Choosing Reusable Nappies For Your Baby Part One

Choosing Reusable Nappies For Your Baby, Part One

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Credit: By C. K. Klose – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Did you know that long ago, it wasn’t unheard off to leave a soiled baby unchanged for days?

It was the norm for babies to be left in their poo and wee for more than two days. And even when the cloth was removed, it was seldom washed.

Those days, it was okay to just shake the poo off the cloth, hang the cloth out to dry and reuse it without washing!

Unthinkable, right? Yuck!! We will say…but see how things have changed from then to now!

Using cloth as a form of diapering only came into existence in England in the Elizabethan era.

Before then, cultures around the world had indigenous diapering methods unique to them.

Bernice Krafchik,MD writing about the History about diapers and diapering in the International Journal of Dermatology, said: “Most cultures have been aware of the necessity to provide a covering over the genital area, both for privacy, and for the containment of excreta.”

Unique Diapering Cultures Before The Cloth Nappy

According to Krafchik, swaddling the baby vertically and then horizontally with strips of cotton or linen cloth, so as to contain the infant’s blowouts was a widespread practice in Europe.

In the same vein, Chinese mums “would wait to feel the peristaltic movement in the infant, while breastfeeding, and hold the baby over a container or even on the street to have a bowel movement. Young children in China had slits made in their underpants or shorts, allowing excretion while avoiding a diaper eruption”, the researcher said.

Krafchik also said:

“In Aboriginal societies, peat moss with an animal skin covering was used to absorb the urine, and similarly, in many South American societies dried grass was placed in a piece of old cloth to absorb some of the urine.”

The Evolution Of The Cloth Nappy

Cloth diapering as we know it today, became largely popular in the West in the 1800s.

In countries like the United Kingdom (UK), the industrial revolution brought in its wake, a new sense of style and grandeur.

Families began to acquire tasteful furnishings and also deemed it proper for their children to be suitably presented.

There was the need too, to protect their homes and furniture from the stench and stain of poo and wee, necessitating the demand for practical diapering solutions, sooner than later.

Modern living left no room for the use of animal skin, dried leaves or just running bare.

The lifestyle change, called for a new and better way of doing things. And what better way, than the introduction of the reusable cloth nappies.

Back in those days, the cloth nappies, although an improvement on past efforts, weren’t all that!

Krafchik said: “The diapers were made of old cloth and then covered by a tighter woven material and loose, ill-fitting plastic pants to avoid soiled clothing.”

As time went by in this era of great taste and hunger for innovation, people started figuring out improved ways of tackling this all important issue.

By the late 1800s and with the invention of the safety pin, sometime around the 1880s, cloth diapering graduated from old and threadbare cloths and rags, to something more dignified.

Cloth Diapering Came Of Age

Western babies were now diapered with superior quality white cloths, called diapers. Described by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, as a cotton or linen woven with a pattern of small diamonds, they were folded into a rectangular shape and fastened firmly to the baby with safety pins.

To avoid leakages, they were usually doubled, as rubber pants weren’t available for everyday use at that time.

The term diapers would become the generic name used to describe any form of baby diapering options, both disposable and reusable.

Things continued to progress, and by 1887, Maria Allen from the United States became the first person to produce cloth diapers in commercial quantity.

By the turn of the 20th century, diapering had moved far away from animal skin, dried leaves, swaddling cloth, and nothing at all, to diapers!

But! There Was A Catastrophic Set Back Looming Ahead

The Great Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s was severe and dreadful. It was protracted and left in its trail, a global loss of livelihood, income, profits, and tax revenue.

Like a pandemic, it crippled the body, heart, and soul of world economies, leaving millions of families impoverished.

And just when the world thought it was out of the woods, the Second World War started…

To be able to continue diapering their infants, many mums resorted to using flour sacks as an alternative to cotton or linen.

Despite the doom and gloom of the Great Depression and World War Two, the work to improve baby diapering, didn’t stop.

The Great Innovations

Around 1942, Hugo Drangel of the Swedish company Paulistrom, introduced a new type of diapering initiative which would eventually become the foundational concept for the disposable diaper.

Drangel’s invention was considered to be a reprieve from cloth diapering. His concept was straightforward. Instead of reusing cloth, a disposable absorbent pad (made from unbleached creped cellulose tissue) held securely in place with a rubber pant was introduced.

The Rest As They Say, Is History

Following in Drangel’s footsteps were other outstanding efforts aimed at relieving mums from the tediousness of cloth diapering.

In 1946, a housewife and mother of two from Westfort in Connecticut, Mario Donovan produced a version of disposable diapers called “Boater”.

According to the Famous Women Inventors:

 Unlike the rubber baby pants that were already on the market, Donovan’s design did not cause diaper rash and did not pinch the child’s skin.”

She said that it was called Boater because it looked like a boat to her at the time.

The mum of two set out to design a leak and waterproof covering for the regular cloth nappies. The cloth nappies were inserted into a plastic covering made from shower curtain.

She went further by adding snap fasteners to them, so that mums could do away with the hazardous safety pins.

Donovan’s design was borne out of the need to create a protective cover over her youngest child’s diaper, to keep his bedding and clothes dry. His explosives were always staining his clothes and bedding. Most especially, she was fed up with the endless cycles of wash!

George M. Schroder spawned a disposable diaper out of a non-woven fabric in 1947. That same year, British mother, Valerie Hunter Gordon, invented a two piece disposable diaper.

In 1948 or so Chicopee ( now Johnson and Johnson) was approached by the Eastern Airlines to come up with a practical diapering solution for families travelling with infants on their long haul flights.

The effort by Chicopee, gave birth to the first set of commercially available disposable diapers (rectangular one piece) called Chux.

There were also efforts by other creators like Curity, who invented the prefold diaper and Sybil Geeslin Kennedy, who invented a preformed pinless diaper, the Safe-T Di-Dee diaper both in 1950.

The disposable baby diaper brand as we know it today, came into the scene in 1961 when Proctor and Gamble employee, Vic Mills initiated the production of an improved version of what was in use at the time.

It was said that the idea came to him while he was on a summer vacation with his grandson. His idea was borne out of the need to create something better for him.

Mills’ initiative gave birth to the Pampers brand, making the once luxury item within the reach of anyone who so desired to have it.

With Pampers came other competing brands. Kimberly Clark introduced Kimbies in 1968.

10 years later, the company introduced Huggies into the market.

Since then, there has been an influx of competing brands among whom were Billy Gene Harper and Carlyle Harmon and many others, all targeting to improve on what was already out there.

The Rocky Road Of Cloth Diapering

How we arrived at where we are with reusable cloth nappies wasn’t an easy road. It was froth with blunders and practices that would be deemed unimaginable in today’s world.

Fancy not changing your baby’s nappy for days and worst still, just shaking off the poo, hanging it dry and reusing it without washing!

Things were done that way because they weren’t aware that human waste was a source of germ transmission!

Thank goodness for medical advancement which caused such practices to seize.

  • A New Set Of Challenges

Still, the management and maintenance of the reusable cloth in the early and mid-1900s was a bit of a challenge.

Even though mums had become aware of the dangers of infrequent diaper change or washes and had opted to wash them in hot boiling water, a new set of challenges arose!

Mums used harsh substances to wash the nappies, posing danger to their babies.

  • Diaper Laundry Services

Diaper laundry services were also introduced in the early 1940s. They were convenient and gave mums the much-needed help.

Besides, it became necessary for women to work outside their homes due to the demands of the second world war.

The services proved to be handy in offering families with clean nappies.

Cloth Diapering Standing The Test Of Time

The invention of disposable diapers didn’t make reusable cloth nappies irrelevant at all.

Although disposable diapers were liberating for mums in the 70s and 80s, concerns about their impact on the environment in the 90s generated a lot of controversial debates.

These concerns created a shift back to the use of cloth nappies.

The trend of disposable nappies may have been a welcomed innovation, but it didn’t completely overshadow the use of cloth.

Karla, a UK grandmother, and a mum of four, had her babies in the late 70’s and 80s.

She said:

 I used cloth nappies at home and disposable when going out.”

A reader, sharing her diapering experience said: “My baby boy is 43 now, so the nappy days are long gone, and there were disposable ones back then as well, but I mainly used cotton reusables”.

Baby Diapering in West Africa

The Wakirike Se Experience

As a young child growing up in the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria in the 70’s and 80’s, I had the most enriching life experience.

Thanks to my parents, I got to see things through the urban and rural lenses of life.

Whenever we visited our folks in Wakirike Se, my hometown, I enjoyed watching and learning from members of my extended family.

I learnt a lot from my people’s ingenuity and improvisation. Today, I‘m delighted to share some of them with you.

Rural Mums

The mums in the rural communities had their own ingenious ways of diapering, passed down by many generations of grannies to new mums.

  • Ankara Pieces (Bi te Pekere)

They cut our indigenous Ankara wrapper cloth, usually the old ones, into squares and placed them under the baby as a way of containing wee and poo.

Normally, the baby’s sleeping area was protected with mackintosh to prevent wee and poo sipping through the mattress.

Sometimes, the baby’s sleeping area was a big rectangular plastic bath, padded up with some blanket and cloth, it served as the baby cot.

Credit: Amazon, Ankara Fabric

The soiled and wet cloth was changed frequently to avoid the baby catching cold and to prevent nappy rash.

The cloth was never left for long because the mums believed that poo was hot and had a burning sensation on the baby’s tender bum.

  • Bath Time Rituals

Bath time was also a good time for babies to pass poo. During this time, mainly in the mornings and evenings, mums ran warm water over the baby’s tummy and then very gently palpated it with a warm towel to induce a bowel movement. It worked most times unless the baby was severely constipated.

  • Waiting For Baby

Once the baby had neck and head control and a well-formed spine which is around five months, like the Chinese mum, the Wakirike Se mum would wait on the child’s peristaltic movement while breastfeeding for her baby to make bowel movements.

Instead of holding the baby over a container or even on the street to have a bowel movement according to Krafchik, the mum would cup her feet together to create a potty like base for the baby to sit on, to do his or her business.

Care was taken to ensure that the area was cleaned afterwards.

  • Early Potty Training

Wakirike Se mums started potty training their babies from as early as five months.

They usually established a routine that the baby soon got accustomed to, so that by the baby’s first birthday, he or she would have been partially or fully potty trained.

  • Modern Meets Traditional

In addition to some of these indigenous practices, babies were diapered with cotton cloth nappies, fastened together with safety pins. Plastic pants were worn over the nappies to avoid leakages.

The Ankara squares were used when the mum wanted to “air” the baby bum as plastic pants were notorious for causing diaper rash.

Today, most rural mums use both cloth and disposable diapers.

Urban Mums

The urban mums would typically go for the terry and muslin cloth nappies, fastened with safety pins, held in place with plastic pants to avoid leakages.

They also used disposable sheets of nappy liners so that the poo didn’t go directly on the cloth nappy.

The liners were helpful because they could be flushed or rinsed off and damped in the waste bin.

Some traditional methods were imbibed by the urban mums like the bath time rituals, “airing” the baby’s bum and early potty training.

The difference was that instead of using Ankara pieces, the babies were laid over a muslin  or  terry  nappy cloth to “air” their bums and  instead of cupping their feet as potties, they used actual potties.

When I had my first two children 23 and 21 years ago, I had the privilege of them being nursed by my late mum and late mum in law.

Of course, times had changed then. They too, had also moved on with time. Yet, their wisdom and understanding of motherhood, made my experience as a new mum easy.

I am grateful that they lived to see my children.

Baby diapering has a universal commonality these days. The choice is up to every mum and its down to the baby, their budget and preference

Choosing Cloth Diapering For Your Baby

Modern cloth or reusable nappies come in various fabrics and types ( I will be talking more about them in my next article).

The fabrics can be cotton ( terry nappies) muslin, hemp, bamboo, or microfiber.

I consider reusable nappies to be the cheapest, the most ecofriendly and safest form of diapering because you are sure of what you are putting on your baby’s skin. You are in control, so to speak!

The only hitch about them is that, while they may tick all the boxes of positivity, they could be very laborious for both first time and veteran mums.

I’m of the opinion that reusable nappies must be handled with care, even in today’s times to avoid infection from human waste. Otherwise, there will be fungi and bacterial infections as there were in the past.

Heads Up!

I hate to break it to you, but!! cloth diapering isn’t for the lax, faint-hearted or squeamish. Heads up, it can be a stinky affair and a breeding ground for germs if not done right.

Therefore,! If you are averse to anything laborious or something that requires care and attention to detail, I’m afraid, this isn’t for you, as you can’t afford to be sloppy with human waste!

Caring for Cloth Nappies

One of the ways to prevent the spread of infection in your home( let’s face it, you are dealing with human waste here) is to constantly sterilise your nappies.

  • Pre Wash And Sterilise Nappies

Because I diapered my babies with  terry and muslin squares and contours,  I opted for  the wet diaper pail method. 

I had  two  pails with a lid. One was for  soiled nappies and the other  for rinse and  soak.

I always sterilised my nappies, and other soiled items with Napisan or Milton, never bleach. Soaking with hot water  is optional, though I prefer to use both hot water, detergent and  Milton to soak them for a few hours or overnight depending on the stain level.

It’s always better to shake off poo into the toilet or rinse it off. Using a disposable nappy liner was a life saver for me, I just removed it and flushed.  It’s my opinion that soiled nappies shouldn’t be left to pile up for longer than necessary. I would say, rinse poo off the nappy immediately.

Washing every other day worked well for me  because I didn’t like to  keep items soaked for longer than a few hours or overnight.

If you opt for the dry diaper pail or wet bag it’s also fine. Modern cloth nappies don’t need that frequent soaking with nappy sanitisers and hot water due to their elasticated legs and waist that can go slack.

With the  dry diaper  pail and wet bag  method,you keep soiled nappies, obviously getting rid of the poo, until your designated laundry day.

Some mums wash the nappies  as usual but  strip them once a month.  I would say to always check the manufacturers instructions for laundry advice.

With this, there are no hard and fast rules. Do what is easy and works for you best!

Caution  kindly ensure that your wet diaper pail is securely closed at all times as  they could be hazardous to very young children and pet. As much as it lies within your power,  always keep it away from the reach of your children and pets.

See related posts choosing reusable nappies for your baby part two

  • Washing

I  prefer to pre wash and treat  my nappies first, before washing them in the machine or by hand as the case may be.

By treating them I mean, a vigorous pre rinse or wash  to remove pooh or urine, left in a sterilising soak for a few hours or overnight.

This again, is my preference.

Some mums are of the view that if the baby is breastfed exclusively, then it’s unnecessary to go through the stress of doing what I do because poo from a breastfed or bottle fed baby is water soluble and would wash off easily.

Regardles, I would say to  prewash  with an enzyme based detergent to remove fecal matter and urine properly, do the main wash in  hot water (optional) with  a baby friendly detergent like Fairy Non Bio  and nappy sanitiser (optional) and rinse thoroughly, especially when  baby is still very tender or when solids are introduced to your baby’s diet.

You can repeat the wash cycle if you think it necessary.

(Click here to read Jules’s Diapering Story, for clothes sanitising insights)

Important Note

Please don’t wash your baby’s nappies and other soiled items  together with  bibs or burp cloths, always soak  or wash  separately.

And also read label for manufacturer’s laundry instruction.

  • Ironing
Ironing Baby’s Clothes

I’m from the school of thought that believe that all of baby’s clothing and nappies must be ironed regardless of whether they dried in the drier or air dried.

Ironing is  another way of getting rid of any parasites that could be latching on the clothes or nappy from the line outside

Also, ironing makes the clothes and nappies (prefolds, flats and contours) look very neat and fresh,when you iron or press, the clothes, and nappies last longer.

Always check labels for instructions.

Final Thoughts…

We learned how baby diapering has come a long way since the middle ages.

It’s very interesting to learn how cultures around the world tackled baby diapering in their own unique and indigenous way.

We also saw how the pioneers worked tirelessly to provide better diapering solutions.

I also told you about how to care for your cloth nappy.

Next week, I’ll be telling us about the other types of reusable diapers and their pros and cons. I will be reviewing some of the best brands of reusable diapers out there.

Till I see you again, stay safe and kindly leave a comment below.

Thank you.

Sources and further reads

International Journal of Dermatology History of Diapering and Diapers, Bernice Krafchik

Diaper Jungle Diaper History Timeline

Dirty Diaper Laundry The History of the Cloth Nappy

Ann’s Entitled Life The History of Diapers

Lil Baby Cakes The History of Diapers

Made of Blog Diapers in the Past

Diaper Heroes Splintered Crying

Famous Women Inventors Marion Donovan

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries
Diaper ( Word Origin)

Ibinabo Enebi

Ibinabo Enebi

I'm Ibinabo Enebi, and I can now safely say that my life is a beautiful journey of ups and downs. What had appeared to be fragments of unfulfilled dreams and missed opportunities were, in fact, the dots and colours necessary to create this worthy experience I call my life. I'm a wife, a mother of four, a sister, a friend, and an aunt. I hold a BA (Hons) in English Studies and a Master of Arts degree.

8 thoughts on “Choosing Reusable Nappies For Your Baby, Part One

  1. Sunny

    Ibi. This is another very educative and historic piece .Good for context and evolutionary exposition on baby diapers from different cultures. Very well written, simple to read and understand. Thank you for the deep research work
    Look forward to the next piece

    1. Ibi

      Dear Sunny,
      I’m delighted to know that you find the piece is informative. Thank you

  2. Felicia Atuluku
    Felicia Atuluku says:

    Thank you for taking us back memory lane on diapering. Very historical and rich content for today’s and would be moms. Looking forward to more in debt historical research and information on similar subject of contemporary relevance.
    Great job.

    1. Ibi

      Thank you so much Felicia for this. I am happy to know that you found this inspiring. We appreciate your kind compliments.
      Thank ou

  3. Toyin

    It’s interesting to read diapering evolution. Wakirike se method of pot training Is similar to what is practiced in my culture but I was not able to get round with that method because I felt it was too early. I later realised after many years it does work.

    1. Ibi

      Dear Toyin,
      You are most wecome. Thank you very much for sharing with us. I think we find similarities in diapering practises in most cultures. You are absolutely right.

  4. Evelyn. Raymond-Odiaka
    Evelyn. Raymond-Odiaka says:

    Interesting! I totally agree with you on the things to consider regarding baby diapering. The sensitivity of the baby to a particular brand of diaper can not be overlooked.

    1. Ibi

      Dear Evelyn,
      You are very correct in saying so. The baby’s skin senstivity is very important. A lot of babyies react to certain brands, Thank you f the best way to go would be to try a few for senstivity check. Thank you Evelyn for sharing your view with us.

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