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9-minute read

Key facts

  • Most babies and toddlers need to wear nappies until they’re at least 2 years of age.
  • It’s common for toddlers to wear nappies at night time, even after they are toilet trained in the day.
  • Disposable nappies tend to be the most convenient and absorbent option.
  • It may be useful to try a range of different nappies to see which suits you and your baby.
  • Environmental impact and cost are important factors when deciding on the type of nappy to use.

What are the different types of nappies?

There are many different types of nappies, though most fit into one of two categories — cloth or disposable.

The options for cloth nappies have changed a lot in recent years and have evolved from being simple towelling squares folded and kept in place by pins or clips. Modern cloth nappies are fitted, washable and designed to be reusable. You have choices about what type of nappy suits you and your child.

There are a number of things to think about when deciding which nappy to use, such as:

  • leakage
  • comfort and fit
  • absorption
  • closure

What to consider with cloth nappies?

Cloth nappies are still available in their traditional style — terry towelling squares which are folded into a triangle or kite shape depending on the age and size of the baby.

Cloth nappies are also available as 'pre-folds' or fitted nappies. Generally, these styles work by using absorbent pads which are placed into fitted, leak-proof pants. Cloth nappies are also available in different types of fabrics, including bamboo, hemp or a blend of absorbent fabrics.

Nappy guide

Guide to different types of nappies.

Advantages of using cloth nappies

Cloth nappies are generally thought to be kinder on the environment as they are not thrown away. However, some people believe that after accounting for power, detergent and human energy used in washinh cloth nappies, the cost becomes neutral.

They appeal to parents who are keen to follow a more 'natural' style of parenting. Reusing, recycling and not throwing away is a belief which can sit well with some parents.

Disadvantages of cloth nappies

Soaking, washing, hanging out to dry and then taking off the line takes time and energy. Many of the ‘pad’ style nappies take a long time to dry. Even using a dryer relies on power and added financial cost.

They can be expensive at the outset, especially cloth nappies which work on both a pad and pants system. Though many parents say that once they’ve spent the money on a stock of nappies, they don’t need to buy more until their baby needs a larger size.

For some parents, the thought of washing cloth nappies is very unpleasant. Removing excess poo before soaking and washing is necessary and this can influence their decision to opt for using disposable nappies instead.

Cloth nappies are more prone to leakage and are not as absorbent as many disposable nappies. More frequent clothing and bedding changes are necessary when using cloth nappies.

Some parents prefer to use a nappy washing service. This is an arrangement where washing, drying and folding is outsourced to a company who regularly collects dirty nappies and drops off clean ones.

Disposable nappies

Disposable nappies are made from a combination of fibres and chemicals which are layered to provide absorbency. They have a plastic outer layer, an inner absorbent layer and an inner layer which helps to draw moisture away from the baby’s skin.

Disposable nappies come in different styles, sizes and shapes, according to a baby’s weight and size.

Advantages of disposable nappies

Disposable nappies are convenient and don’t require time or energy to launder. They also tend to be small and compact, making them easier to pack and store.

There is less risk of nappy rash with disposable nappies, which is common when the skin is kept wet. They tend to keep the skin drier and more comfortable.

Disadvantages of disposable nappies

There is an environmental cost with disposable nappies, which create tonnes of landfill around the world each year. Manufacturing disposable nappies also generates a lot of water and energy. However, there are alternatives to conventional disposable nappies. These are made from bamboo, paper pulp and other materials which breakdown more easily. Biodegradable disposable nappies are designed to decompose more quickly than standard disposables – however, they can be more expensive.

How do I choose which nappy is best for my baby?

It can be worthwhile doing some research into what type of nappies to use. Cost, convenience, environmental factors all play a role. Many parents go through stages of using different types of nappies as their baby grows. Disposable nappies can be very convenient in the early weeks and months when babies need to be changed very frequently and their skin is particularly sensitive. Going on holidays, restricted laundry access, garbage disposal access and cutting back on expenses all influence choices around nappies.

How often should I change my baby’s nappy?

The frequency of nappy changing depends on how many times an individual baby wees and poos and how they are feeding. Breastfed babies tend to have looser poos, whereas, babies who are formula fed have poos which are more solid. As babies grow older, they don’t need as frequent nappy changes. Newborns generally need to be changed up to 12 times each day and toddlers, around 6 to 8 times a day.

Most parents find it a good habit to change their baby’s nappy before each feed. This helps babies to feel more comfortable. If your baby is unsettled or fussing, it could be useful to check their nappy in-between feeds and before settling them for a sleep.

How to change nappies - video

Video provided by Raising Children Network.

What about their skin?

Whatever a baby’s gender, changing their nappy is essentially the same. The goal is to remove the wet or dirty nappy, clean their skin and replace the nappy with a clean one. If your baby has a very dirty nappy, they may need a bath.

If your baby boy is uncircumcised, you don’t need to do anything special to clean his penis. Don’t try to retract or force the foreskin back — just clean around his genitals. If you have a baby girl, wipe her labia from front to back when you’re cleaning her nappy area.

What products are safe for my baby?

Aim to use nappy change products which are labelled ‘suitable’ for babies and young children. Water or hypo-allergenic wipes help to reduce the risk of skin irritation. Using plain water on cotton wool or a wash cloth is a cheaper alternative to buying wipes. Research what works for you and your baby.

  • Avoid using powder on your baby’s skin, especially their nappy area.
  • Nappy rash creams help to create a barrier between a wet/dirty nappy and the baby’s skin. It can help for parents to rub thick cream between their fingers to help it spread.
  • Change your baby’s nappy more frequently if they have a nappy rash and see your child health nurse or GP if a rash does not clear after a couple of days.
  • Thrush can cause nappy rash and requires a special type of cream/ointment which treats the yeast infection.

Safety tips for nappy changing

It can help to have everything you need for nappy changing within reach and in one place.

  • Be prepared before starting.
  • Place your baby on a change mat or table and always stay with them. Babies build skills towards rolling even in the first few months of life.
  • Never leave your baby unattended when changing their nappy – this can be unsafe.
  • If you need to walk away, take your baby with you or place them in their cot.
  • Keep nappy disposal bags out of your baby’s reach. They can be a suffocation risk.
  • Always wash your hands after changing your baby’s nappy. It’s important to keep your hands clean so you can reduce the risks of you or your baby becoming unwell.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2022

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