There are plenty of reasons parents argue about cloth vs. disposable diapers. Advocates of cloth worry about the environmental impact of disposables going into landfills, while users of disposables point out that putting diapers in a washing machine uses energy. Some cloth diaper users think their children get fewer diaper rashes and potty-train faster because they can feel when their diaper is soiled. Fans of disposables counter that their children get fewer diaper rashes because the superabsorbent gel in most versions holds and wicks away wetness from a baby's skin and neutralizes the alkaline pH of urine, significantly reducing the risk of diaper rash.
"It's a great innovation that keeps your baby much drier than cloth diapers," Ilona J. Frieden, M.D., director of pediatric dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco Children's Hospital, says about disposable diapers. "Because of the gel in disposable diapers, irritant diaper rashes that were once commonplace are now rare."
In the end, let convenience and cost be your deciding factors. A lot will depend on your lifestyle, what you're comfortable using, and what type of diaper works best for your child. If your baby is in day care, for example, you'll need to use disposables, at least during the day. Some parents use cloth diapers at home and disposables when they're traveling.
If you're not sure which type of diaper to use you could try both types, as Michelle Hong, a mother of three who lives near Washington D.C., did. When her first child was born, the family was living overseas in Japan. Put off by the prospect of laundering cloth diapers in the notoriously small Japanese washing machines, Hong used disposables. When she moved back to the U.S. she began using cloth diapers with her second baby, and then transitioned her older baby to cloth as well.
What motivated Hong to try cloth was simple economics. "First and foremost was expense," she recalls. "I am staying home and my husband is a public school educator, and I was trying to find cheaper ways to cut expenses. What's another load or two of laundry?" She says she also felt good about her choice because of environmental concerns. "When I think of all the diapers one child goes through, it pretty much turns my stomach--and I am not the ‘greenest' person." She says she often switched back and forth between disposables and cloth with her third child.
Hong says she didn't notice a big difference in diaper rashes between disposables or cloth. She advises parents interested in cloth diapers to talk with other parents who are using them. "There's a learning curve, but there's no big difference," she says. "There's a little extra work of carrying around a wet bag, and coming home and dumping it in the diaper pail, but it was worth it to me. I had time vs. money."
It was a different situation for Lexi Rohner, who has triplets in addition to a teenager and lives near Los Angeles. "I was never really looking for cloth diapers in the first place," Rohner says. "But with three, everything that could be the most convenient was really important." In addition to having three bottoms to keep clean at once, two of Rohner's little ones have cerebral palsy. Her daughter's condition is mild, but one of her son's has more serious problems. Now 3 ½ years old, her son can't walk without assistance, and she isn't sure when he'll be out of diapers. "I've used everything from nighttime diapers to pull ups," Rohner says.
In the beginning Rohner shopped for disposables at places like Target and Costco, then found a brand she liked best and can order through Diapers.com, which ships directly to her home. "It's like anything else," says Rohner, who knows many parents with twins and triplets. "Someone else's experience isn't going to be the same as yours. I have to choose the most practical thing for my family."