Diapers: cloth or disposable?

April 13, 2010

Cloth diaper

True fact: I spent a year working at a disposable diaper factory. They weren't this pretty. (Photo by tiffanywasko)

Probably the biggest question we get from expecting vegan moms isn’t really a vegan question at all: everyone’s wondering about diapers: reusable or disposable? To dig deeper into this issue, we turned to the Council of Vegan Parents for stories of their experiences. Here’s what we found.

Your three main options

Many Council members say they’ve tried several different systems of both cloth and disposable diapers, as well as diaper services. Everyone’s situation is unique, and different things are going to work (or not) for each of you, but here’s some of what they had to say about each option – note that this is just what our Council has tried, so if you’ve got other experiences or opinions, please let us know in the comments!

1) Reusables

Bum Genius

The Bum Genius system got a lot of votes from our Council. Dalyn in particular couldn’t say enough good things about them, including “Great. No leaks. Great. Relatively inexpensive. Great.”

Bum Genius diapers are available in several styles and sizes, including a one size fits all version along with organic and bamboo styles. They’re velcro closed, and are manufactured in the USA as well as in Egypt.

Dalyn had some issues with night time leakage, but solved that by doubling up the liners. Amy reckons that about a dozen pocket diapers would be enough.


gDiapers are a hybrid system that uses a reusable cover that can hold either a reusable insert or a biodegradable, disposable one. Pippi notes that the inserts fit inside other cloth systems too.

Sarah found them handy, since her family lived in an apartment without laundry or a sink that they were comfortable washing baby poop in, but stopped using them after a year or so after some issues with night time leaks (plus her child figured out how to remove them.). Kristie opted for the biodegradable option, but didn’t have good luck flushing the inserts without clogging the toilet, so she switched to Seventh Generation disposables (see below.)

Mother Ease

Doh went with Mother Ease cloth diapers, which are available in several fabrics, including organic and bamboo.

She says that their covers were the best of all the ones she tried, and they seldom leaked, were soft, and held up well, but the snap closures got to be a hassle when her toddler wouldn’t hold still during changes.


Elaine uses Bum Genius too, but her mom sewed up some custom diapers that her husband likes the best. If you don’t have anyone in the family with sewing skills, Doh suggested Etsy as a way to fill the gap while also being able to support stay at home moms.

2) Disposables

As noted, many Council members either didn’t go with reusable diapers full time or simply couldn’t, often due to water concerns: some were in small apartments without easy access to laundry (and didn’t want to mix poop with what plumbing they had available,) and others were on well systems with limits on how much could be drawn.

While some went with the major consumer brands, Seventh Generation and Earth’s Best both were mentioned a number of times. As Kristie notes, they’re available on Amazon [affiliate link] if you’re not in an area that stocks them, and there’s a 15% discount for subscriptions.

Just like with cloth brands, sizing and styles vary and the first one you try may not work for your baby. Kristie found that Earth’s Best was better at stopping “seriously explosive poops” from shooting up her daughter’s back (they have an elastic in the back that stops it) and she felt that the overnight leakage protection was better, but your baby may be shaped differently.

3) Diaper services

While it costs more, if you’re committed to the idea of reusable diapers but have time/water/space/learning curve issues then a diaper service might be worth a look. The pickup schedule (both the “official” one and what actually happens) seems to be the big thing to watch for when trying a service where you have to store the dirty diapers and wait for someone else to clean them. If possible, it looks like referrals and recommendations would be good things to seek out from other area parents.

You can mix and match

It’s important to point out that you don’t have to commit to 100% on either side of this particular fence; many of our Council members go with a 50/50 mix of cloth and disposables, depending on a number of factors, including travelling, difficulty keeping up with laundry, babysitters, and better night time fit.

Many parents start out with disposables before trying cloth, and it’s advice I’ve heard a lot of times outside of the Council as well – newborns grow fast and there are a lot of other new skills to pick up around that time, so putting the decision off for a little while can make your life a whole lot easier.

On cleaning poop

Amy says cleaning diapers for her twins is “much easier than washing bottles! When the boys are babies and had mustard-y breast milk poops we threw all diapers (poop and all) into a lined trash can, daily we would throw all dirty and wet diapers in the washing machine on cold, then run again on hot. Machine dry on low, or outside on the line.”

Doh thinks she was lucky to be a stay-at-home mom, because otherwise the time needed for cloth diapers would have been difficult, she thinks: “the time-consuming factors with cloth diapers are not just the washing, it’s also the stain-treating (I used the sun to bleach out stains and kill bacteria, but I lived in Florida at the time. Other climes would have to address those steps in other ways), and the folding, as well as having to find where to buy them if they’re not sold locally, and finding a system that doesn’t leak often. I didn’t want to wash them in the same load as our clothing, so then I had to wait until I had a full load’s worth to wash them, which sometimes meant running out of cloth and using disposables. In other words, cloth diapers were a labor of love – important, and the right thing to do, but not easy.”

Dalyn thought that modern systems were amazing compared to stories of the past: “the cloth diapers these days don’t even require dunking in toilets and soaking and other questionably gross practices. If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, you can just throw the whole soiled diaper into the wash. No problem. And, one they start eating solid food, there are these fabulous dryer-sheet looking liners that you can put between baby bottom and diaper. Pee goes through it and poop gets caught. You then just flush the little liner full of poop and wash the diaper as usual. Seriously, today’s cloth diapers don’t even require you to get your hands dirty.”

Other things to watch for

There are a lot of different features that can make each diaper system different, and Steph listed a bunch of them: “having inserts keeps the moisture away from baby’s skin and can help with poop removal later on when it gets more solid (it falls off instead of having to be scraped off – hey, you asked!). Natural fabrics – cotton, bamboo – are better because you can launder them with vinegar or borax or whatever, where as the manufacturer of the diapers with synthetic materials recommend using bleach only (not something I want near my baby’s skin). Bamboo is particularly absorbant and I bought some extra liners for overnight.”

Doh says that all in one diapers “sound like a great idea – cloth diaper and cover in one! but they don’t end up working as well. Covers don’t need to be washed each time, and washing them wears them down pretty quickly, so all in ones don’t have the lifespan of using separate diapers and covers. Having a few on hand for being away from home all day, or for when Grandma babysits and she wants something as fast and easy as disposables, though, might be helpful.”

Lastly, of the major reusable systems out there, there seem to be some that use snaps and some that use velcro to fasten the diapers. Of the Council members that mentioned it, velcro seems to be a lot easier to put on, but requires a bit more care when washing: Dalyn says that “the laundry tabs (that keep the velcro from sticking to everything in the wash, yet allow the diaper to remain open for maximum cleaning) have worn out on every last diaper and I’m now in the process of replacing them all.”

Skipping diapers altogether

While nobody’s tried it, Elimination Communication has been getting some buzz lately. Briefly, it involves timing and communication to reduce or eliminate the need for diapers, and while it’s too big to cover here, you can find more information here.

Are reusable diapers a “vegan thing”?

Dean writes, “Leaving aside the question of whether cloth is more eco-friendly once you’ve factored in the washing water and the soap, there is the issue of how normal vegans should look. Washing diapers looks like a horrific idea to most parents. If we do it because we’re vegan then it just makes the vegan lifestyle appear impossibly self-sacrificing. There’s a value in demonstrating that a vegan lifestyle is easy and normal.”

As we pointed out in the intro, the kind of diapers you use really doesn’t have much to do with veganism, unless they’re made of bacon. And yet, as we saw from the number of questions received, and Dean’s response which was probably based on his interactions with non-vegans, it’s clear that there’s a link in a lot of people’s minds, at least if they know you’re vegan. Personally, I don’t think it’s a vegan connection as much as society’s need to connect what they see as an inconvenience to some other reason that they don’t need to participate in.

We’ve come a long way – for example, lots of people recycle without thinking of themselves as hippies etc., but diapers are still an outlier case. You can make the connection to veganism if you want, but it might make more sense to distance diaper choice from veganism to prevent a “if I were to go vegan I couldn’t use disposable diapers” connection in people’s minds, however illogical it might be.

A simple “we looked at disposable versus cloth, and decided the [cost, environmental impact, fewer trips to the store, delightful odors, whatever] made it worth using [insert your choice here]” would probably be less confusing overall when discussing the decision your family made.

Dump your thoughts

What about you? Was there a tip or viewpoint that you’ve found helpful that our Council didn’t cover? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to Dean, Amy, Linda, Elaine, Doh, Steph, Kari, Sarah, Kristie, Pippi, Dalyn and Dilip for their help on this one! Those are just some of the members of the Council of Vegan Parents who help us put our parenting articles together. If you’re a vegan parent, click here to learn more!

Update: lots of great input from other moms in the comment on this Green Mommy Blog post!

(photo by tiffanywashko)

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Pippi April 13, 2010 at 3:39 pm

HA! Nice bacon reference!

Jason April 13, 2010 at 3:47 pm

I yearn for the day where “bacon” becomes just another funny word that only historians know the grisly source of…

Anony Us April 13, 2010 at 4:55 pm

I think cloth diapers “taste better!”

Al April 13, 2010 at 7:45 pm

That’s a great yearn. I’m going to start using bacon randomly in conversation now.

“I went to the store the other day and this lady was talking into a cucumber like it was a phone.”

“Aw man, that’s so bacon.”

As far as diapers go, we used disposables for our first because we didn’t think either of us would be staying home (thus having the time and inclination to wash diapers … and we weren’t sure if daycares were cool with reusables). But surprise! I quit my job and stayed home after my wife went back to work.

But by then we were three months in and the last thing on our mind was what kind of diaper to use (I was more concerned about ways to make the tiny human quit screaming). But for our second we used/are still using Bum Genius.

We (well, mostly my wife) prepared, researched and looked daily on Craigslist for about six months before our second was born. That’s a good piece of advice: Plan ahead. Don’t think you’ll switch after a few months, because once you’ve started down the path of least resistance it’s pretty hard to force yourself onto the path of scraping poop off cloth. It’s worth it, but at the same time it’s totally bacon.

Sayward April 13, 2010 at 9:55 pm

LOVE the cloth diapers for my 6 week old wee vegan. =)
We use a variety of brands, all are pockets, all secondhand. Bum Genius are definitely our favorites, and I love that he’s been wearing them since 2 weeks and will be wearing them up into 2 years (if necessary). I have about 2 dozen dipes and do laundry every other day.

We use 7th Generation when traveling, and did natural disposables for the first 2 weeks because newborns are so very tiny.

I adore the cloth diapers and wouldn’t have it any other way. Can’t wait till Portland gets sunny enough to line dry them!

Jason April 14, 2010 at 8:25 am

@Al: that’s a whole other thing that I wanted to get into, but the post was already crazy long: reusable diapers can be reused by more than one person, and Craigslist is your friend! Ange bought some (Bummies, which nobody had any firsthand experience with – yet – so I didn’t list them) for around $50, and I’m sure we’ll need some more pieces, and it’s possible that we’ll need to try another brand, but the price was certainly right! Er, bacon.

KRISTEN'S RAW April 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

Helpful 🙂 Thanks!

Erin April 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm

I do some EC with my daughter and use whatever cloth diapers I am able to find used (so I go with many different brands). Goodmamas are our favorite though because they are made from bamboo, made by working moms, and the quality is the best of any diapers I have tried.

I wrote about doing some EC/ Natural Infant Hygiene with my little girl

Suzanne April 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm

We use Seventh Generation for our little guy, and have been pretty happy with the quality. Have had very few leak issues. Had considered cloth, but honestly, we were so darn tired those first few months, I’m not sure we could have done any more laundry than we were already doing. And now, with both of us working full time, I’d rather spend my limited time with my family than spend it doing laundry.

Heather April 15, 2010 at 6:15 pm

We did cloth with our guy. Before he was born I got several kinds of diapers – pockets, all-in-ones, fitted with covers, and it turned out we liked the pockets best. You can choose your absorbency based on the liners you put in, they dry much quicker than AIOs but don’t require separate covers (so are essentially one piece) and aren’t too bulky. When it came time to get the next size up, we went with all Fuzzi Bunz. My best tip for acquiring diapers is diaperswappers.com – where you can buy/sell new and used dipes and supplies.

We used late-start EC techniques with our son when he started showing awareness and interest around 14 months and he was out of diapers right about the time he turned two. If we were to have another I would try EC from a much earlier age.

Speaking of reusables, we also bought a pack of baby washcloths that we we used for wipes. Instead of using a wipe warmer, we just kept a thermos with hot water next to the washcloths and then threw those in the bin with the diapers.

Laura April 19, 2010 at 8:58 am

we’re doing Elimination Communication, next time you can ask me 🙂

We usually use prefolds with bummis covers and bumgenius when we’re out. But if you really want easy clean up thats good for the environment, have them do their business in a potty 🙂

Jennifer February 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm

If the glue for disposable diapers is animal based then it is a vegan issue.

Garrett Carlson July 16, 2013 at 10:06 am

I’ve tried making veganism look easy, but between having to buy some of my own groceries as I live with my folks, make my own dishes for diner, cook and bake everything, and pass up on traditional turkey dinners (turkey, stuffing, sweet potato mallow, corn casserole, gravy, everything on the table except the potatoes), It’s a bit difficult making veganism look easy, so I use statistics to convince people.

1) it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat on average, so for every slice of ham or drum of chicken, that’s fifteen homeless people who could have eaten something that night. They say if the world went vegan, there wouldn’t be world hunger.

2) People can eat up to 20 cows worth of beef in a life time, that’s twenty deaths to sustain one life, and that doesn’t include pigs, chickens or fish.

3) Plant based foods are cheaper

4) people don’t need to consume as much nutrition as they think, they just need to absorb it, which high intakes of vegetables helps with as they contain fiber. Meat doesn’t. And people don’t need that much nutrition in their bodies in the first place to survive. Healthy vegans consume about 500 mg of calcium a day eating things like tofu or drinking a single cup’s worth of almond/soy milk.

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