Guide To Modern Washable Nappies

14/08/2014 17:00 | Updated 20 May 2015

Baby in nappy

Gone are the days when washable nappies meant folding up terry towelling squares, fixing them around your baby with giant, scary-looking safety pins and crossing your fingers that they didn't leak. Washables have moved on enormously since our own mothers' era – many of the modern cloth nappy 'systems' are much easier to use, perform better and look nice and colourful to boot.

Saving you money as well as the planet!


Many people think of washable nappies, first and foremost, as a way of helping save the planet, but ditching disposables can help you save cash too.


There are all sorts of cost-saving figures bandied about by pro-cloth nappy organisations but we thought we'd do our own, impartial comparison versus disposables.

Over the course of the two-and-a-half to three years a typical child wears nappies for, we've calculated you might get through 5,000 nappies. At a cost of 15p each (we've factored in that toddler nappies are more expensive per unit than newborn ones but that disposables will be on promotion occasionally), that comes in at £750. Washables (see below for information on how many you might need!) vary in price but we've assumed a full set of new nappies, costing £350 and added in the Real Nappy Information Service's estimate of £70 for additional laundering costs. That's a total of £420, saving a healthy £330 versus disposables.

This amount can be boosted further if you use the nappies for a second baby, purchase some or all of your cloth nappies secondhand or sell them on afterwards (believe it or not, there's a thriving market for 'pre-loved' nappies).

Obviously the hitch here is that with washables you have to pay upfront, whereas costs are spread out better with disposables. With this in mind, some local councils provide subsidies, to help cut your outlay. Check on their website for more information on this, or, again, look at The Real Nappy Information Service's website.

Mum Helen Grounds was so won over by cloth she's set up a washable nappy-related company, and reckons they're perfect for parents needing to keep an eye on spending. She says: "As a mother on a budget, cloth nappies are amazing as they can be re-used on future children as well, or handed down to family/friends and the cost of washing them is pretty negligible."

For Tania Sullivan, they're a necessity for her kids due to the savings over disposables - she's used them on the youngest seven of her 11 children (yes you read that right! Eleven! If you want to know more, Tania writes the Larger Family Life Blog) and has saved hundreds per child, making a crucial difference to the weekly shopping bills when she has had a handful of little ones in nappies at once.

But are they really more eco-friendly than disposables? What about all that extra laundering?

Disposable nappies contribute a huge amount to landfill sites - millions are thrown away every day in the UK - and they will take many, many years, possibly hundreds, to biodegrade. They also use up resources in their manufacture and transportation. Of course washables do the latter too but you only buy them once.

Cynics say that cloth nappies devour water and energy in the additional washing they create and argue that if you tumble dry them, they're little different in their effects on the planet.

A number of studies have tried to compare the environmental impacts of both types of nappy but often these have been commissioned by, or designed by 'interest groups' from either side of the fence – the cloth nappy lobby or disposables manufacturers - so it's hard to tell the truth.

Overall, if you wash and dry cloth nappies in the most eco-friendly way – see below – and particularly if they are dried on a washing line, airer or radiator, rather than in the tumble dryer, they are almost certainly the greener option.

Are they good for your baby though?

If you prefer to avoid chemicals coming into contact with your baby, there's another advantage to cloth. Tania says: "I know exactly what they are made of and how they are washed, so I am aware of what is in contact with my babies. I became more aware of the chemical smell of the crystals in the disposables once I had switched to cloth and was shocked at how strong it smelt and how I had never noticed before. Also, the sight of a sagging, swelling disposable just isn't as cute as a cloth bottom!"

Not sure about all this extra washing when you've got a newborn to deal with?


Cloth nappies won't be for everyone but remember it isn't an all or nothing choice – you don't have to commit to washables and washables only from day one. It could well be that you find it easier to manage the first few weeks with disposables and then switch over to cloth when life with a newborn settles down a little.


Even later on, nothing's to stop you using the odd disposable (although this will reduce your cost savings). Eco-disposable nappies (Bambo and Moltex are good performers although a little hard to find on the high street) are a decent compromise, as they are manufactured in a more environmentally-friendly way and could be composted rather than ending up in landfill.

Tania mixes the odd disposable in with her cloth nappies, particularly when on holiday with her brood: "If we are away somewhere with washing facilities (a cottage hire for example) then we'll take the cloth nappies with us. Otherwise we will use disposables for the holiday. If there is nowhere to wash and dry the nappies taking a week's worth of reusables isn't practical to do!"

Toddler in nappy

Sold on washables, but need to know where to begin?

This is where it all gets a bit complicated as there are many different types and styles of cloth nappy to get to the bottom of (if you'll excuse the pun).

Fundamentally, you need an inner absorbent layer (sometimes called the nappy layer) to soak things up and an outer waterproof cover (also sometimes called a wrap – see below) to prevent leaks. These might be separate or attached (again, see below)

Some of your key decisions are as follows – bear in mind there aren't 'right answers' to these – it just depends on what you think will work best for you.

1. Do you want the inner and outer layers to be separate or fixed together as a 'two-in-one'?

Some nappy 'systems' keep the outer and inner layers separate (called two pieces or separates), others are 'two-in-one' with both layers together as one garment.

Separate layers (these will include an inner cloth nappy and an outer waterproof wrap) usually dry quicker and can offer more flexibility, whereas two-in-ones tend to be easier to get on your baby – particularly welcome in the middle of the night, with wriggly toddlers or for other carers such as babysitters.

Even if you generally prefer the idea of separates, it might be worth getting a couple of two-in-ones for babysitters or anyone who'll care for your baby and feels unsure about washables.

You might see mention of 'pocket nappies' - these have a pocket you stuff with the absorbent layer. They have some of the advantages of all-in-ones in that once 'stuffed' they're easy to get on your baby, but because their sections are separated for washing, they dry quickly.

2. Should you get sized or one size nappies?

Some nappies are 'one size' versions, others are sized for different ages of baby/ toddler. One size nappies are cheaper, as they should last all the way from 'birth to potty' training (you will often see packs sold as 'birth to potty' in the shops). They usually have rows of poppers or use Velcro so that you can adjust their size but they might not provide as good a fit at some stages and can be particularly bulky on newborns.

3. Which fabric is best?

Yet more choices need to be made about the fabrics your cloth nappies are made of.

There are all sorts of options but the nirvana is a mix of absorbency, softness and ease of drying for inner layers, with waterproofness, softness and breathability for the outer layer or wraps.

Our favourite fabrics for nappy inner layers are fleece (soft, absorbent and quick-drying), minky (a man-made fibre) and bamboo (soft and natural). For wraps/ outer layers, coated cotton performs well.

4. What about boosters and liners?

You can get washable liners to pop in the nappy, but given they're thin, cheap and usually biodegradable, we recommend disposable, flushable ones. These make using cloth much more palatable for many parents – you lift the liner and contents straight into the toilet and flush it all away. You're left with much less soiling on the nappy itself, making it easier to launder.

Boosters can be added for extra absorbency at night-time. They might make nappies a little bulky in feel for your baby or toddler but are useful if you've got a particularly heavy wetter or for when older babies are (hopefully) sleeping through for longer periods.

Anything else to consider when choosing?

A fairly minor issue but cloth nappies either close up with Velcro or poppers - Velcro is more versatile and less fiddly but do remember to close the tabs in the wash or they can stick to other items and 'pull' the fabric!

How many to buy

How many nappies you need comes down to a few factors:

- How often you want to be washing them (the more you get, the more time you can leave between laundry loads!) but this is balanced by how many you can afford to buy obviously.

- What type of nappy you choose (as mentioned, some take longer to dry – particularly an issue if you aren't using a tumble dryer and therefore you'd need more, others have covers which can be wiped clean so might manage to stay on a bit longer before needing a wash).

- Whether you'll mix the odd disposable in there too, eg, when you go out or at night.

As a guide, if you use cloth all the time and are happy to wash every other day, you'll need about 18 nappies for a newborn (be they inner nappies or all-in-ones). For separate, four or so wraps/ outers should suffice if they can be wiped clean.

BUT before you buy a whole set, we recommend getting some trial packs and giving a few different types a try – see which work for you and your baby before investing further. If you need to use the odd disposable for a few days until you make a decision, it literally won't cause the end of the world.

How should I store dirty nappies and wash them?

Jo Schanschieff, mother and co-founder of Bambino Mio says, "Nappies can be washed effectively from as low a temperature as 30 degrees C if you use a nappy sanitiser [a powder added to the laundry load], otherwise it needs to be 40 to 60 degrees. You will need to check care instructions for the specific reusable nappy brand you are using.

"Most reusable nappies are designed for efficient washing and fast drying so it is not necessary to tumble dry as this is less eco-friendly. Your nappies can be dried on the line or on an airer in two to three hours," she adds.

Traditionally, many mums would soak dirty nappies in a bucket until they were ready to launder them but Jo advises that if flushable liners are used "there is no need to soak your nappies beforehand, simply flush any soiling on a biodegradable nappy liner down the toilet and store the nappies in a sealed bucket. A laundry bag can be useful to transfer the nappies into the machine without the need to handle the used nappies." Some parents put a drop of essential oil in the nappy bucket to mask smells.

A smaller zippable waterproof bag is also a useful purchase for when you're out and need to transport 'dirties' back home.

Finally, whilst you do want your nappies to be as soft as possible, Jo, and other cloth experts, tend not to recommend that fabric softener is used since this can reduce the absorbency of the nappies. "The majority of today's reusable nappies are made from high performance fabrics which ensure they remain soft after washing."

Interested but still rather confused?

Try one of the cloth nappy advisory services out there – bear in mind that some will be more impartial than others. (advises on and sells cloth nappies) (campaigns and provides information on cloth nappies).

Liat Hughes Joshi is co-author of What to Buy for Your Baby.

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