Living with cloth

#74: Spreading the word

For London mama, Caroline, making an effort to build a better future is even more important since welcoming her son to the world. While she started using cloth nappies part time to cut down on waste, she soon became a full-time user, and is now an ardent supporter of anyone wanting to make the switch from disposable. Realising you don’t need things is liberating, she says, as she encourages everyone to start with small sustainable changes in the hope we can reverse some of the damage we have wrecked on our planet.
Welcome, Caroline @realnappyacademy
Tell us a little about yourself, your family and where you live?

Hello! I am from Cork, Ireland, but I have been living and working in London for a few years now. My husband, Rob, and I have a 16-month-old little boy, Francisco or “Frank” as we usually call him. I am a solicitor and I have returned to work part time in a slightly different role which allows me to spend more time with Frank. 

Can you describe what the motherhood journey has been like for you so far?

Frank was born at the very start of the first lockdown so our journey has been shaped by the pandemic. It is hard for us to separate those two experiences in our minds: the isolation of the pandemic and the overwhelm of becoming new parents. We didn’t see anyone for the first three months of Frank’s life and, even now, very few people know him well. There have been so many advantages too though. All that uninterrupted time in the early days working out how to care for our newborn was invaluable. I am still breastfeeding and I don’t think I would have continued for so long if life had been normal.

Where is the first place you want to travel when it’s safe again? 

Cadiz, Spain, to visit Rob’s family and to show off Francisco!

What’s the best advice you’ve been given since your son was born?

Babies don’t need a routine. I know this is a controversial statement as most parents love a routine. For us, sticking to any kind of schedule was stressful and it made us feel like failures when, inevitably, Frank did not cooperate. I panicked so much at the start because I believed that if Frank didn’t learn to sleep in his cot, we would be doomed forever! Once we cut out all the noise, put away all the books and followed our instinct, we relaxed. It’s not that things magically got easier, we just accepted that babies are wonderful but crazy little creatures and there is no point trying to fix everything, they get there in the end.

Did you always know you wanted to use cloth nappies?

Yes, I knew I wanted to give cloth a go but I never imagined we would do it full time. I thought it would be something we use every now and then to cut down on all the waste. I had no idea that modern reusable nappies could be a full time alternative to disposable nappies.  

How did the beginning of your cloth nappy journey go?

In the UK, some councils offer incentives to parents in the form of vouchers to purchase reusable nappies. This is how we got started. We bought a starter kit using our £54 voucher from Hackney Council. We took it very slowly and just used one or two a day for the first few weeks. Being in lockdown really helped as we had nowhere to be – it didn’t matter if we made mistakes in the comfort of our own home.

Now you’ve started an Instagram account dedicated to educating and supporting parents when it comes to reusable nappies. What made you decide to devote your time to such a project?

I don’t believe parents have a real choice. Go into any food shop or pharmacy and you can choose from dozens of different brands of disposable nappies and wipes – I have never seen a reusable. Ante-natal classes and midwives will show you how to use disposables. They are accepted as the norm and parents assume this means that disposables are the best choice for them and for baby (and everyone wants the best for their baby!).

Once I discovered how good reusables are, I wanted to shout about it. We choose to use reusables for environmental reasons but there are lots of other benefits. Switching to cloth can save you a lot of money – something that is particularly attractive to lower income families. I discuss this and all the other benefits on my Instagram page. 

Initially, the Real Nappy Academy was just about spreading the word by sharing photos and little snippets of our experiences. Now, I also run my own online demonstrations and I help more established community groups and non profits like Nappy Ever After and Real Nappies for London both of whom do wonderful work helping parents to make the switch.

You started your account under a name that included the word “cloth”. What made you decide to change it to Real Nappy Academy?

I do think “cloth nappy” sounds very cute and it has a much better ring to it than “reusable nappy”. But “cloth nappy” reminds me of black and white photos of babies in terries and pins… again, very cute but not modern.

I also worry that there is an element of exclusivity which comes with talking about cloth nappies, it’s as if you need to be a certain type of family (hippy or alternative) to be a proper cloth family. Then there is all the jargon to go with it which is equally as intimidating. That’s why I prefer to use “reusable” or “real” as it sounds more accessible and doable.

What do you believe to be the best way to overcome the overwhelm that often comes with making the decision to use cloth nappies?

Buy or borrow some nappies, anything at all. Once they are in the house, you are more likely to give it a go.

There is so much jargon when it comes to cloth nappies? What is your advice for breaking through it?

The other problem with jargon is that it is not consistent. Brands seem to have different ideas of what certain labels mean. For example, one brand might have an “all in one” which has all the parts sewn together whereas another brand will have an “all in one” but the absorbent parts detach from the water proof cover.

I find focusing on the individual brand’s advice can help. So if you buy a Little Lamb nappy, check out their site for instructions rather than looking at general advice.

You’ve been researching nappies that claim to be biodegradable or compostable to find out how eco friendly they really are. What have you learnt?

Eco nappies are not the solution to the nappy waste problem. This is because we do not have the infrastructure to deal with them (I can only speak for the UK as that’s where I have done all my research). Eco nappies should be disposed of in an industrial composting facility but most of these facilities will not accept nappies and wipes. Parents have no choice but to put them in the general rubbish bin where ultimately they end up in landfill or they go to incineration. Landfills are not designed to support composting or biodegradation so eco nappies can potentially take as long as regular nappies to break down.

Even if we did have the infrastructure, these are still single use items and we should be moving towards a circular economy where reduce, reuse and recycle (in that order) is the goal. 

I think brands have a lot to answer for. They make green claims about their products like “biodegradable”, “eco-friendly”, or “plastic free”, all of which mean nothing if they can’t be disposed of in the correct way.  Recently, there have been discussions in the UK Parliament in relation to the creation of standards for use of these terms (e.g. eco-friendly and biodegradable) when used for marketing nappies. This was discussed in the context of the Environment Bill which is making its way through the legislative process. Measures like this should make it harder for brands to mislead parents. The bill has yet to be finalised and enacted so we have yet to see what it’s impact will be.  

Let’s talk about your own journey with cloth some more. What makes you feel good about using cloth nappies?

I love having so little waste. We were always looking for ways to reduce our reliance on single use plastics and generally minimise our household waste but having Frank and using cloth nappies has encouraged us to rethink the things we use in all aspects of our life.

I also find the cloth nappy process incredibly therapeutic – washing, hanging on the line, folding and stuffing – nappies never feel like a chore to me.

What was one of the greatest concerns you had about cloth nappies before you started using them? Is it still a concern today?

What people would think. I didn’t know anyone that had used them and I knew nothing about the world of modern cloth nappies so it seemed like a very unusual thing to be doing. No, it’s definitely not a concern any more and it turns out we did have friends that used them.

What solutions have you found for washing and storing nappies when you’re living in an apartment with no outdoor space?

It’s important to keep the windows open as much as you can as reusables can take a long time to dry and moisture builds up in the air. We try to use the tumble dryer as little as possible but I often part dry them to speed things up and take the pressure off our flat.

We store them in a bucket and we have never had any issues with smells. We do a rinse and wash pretty much every second day unless we get behind or are out and about (something that is thankfully happening more often these days!).

What solutions have you found for dealing with leaks? 

I usually check 3 things: if the nappy is completely saturated, then next time I will add in an extra pad; I check the fit to make sure it is right in at the knicker line and finally I make sure that no bits of material are poking out of the waterproof cover as this can cause moisture to seep out.

What is the best way you have found to deal with poo?

I can usually spot my toddler’s cues and then I deal with it as soon as it happens. He doesn’t have time to sit down or move around too much which means I can just knock it into the loo and it doesn’t get stuck to the nappy.

Dealing with poo is a feature of raising babies regardless of whether you decide to use cloth or disposables. But poo seems to be one of the main reasons that parents are put off using cloth. As a parent, I see it as my responsibility to dispose of my baby’s poo in the proper way – in the toilet where it will be treated in a sanitary process with all other human waste. Society has become so obsessed with convenience that we think it is perfectly acceptable to put human poo in our rubbish bins. When you stop and think about this for a moment, it’s absurd.

What features do you look for in a cloth nappy?

I like PUL wraps that have a waterproof flap on the inside so that I can sit my pads inside it and know that they can’t creep out of the wrap and wet Frank’s clothes. I also love hip stabilizer poppers as you get a much better fit around the hips. 

What nappy prints are you drawn to most?

Flowery ones! Having a boy, hasn’t stopped me choosing a floral print.

How did the transition to night nappies go for you?

This was surprisingly one of the easiest steps we took. I was very apprehensive and we put it off for a long time. We used a shaped nappy with a bamboo pad and there were no leaks on the first night. We never looked back!

Looking back on your journey to date, what’s one thing you would change?

I would have bought more pre-loved nappies. Pre-loved is an even more sustainable option as you are keeping nappies in circulation for longer.

Can you give us 3 of the best tips and tricks you’ve learnt as a cloth mum?

Firstly, it doesn’t have to be all of or nothing, you can use reusables as much or as little as you like. Secondly, don’t underestimate flat nappies. Flats have so many benefits; they are inexpensive, versatile, less bulky for travelling and fast drying. And thirdly, remember that you learn so many new things when you have a new baby, cloth nappies are no more complicated than the things you have already mastered.

What do you think cloth users can be doing to support and promote cloth use in others?

I think we just have to be open and willing to help our friends and family if and when they want to give it a go. We can’t push cloth on parents. Choosing to use cloth is going against the grain so it still feels odd for parents to be doing something so different. Until they become more mainstream, we need to keep supporting each other to use one day, one a week or a one a year – every little bit helps.

What excites you most about living a sustainable life?

I embraced the convenience of fast fashion through my twenties and I didn’t think twice about ordering what I needed (or thought I needed) online for next day delivery. Realising you don’t need things is liberating.

It’s incredible how when you start doing something new, it slowly starts to become a habit and after a while, you can’t imagine doing it any other way. That’s how I feel about our pantry refills now. We are certainly not perfect but we are making little changes and creating habits all the time.

I am only talking about things and stuff here and living a sustainable life can mean so much more than that but, as a family, this is what we are focused on changing at the moment.

If you could do anything to improve the future of the planet, what would it be?

We are already experiencing the effects of global heating and if we don’t make significant changes in this decade, it’s hard to know what the future holds. I would love to see people become more motivated by that reality.

I don’t think the solution is about everybody suddenly doing things perfectly, it’s about everybody doing things better. It’s about working out what adjustments you can make to your own life to make it more sustainable and starting to build those habits into your day to day. Of course, there is only so much that individuals can do and real change depends on action by governments.

For us, having our little boy has made this all the more real. In his lifetime, he will witness whether we manage to reverse the damage or, alternatively, what happens if we don’t. That’s what motivates me.

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