Cloth vs Disposable Diapers: The Truth about Cost, Time, & Sustainability

Cloth diapers or disposables? Sometimes it can feel like an either or choice, with the two camps pitted against each other. One side argues for reduced environmental impact and long term costs. The other speaks of convenience, accessibility, and up front costs. But is it really an either or debate?

With my first, I used disposables in the beginning. I wanted to adjust to some of the other realities of being a new parent before taking on the extra task of cloth diapering. Around one month we ran out of the case of disposables. It was time to start cloth diapers. She was in cloth diapers full time, day and night, from then until potty training.

My first in cloth on vacation at 3 months old.

When her little sister arrived, we waited a few weeks to start cloth again. We made the switch at around one month, gradually at first. A few cloth diapers a day. Now she is in cloth full time during the day, but we still use a disposable at night. She has been a naturally good sleeper. Even though we have successfully cloth diapered before, I just don’t want to mess with her sleep. I’d definitely call myself team cloth diapers. But our family still uses 2-3 disposables a day (technically, a night).

The truth is there is a time and a place for both. Lets compare.

Cloth Diaper vs Disposables: Cost

One barrier to cloth for people seems to be the start up cost. It takes money up front to build your stash, even if it does save money in the long run. That initial investment can be tough.

My second is using the same set my first did , so I can definitely say it has been cheaper to cloth for my family. Using cloth diapers across multiple kids or buying used (Did you know there is a Lil Helper Buy/Sell/Trade Facebook group?) is a great way to make sure it is truly cost effective. Lil Helper also offers a trial diaper deal if you want to try them out, save a buck, and aren’t quite ready to commit to a full stash yet.

When I buy our cases of disposables, it makes me feel motivated to stick with cloth. Every time you use cloth it offsets your costs, even if you only cloth part time.

Environmental Impact

This one is obvious. Most guesses put disposable diapers breaking down after about 500 years. The truth is we haven’t had the materials they are made of in use long enough to really know this. Regardless, they are here a long time.

While the PUL of your cloth diapers may be here a long time too, the volume won’t be. Many cloth diaper users can get away with 20-30 diapers comfortably. Used across multiple kids, or buying second hand, you are getting more use out of less, compared to putting literally thousands of disposables per kid in the landfill.

The Convenience Factor

This one, disposables probably win out. Most cloth diaper parents will tell you that the extra laundry becomes a regular part of their routine. But if there is a reason to choose disposables, it is probably this.

Convenience is why many cloth diaper users decide to use disposables for the early days of parenting. Less chores is key when you are in total sleep deprivation and often still recovering from giving birth.

There is a definite convenience factor to disposables, but there are lots of ways to make cloth diapers work in the early days too.

Choosing a one size fits all diaper like Lil Helper is a great way to get lots of use from just one set of diapers, and it is possible to get a fit on a newborn. Plus, if you are exclusively breastfeeding diapers don’t need extra rinsing. But still, its understandable that people choose disposables when life feels chaotic

Cloth Diapers vs Disposables at Night

One thing that many people (aka me) who try cloth diapering struggle with is taking the leap during sleep. Its one thing finding good absorption for day time when changing is easy. It is another thing to start experimenting with baby’s sleep. It can be pretty intimidating to already sleep deprived parents (aka me).

With our first, she took a long time to sleep through the night, so cloth at night seemed like no big deal because we were already up anyways. My second, however, started sleeping through the night before we made the switch. I don’t want to mess with a good thing, so we aren’t touching nighttime cloth for now.

With 2 under 3 at home, we don’t mess with sleep.

Overnight cloth diapering can be a challenge with the need for 12 hours of absorbing power, not wanting too much bulk, and building a good diaper for how your baby sleeps. Tummy sleepers may need more layers up the front of the diaper, for example. Lil Helper has you covered though with everything from overnight inserts to boosters and HELLO! A brand new crib sheet that doubles as a mattress protector just in case.

I miss when we were in cloth 100%, but if disposables are helping us get a little more rest, I’ll take that too.

I will also say, my little one has never removed a Lil Helper cloth diaper. But my youngest has removed a disposable. Inside her PJs and sleep sack. In the middle of the night. After a big poop. Oh the joys of parenthood.

Situations for Both

After experiencing that middle of the night poo-nami, I started combining the best of both worlds. When a situation comes up that I feel I just want that added convenience and absorption of a disposable, I still put a cloth diaper on over top of it. This guarantees that it stays in place and I have only on the rarest of rare occasions experienced my kids blowing out a Lil Helper. Those paper disposables just can’t contain the mess sometimes, so the extra cover on top helps!

At home and even on the go, for me I love a fluff butt. There is something so cute about the big booty of a cloth diapered babe, plus the adorable prints on the covers are much more appealing to me than the paper look and feel of disposables. But every rule has its times to be broken.

Sometimes I will reach for a disposable if we are doing a long car ride and I’m worried about compression leaks. Or sometimes on vacation, or to give your diapers a deep clean, you might decide its better to take a break from cloth. Some folks do cloth at home and disposables at day care/out and about. Its up to you and how much you think you can handle. There are pros and cons to both.

Remember, even if you only cloth diaper once a day, you are saving seven diapers a week from the landfill. If your kiddo potty trains at 2 (aka is a unicorn, it usually takes longer) that's 728 diapers saved from the landfill. Every bit helps and the more you use them, the more cost effective they become.

About the Author

Caitlin lives in Alberta with her husband, 2 little girls, and too many animals cause she is a sucker for a rescue. When she's not chasing kids and changing fluff bums she spends her time crocheting, gardening, and binging true crime docs.

On the fence about cloth diapering? Have a question about how to get started? Let us know in the comments below!

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