The biggest problems generate the most solutions, particularly when a collective of mums’ brains, and the buzz of home sewing machines, are working on it.
Modern cloth nappies are washable and reusable. That’s where the choices begin, with numerous attractive designs and several styles:
〉All-in-ones (layers are all sewn in)
〉Two-in-ones (liners and cover can be separated)
〉Pocket (liners are removable and placed in a pocket)
〉Pre-flat, pre-fold nappies (a shape upgrade of traditional styles)
Then there are the fabric differences. Cloth nappies are made from cotton, polyester, viscose rayon, bamboo, microfibre, hemp, suede cloth, terry or fabric blends. Many styles are made from a combination of fabrics and have outer and inner layers.
The outer layers, shells, or covers (whether inbuilt or separate) are made from waterproof materials like Polyurethane laminate (PUL) or Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU), or water-resistant materials like wool, minky or fleece.
Nappies are fitted with adjustable press studs, snaps, velcro fasteners and/or have elastic (gussets) around legs and waist.
Removable liners (also called inserts or boosters) give added absorbency. Multiple liners are often needed. Up to 4 liners can be used for night-time.
With many brand, style and fabric options, to help choose the option best suited to your family, I recommend connecting with the Australian Nappy Association members and Local Government Areas who offer local workshops, purchase rebates and demonstration kits.
It is also possible to try before you buy through nappy hire. Companies like The Nappy Guru have nappy libraries.
While all reusables are better than big brand single-use nappies, it’s worth keeping your eye on some questionable (and not sustainably made) materials that are sneaking into the layers of cloth nappies. I am not convinced that we need fabrics treated with antibacterial coatings. Synthetic fabrics, particularly those that shed, are on my watchlist (recent research detected microplastics in human blood).
Washing Modern Cloth Nappies
A 2021 UNEP report summarises current knowledge about the environmental performance of both single-use and reusable nappies through a meta-analysis of Life Cycle Assessment studies. We can reduce environmental impacts of reusable nappies through attention to how we wash and dry the nappies.
The process of washing nappies has evolved:
1. Scrape solids into the toilet
2. Dry pailing – Store used nappies between loads in a container that allows air circulation, for no more than 2 days. (Key points – NO water, NO pre-soaking, NO sterilising product)
3. Wash twice – First – use your machine’s short cycle. You need a complete wash cycle (including spin) so all water from the load is drained and in the process what some brands call the “wee and poo soup” is totally removed. Second – wash a full load normally. Depending on the nappy style, some covers may not need two washes. (Key point – wash below 60°C, NO fabric softener)
4. Sun (and air) dry
Make a simple plan for storing and washing used nappies (and stuffing nappy liners back into your nappies for pocket nappies). So simple that you can do it sleepwalking, otherwise it may become really hard, really quickly. Don’t underestimate the role of hot water (not above 60°C) and sunshine when cleaning nappies.
Why are washing instructions so complicated?
Some brands of nappies come with washing instructions and a long list of “DON’Ts”, particularly relating to washing products, that can be daunting.
The difficulties are that nappies are made from multiple fabrics, and each fabric has a different laundering requirement. Some fabrics, like the waterproof outer layers, elastics and fasteners, start breaking down when exposed to harsh washing products and heat (water and sun). Other layers need hot water to clean properly and fully release soilage from the fibres. This is why one company gives one instruction, and another company appears to give contradictory advice.
Many brands of reusable nappies list specific approved products for washing their nappies.
A quick check of the ingredient lists of these products further complicates the issue. Guess what, some of the recommended products contain the ingredients that the same sources advise us to avoid. Some also contain potential irritants and nasties that are probably best kept away from our bubs’ bottoms. If you need some pointers to help identify undesirables have a read of this blog.
The ingredient information is not available for all products. Cleaning companies are not required by law to list ingredients on the packaging, online or anywhere. (Please consider signing my petition to change this!)
It is encouraging to see brands who include “eco” washing product options. From these lists of recommended products Eco Store and Kin Kin stand out as being the best of the bunch, even if a few compromises need to be made.
Many companies explain that if you don’t follow their washing instructions, it will void their warranty. Are we placing unnecessary stress on ourselves by worrying about warranties?
Even if you follow the strict instructions, I wonder how often nappy companies do offer refunds, repair or replacements beyond the statutory cover for defects in materials and manufacturing faults. Wear and tear on a frequently used item, like nappies, are not usually covered by any warranty. Nappy warranties don’t seem to go beyond around 6 months from purchase anyway. If you are concerned, ask lots of questions before you buy.
Of course, if you are hiring nappies you need to follow all instructions closely, but otherwise I encourage you to remain curious, ask lots of questions and apply your own common sense.
Should I use DIY washing products?
I am not a fan of bleach, brighteners, and commercial fabric softeners, so the instructions to avoid these get a tick from me. Regarding DIY washing products, my advice is to use your own discretion. Personally, I say – go for it.
The natural ingredients in my DIY Washing Powder recipe are superstars in the land of cleaning and washing, with grime-fighting, water-softening, and stain-removing capabilities. They work for me for my washing. If it’s all new, this guide to doing the laundry, the natural way will help. Sometimes it takes time to adjust. Jump onto my friendly Facebook group for inspiration and troubleshooting advice.
The reasoning behind why brands tell us not to use DIY washing powder to wash our nappies are the same reasons why DIY doesn’t suit everyone for their everyday household washing. Nappy hygiene and baby comfort are my priority, and so is a desire to minimise our babies’ exposure to red flag chemicals, fillers and fragrances contained in many washing products. If that means I end up with a few stains, or risk voiding the warranty on my nappies, or might need to purchase a new liner because it loses its absorbency over time, I am OK with that.
We all want the best for our babies and parents certainly don’t need more guilt upon them. Even if you only use the nappy brand’s recommended washing products, for multiple reasons, there will be times when the nappies appear to lose absorbency, or smell funky, or cause minor irritation. Tweaks to your washing process is a given, as babies get sick, grow, develop, and their diet changes. Often, it’s nothing to do with the washing product.
I am not one for absolutes, so if it helps to ease worries, have an alternative washing product on hand and ready to go if you feel it’s needed. Your first change towards better may be choosing a washing product that is fragrance-free. You may decide to use a commercial product when your cherub is sick, or alternate and use DIY for some loads, or a mix of half-and-half commercial and DIY. You decide your rules.
Have back-up nappy plans. Let go of what you “should” do. It’s better to start with an acceptance that there will be hurdles and be ready to adapt and look at other options. You’ll have dirty nappies to change for a long while (years), so if it doesn’t work to begin with, ride it out and give it another go. All babies are different. All families are different. Sometimes day cares and other carers are not accepting of reusable nappies. It may suit you to use reusable nappies part time, or casually. Sometimes you’ll just be too tired to care.