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Solving your nappy dilemma

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

What else besides lack of sleep and constant feeding does a parent have to look forward to during baby's first year?

Nappies. Mounds and mounds of them.

Some mums and dads know from the beginning that they'll love the convenience of disposable nappies. Others know there's something just right about the fluffy feel of cotton nappies against their newborn's skin.

However, other parents find themselves in a quandary. Are cloth nappies more eco-friendly? Are there worrying chemicals in disposable nappies? Which nappies will keep the baby drier and hence, less prone to nappy rash?

Are cloth nappies or disposable nappies better for the environment?

Many British families use disposable nappies. According to research by the Women’s Environment Network, about three billion nappies are thrown away each year, accounting for as much as 4% of rubbish going to landfill sites. However, there are some parents who are convinced that cloth nappies are more environmentally friendly. Experts, though, say the answer isn't so clear-cut.

Research has suggested that both disposable and cloth nappies affect the environment negatively - just in different ways. For example, disposable nappies require more raw materials to manufacture, and they generate more landfill solid waste that can take an extremely long time to degrade. However, cloth nappies use up large amounts of electricity and water for washing and drying. Plus, commercial nappy service delivery vans consume fuel and create air pollution.

Ultimately, parents are left to make their own personal choice. The Environment Agency found little difference between cloth and disposable nappies when it came to environmental impact.

Despite the lack of consensus, parents can still go green. If you use cloth nappies, wash them at 60°C instead of 90°C and don’t dry them in a tumble dryer.

Other parents prefer chlorine-free disposable nappies, which cut down on toxic dioxin. Dioxin is the result of using chlorine to bleach disposables white. Parents can also buy organic cotton nappies. Organic cotton uses no pesticides during growing.

Do chemicals in disposable nappies pose any health risks?

Concerns have been raised, according to the Green Guide Institute, a non-profit environmental research and information organisation. However, no conclusive evidence of harm has emerged. For example:

  • Sodium polyacrylate crystals, the super-absorbent ingredient in disposables, were linked to toxic shock among tampon users about three decades ago. However, tampons enter the body, while nappies remain outside. According to the Green Guide Institute, a later study suggested that tampon habits, rather than materials, caused toxic shock.
  • A 2000 German study of 48 boys found that those who wore disposable nappies had higher scrotum temperatures than those in cloth nappies. That raised a theoretical risk of lower sperm count. However, a 2002 study found scrotal temperatures to be the same, regardless of whether boys wore disposables or cotton nappies with covers.

Which type of nappy best keeps nappy rash at bay?

Nappy rash can stem from several causes: friction, moisture, urine and faeces. Sometimes, the culprit is infection from yeast, such as candida albicans.

Again, there's no consensus on whether disposable or cloth nappies are best for reducing the risk of nappy rash. However, disposable nappies are generally better at keeping the baby's bottom drier.

Parents who use cloth nappies can also cut risk by minimising the amount of time that babies are in contact with urine and faeces by changing the baby more often.

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Reviewed on February 10, 2016

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