The Best Kind of Diapers

Baby boy (6-9 months) looking over shoulder
Baby boy (6-9 months) looking over shoulder

I have extremely strong opinions about the best kind of diapers for babies -- clean and dry. Beyond that, I have no real preference, though for logistical reasons most of the diaper banks I work with distribute primarily disposable diapers to low-income families who otherwise would have difficulty caring for their babies. Many do distribute cloth diapers as well, and we happily support them.

The Piedmont Diaper Bank in North Carolina, for example, gives out cloth kits to families who have been screened to make sure they have a washing machine and child care situations that will allow for cloth. These parents get training in how to keep the diapers clean and fresh. Co-founder Valerie Glass, who used cloth on her third child, loves to promote the practice, but the vast majority of diapers she gives out are disposable. “I recognize that I was in a position to do cloth because I'm a stay-at-home mom,” she says.

Unfortunately, those of us in the diaper bank movement often find ourselves in the middle of a cloth vs. disposable war. Recently, I wrote an op-ed about the diaper gap in America and was greeted with responses scolding me for ruining the environment and giving slacker parents the “luxury” of disposable diapers. While many of the families we serve don’t have washing machines, there is pushback that these families should hand wash diapers “like our mothers did.” That, of course, requires detergent, which you can’t buy with food stamps, and a place to dry the diapers, which is hard to come by for urban families in cramped apartments.

But I certainly agree that cloth diapers are practical for some low-income families. And I applaud anyone who helps them get a supply. Since there are an estimated 3 million American children under the age of three living in poverty, we need all the help we can get — disposable or cloth. As I said, in the cloth vs. disposable war, I am Switzerland. But I am far from neutral when people call disposable diapers a luxury and accuse low-income families who want them of laziness and entitlement.

The Real Diaper Association, which advocates using cloth diapers, estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of American babies are diapered in cloth, some part-time. Disposable diapers are not a luxury. They are overwhelmingly the standard in this country.

Many child-care facilities refuse to take children whose parents do not provide a stack of disposable diapers. “That's changing!” people object. Changing, perhaps, but not yet changed. Poor and low-income families typically have fewer choices when it comes to child-care, and most of those choices require disposables. In a large number of families, parents could not work if they didn't have disposable diapers.

I am not a scientist and cannot evaluate competing claims of what’s best for the environment. But, then, neither can the Sierra Club, an organization that says the pros and cons of diapering options are not clear enough for it to pick a side.

Nevertheless many people believe cloth diapers are the only environmentally sound choice. Those people should of course use them. By all means, they should try to convince others to do the same. Ninety percent or better of American families are using disposables. There are plenty of people out there to be converted. So why zero in on low-income families? On the most vulnerable families?

I have seen babies living in conditions that simply should not exist in America. I have seen horrible rashes; parents broken-hearted that they can’t take better care of their children; families cut off from opportunity for the want of a simple thing — a diaper. All over the country, people are running diaper banks because they’ve seen it too. They work so hard, with such generosity of spirit and often without pay.

You could quibble with the methods, but we would much prefer that you lend a hand.