I feel compelled to offer a contrary view with regard to diapering for prepping families. In preparing for survival situations, I believe that disposable diapers offer a number of distinct advantages over reusable diapers.
To qualify myself, I will tell you that I am a father of three young kids, and have changed hundreds of disposable diapers. I am also a mechanical engineer who works for one of the largest diaper manufacturers. In my work, I have seen all kinds of diapers (disposable and reusable) from all over the world. But my points are grounded in simple common sense.
1.) In an emergency where you cannot wash clothes, reusable diapers are not feasible. It seems that many proponents of reusable diapers are preparing for a single scenario: a long-term grid-down situation, where their family has taken to a kind of organized country living that assumes an abundance of clean water, the availability of wash stations, and time for regular laundry. While this is one possible scenario, it certainly does not encompass the full range of situations for which we should prepare. I can imagine dozens of survival scenarios where a family does not have the water, the equipment, or the time to wash and dry diapers. Think about the images from the emergencies that we have seen lately in the news. We see people who are running from danger, searching for family members, seeking medical attention, and begging for food and water. We do not see people who are pressing ahead with wash day, despite disaster all around them.
2.) Without your electric washer and dryer, reusable diapers are potentially unsanitary. What kills the bacteria and viruses in your laundry? It is not soap and water. It is not the agitation from the washer or the tumbling in the dryer. Only three things can (and do) kill the bugs: an adequate amount of bleach, very hot water (at least 140-150 degrees), and time in the dryer on high. Which of these things will be available in an emergency? The power is out, so you are drying on the line. Maybe you have some bleach, but you can’t use it on your dark clothes and camo. Are you willing to do a separate bleach load, just for the diapers? What happens when you run out of bleach? Or, are you going to boil water for every load of diaper laundry? That’s a lot of work, and at the required temperature you’ll burn yourself if you are washing by hand. If you have reusable diapers, the gross truth is that every time you do the wash (unless you bleach or boil) you’ll simply be concocting a stew of fecal matter that will spread bacteria onto your washing equipment and into your other laundry. Obviously, this greatly increases the potential for sickness and infections.
3.) Disposable diapers are a predictable choice; easy to size, buy, store, use, and resell. Compared with reusables, disposables are offered in more sizes with more variations. Disposable diapers are remarkably consistent in size from brand to brand while there can be tremendous variation in fit among reusables. Looking at baby growth charts, in a matter of minutes, you can accurately estimate how many of each size disposable diaper you will likely need, until your child is potty trained. Available everywhere, disposables have a shelf life of many years. Name brand disposable diapers are high quality and quite effective at containing your baby’s mess. Store brand diapers vary in quality, but some can be pretty good. Some reusables work reasonably well, but some do not. By and large, they are simply not as well engineered as disposables. For disposable diapers that you do not use, there will always be a demand, so you can easily resell them or give them away as you see fit.
4.) Many disposable diapers are quite durable and somewhat reusable. For sanitary reasons, always immediately change a diaper that has feces in it. Also, for a baby with a rash or skin irritation, change whenever a diaper is wet. However, outside of these two situations, changing frequency can be much more flexible. For a diaper with urine only, on a baby with healthy skin, when to change is a choice, made by the caregiver, for comfort, convenience, and cost considerations. In a survival type situation, a caregiver may wish to wring every last bit of use out of each disposable diaper. With this view, it is instructive to know about some diaper practices in less developed countries.
In some countries, caregivers will only change a disposable diaper when the baby has a bowel movement. Most disposable diapers can effectively hold at least three large urine gushes, and only leak after the core is completely swollen. Some caregivers extend the life of their diapers by adding absorbent material (e.g. newspaper) on top of the cores. Some caregivers reuse their disposable diaper by cutting out the used core, and adding more absorbent material. This is a bit tricky, but if the core is removed without damaging the outer cover, the chassis of the diaper can often be used several times before failing. With some disposables, it is even possible to wash the chassis a couple of times, before it falls apart. (Never attempt to wash a disposable with the absorbent material still attached, it will make a huge mess!) While these practices may not appeal to our quick and convenient lifestyles, they are real possibilities for us to consider, if faced with scarce resources in an emergency.
Now, to be fair, disposables are not cheap, and they do require storage space. (I won’t get into a discussion of comparative environmental impact, except to say that, in an honest evaluation, there’s not much difference between disposables and reusables.) However, in light of the advantages described above – especially in an emergency – if you can afford them, I would strongly encourage family preppers to stock up on disposable diapers (and wipes!) as part of their preparedness planning. At the very least, by buying them now, you can avoid some cost increases from inflation.
Like any other tool or system, learn the diapers that you plan to use in an emergency. Diapering is a bit of a skill. And choosing the right diaper for your baby takes some trial and error. If you are using disposables today, don’t simply buy a stack of cloth squares and some safety pins, and think that you are prepared to survive in the diaper department. Like any tool or system, if they don’t fit or if you don’t know how to use them, then you are not properly prepared. At the very least, try out your survival diapers (whatever kind they are), verify that they can work for your baby, and learn how to use them. That’s the least that we can as responsible parents.
JWR Replies: Rather than looking at this as a point of contention, I can see plusses for both approaches under differing circumstances. Obviously for a short-term bug-out situation, disposable diapers make a lot of sense. But in a long term grid-down situation, there simply won't be disposable diapers available, at any price.So it is wise to stock up on cloth diapers, washable bottom clean-up rags, and bleach.