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How to buy the best disposable and cloth nappies


The bottom line on cost, convenience and the environment.

person putting nappy on baby

Prepare for a surprise inside


It's the middle of the night and your baby starts to stir. As you investigate, you discover there's been a poo explosion. 

These occurrences happen, and often – especially in the first year of your child's life.

You're likely to change around 6000 nappies before your child graduates to undies, so you'll want to put some thought into which one is best in the long run.

Looking for the best disposable nappies?

See our expert product reviews.

What do parents want in a nappy?

In January our CHOICE Consumer Insights team conducted an online survey of 500 parents of children aged under two. When it comes to what's very important in a nappy, 75% of them are looking for a nappy that avoids leakages and 72% want an absorbent nappy. Around two-thirds of parents also think it's very important that a nappy fits the baby well, and is comfortable and gentle on the skin.

Among the survey's respondents Huggies was the most popular brand, followed by Mamia and Babylove. However, keep an open mind when it comes to choosing the right nappy – other brands you may not have considered have performed well in our tests.

Disposable vs cloth nappies

In the first year of your child's life there'll be a lot of trial and error when it comes to finding the right nappy for your baby and your budget. Choosing the right one is just as important for your sanity as it is for your baby's bottom. But first you need to decide if you want to use disposable or reusable nappies.

Disposables

Good ol' disposables. With really only one style, they:

  • absorb moisture quickly to prevent leaks and 'lock it in' to keep your bub relatively dry
  • are easy and quick to fasten
  • stay closed during use
  • fit various shapes and sizes
  • are very convenient, especially when out and about.

In our survey, 95% of parents opted for disposable nappies. While they are undoubtedly convenient, a staggering 3.75 million disposable nappies are used each day in Australia and New Zealand. That's a lot of waste going into landfill and, once there, conventional nappies can take up to 150 years to break down due to their antibacterial properties.

Only 24% of parents we surveyed rank an environmentally sustainable product as a very important attribute when looking for a nappy. However, sustainable options are available if this is important to you. The EcoOriginals and Pandas nappies claim to be biodegradable, meaning they'll break down more quickly and effectively in landfill. While they're likely a better option for the environment, they can be at the more expensive end of the scale, a factor you'll also need to take into consideration.

Reusable modern cloth nappies

Modern cloth nappies (MCNs) are becoming more popular and, to be clear, we're not talking the old terry-towelling squares. MCNs are the new whiz-bang version featuring a water-resistant cover, leak-proof elasticised leg holes and absorbent padding and liner.

The different styles

There are more than 200 brands – most of which are made by work-at-home mums who sell them over the internet on stores like Etsy.

  • All-in-ones have a moisture-resistant outer layer sewn together with an absorbent inner to form the nappy – they can take a little while to dry.
  • All-in-twos, also called snap-in-ones, consist of a lined waterproof outer layer and absorbent inner layers, which "snap in" with press studs. They can be taken apart for laundering, so they dry faster than all-in-ones.
  • Pocket nappies have a waterproof outer layer sewn together with a soft inner lining, which forms the shell. Between these two layers there's a pocket for the absorbent inserts. These are removed for washing then replaced, which can be a bit fiddly but on the plus side they dry quickly.

Old-fashioned terry-towelling square nappies are also still available. They can take a little practice to fold and fit right, but they are a cheaper reusable option than MCNs, and modern fasteners mean you don't even need to use safety pins.

Only 1 in 10 of our survey respondents use modern cloth nappies. Their environmental impact is much less than disposables and in the long run they'll save you money. In comparison, using one set of cloth/reusable nappies with a cold wash cycle and line drying is about half the cost of using disposables.

We tested Pea Pods (a modern cloth nappy with a water-resistant cover, leg holes and an absorbent padding and liner) and Big Softies (old-fashioned terry towelling square nappies), but the results aren't comparable to disposables, so we haven't included these in our review. Unlike disposables, these products don't absorb water away from the top of the nappy, but rather stay wet. They did however manage to absorb all the liquid without leaking.

I can see there are benefits to both – how do I choose?

There are a number of considerations, so let's take a look at them.

Cost

The upfront cost of reusable nappies is quite high, but in the long run it's potentially cheaper than disposables – decreasing in cost exponentially with every child.

Convenience

You can't go past disposables for convenience. Cloth nappies do require a bit more work, and might be a pain when you're out.

Performance

Good quality, well-fitting nappies – whether cloth or disposable – will keep baby dry, and won't cause nappy rash. The performance of disposable and cloth nappies can't be compared directly in our tests.

Environmental impact

Disposable nappies really don't have the best green reputation, but there are options to reduce their impact:

  • Some brands are biodegradable, though conditions in landfill make this degradation difficult to occur.
  • Some have compostable or recyclable packaging.
  • Buying locally-made nappies, rather than imported, saves on transport carbon cost.

Despite the environmental costs of fabric production and nappy laundering, cloth nappies that are dry-pailed and mostly line-dried still come out ahead of disposables.

Sizing

Disposables come in different sizes to suit your growing bub, and eventually you can move into pull-up pants from some of the same brands.

MCNs are available in fixed sizes, or a one-size-fits-most (OSFM), which has extra fastenings for adjusting the nappy as your baby grows.

  • Fixed-size nappies means buying new sets as your baby grows bigger, so it could cost more. On the other hand, if you're having more than one child, you'll use the outgrown ones again.
  • You'll only need one set of OSFM nappies, but their longer use means more wear and tear, and they might only last through one child's infancy.

Materials

The type of fabric used affects drying time. Natural fibres usually take longer to dry than synthetics, and you'll want to make sure you have enough nappies to get through a few days of wet weather if you don't have a clothes dryer.

Paper or fabric nappy liners make your laundry life easier by keeping solids off the nappy.

The absorbent materials (shell liners, pads and boosters) include bamboo, cotton, hemp or fleece, with breathable polyurethane laminated fabric (PUL) or lanolised wool often used for covers – if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Which nappy is best?

For environmental and financial reasons, you can't go past MCNs.

For ease of use and convenience, disposables are the way to go.

Of course it doesn't have to be one or the other: you could use cloth nappies at home during the day, and disposables when out and about, going away, at nights, at daycare, and during long periods of rain when you'd rather not use the dryer.

If you're unsure:

  • Buy a single nappy of each type to try out.
  • Some MCN companies sell trial packs with samples of the different styles.
  • Hire a trial pack from a nappy library, a service offered by nappy companies and community groups: search the internet for 'modern cloth nappy library' to find one near you.

How do I know I've chosen the right nappy?

Whatever you've decided on, here's the checklist for a good nappy:

  • No leaking around the legs.
  • No liquid seeping through the cover.
  • Not too tight or too loose around hips and legs.
  • No rubbing or chafing from the nappy or fasteners around the legs or hips.
  • Baby's skin feels reasonably dry when the wet nappy is removed.
  • The nappy holds enough liquid to be practical (i.e. you don't have to change too often).
  • Baby can move legs freely and, at later stages, crawl and walk without being bothered by the nappy.

Are reusable nappies as much dirty work as they seem?

There's an easy five-step technique called dry pailing, which fans say make light work of heavy soils.

  1. Firstly, use nappy liners to catch solids.
  2. Separate the components (cover and padding) of the wet nappies, or if they're all-in-ones skip ahead to step 3.
  3. Rinse in cold water if needed.
  4. Put them into a bucket with a lid.
  5. Throw the load into the washing machine every other day.

Words of wisdom

In our survey, we asked parents what advice they would give to first timers. Here are some of the useful tips and tricks they dished out:

  • Change frequently – "It's a good idea to change your baby's nappy at every feed, or if required earlier. Leaving them in the same nappy for too long can cause skin irritations and nappy rash."
  • It's all about trial and error – "Always buy a small pack first. You never know which brand and which size of nappy will fit your child best. Sometimes even the best brands can give the worst nappy rash to a baby. So never think that costlier brands are always the best." 
  • Preparation is key – "Always unfold the fresh nappy and place it underneath the bum before removing the soiled nappy. Therefore you can just pull the soiled nappy away and slip the new one on without any accidents!" 
  • Sizing is important – "Choose the right size by their weight rather than their age/mobility. When they are almost too big for their current size move them into the next size up or else they will overfill their current sized nappy." 
  • Shop around – "Be prepared to try various types, cloth nappies, disposable nappies, to find what suits your lifestyle.  Always put them in scented bags when used and dispose of in the outside bin so you don't stink your house out." 

Cost of nappies

In our latest test, the cost of a disposable nappy started at 16c, and the most expensive one in our test was $1.76. For cloth squares prices range from $2 to $5 each and from $20 to $35 for modern cloth nappies.

Looking for the best disposable nappies?

See our expert product reviews.

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