Ask DadPad, Parenting Advice

Ask DadPad: What do I need to know about nappies?

Posted on 22nd April 2022

This week included a random awareness day that you might not have heard of before – National Hanging Out Day.  No, it’s not about reverting to your teen years and standing around on street corners with your mates, but instead a day where we are encouraged “to learn about the benefits, both financially and environmentally, of using a clothesline for drying laundry.” And thinking about washing drying on a line naturally got us thinking about… nappies, especially of the cloth variety!  This is an especially relevant consideration right now given that next week (25th April-1st May) is also Real Nappy Week.

We therefore thought this all gave us the perfect excuse to speak to the lovely people at Reusabubble CIC – who run the main nappy library here in Cornwall – about all things nappies, to help new dads gain a better understanding of the different types of nappy available, and the advantages and disadvantages of using cloth and/or disposables for their little one.

We’ll also include a quick overview, too, of our DadPad guidance on nappy changing – it’s probably not in your Top 5 of things that you dreamt of doing when you became a new dad, but it actually offers dads a fantastic opportunity to get hands on with baby from Day One, to help build your confidence in handling your wriggly, tiny baby and also to build a secure bond between the two of you.

Let’s start, then, with our chat with Zoe from Reusabubble…

Hi Zoe.  Thank you so much for speaking with us.  Can you tell us all about Reusabubble – what do you do?

 The aim of Reusabubble CIC is to empower and encourage people in Cornwall to choose reusable alternatives, such as cloth nappies. Our main service is the nappy library (which was formerly, up until March this year, The Cornish Real Nappy Library). The nappy library enables people to use cloth nappies by:

  • Lending out clean new or used cloth nappies to try on baby. This is to help you identify what type of nappy suits best before making a purchase;
  • Offering advice, tips and support to help you on your cloth nappy journey; and 
  • Lending out nappies to help boost the nappy stash you already have, sometimes on a long-term basis.

We are planning to launch other projects and services once we get established as a CIC (Community Interest Company), including a shop and perhaps also a fixing and mending service.

The Cornwall branches of the nappy library are St Austell/Mid Cornwall, Bude/North Cornwall and Camborne/West Cornwall. Families can contact us through our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ReusabubbleCIC or our email address: reusabubble@gmail.com.

What if you’re not local to Cornwall, though?  Are there other organisations similar to yours in other counties?  

Yes! There are nappy libraries and similar organisations up and down the country. You can find a map here: http://www.uknappynetwork.org/find-a-library.html

Some councils also run cloth nappy incentive schemes, although Cornwall does not. A list of such schemes can be found here: http://www.nappyalliance.co.uk/nappy-schemes.

Onto nappies, then, which will potentially be one of the biggest expenses parents will have to face in getting through the first few years of their baby’s life.  Most new parents will be well aware of disposable nappies, which can be easily bought in supermarkets and shops, but obviously cloth nappies are also now becoming more ‘fashionable’ again and consequently more widely available.  So tell us a bit about cloth nappies: what are the main different types of cloth/reusable nappy? It can be a bit confusing!

All cloth nappies have two main components: the waterproof/water resistant outer layer and the absorbent inner layers. The main forms this can take are:

  • All-in-ones, where the absorbent inner part is sewn to the waterproof outer;
  • Pocket nappies, where the waterproof layer has a ‘pocket’ in which you put the absorbent inserts or boosters; and
  • Two-parters (there are other terms to describe these, but the principle is the same), where you put on the absorbent nappy and then put the separate waterproof wrap over the top. These can be super absorbent and are a popular choice for overnight nappies.

All these nappies can be used with fleece liners which help wick moisture away from the skin, so baby feels drier for longer, and can help when dealing with solid waste.

How are cloth/reusable nappies preferable to disposables?  And are there situations where disposables are better/easier/preferable to cloth/reusable nappies?

Some of the reasons why reusables may be preferable to disposables/single-use nappies include [and we’ll explore many of these points in more detail below]:

  • Lower cost in the long term: Whilst it may mean a higher initial outlay, in the long-run, washing and reusing cloth nappies can be much cheaper than buying single-use;
  • Kinder to the environment, through less use of raw materials, far less polluting transport involved and much less going to the incinerator at the end of the nappy’s life – and, of course, not taking up the space in the household bin every week. By passing cloth nappies onto another child or children after you have finished using them can cut their carbon footprint by 40% each time. [and, in this respect, we’re happy to report that we recently found out that the cloth ‘two-parter’ nappies that we at DadPad bought for our eldest child over 16 years ago are still going strong, currently looking after and caring for their sixth little baby bottom! ?]
  • Much less smell: cloth nappies don’t have that awful whiff that a bin full of used single-use nappies does, for example.
  • Kinder to skin: cloth nappies do not contain some of the problematic chemicals that single-use nappies do. On the whole, parents report far fewer instances of nappy rash when using cloth.
  • There are so many cute prints available! A lot of people prefer the look and feel of the cloth nappies.

We understand, though, that cloth nappies are not for everyone. There are many instances (for example, if there are complications around a birth) where getting to grips with cloth is moved down the list of priorities. Also, if your child is at a nursery not familiar with cloth it can be a struggle to communicate how to get a good fit etc, so sometimes single-use can be easier. You are more than welcome, though, to point any caregiver in the direction of the nappy libraries, as we are happy to offer advice and tips.

And don’t forget that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Some parents choose to use single-use nappies, for example, but are happy to use reusable cloth wipes.

You can find lots of facts about the impact of cloth nappies and disposables here: http://www.nappyalliance.co.uk/the-issue.

Are they difficult to put on to a baby?  Nappy pins always look so dangerous!

Nappy pins are still an option, but I would say they are only used by a very small minority of cloth users. Most modern cloth nappies are fitted using plastic poppers or Velcro/applix. There are alternatives to the scary looking pins such as Nappy Nippas or Boingos, which work by gripping some styles of nappy and holding them in place. [And if you visit the Nappy Nippas website you’ll see that they came into being after a dad got fed up with stabbing himself or his children when changing nappies!]

Getting a good fit with a cloth nappy can take some practice and adjustment. The nappy libraries are always available to offer tips and there are many helpful guides with videos and diagrams on the internet.

Lots of parents will have concerns about leaky nappies and/or cloth nappies being worse for babies with sensitive skin/causing nappy rash.  Aren’t disposable nappies much better in this respect, especially at night?

Many parents report fewer instances of nappy rash with cloth. There are some things you can do to help reduce the likelihood of nappy rash, such as using fleece liners which wick moisture away from the skin.

You could be surprised about how well cloth can contain a blow-out! Stories of baby poo up the back and leaking onto the car seat, for example, is very rare with cloth. It is helpful to get a good fit with the nappies and the nappy libraries can offer tips and advice with this. We also have lots of knowledge to share about the preferred materials and styles of nappies to choose to increase absorbency overnight.

What about the costs?  And what can you do if you can’t afford to buy them from new, but still want to try them?

There are many options out there to suit all budgets. Yes, there are top-end nappies which cost a large amount of money to buy new, but there are lots of cheaper options. There is also a thriving second-hand market for nappies. If you choose to buy new nappies to use on your baby, you can recoup some of the cost by selling them on when you have finished with them.

Reusabubble CIC and other nappy libraries often have long term loans available for free, which are usually old-style nappies which still have some use.

What about washing etc?  Aren’t cloth nappies a load of hassle that new parents can do without at such a stressful and busy time, especially with energy prices increasing so much at the moment?

In the early days of using cloth nappies, it can often be overwhelming getting used to the wash routine. The nappy libraries are always here to offer support. It may just mean that something needs tweaking, such as how often you are putting a wash on, and it then will all click in to place.

The simple message is that washing cloth nappies does not need to be complicated! There are many different opinions about wash routines out there, and what works for you and your washing machine may not be suitable for someone else. The nappy libraries have refined the process over many years and can offer lots of tips and advice to help you get your wash routine working well. 

Some wash routines include many extra rinses, but we have found during our numerous years of using cloth that these are excessive and largely unnecessary. A good solid wash routine should not raise household bills by much. You also do not need to add expensive washing agents to get the nappies clean, most basic supermarket washing powders will do the job just fine.  Your washing machine should do the majority of the effort, and if the whole washing process is taking more than four hours, something probably needs tweaking! 

The basic wash routine is as follows:

  • Get rid of the worst of the solid waste down the toilet (however, before introducing solid food to your baby, they can go straight in the wash without having to do this step);
  • Pop dirty nappies in a bucket or extra-large wet-bag;
  • When the wet-bag is full (roughly every two or three days), unzip it and put the whole thing in the washing machine, or put the contents of the bucket in the washing machine;
  • Do a short rinse cycle;
  • Do a longer wash on 60° with a full scoop of powder detergent; and
  • Hang the nappies to dry (tumble drying can reduce the lifespan of the nappies).

There are lots of things which can lead to a higher cost – such as tumble drying, using longer wash cycles than necessary, including lots of extra rinses and adding things such as expensive washing additives or stain removers – but, on the whole, cloth nappies can be washed for much less than the cost of buying disposables every week.

Huge thanks to Zoe (pictured above) for those really helpful answers. We were delighted to have her words totally backed by a (completely independent and unrelated!) new father – Justin, dad to a nine-month-old boy – who we spoke to about his experience of using cloth nappies:

When we first started using cloth nappies, I was a bit daunted.  I worried I wouldn’t remember which bit goes on top of which bit etc… “I’ve got to worry about a newborn baby as well as how to navigate a cloth nappy!”  But, after doing it a few times, it wasn’t that bad at all!  Having used disposable nappies for the first week, we have definitely found cloth nappies are so much better on little R’s skin.  He has never had a rash in cloth.

I was worried about the smell, but we have a basket in a well-ventilated room and I never even notice it.  It seems a lot of my friends are using them now and also loving it!  As well as saving the planet from endless landfill, in the long-run it is also more cost-effective.  I would recommend anyone to give cloth nappies a go!

It’s also quite a fun time for me and R when we change his nappy now, as he likes to play with the Velcro and laughs at my singing.

That leads us very helpfully onto our other key topic – changing the nappy!

Nappy change

Changing a nappy is also something that lots of new parents are quite nervous about, but you will soon become used to the sights, sounds and smells that your baby produces!

In the early days, some nappies can be quite spectacular and (to the untrained eye) rather scary – but observing the changes and knowing what to look for can actually help you tell whether or not your baby is feeding well.  We’ve put a link at the bottom of the page to a page on the NCT website which sets out some really useful photos and also includes a link to an information sheet, to help you better understand the situation.

Taking the lead on nappy changing is actually a really useful and helpful thing for dad to do, especially if mum is breastfeeding.  It will give you the opportunity to have regular one-to-one time, close to your baby, so that you can not only gain confidence in handling her, but – as Justin mentioned above – you’ll also get to know each other and build a strong attachment. It also allows mum to have a bit more of a rest in between feeds. (You can find out more about other ways in which you can support your breastfeeding partner here).

As with most aspects of baby care – especially in the early days – the key tip is to be prepared before you get started.  First of all, you’ll need something to lie baby on. Ideally, this will be a waterproof changing mat – for obvious reasons! – which you’ve placed on the floor (whenever possible, always change baby on the floor, to avoid the risk of them rolling and falling), but you might sometimes need to improvise if you are out and about and/or you have an emergency.  Most public toilets will have a baby change area (which should be accessible to dad as well as mum), but these are often on a table-top surface or a baby change unit.  You need to be extra careful in these situations – keep a hand on baby at all times to ensure that she cannot fall, even if she’s been strapped onto the unit.

You’ll also need something to clean baby with.  With a newborn baby, it’s best to use just cotton wool and warm water, to protect her delicate skin, but you might also want to use wet wipes.  Make sure that you have a good supply – it’s best to be over-, rather than under-prepared!

You’ll need to have a clean nappy to hand, plus nappy rash cream (if required) and something to put the dirty nappy in.  You might also want to have some spare clothes for baby nearby… just in case.

It’s a good idea, when you’re new to changing, to have the new nappy opened up and laid out the right way around.  Disposable nappies are not overly-complicated, but you might want to practice taking them on and off on a teddy bear etc first, so that you feel a bit more confident when doing it all for real.

When you’re ready and have made sure that your hands are clean, you can get started by lying baby onto her changing mat.  A good tip is to talk to baby all the way through the operation – it could be something as simple as talking her through what you are doing.  This will help keep you calm and focused, and will hopefully also entertain baby.  Making regular eye contact with each other – especially as baby gets a little older – will also help you to build your bond.

In terms of the practicalities, the first thing you need is to gain access to the nappy, so all clothing that covers her bottom half will need to be removed.  It’s also a good idea to move her vest and top a little bit up and away from her bottom, to minimise the chance of getting them dirty or wet.

Undo her nappy and open it up – watch out, though, as the cold air hitting the skin can sometimes cause baby to wee!  Gently but firmly holding baby’s ankles with one hand, lift baby’s bottom up a little so that you can slide the nappy out from under her, using it to gently wipe away the worst of the poo or wee as you do so.  Move the nappy to one side.

You now want to clean baby’s bottom – and sometimes you might also need to clean further up her back.  Always have a good check as you never know what might be lurking!  You will use your damp cotton wool or wet wipes for this.  A couple of key bits of advice when cleaning are that, for girls, you should always clean from front to back and, for boys, you should never attempt to pull back his foreskin.

If baby has a sore bottom, you should gently put some nappy rash cream on the whole area that the nappy will cover.  You could also let baby have a little kick around whilst lying on the mat with her nappy off, if you have the time/space to do this.  This will give her skin the chance to breathe.  If you’re worried about potential mess, pop a little towel under her bottom.

To put the clean nappy on, open it up and slide it under baby’s bottom, using the same ankle-lifting technique from earlier.  Gently lower her legs back down and fasten the nappy up.  Getting the nappy fastened well can take practice – you don’t want it too tight, as this will be uncomfortable for her, but you also don’t want it too loose that it might fall off and/or allow its contents to escape!

Once she’s changed and dressed, you can have a quick cuddle together (although you will probably want to give your hands a quick wipe first).  Make sure that she’s somewhere safe whilst you tidy up.  You’ll need to tidy up the dirty nappy – it makes sense to put all your used wet wipes/cotton wool inside the dirty nappy, then do the nappy back up with the sticky tabs, so all the ‘mess’ is tucked away – before putting it into a nappy sack, which you can then tie up and place in the bin.  Do be careful with nappy sacks, though – never leave them lying around or where baby could grab them as they are plastic bags and therefore a choking or suffocation hazard.  You should then give your hands a good wash.

That probably all sounds really complicated, but – once you’ve practiced a few times – you’ll find that it becomes very easy.  And, yes, there will be the odd nappy that requires you to abandon the wet wipes and the changing mat, strip baby off and give her a quick bath!  However, these situations happen to everyone and, as horrible as they are at the time, they will soon become part of your parenthood survival stories!

Key dos and don’ts when changing baby’s nappy:

DO:

  • Place the changing mat on the floor, so baby is safe, and can’t fall
  • Wash your hands thoroughly both before and after changing baby
  • Make sure that you always clean a baby girl’s bottom from back to front, to avoid causing infection
  • Be really careful to wipe baby clean in all of his/her skin folds – check carefully (especially up their back) for hidden poo, to ensure that nothing gets left behind

DON’T:

  • Leave baby unattended or turn your back when changing her on a high surface (e.g. when out and about and it’s not possible to change her on the floor)
  • Leave nappy bags (empty or full) where baby could grab one – she could easily choke or suffocate if it ends up in her mouth
  • Try and pull back the foreskin on a baby boy

References and further reading:

NHS Nappies page – contains a really useful video on how to change a nappy

NCT Newborn Nappies Information page – lots of pictures and info on what you should and might be finding in your newborn baby’s nappy!

Reusabubble’s Facebook page

UK Nappy Network page to help you find your nearest nappy library

Nappy Alliance list of cloth nappy incentive schemes in the UK

Nappy Alliance overview of the impact of cloth nappies and disposables