CHAMPAIGN — Mary Anderson said she and her husband began diapering their first child in cloth diapers for health reasons, but the move to cloth also turned out to be a considerable cost savings.
"When you give the gift of cloth diapers, you can give parents an opportunity to pay their mortgage payment that month," said Anderson, who runs the B. Lime online store — which sells cloth diapers and other environmentally friendly home products — out of her Champaign home. "It's an amazing burden that's taken off of them, especially if their resources are already low."
According to the Real Diaper Association — a San Diego-based nonprofit organization that advocates the use of reusable, cloth diapers — between 10 percent and 15 percent of children in the country wear cloth diapers, at least part-time.
While Anderson doesn't have a local figure, she said she has met a number of parents who prefer cloth over the single-use, disposable kind for various reasons.
"The environmental concern is huge," Anderson said, adding it goes beyond not wanting to see diapers clogging the landfills. "It's choosing to live with things we can reuse and not throw away. We wash and reuse dishes and towels. The thought is, 'How can we incorporate diapers into that same lifestyle?' With cloth diapers, you can use them through multiple children. Many have resale value. And after all of their children are out of diapers, some people say they have used them to wash their car."
Anderson first considered cloth diapers when her daughter, Rosalie, now 3, was born. But when Anderson returned to work, the day care centers she looked at would accept only disposables.
"I wasn't educated enough at the time, nor did I have the confidence to pursue it any further. Then Rosalie had diaper rash after diaper rash. I just hit that point where I wanted another option," recalled Anderson, who bought three cloth diapers from B. Lime when the previous owner had a storefront in downtown Champaign. "I wanted to see if she was allergic to something in the disposable. From that point on, we fell in love with everything about them."
Anderson said her daughter continued to wear disposables at day care but wore cloth diapers at home. And cloth diapers are all her 20-month-old, Eloise, has ever worn.
Anderson estimates she and her husband have saved at least $3,000 by switching. However, she pointed out, they purchased an eco-friendly disposable brand that at 45 cents a diaper are pricier than off-brands or those that can be bought in bulk.
Heather McNamara, executive director of the Real Diaper Association, said disposable diapers can cost families $2,500 per child.
"It's no wonder that we're hearing sad stories about people leaving soiled diapers on their children or attempting to reuse single-use diapers," she wrote in an email. "Cloth diapers could represent such a great solution for these families to save money to the tune of $2,000 per child."
The National Diaper Bank Network — a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the diaper need nationwide and helps local diaper banks network and secure resources — doesn't promote one type of diaper over another. It also works with programs that provide both cloth and disposable diapers.
But "as a matter of practicality, most diaper banks do give out disposables," said Colleen Shaddox, the network's director of communications and development.
"There are some families where cloth works for them, and that's great," she continued, adding disposable diapers aren't a luxury but "the norm."
"For many, the cost of buying enough diapers and detergent or using a diaper service are prohibitive. It's an up-front investment. It's hard for people to understand how difficult that investment can be for people who live paycheck to paycheck."
Shaddox said some low-income parents don't own a washing machine and can only go to the laundromat occasionally.
She added a majority of day cares in the New Haven area don't accept cloth diapers.
"We found a few that would," she said. "But they tend to be in very high-end zip codes and serve people who are very environmentally conscience. That's great. But it's just not an option for most of the families we serve."
Anderson said there are ways to make switching to cloth diapers more affordable. She suggests:
— Registering for cloth diapers for the baby shower.
— Buying a few at a time instead of a full system at once. "You can buy one or two each paycheck while you're still expecting," Anderson said.
— Buying flat or prefold diapers, which are cheaper than the more modern one-size style, which can run $18 to $25 apiece.
— Looking for used cloth diapers at rummage sales or on websites.
"You can even make flats out of T-shirts or dish towels," Anderson said. "People don't feel cloth diapers are accessible to them financially or resource-wise. But once they have their diaper stash, they will never have to buy diapers again. They can wash and reuse them over and over."
While she sells a special detergent, Anderson said people have found that Tide original powder gets the diaper clean without irritating the child's skin.
"You just have to make sure it rinses clear and doesn't have any fabric softener that will be left behind," she said.
Anderson also said people don't need to own a washing machine or rely on a laundromat. They can handwash cloth diapers in their bathtub — or even a 5-gallon bucket.
"You can air dry the flats, and they will dry very quickly," she said.
"There are a lot of resources and tools out there to help you do it in a very economical way," continued Anderson, who said she will be a free resource for anyone who needs help getting started or has any questions. She also gives free diapering lessons.
Anderson said in Illinois, there's no legal reason why a day care couldn't accept cloth diapers. It's an owner preference.
"They have the right to say, 'We won't do this,'" she said, but she has found a few that will. "It's something you want to ask and talk to them about."