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History of cloth baby diapers

History of cloth baby diapers

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  • AmyW AmyW's Avatar 04-24-06 | 09:00 AM
  • By Heather Sanders

    [SIZE="3"]You’ve got a baby on the way! And the lists begin. You go out and buy baby books, comb the internet, decide on birth plans, choose a doctor or midwife. Amid the vast number of decisions to be made, diapering generally gets little to no time. It becomes just another checkmark on the baby registry, while your friends throw you a disposable diaper shower and the hospital provides complimentary disposable diapers and coupons.

    Stop right there! There is an alternative: cloth diapering. Take a moment to introduce yourself to the NEW cloth diapering. Put aside your old perceptions and suppositions about cloth diapers. Cloth diapering has come a long way in recent years. Yesterday’s cloth diapering systems take a back seat to the vast array of cloth diaper entrepreneurs emerging on the scene alongside long-standing cloth diaper distributors. The new designs are ingenious, cute, absorbent and easy to use, proving to be healthier for baby, easier on the pocketbook and gentler on the environment.

    Out with the old, in with the new
    When we think of cloth diapers, many of us conjure up visions of large, single-layer, flat squares that require multiple, origami-like folds. If that weren’t a daunting enough task, add in concerns about securing these cloth squares with sharp metal pins and then pulling on crinkly waterproof plastic pants. It’s enough to make anyone turn tail and run toward disposables!

    Fortunately, cloth diaper makers have been as dynamic as designers in other industries in the world around us. Diaper-sewing and diaper-selling WAHMs (Work At Home Moms) are popping up all across the internet, with a variety of cloth diapering products that would make your head spin. Cloth diapering has become its own underground market, and more and more children are enjoying the same comforts from cloth that we as parents afford to ourselves.
    The birth of disposables
    Disposable diapers emerged in the early ‘60s. Much to the joy of mothers everywhere, they alleviated the task of folding cloth squares and using diaper pins. In the mid-‘80s, disposable diapers were “improved” with the addition of multiple layers of synthetic materials like polypropylene. These layers are designed to allow moisture to pass through to a middle core comprised of wood pulp that has been chemically digested in a three-part pulping process.1 The disposable core also contains a super-absorbent gel that is known to absorb more than 80 times its weight in liquid. Disposables are fastened with adjustable tabs and feature “cloth-like,” breathable polypropylene outer layers to keep moisture from leaking out.2

    Without good alternatives and in the name of convenience, a good number of mothers put their babies in paper pulp diapers layered with synthetic materials and chemical absorbent gels, in lieu of cloth. The cloth diapering world remained dynamic, however, and stepped up to the challenge by offering parents the same level of convenience as disposables while maintaining the comforts of cloth.

    Cloth diapering moves online
    Since the mid-‘90s, the internet has proven to be the primary market for cloth diapering options. Moms with diaper-aged children looked beyond their local super centers and baby stores to the internet, finding a wide array of diapers sold or sewn by WAHMs.

    Catherine McDiarmid’s (Canada) was one of the first major diaper sites to emerge in 1997. is recognized for its extensive articles and listing of other diaper WAHMs who design and sew their own products or sell cloth diapers and covers from larger cloth diapering companies.

    Convenience and style
    Convenience is key. The new cloth diapers secure with soft Velcro and Aplix closures or snaps – no more diaper pins to keep the diaper snug. Multiple inner layers of absorbent, natural materials in the center soaker panels replace disposables’ super-absorbent chemical gels near Baby’s most private parts.

    And style counts. Consumers today can choose from an array of fabrics, colors and closure styles. Terri Hall of is recognized for her extensive collection of fabrics ready to be made into diapers or covers at a mother’s whim. Her store (and others like it) are often temporarily closed due to the overwhelming number of custom orders.

    The variety is delightfully mind-boggling, with choices ranging from fabrics, prints, color, number of layers, type of closure and style of cover. You can choose from prefolds, contoured, fitted or all-in-one style diapers. For a glimpse at the variety available, head over to online auction sites like or, where numerous WAHMs introduce their diapers to the community and list diapers for sale. (Also stop by Natural Family Online's Balter Catalogue for some diaper and cover styles).

    Hooked on cloth
    Though their reasons for choosing cloth diapers vary, many moms discover that once they’ve been introduced to cloth diapers, they just can’t get enough. For these mamas, there are online message boards where they can share their unbridled enthusiasm and learn from other diapering mamas. Two of the most active diaper message boards can be found at and

    For some mamas, cloth diapering becomes a real collector’s pursuit focusing on the most popular, original and wisely marketed cloth diaper. These self-proclaimed “diaper hyenas” “stalk” WAHM diaper auctions and online stores to snipe coveted diapers with an unmatched vigor. Who could fault them, considering the likes of Lori Taylor’s “diaper art” at, the unique flair of Ann Hall’s custom shell sets at and the tie-dyed delights of Shelly Penix at

    Why do these women spend so much time and energy buying cloth diapering products? Lori Taylor answers that question: “It makes you smile at a time when your baby is completely focused on your face. … Because it makes diapering fun.” 3

    But what about washing them?
    Washing cloth diapers – this seems to be the greatest hurdle to mothers considering cloth for their babies’ bums. The truth is, washing cloth diapers at home is just as simple and hygienic as washing sweaty socks, gym shorts, undies, musty towels, food-ridden dish rags and other laundry.

    What about the bacteria? Dr. Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona, released results of a study on germs in the standard household’s washers and dryers. Even without introducing cloth diapers, 60% of homes tested positive for coliform bacteria (an indicator of fecal contamination), while another 20% contained staph. These bacteria can be found in underwear, dishcloths, sponges and towels.

    What does this mean for you? If you are considering cloth diapering but are concerned about the bacteria in or on cloth diapers, remember that it’s likely that these bacteria are in your laundry already. Adding cloth diapers to the mix will make it no more “dirty.”4 If you already are washing your clothes at home in a washing machine, you certainly can wash diapers too without introducing bacteria that would not otherwise be there. C’mon, give washing machines their due – they’ve come a long way since their inception and are the workhorses of the modern home.

    Cloth is the green choice
    Beyond cloth diapers’ absorbency, cuteness and ease of care lies their proven lower environmental impact. Using cloth diapers creates less consumption of both renewable and non-renewable resources, creates less waste for already overburdened landfills and creates fewer health hazards associated with human waste in our landfills.

    Sherry Schiff of The Waterloo Centre for Groundwater Research states that the only other items that outnumber the amount of disposable diapers in landfills are newspapers and beverage food containers.5 A 1988 study by Carl Lehrburger concluded that disposable diapers accounted for 2% of total municipal solid waste and 3.5 to 4.5% of household waste, with approximately 18 billion paper and plastic diapers landfilled in 1988.6

    Cloth diapers offer definite ecological advantages over disposables. With cloth, human waste gets flushed into municipal sanitary waste systems where it is treated. On the other hand, the EPA notes that “a significant portion of the disposable diaper waste dumped in American’s landfills every year is actually biodegradable human waste preserved forever.”7 Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association advise parents that fecal matter and urine should not be disposed of in the regular trash because it contaminates groundwater and spreads disease.8 In fact, the Lehrburger report suggests that disposable diapers be classified as infectious waste because untreated feces and urine represent a health risk at landfill sites.8

    Sorting it all out
    If you are considering cloth, don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed with the myriad choices. Peruse diaper reviews on sites like and visit message boards in natural parenting communities. Start simply when building your first system; if you like it and feel you can incorporate it into your lifestyle, rest secure in the fact that you are winning on all sides of the issue.

    Your cloth-diapered baby will be more comfortable with natural fibers next to her most sensitive areas. Cloth’s “cute factor” is incomparable compared to bleached paper pulp diapers. Cloth is as easy to use, wash and care for, and you’ll be reducing the contaminants in today’s landfills. Add up your total money saved, and you’ll find yet another reason that the new cloth diapering has become a viable option in diapering today.

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