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A parent's guide to real nappies

Why should I use cloth nappies instead of disposals

Better for baby

Most disposable nappies contain artificial chemical absorbents such as sodium polyacrylate. These chemical granules are used to increase absorbency and form a gel that can end up on your baby as well as in the soil and our waterways.

Better for the environment

Nearly 3 billion nappies are thrown away in the UK every year and the vast majority of these end up in landfill. Around 8 million nappies are thrown away every day in the UK! We do not know how long it takes for the plastics in disposable nappies to decompose but it could take hundreds of years. If one parent, changing 4 times a day and once at night for 3 years, stopped using disposable nappies, it would save 5 nappies per day, 35 per week, 1,820 per year, 5,460 in all being put into the waste stream. No wonder more and more parents are choosing cloth nappies!

Better for your pocket

The average spend on one child in disposable nappies is £1,200 and that is for around 2.5 years This does not take into consideration that a lot of children stay in nappies for a lot longer and some are not completely dry at night until 7/8 years old.

But the thing most parents want to know is......How much work is involved? Well not as much as you might think and parents who use washable nappies find it extremely satisfying and (dare we say it) - enjoyable (yes, really!).

More information:

How many types of real nappies are there?

There are four main types:

  • All in ones: These are great for easy changing and very helpful if other people, such as grandparents, babysitters or a nursey, will be caring for your child.  The absorbent part of the nappy is attached to the waterproof part - much like a disposable nappy.
  • Two-part nappies: Here the absorbent part of the nappy is used with a separate waterproof cover or 'wrap.' 
  • Pocket nappies: These can be very economical.  The absorbent part is stuffed into a pocket within the nappy itself and is removed for washing.
  • Flat Nappies: These are still popular although they can sometimes be a bit fiddly. A flat, square piece of cloth (a 'terry square') is used with a separate waterproof cover.  Modern 'nappy-nippas' (made of stretchy plastic) are used in place of the traditional nappy pins.

What types of fastenings can I use?

Nappies come with either Velcro/applix or poppers.  Others are designed for use with pins or nappy-nippas.

What types of materials are used?

Nappy fabrics include cotton terry-towelling or flannel, hemp, bamboo or microfibre. Waterproof fabrics include PUL (polyurethane), wool and polyester fleece.

Which size of nappy do I need?

Most modern washable nappies are size-adjustable and will fit babies from around 9lbs up to toddler size.  These are known as 'birth to potty' nappies.  You would only need to buy one set of nappies to see your baby through to potty training and could use the same nappies on a toddler and a new baby sibling.

Some nappies tend to come in several sizes - S, M, L & XL or size 1,2 & 3 for example. A few companies also make newborn size nappies.  Whilst you may find a better choice of fit with a 'sized nappy' you will also need to remember that as your baby grows, you will have to buy larger nappies!

What are my choices for a newborn?

It can take a few week for babies to grow into 'birth to potty' nappies, and there are some options for that in-between stage:

Newborn size nappies are available and are a good investment if your baby is very tiny and is likely to take a while to reach 9lbs.  These are available to hire from nappy libraries or online, if you do not want to buy them.

Muslin squares (yes, like the ones you use for mopping up!) are excellent nappies for newborns and must be used with a waterproof cover. The covers are available online at a range of prices and can be inexpensive.

How many real nappies do I need?

First you need to decide how often you intend to wash.

If you put other items in the machine with the nappies, washing every day works well.  If you intend air drying, then you will need extra nappies whilst they are drying.  If you have limited space for drying, you might want to consider nappies made of synthetic fabric, that dry in a few hours. 

We estimate that 15-20 nappies should allow you to wash every other day and still be able to maintain a routine that does not see you running out of clean nappies.

In the early days you may find that a wash load at the end of each day is needed but if you can put the nappies in the machine to rinse and spin, then add other laundry for a full wash, you are more than likely to find that you have enough nappies.

If you are using bamboo or hemp, you may need a few additional boosters/inserts to allow for the extra time these nappies take to dry.


Most wraps are made of polyester or nylon (some are cotton) and they are laminated on the inside with PUL (polyurethane), which makes them waterproof. Known as PUL wraps, these make good general purpose wraps - lightweight, breathable, easy to wipe clean and dry quickly.

Polyester fleece and wool are ideal for use at night time as an alternative to PUL wraps.  Fleece dries very quickly, but you need to wash after every wear.  Wool is thicker so takes slightly longer to dry, but there is no need to wash every wear due to its natural antibacterial properties.

Nappy liners

Disposable nappy liners are usually made of soft paper or some sort of vegetable material and are good for picking up solids to flush away and can be washed a few times and re-used if just wet.

Fleece liners keep your baby's skin very dry. Moisture is drawn through the liner onto the nappy behind, leaving baby's bottom dry. They are washable and last for years.

Washable wipes

You are washing your nappies, so why not wash your wipes too? Most disposable wipes found on the high street are handy (we have to be honest, here!) but they are packed with chemicals, they fill up landfill sites and drains and they are expensive!

Washable wipes are a great alternative.  They are available commercially or you can make your own.  Essentially, they are rectangles of cloth, used for clean-up at nappy changes (and for a myriad of other purposes!) and they go in the wash, along with the nappies.

Some parents prefer to carry their washable wipes ready soaked, in which case a small plastic container with a lid is perfect.  Others wet the wipes as they go, from a tap or a water bottle.

Washable wipes are also a great alternative to cotton wool, and can be used with plain water or with a cleaning solution, either home-made or purchased.

How do I wash and dry real nappies?

The idea of extra laundry can be daunting for parents new to washable nappies.  However, you can easily make your nappies part of your regular routine.  If you are using washables full time you are likely to have one extra wash load every other day.

  • Modern cloth nappies should not be soaked, as this can damage the elastic and waterproof elements of the nappy. Instead, they can be kept in an empty bucket with a lid, or a bag, until ready to wash.
  • Most modern nappies can be washed between 40-60 degrees, in your washing machine, with ordinary supermarket washing powder. Manufacturers prefer you to use non-bio powder. There is no need to add anything extra to your wash.
  • Fabric softeners should not be used with cloth nappies, as they compromise the absorbency of the nappy.
  • If you have some nappies ready to wash, and you are also going to be doing other laundry, you can double up. Pop your nappies in the machine for a rinse and spin, then add extra laundry to make a full load, and wash. This means you should never run out of nappies, as long as there is laundry to be done!
  • Nappies can be saved and washed all together, in which case be sure not to overfill your machine, so that proper agitation can be achieved during the wash cycle.
  • Many nappies are happy being tumble dried on a cool setting – check manufacturers’ instructions. Nappies do love to hang outside in the sunshine though, and it’s great for removing any stains or marks.

A word about poo…

Parents are often concerned about poo in their washing machine. Fear not! Before introducing solids, baby poo is water soluble and will wash out perfectly well on an ordinary cycle. After weaning, solid poo is flushed away or thrown away with disposable liners before the nappies are laundered, so poo should not find its way into your machine.

Please note that liquids, eco balls, and soapnuts are less effective at washing nappies.

What is a real nappy?

    • A real nappy is a washable nappy that can be reused time and time again, reducing your financial costs and the amount of rubbish you produce.
    • Real nappies are also known as cloth nappies, washable nappies or reusable nappies. They should not be confused with "biodegradable" nappies, which still need to be disposed of and usually end up in the waste stream.
    • Most real nappies consist of a soft absorbent nappy, a flushable or washable liner and a breathable waterproof wrap.
    • The nappy liner goes inside the nappy to catch the solid waste and helps to keep moisture away from the baby's skin.
    • The waterproof outer cover, called a wrap, is the fun part with lots of cute designs and bright colours. These are made from a range of materials for example breathable PUL (polyurethane), wool or polyester fleece.

How practical are real nappies? 

    • Modern designs fit snugly and use quick, safe easy fastenings such as Velcro/Applix or poppers or may need plastic nappy fasteners (nappy-nippas).
    • Real nappies wash and dry easily without need for soaking or washing at high temperatures.
    • Real nappies can be placed in a waterproof, zip-up ‘wet bag’ when out and about, ready to bring home for laundering. There are a wide range of modern, fashionable, real nappies available to suit every size and shape of baby. We can help you to get the best out of whichever nappies you choose, by providing ongoing advice and support.

What are the costs likely to be?

    • Using your Gloucestershire Real Nappy voucher, you can buy any nappies you choose, and claim a £30 refund on the cost. Alternatively, you can select from one of the three types of special offer voucher packs available to voucher holders.

What are my real nappy options?

    • Basic real nappies can cost less than £4 each, with more sophisticated products costing around £15-£25 each.
    • Home washing can cost as little as £1.50 per week (this includes the cost of the electricity, washing powder and wear and tear on your washing machine).
    • You could save up to £1,000 by using real nappies rather than disposables.
    • An initial outlay to buy your real nappies is necessary. This could be less than £100 in total to use washable nappies full time. But because it is a one-off payment, it means you are not then constantly paying out for disposables on a weekly basis.
    • You can achieve further savings by using the same real nappies on your next child.
    • Second-hand nappies can be found through our GlosNappiesNatter Facebook group, or the UK Parenting Forum and Women's Environmental Network websites as well as on e-bay and at local nearly new sales.

Won't my baby get nappy rash?

    • Many people believe real nappies are less likely to cause nappy rash as the products are breathable.
    • How often you change your baby is more likely to determine whether they get nappy rash, rather than the type of nappy they are in.
    • Your baby is no more likely to get nappy rash from wearing real nappies than from disposables.

Do they leak?

    • It is important to select the right size for your baby's shape to avoid leakages. There is a wide choice of products available so choosing the right one won't be difficult.
    • More often than not, leaks can be solved by a slight tweak to the way the nappy is fitted on the baby.
    • Our Gloucestershire Real Nappy Project outreach workers are happy to give advice on getting the right fit and will be pleased to meet you at one of our drop-in sessions for free troubleshooting advice.
    • You can use booster pads to make the nappy more absorbent if needed. They are especially useful at night.

What are the environmental impacts?

    • Each child has in the region of 4000 to 6000 nappy changes from birth to potty (averaged at 2.5 years).
    • This equates to 4.5 trees in wood pulp and over one tonne of disposable nappies being placed in the waste stream.
    • It is estimated that each disposable nappy takes approximately 500 years to fully biodegrade in a landfill site.
    • Disposable nappies can make up to 50% of the weekly waste produced by a family with just one baby, so families could cut their waste in half by using real nappies.


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