Do cloth diapers have a downside?

Many natural-minded parents opt for cloth diapers because they believe it’s not only best for the environment, but also best for baby – but do cloth diapers have a downside?
Side note: anyone else go insane pre-baby deciphering the world of wool diaper covers, prefolds, PULs, and beyond?
Not to mention elimination communication (EC), tiny undies, and naked time?
Know this: despite the title of this post, I’m a big fan of cloth. We began our parenting journey attempting EC while using these cloth AIO diapers, which we absolutely loved.
But, sadly, despite all my agonizing, neither our EC nor our cloth diaper journey lasted very long. I was too overwhelmed as a new mama to deal with EC once my husband’s paternity leave ended, and after an awful, infected rash, a million fruitless hours spent at Fluff Love, and one too many incidents with the sh!t sprayer (aka the diaper blaster, aka the toilet-affixed cloth diaper poo-rinser-offer poo-splatterer), it became apparent that cloth diapers were NOT the workable choice for us after the newborn period.
But it wasn’t just the excreta-splattered bathroom walls that made me think a bit differently about cloth, and diapers in general. It was also my dive in to baby biomechanics for my upcoming parenting program with Meg “the midwife” Reburn – specifically, I learned how baby’s mechanical development (as in, how they learn to move) might be affected by my diapering choices.
This analysis, despite its funding, provides a good beginner’s summary. It’s well-referenced, and those references are contextually robust, culturally aware, and scientifically sound.
The summary is: cloth diapers can interfere with biomechanics more than disposables at important developmental stages, and BOTH can interfere with movement to a fairly significant degree when compared to naked time.
(Cue Dana Carvey’s “Naked Time!” bit.)
Here’s what’s going on: cloth diapers are generally much more bulky and less flexible than ‘sposies. When you add liners and wool covers, they become even more so. I personally observed this to be the case with almost every cloth diaper we tried, from the AIOs to the PULs to the woolens to the workhorses. This added bulk has a positional influence, which can impact gait and comportment (as in, it can mess with baby learning to walk).
Several parents in my online parenthood group have reported their kiddos’ movement going from slightly stalled to much more mobile once they switched to disposables and/or started doing more naked time.
(Feel free to chime in with your favorite low-bulk cloth diaper and EC options in the comments.)
Again, naked time is the takeaway there – no diaper is perfect, even if cloth might generally have a greater impact on movement. So total diaper-free time is a must. And if you can make elimination communication work, even better!
Also, remember that there are many developmental influences that we’re all trying to balance, minimize, maximize, et cetera. This isn’t the only one, and it might not even be the most important one. But it’s what I’m talking about right this second, and my brains can only turn so many thoughts into words at one time, mmkay?
With all that in mind, we opted (selfishly?) to stick with these disposables after the newborn stage – keeping in mind that an overly-full disposable can be just as bulky as a cloth diaper. Since disposables can catch WAY more pee than cloth, they don’t have that built-in control of absolutely needing frequent changing, so keep that in mind.
Plus, of course, we did lots of naked time.
And yes, we clean up a lot of bodily fluid.
Still, though, I struggle with whether disposables add significantly to our chemical load, and that’s something that every parent has to grapple with on their own. Environment notwithstanding, what’s more important to you: reducing the chemical load that diapers carry (some more than others) or reducing the potential negative impact on biomechanical development, which might impact baby’s entire movement foundation?
I’m not sure what the answer is. And my choice, if I’m honest, probably involves a taste for convenience as much as a taste for maximizing the kiddo’s locomotive success. Was I looking for an out? Maybe. But, here we are.
In choosing disposables, however, we did our best to choose wisely. I can’t recommend any of the “mainstream” ones, since they’re often artificially fragranced (hello, pthalates) and when we used one in a pinch (ironically, when we were still cloth diapering), we ended up with what looked like a chemical burn – only to find out that the brand had been named in a lawsuit alleging exactly that.
NO disposable is perfect, although Bambo Nature, which we use, and Honest Company have publicly stated that they don’t use phthalates. (Good rundown here.) Additionally, reducing baby’s overall toxic load involves much more than choice in diapers: lotions, powders and shampoo have been implicated in increasing baby’s toxic load (get the full text via Sci Hub).
(We use Beautycounter’s baby wash, diaper cream and soothing oil, and when needed, Primally Pure’s powder and balm. Read more about why here.)
PLEASE READ:
I know this subject can be sensitive. I’m in NO WAY trying to start a major debate about cloth diapering. This is 100% about looking with interest, and without personal offense, at the evidence available and making the choice that’s right for YOU.
I love and respect those who cloth diaper, and there are kiddos across the diapering spectrum who are movin’ and shakin’ with no issues cropping up as a result of what they poop in.
But it’s important to acknowledge that NO diapering method is perfect, that the choice between environmental conservation/chemical exposure and biomechanical health is a difficult one, and that above all, we should simply observe what’s happening with OUR littles and make the choice we’re most comfortable with.
Naked time, no matter what you do, is an absolute must. (And if you’re concerned about your baby’s movement, I highly recommend a consult with Eliza Parker.)
Quite frankly, I already had concerns about the mechanical/movement issues that bulky cloth diapers might have as my kiddo started moving more independently, so I was happy and confident, although a little sad for the Earth, in making the change.
Still, when we switched, I swore up and down that I’d make OTHER changes to atone for my diapering sins and to help save the planet, like never showering. Like, ever.
You’re welcome, Earth.
If you want details on my upcoming fertility/baby/parenting program with Meg “the Midwife,” go here!
Thanks for reading.

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11 Responses

  1. Very interesting! I never even thought about naked time. I cloth diapered my son and he was very bow-legged for a while, but he’s not now at all (he’s almost 4 now). I’m due in four weeks with another boy and will definitely do some naked time. Idk if you’ll answer this, but I’ve been curious about if you’ll address the whole Back to Sleep campaign in Baby Making and Beyond. I mean, putting a baby down on to sleep on their tummy seems almost a serious enough offense to send someone to jail these days, but I’m not convinced that it’s always a bad thing based on some research I’ve done and would love to know what you think.

    1. Hi Deanna! This is a really interesting question. I hadn’t thought about tackling it, especially since I’ve basically been focusing on the cosleeping/breastsleeping/bedsharing safety stuff. SIDS/back to sleep is a big topic to tackle and will probably have to be down the road after the program launches because my research and writing will have to be rock solid. I tend to agree with you, I think the issues aren’t how the child is sleeping, but the environment/toxins around the baby. Yet if babies are going to sleep in their own room, on an offgassing mattress, etc., “back to sleep” is indeed probably better. We’ve screwed up the external environment so much that we have to change how WE/our babies live to compensate rather than dealing with (or even attempting to get to) the root of the problem.

  2. Why did you decide to stop? Was it because of cleaning or this study? I find a glaring flaw in this study; they used only old fashioned cloth diapers that were for “nighttime use.” which translates to “gigantic.” I will also go ahead and tell you that, not surprisingly, this study was funded by P&G- makers of Pampers disposable diapers. In addition there were no long term studies performed to check back and see the lasting affects of all diapers and walking naked. This seems like a very big flaw and begs the obvious question as to whether or not wearing diapers (cloth or disposable) has other consequences to development as time goes on or if the disruption in walking development evens out over time, which would be my guess.

    1. I very intentionally mentioned the study funding in the post – it’s not my favorite. But I like the parameters of the study, I looked into the references and couldn’t see much that I would argue with and I think it’s a very valid concern (funding notwithstanding) and it makes intuitive sense to me. Not all literature that is industry-funded is totally worthless, IMO, we just have to be really careful (as I was). After hearing these ideas echoed by people I deeply respect, like Katy Bowman of Nutritious Movement, I think it’s worth pondering. I know cloth is something of a sacred cow, but I question EVERYTHING – even the things I deeply, personally believe in and WANT to be better.
      Personally, ALL the cloth diapers we tried were less low-profile than the disposables and many (not all) of the babies I’ve seen in cloth are very much saddled with more bulk than their disposable-wearing counterparts (but that’s my cohort, and it might not be yours). Check out my response to Kathy about the potential long-term effects or lack thereof. I think the bottom line is, we don’t know. We are made to biomechanically compensate. But is that always a perfect solution for our bodies? Again, I don’t know. It’s a calculated risk, I suppose, much like many things.
      We decided to stop for a few reasons that I noted in the post – copied that for you below.
      “But, sadly, despite all my agonizing, neither our EC nor our cloth diaper journey lasted very long. I was too overwhelmed as a new mama to deal with EC once my husband’s paternity leave ended, and after an awful, infected rash, a million fruitless hours spent at Fluff Love, and one too many incidents with the sh!t sprayer (aka the diaper blaster, aka the toilet-affixed cloth diaper poo-rinser-offer poo-splatterer), it became apparent that cloth diapers were NOT the workable choice for us after the newborn period.
      But it wasn’t just the excreta-splattered bathroom walls that made me think a bit differently about cloth, and diapers in general. It was also my dive in to baby biomechanics for my upcoming parenting program with Meg “the midwife” Reburn – specifically, I learned how baby’s mechanical development (as in, how they learn to move) might be affected by my diapering choices.”

  3. This is fascinating. The article you linked to expressly declined to answer a question that I’ve long wondered about: do delays in development of early gross motor skills (such as crawling and walking) have any impact on a child’s long-term physical development? E.g. if my child becomes proficient at walking three months later than my friend’s child, are we going to see in five years that her child is more athletic, coordinated, healthy or posturally sound? I’ve never seen this answered anywhere but, anecdotally, it seems to me that the answer is “no’. If you have any thoughts on this Liz, I would love to hear them!

    1. Hi Kathy! I just don’t know. I think about these things often in many contexts – including things like early exposure to doppler/US. I think the effects might be so subclinical, and so easily compensated for, that we might never connect the dots. Me in particular – I have some little niggling knee issues since high school, but I was still a 3-sport athlete. Who knows if my alignment was impacted by my early diapering. Maybe? But this would also involve outlining specific end-points/parameters for what would constitute a long-term impact, and THAT is also rife with drama 😉 what counts and what doesn’t? What’s life-altering and what’s not? What small issues in chilhood/teen years are correlated with BIG issues down the line? I don’t think we’ll ever know, and deep down I think MOST things can be biomechanically compensated for. Whether that’s an OK thing or not, I’m not sure. The connective tissue in my knees isn’t totally sure right now either 😉

  4. Great article! We love using Dandelion bamboo prefolds (just folded in thirds) and placed in the crotch part of our covers (we have Thirsties/Rumparoos/Flips/Best Bottoms…whatever we found cheap)! The bamboo prefolds are super supple, less bulky with it placed in the diaper instead of using a pin thingy and babe has plenty of movement. HOWEVER, we part time EC and do no pants parties AND because of how we diaper we have to change them more often if accidents…while we are out we use Babyganics as back-ups. Do you know about the toxic load of this brand? Thank you! Always love your stuff!

    1. I think Babyganics is probably better than the standard brands because they don’t use the fragrance, but honestly I’m so confused by disposable diaper ingredients, it’s hard to even know what’s what! I think the worst is probably the synthetic fragrance in most brands, so to the degree you can avoid that, I think that’s the key!

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