Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Disposable nappies, reusable nappies, or infant potty training? What’s the most environmentally friendly toilet option for tinies?

My daughter was 10 weeks old when she first asked to use the toilet. I had taken her to the park in her pushchair, for an autumnal walk with my husband. Suddenly Rose shouted “a!” and started jiggling about, squirming frantically as if she had a sore behind. We rushed home and dashed to the bathroom.

To my surprise her nappy was dry. I lifted her up and, cuddling her with her back to me, supporting her legs on one arm, I held her bottom over the loo. A huge wee gushed out. She raised her little head and grinned at me. “A!” she said again. From then on, that was her signal that she needed to wee. At 16 weeks she added the word “poo” to her vocabulary. It’s still hard to believe it now. What we had accidentally discovered is called “elimination communication”. Is this the answer to the environmental problem of baby toileting?

Most parents in the developed world use disposable nappies until the child is potty trained. Disposable nappies are regarded as being environmentally unfriendly. A recent study carried out for DEFRA cast doubt on the benefits of reusable nappies as they are currently used. The study found that fewer than 5% of parents use reusables, and by far the most common reusable nappies in use are terry squares or cloth prefolds. The big impacts of reusables included the water and energy required to wash and dry them, and also, perhaps surprisingly, the energy and chemicals used to manufacture them.

As well as doubt over the environmental benefits, there are many barriers to using reusable nappies. Disposable nappies are given away at maternity hospitals. Reusables are rarely, if ever given away. Disposable nappies are available in most convenience shops, and a huge range is available in supermarkets and pharmacies. By contrast, reusable nappies are rarely available to buy from a shop.

The upfront cost is a problem. A pack of about 25 disposable nappies costs around £5. The same number of reusable nappies with wraps costs between £100 (for terry squares) to £250 for shaped ones. Once used, they become difficult to sell - for instance eBay bans sales of used nappies and many mothers feel squeamish about buying them. By contrast, opened packs of disposable nappies can be swapped or shared. It’s cheap and easy to try out a new brand of disposable nappy. Trying out a new brand of reusable requires a leap of faith, and a great deal of money.

Disposable nappies are easy and convenient to use - you put them on, take them off, throw them away. That’s all there is to it.

Reusables often require some preparation before you first put them on the baby - many require pre-washing and drying. Some manufacturers recommend washing 3, 5 or even 10 times before use. If you don’t prewash these nappies they may not absorb liquid. Some mothers who miss the pre-washing instructions give up assuming the nappy to be a poor fit. Having got the nappy into a usable condition, the reusable nappy may still require some preparation at each change. Almost all require a paper or fleece liner. Terry or muslin squares have to be folded into a shape. Babies wriggle and grab, so a flat nappy may have to be folded into shape more than once at each change.

Once used, reusable nappies have to be washed and dried. If you don’t get round to washing them, they start to stink, and you run out of nappies. If you wash them in the wrong detergent or on the wrong cycle, you can damage them, for instance by destroying the elastic or Velcro. If you dry them in a tumble drier at too high a temperature you can cause damage to the fibres, if you don’t dry them in time they can go mouldy.

It is important to note that there are types of reusable nappies that wash at low temperatures, dry on a rack within an hour or two, and are almost as convenient to use as disposables. The main difficulty with these is finding out about them, and paying the upfront cost. These were excluded from DEFRA’s study because so few people use them. It may well be that they are better for the environment than disposables, terries or prefolds. And of course, it may be possible to reduce the impacts of terries and prefolds too.

If reusable nappies are too difficult to use, and not, ultimately beneficial, then does infant potty training (elimination communication) have a role to play? Infant potty training is often used through lack of choice, in places and at times where no or few nappies of any kind are available. Using this method nappies may never be used, or their use may be discontinued as early as 9 months.

So far as I can make out, infant potty training in the UK is extremely rare. Anecdotally, some mothers who try it say they have great success. Others find it doesn’t work for them. What’s not clear, as it’s so rare as a method, is what would happen if everyone was doing it.

An interesting problem is that infant potty training does not seem to reduce the number of nappy changes and may actually increase it as the mother is more aware of each wet nappy. Where no nappies are used, if the baby is clothed then their clothes (and often their mother’s clothes) may need to be laundered just as nappies would.

For us, elimination communication worked well. We had very many clean dry days and were able to give up nappies altogether when Rose was 19 months old. But our experience of cloth nappies was so bad we used disposables. We were shocked to find out that we changed much more frequently than most other parents. In total we used as many disposable nappies as the average baby, just compressed into a shorter time.

Celia Jones

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The pros and cons of the options open to us can provoke a lot of debate (as no doubt did the times online article a while back)

we are lucky to have options, unlike Gaza and many other parts of the World that carry the consequence of our political and environmental decisions