Buried in a photo album in my parents’ house, there’s a picture of me as a young baby, sitting in a terrycloth nappy and sporting some rather fetching plastic pants. That was early 1980s Ireland, when cloth nappies were still considered the norm and the popularity of Pampers had yet to take hold.
Fast forward two years and there’s a similar photograph of my younger sister, but there isn’t a terrycloth nappy in sight.
When disposable nappies became mainstream in Ireland in the early 1980s, they were seen by parents as a bit of a liberation. Instead of having to soak and boilwash terrycloth nappies, they could bin the soiled items, crack out a clean nappy, with little effort beyond remembering to pick up a new packet.
And so it has continued. But the tide is starting to turn again, with cloth nappies – or real nappies, as they are known – gaining in popularity.
Reasons for growth
There’s a few reasons behind the shift. Cost is one; although the initial outlay on cloth nappies can seem higher, the average baby goes through between 3,000 and 4,000 nappy changes until they’re potty trained. Environmental concerns are another. And the availability of the nappies themselves are key.
There has been a push to make cloth more mainstream, and it's starting to gain a bit more support from retailers. While Tesco and Boots have sold certain brands of cloth nappies for some time, it was when discount retailer Aldi began to include them as one of its special buys that it was a sign that things were starting to take hold.
Maebh Collins was one of the first sellers of modern cloth nappies in Ireland. The owner of BabaMe, located in Newry, started out with a stall in a farmers' market in Co Louth before she opened the full-time store, which was the first specialist cloth nappy shop in the UK. "When I gave up my job to sell cloth nappies, people thought it was a crazy thing to do. Going back nine years ago there wasn't really a market at all," she says. "It was very small scale; it was meant to be a hobby that just grew."
That hobby now employs 15 people, with a thriving website and the full-time store in Newry.
There’s still a long way to go though, before cloth becomes totally mainstream again. If you mention cloth nappies to some people, you’re likely to get a head tilt, a statement, a query about how much work it is to wash and dry the nappies, and isn’t it disgusting having to handle a lot of baby poo. What about the steeping terries around the place? And the risk of jabbing the baby with a nappy pin? If you’re a cloth nappy convert, chances are you’ve heard it all.
“We’re of the same opinion that you need to make cloth nappies like disposables, just as easy to use, except that you put them in a washing machine. That’s where the market has gone, and exploded from,” says Collins. “It was pay by weight [bin charges] that caused a huge jump in our Irish sales. It really became mainstream when the recession hit and people realised how much they could save.”
Nappies now come in prints and colours, with names like Bumgenius, Smart bottoms and Sweetpea. There are all-in-ones, wraps, pocket nappies and flats, made from everything from bamboo and hemp to microfibre. There are snap closures and Velcro, hybrid systems that work with both washable and disposable inserts, and liners to help deal with the excrement issue.
It’s not just the nappies that have changed. Washing machines are better and more efficient – though less water is not always a good thing when it comes to cleaning nappies effectively.
While it may seem daunting initially, there’s plenty of advice and help out there for parents who want to get into reusable. The first port of call for most is the Cloth Nappy Library. The organisation offers postal loans of reusable nappies to parents who may be mulling a leap into cloth and want to test the water first. The organisation, which is run entirely by volunteers, offers postal loans to parents to help them figure out what type suits them best, regardless of whether they are starting from newborn or for an older child.
There are long-term loans for those on a budget, and bedwetting kits for older children. It has a calculator on its website to allow you to see the financial impact of switching to cloth too.
Una Uí Uallacháin is a volunteer with the Cloth Nappy Library Ireland. She used cloth nappies on her second baby. “I wanted to use them on my first, but there was no information and no kits,” she explains.
For her, choosing cloth was mainly for environmental reasons, with cost a bonus, she says.
Unlike certain areas of the UK, there are few – if any – grants for parents who want to reduce their family’s waste. But events like the Earth Baby Fair, which takes place in Maynooth on April 24th, are also an opportunity to raise awareness of cloth nappies and their benefits, she says.
There's a thriving community on Facebook too. Local nappy libraries offer the chance for mothers new to the scene to meet up for "nappuccinos", meetings where they can get advice on how to fit the nappies correctly, see the different types of cloth nappies available for themselves, and get help with washing routines – an important thing to get right to make sure you don't end up with slightly whiffy nappies.
The path to cloth isn’t as smooth for everyone though, which is why nappy library services are invaluable.
What works for one baby may not work for another, leaving enthusiastic cloth users with a pile of nappies that don’t fit their child correctly. Ill-fitting nappies are more prone to leaks, making it more likely that parents will abandon cloth, without finding another brand or type that works better for them.
The case for cloth nappies’ green credentials has been hotly debated. On the side of reusables is the argument that natural fibres are used instead of plastic, with fewer chemicals, and they’re not going into landfill where disposables can take decades to break down.
On the other, you have studies that claim the environmental impact of using cloth nappies is similar to disposables because of the energy and water used to wash them. One Washington Post article pointed out the use of cotton – a thirsty crop that can often have pesticides – was an issue in itself.
What has been overlooked though is that cloth nappies are not going to landfill, and can be used by more than one child in a family before being sold on, if they are still in serviceable condition. Try doing that with disposables and you’ll find you don’t get too far. Some brands also make a point of using organic cotton, dealing with the issue of pesticides.
For some parents, it's less about the green credentials and more of an aesthetic choice. Nappies have become as much of a fashion item as the clothes and shoes on a baby. Sona Harris, co-owner of FluffyBums, says it was as much a love of the look of the nappies as it was about saving money.
“I’d heard of cloth nappies, but I really wasn’t hugely into the idea. My husband actually talked me into it; he was coming at it purely from environmental reasons,” she says. “I got obsessed with prints and started searching out brands purely on the nicest prints and what was cutest.”
Harris has since turned a love of cloth into a thriving business with partner Aoife McDonald, when the duo set up FluffyBums. The online store sells everything from US brand Smartbottoms to Tots Bots and Wonderoos.
The reasons behind choosing cloth nappies tend to be financial, environmental, health reasons – allergies to chemicals – and there’s also, and this is the box I fit into, the ones who just see this as another cute baby accessory. “It’s just another item of clothing, and you can turn something as horrible as a disposable nappy into something cute and fun,” says Harris.
“I’m not doing it for financial reasons, I had never even thought about chemicals in disposable nappies. I love them because of how cute they are.”
Hard-to-find prints can be a financial rabbit hole and rarer nappies can be sold for above their retail value.
Whatever the reason for switching to cloth though, the movement is certainly gathering pace. And if that can save hard-pressed parents a few euro along the way, all the better.
The Earth Baby Fair, hosted by Cloth Nappy Library Ireland, takes place at the Glenroyal Hotel, Maynooth, Co Kildare, on April 24th, 10am-3pm. The event will feature talks on using cloth nappies, an attempt to break an Irish record (again), and stalls by retailers selling cloth nappies, slings and other accessories. Admission is €3 for an adult. clothnappylibrary.ie
Nappy types: which one suits your baby?
All-in-ones: The nappy and wrap are all together,with an absorbent inner and a waterproof outer cover. Examples: Smartbottoms SmartOne, Bumgenius Elemental
Two-parters: Typically an absorbent inner nappy covered with a wrap, such as a bamboo nappy with a PUL (polyurethane laminate) wrap over it, or a cotton nappy covered with a wool soaker. Examples: Little Lambs fitted bamboo or microfibre, Sweetpea fitteds, Totsbots Peenut
Pockets: Nappy shells that have a pocket for stuffing with absorbent material. Examples: Little Lambs pockets, Milovia, Bumgenius V5s, Baba & Boo
Hybrids: Cloth nappy systems that can be used with both reusable inserts and disposable ones. Examples: BumGenius Flips, Charlie Bananas, Grovia Hybrids