweden and Finland.
There is disagreement within the scientific community as to whether ECF-based or TCF-based bleaching is better for the environment. Some scientists believe that ECF still releases some toxins into the environment, while others believe that there is no toxicological difference. On the flip side, the TCF process is 3-4% less efficient (it requires more trees to make the same amount of paper). So, what does all of this mean for you and your baby? In our opinion, it’s definitely worth looking for a diaper that is “chlorine-free,” either using ECF or TCF pulp. And if you are willing to pay an extra premium for the “just in case” scenario, then look for a diaper that uses only TCF pulp, such as Naty, Bambo, or Honest Co.
Another concern related to wood pulp is potential remnants of TBT (tributyltin), an industrial biocide used as an antifungal agent in wood pulp mills. Many more health-conscious diapers will advertise themselves as TBT-free.
And what about diaper additives such as perfumes, dyes, lotions, and latex? Perfumes, dyes, and lotions are not inherently harmful to most babies, but our view is that they constitute unnecessary chemicals and should be avoided. Also, some babies may have strong allergic reactions to one or more of these ingredients, making them risky and unworthwhile additions.
So the bottom line is, there are several legitimate health concerns related to mainstream disposable diapers. However, if do your research and choose wisely, it is possible to choose a disposable diaper that is non-toxic and safe for your baby.
NB: All that said, even the safest disposable diaper may not work for a baby with sensitive skin or tendency to develop rashes. If you need something more breathable, you may also want to consider a disposable with a more breathable waterproof diaper (e.g. Naty), or cloth diapers without a waterproof layer built in.
Here are the key features to look for when shopping for a disposable diaper (unless a diaper brand specifically advertises these, you can pretty safety assume it doesn’t have them).
- Absorbency: In our opinion, the most critical performance criterion for a diaper. The highest-performing diapers remain dry to the touch inside even after multiple wets. All modern disposable diapers achieve absorbency through the use of SAP, however some “green” diapers use less SAP.
- Tendency to leak: Some diapers without snug-fitting leg cuffs and elastic waists may leak or cause blowouts. Fit obviously varies by baby, so you may need to try a few diapers to find the best fit for your little one.
- Elastic waist and/or stretchy side wings: Both are helpful for a flexible, adjustable fit. Most diapers only have one or the other.
- Wetness indicator: A visual indicator to let you know when the diaper is wet. Helpful, especially for younger babies.
- Cost: Diapers feature a wide range of prices, from approximately $0.15 per diaper for store brands to upwards of $0.50 per diaper for some premium/green brands.
- Chlorine-free: Recommended. Keeps your baby safe from the trace amounts of dioxin that may be left in his diaper as a result of chlorine-based processing of the wood pulp in the absorbent core. Chlorine-free manufacturing processes are also less toxic to the environment. See above for more details.
- Perfume, dye, lotion, and latex-free: Avoiding all of these is important for babies with sensitive skin, as they can develop allergies — and we don’t feel any of these is necessary anyway, so they’re best to avoid. If you need lotion, it’s better for you to simply apply it as needed. For diapers with patterns, avoid dyes and look for inks free of heavy metals.
- Other nasties: Select diapers also advertise themselves as phthalate, organotin (MBT, DBT, TBT), HCHO (formaldehyde), AZO-pigment, colophonium, optical brightener, and PVC free.
- Biodegradeable and/or compostable: “Biodegradeable” means a product will break down into elements found in nature within a year; “compostable” means it will break down into humus and provide soil with nutrients. Many green diapers are marketed as one or both of these — powerful promises for parents seeking to ease their guilt regarding the environmental impact of their disposable diaper use. And diaper manufacturers are indeed to be lauded for their innovations, for example replacing petroleum-based plastics with plant-based polymers and using less SAP in the absorbent core. However, even the greenest diapers today are only about 80% biodegradeable (the remaining SAP, velcro, and elastics are not biodegradeable). Additionally, even the biodegradeable components will not break down promptly in a landfill (where they don’t have access to the required air, water, and light). So, unless you plan to pay for a diaper compost service (home compost doesn’t get hot enough to safely handle fecal matter), don’t be misled into thinking that any disposable diaper you buy will decompose anytime soon.
- Green / eco-friendly: These terms get thrown around a lot, but usually refer to products that have less harmful impact on the earth, either via 1) their construction (e.g. use of renewable resources such wood from sustainable forestry or bamboo vs. petrochemicals), 2) the manufacturing process (e.g. fewer chemical pollutants or less waste), and/or 3) their ability to biodegrade after disposal. Beware of “pseudo”-green products that market themselves as green or eco-friendly, but actually aren’t — read the fine print and look for certifications. Wood pulp from sustainably manufactured forests will often be FSC-certified. You can also look for other certifications, such as the Nordic Swan eco-label.
Disposing of soiled diapers appropriately
Solid waste should be dumped in the toilet before throwing a diaper in the trash. Doing otherwise can put sanitation workers’ health at risk (viruses can live on for months after leaving the human body), and contaminate groundwater with bacteria. Similarly, don’t attempt to compost biodegradeable at home.
Keeping your nursery smelling like a rose
The key to keep your nursery smelling fresh is to use a well-contained receptacle (with a tight-fitting lid, and/or compartmentalized bags). Disposing of solid waste appropriately before putting it in the trash (as described above) will also help to reduce odor. If that doesn’t seems to help, you can try double-bagging your soiled diapers — or just get in the habit of taking out the trash more regularly!
Minimizing your chances of diaper rash
Change diapers promptly after they are wet or soiled. Take prompt action to treat any emerging rash, including keeping the diaper area as dry as possible, providing occasional “air time,” using a barrier cream, and not rubbing the diaper area abrasively. If it doesn’t improve, you might also experiment with more breathable diapering options (e.g. cloth).
- Diapers (obviously)
- Diaper wipes: Conventional diaper wipes consist of a nonwoven fabric saturated in a cleansing solution — containing mild detergents, moisturizing agents, fragrance, and preservatives. If you prefer not to use potentially unnecessary chemicals, you can simply use a dry wipe or cloth wipe and warm water to clean baby’s bottom (this is especially recommended for newborns). If you prefer to use a solution-based wipe, avoid bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, alcohol, fragrance, parabens, phthalates, propylene glycol, and phenoxyethanol.
- Diaper cream or ointment: Most doctors no longer suggest routinely applying a preventive cream or ointment at every change, however one is definitely helpful to treat diaper rash. Barrier creams containing petroleum jelly or zinc oxide are tried and true. To avoid exposing your baby to unnecessary or harmful chemicals, avoid products containing BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), boric acid, or fragrance. Oh, and as for the baby powder — give it a miss (the tiny particules can be inhaled and cause damage or even death).
- Diaper pail: Whether a dedicated diaper pail or any garbage pail with a lid, some sort of enclosed receptacle to contain your dirty diapers (and their smells) is critical. When deciding which one to buy, consider size/capacity, ability to contain odors (including a tight-fitting lid and/or compartmentalized bags), use of proprietary vs. standard bags, and ease of bag changing.
- Wipe warmer: Not exactly an essential, but some parents find them worthwhile for babies who would otherwise be startled by cold wipes.