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Diapers 101

baby grabbing feet

Alexandra Grablewski

Are some diapers better for girls -- or for boys?
Depends whom you ask! At one point, Pampers and Huggies designed diapers specifically for each sex: "Boys and girls have different areas where they need more absorbency. We've dubbed them 'pee points,' and we used to target the absorbent materials there," says Tricia Higgins, a spokesperson for Pampers. "As the technology improved, we were able to make diapers that have absorbency in the areas that all babies need it with only one design." Since the mid-1990s, only unisex diapers have been sold. That said, some moms (including American Baby's Facebook fans) swear by certain brands for their li'l guys and others for their gals. You'll have to do a test drive to see what keeps your bambino dry!

Guilt check: Just how much worse are disposables for the environment than, say, cloth?
The waste and energy that go with the former are obvious: You see all the plastic you're tossing. Cloth diapers, though, also take a toll on Mother Earth, concedes Isabelle Silverman a green-living expert for the Environmental Defense Fund. They're usually made from cotton, which -- if not grown organically -- is one of the world's most pesticide-laden crops. Plus, laundering cloth requires significant amounts of water and electricity. In fact, with average use, the impact of disposable diapers and cloth ones is virtually the same, according to a 2008 report from the Environment Agency (the British version of our Environmental Protection Agency). You can lessen your impact by reusing cloth diapers on a younger sibling, laundering in full loads using energy-efficient appliances, sending them out to a diaper service, or line drying. If you'd like to give cloth a whirl but want the convenience of disposables, try a hybrid, like gDiapers, which have reusable outer covers and liners that you can flush, toss, or compost if it's just pee. Eco-friendly disposables, such as those from Seventh Generation or Earth's Best, are greener choices because they're made without chlorine. (Processing chlorine can release dioxins, which are toxic chemicals that get into soil, water, and air.) Whatever you decide, don't sweat it. "You can minimize your environmental impact in plenty of places, not only diapers," Silverman says. For instance, wipe Baby's mouth and clean up spills with cloth rather than paper towels. Serve snacks on washable dishware instead of paper plates.

What's the deal when it comes to swim diapers?
"Swim diapers are designed to hold one insult: BM," says Scott Lange, a research and engineering manager for Kimberly-Clark, which makes Huggies. During a splash session, the diapers will provide "some leakage protection for urine as well," Lange says. Repeat: some protection. Wait to put the swim diaper on at the pool or else you risk soaking the car seat. Post-swim, no need to wriggle your little one out of his diaper -- just tug at the tear-away sides.

Are certain diapers associated with more diaper rash, or less?
It would be fantastic if switching diapers solved this dilemma, wouldn't it? Unfortunately, there's no proof that any one particular diaper or brand works better at preventing an irritated bottom, says Charlene Brock, M.D., a pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Diaper rash is caused by chemical irritation from urine and poop, moisture, and friction. The best way to protect your cutie's tush is to change her diaper frequently: Check to see if she's wet at least every two to three hours. Charles Shubin, M.D., medical director of the Children's Health Center, Mercy FamilyCare, in Baltimore, also suggests letting baby's bottom air out for a minute or two before you put on a new diaper. (If you have a boy, you might want to place a small washcloth over him to avoid getting peed on, or consider a product called a Peepee Teepee.) You can also lay Baby on a cloth diaper, then use it to blot the moisture after you wipe. Diaper creams, which form a protective barrier against wetness, can also help prevent rashes. Still, your child might react to something in a certain brand of diaper, Dr. Shubin says. If your baby is consistently irritated when wearing a particular disposable, give others a shot. Using cloth? Try switching detergents.

What are those tiny white beads I find on my baby's bottom after changing his diaper? Are they dangerous?
You can rest easy, Mom. These are simply harmless remnants of the superabsorbent polymers that lock away the urine in most disposables. Sometimes, particularly when a diaper is very full, they escape. "If you're seeing them frequently, you're not changing your baby's diaper often enough," Dr. Brock says.

baby standing

Alexandra Grablewski

How do I know my peanut is ready to bump up a size?
You'll probably notice the obvious clues: The side tabs are popping open, the leg bands feel supertight, or her diaper resembles an itsy-bitsy bikini, falling an inch or more below her belly button. Leakage issues also can mean it's time to go larger, Higgins says. Sizing is based chiefly on a baby's weight, and "as you move into the larger sizes, the diapers have more absorbent materials," Higgins says.

What do I do with all of my extra diapers?
You ordered a case of size 2s for your little dude, but six diapers in, he's busting out of them. You could pass your surplus along to a friend or donate them to women who could really use them. "For so many moms in need, diapers are like gold," says Lisa Truong, cofounder and executive director of Help a Mother Out, a nonprofit that's devoted to increasing access to diapers. "Programs like food stamps help families with food, but they don't allow those in need to purchase diapers. Without them, babies can suffer from severe rash, urinary tract infections, even jaundice." What's more, a baby may miss out on free or subsidized child care if his parents don't have the means to buy diapers, says Truong, because most day cares require a steady supply to keep a child enrolled. Last year, Huggies launched Every Little Bottom, which has donated more than 22.5 million diapers to children in need. Visit EveryLittleBottom.com to locate a diaper bank in your community or to give to agencies that distribute diapers. And you can also host a diaper drive; get more details at HelpAMotherOut.org.

Will cloth or disposable diapers help my munchkin graduate to Superman underpants sooner?
"In the U.S., where disposables are the norm, potty training starts later than in countries where infants wear cloth diapers or no diapers at all," says L.E. Wolovits, M.D., a pediatrician and founder of At Home Pediatrics in Dallas, and mom of a 1-year-old. But that doesn't necessarily mean that kids using cloth diapers take to the toilet earlier. Cultural norms are a big contributor. "In some places, earlier potty training is seen as a part of being a good mother," says Lauren Thaman, associate director of global science communication for Pampers. So in countries such as India, where fewer than 5 percent of mothers work outside the home and kids have so much hands-on time with their mom, it's not surprising that 55 percent of tots are toilet trained by 18 months; whereas in the U.S., only 3 percent have ditched diapers by that age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until your child starts showing signs of readiness, such as staying dry for at least two hours in the day or after naps and expressing interest in the toilet -- this usually happens between 18 and 24 months. Once you begin, remember these two words: patience and motivation. Emphasize that accidents happen and keep your eye on the prize: big-kid underpants or stickers for your cutie, no more changing diapers for you!

"We buy them at BJ's Wholesale Club. When my boys were younger, I'd get by with cheaper diapers during the day and use the really absorbent ones at night."
Stacey Cardello, Mystic, Connecticut, mom of twins Mario and Nico, 2

"Diapers.com. The site offers $5 off each case, accepts manufacturers' coupons, and offers free two-day shipping. When I go to the store, I always buy more than just diapers."
Lisa Pierce, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mom of Taylor, 7, Carson, 5, Gavin, 2, and Easton, 6 months

"Sign up at amazon.com/mom for 30 percent off as well as two-day free shipping."
Mia Ruffing, University Heights, Ohio, mom of Jackson, 4, and Lachlan, 1

"I wait till they go on sale at the store, and then I pull a $1 coupon from Seventh Generation's website."
Shelley Ward, Woodstock, Georgia, mom of Olivia, 5, and Lincoln, 1

"I got 50 percent off my entire purchase at a store opening. I bought every BumGenius diaper they had. Sure, my son is wearing lavender, but I can't pass up a deal!"
Amber Jenkins, Fairfield, Vermont, mom of Elliot, 1

Whatever your issue, find the ideal diaper for your tot's tush.

Trouble: Baby's got a rash; I think it's his diaper. Try: Seventh Generation Free & Clear or Earth's Best diapers. Both are free of potentially irritating fragrance, dye, and latex.

Trouble: My budding acrobat won't sit still so I can fasten the tabs. Try: Huggies Little Movers Slip-Ons, which pull up to go on so Baby can get back to practicing his floor routine ASAP! They're as absorbent as other diapers and tear off like them too.

Trouble: Her umbilical cord stump tends to rub. Try: Huggies Little Snugglers or Pampers' Swaddlers Sensitive diapers for newborns. Their nifty U-shaped umbilical cord cutout will save the day.

Trouble: I can hardly tell whether he's wet. Try: Pampers Swaddlers Sensitive (sizes newborn, 1, or 2) or Huggies Little Snugglers. Their color-changing pH indicators tip you off that he's tinkled.

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.

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