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Should America Go Diaper-Free to Save the Planet?

Photograph by Twenty20

A lot of environmentally conscious parents feel like making the decision between disposable diapers and cloth diapers is a kind of Sophie’s choice. Do you choose convenience at the sake of the environment, or more work because it's supposedly good for the planet?

Let’s examine the choices.

Disposable diapers are convenient and make life easier for parents, but an estimated 27 billion disposable diapers (weighing in at more than 3.4 million tons) end up in landfills where they can take up to 500 years to degrade. And let’s not even talk about the potentially dangerous chemicals that might be in some of those diapers.

As for cloth diapers, they seem more eco-friendly, but are they? Maybe not. Cloth diapers need to be washed at least once, if not twice, in hot water after every use to kill germs. That's a lot of water. Then you have to consider what the reusable diapers are made of because if they are made of cotton that isn’t organic, well, the pesticides used in cotton production are not good for the environment or for the humans involved in the manufacturing of it.

See? A total Sophie’s choice. Unless you decide to use no diapers—and yes, that is totally an option. At least according Los Angeles-based Drs. Jeffrey Bender and Rosemary She, who recently published a perspective piece in the journal Pediatrics sharing their experience going the no-diaper route with their third child.

Maybe you’ve heard of “elimination communication” (EC), also referred to as natural infant hygiene. It’s the practice of figuring out the timing of when a baby naturally needs to go potty, using their physical cues to recognize their need and then holding them bare-bottomed over a toilet so they can go about the business of eliminating what needs to be eliminated.

"Contrary to the notion that infants relieve themselves randomly and constantly throughout the day, babies naturally eliminate at predictable times such as upon waking or after feeding," explained Bender, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

A few years ago, elimination communication was getting a lot of press because celebrity parents such as Mayim Bialik and Alicia Silverstone were doing it. Most people reacted like EC was the craziest thing they’d ever heard of and some kind of new fad, but really it’s not.

"It's funny that we think of it as modern and new, where it's probably a very old and ancient practice and what people did before there were diapers and still do across the world where they don't have the luxury of disposable diapers," said Dr. She, a pathologist and medical microbiologist at Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Besides saving money on diapers and allegedly being good for the environment, EC has other benefits which include reducing the risk of health issues like diaper rash, urinary tract infections and methicillin-resistant staph (MRSA) infections. The drawbacks? It’s most definitely not for everyone, especially if your baby goes to daycare. Ain’t nobody got time for elimination communication at daycare.

"The way our society is, with a lot of children in daycare, this probably isn't feasible," Bender said. "By no means do we feel this is for everyone. We were fortunate and in a position to ... take alternate months off [when our daughter was a newborn], and a lot of parents don't have that luxury."

So is EC just another thing to feel guilty about if you can’t do it? No, it’s not. Think of it as another option for the diaper and potty training phase. Do what works for you and your family while considering the environmental impact. If you want to do disposable diapers, get ones that are manufactured without dangerous chemicals and are compostable (that’s assuming you can afford the luxury of choosing regardless of cost, of course); if you want to do cloth diapers, there are ones made out of bamboo or organic cotton; if you want to do EC and have the time to do so, then go on with your bad self.

Don’t beat yourself up about it, just know that you have options: cloth diapers, disposable diapers or no diapers.

If you want to learn more about practicing EC, visit diaperfreebaby.org.

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