Do Cloth Diapers Delay Walking in Infants?

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The question “Do cloth diapers delay walking in infants” has been asked frequently by new and experienced mothers alike who first see a cloth diaper.  

Historically cloth diapers were much bulkier in appearance, partly due to the poofy, non form fitting rubber pants, and because they were prefolds or flats that were loosely pinned onto the baby.  Once disposable diapers were introduced the bulk became less and less with advancements in the chemicals used that decreased the paper and pulp so much so that disposables are now almost as thin as underwear.  Cloth diapers too have come a long way in bulk reduction.  Their patterns are now form fitting and cut to resemble underwear, with higher cut leg openings and a lower rise.  They also use more absorbent materials that are smartly sewn to put absorbency more in th wet zones to make a trimmer diaper.  Still, they can’t hold a candle to the trimness of disposables.

According to a study recently published in Developmental Science titled “Go naked:diapers affect infant walking” all diapers do disrupt normal walking development, including disposables.

First let me say that I find a glaring flaw in this study; they used only old fashioned cloth diapers that were for “nighttime use.” which translates to “gigantic.” I will also go ahead and tell you that, not surprisingly, this study was funded by P&G- makers of Pampers disposable diapers. In addition there were no long term studies performed to check back and see the lasting affects of all diapers and walking naked.  This seems like a very big flaw and begs the obvious question as to whether or not wearing diapers (cloth or disposable) has other consequences to development as time goes on or if the disruption in walking development evens out over time, which would be my guess.  As acknowledged by the article there are many other factors that affect walking development in infants including style of dress (heavy winter clothing, tights, and long gowns all delayed walking), any binding or being worn (which often resulted in babies skipping the crawling phase), and the time a parent spends teaching a child to walk.

The study used 30 babies aged 13 months when walking is just beginning for most, and then 30 babies aged 19 months when the researchers deemed walking to be well established for most children. Each baby’s gait (Wikipedia defines gait the way locomotion is achieved using human limbs. Different gaits are characterized by differences in limb movement patterns, overall velocity, forces, kinetic and potential energy cycles, and changes in the contact with the surface (ground, floor, etc.) was measured while wearing disposables, old fashioned cloth diapers, and naked.

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Per the study the measurements of the diapers used were as follows:
Disposable- size 3-5 weighing between 32 and 41 g. Flat measurements- 7.5 cm across by 1.1 cm thick at the crotch.
Cloth- 170 g and folded for what they call “nighttime use” the crotch wsa 12.3 cm across and 2.8 cm thick.

With this being a scientific study there was a lot to it but I will try to explain without over simplyfing the results. Wearing diapers had a visibile affect on babies 13 months old, who stumbled many times more with diapers on, especially the cloth, than when naked. Less so in 19 month olds who had more practice walking, but it was still an issue but only with the cloth diapers and not with disposables.

The “step width” defined by how far apart the babies placed their feet when walking would change according to the diaper being worn or walking naked. A naken baby had a 9.71 cm width, 11.05 cm with disposables, and 12.24 cm in the cloth diaper.

Source: Go Naked, Developmental Science

Source: Go Naked, Developmental Science

Now it’s time to wear my “mom” hat. With no long term study to go along with this article I will say a few things from experience as a mother to two children who have worn cloth diapers. Both of my children learned to walk at an average age (14 months and 12 months) and also learned to crawl at an average age. They have both also walked naked in their day but I did not think to observe what their walks were like then compared to when they were wearing cloth. Other than speech my children have both been on time or even early when it came to motor skill development and hitting developmental milestones.

There is no way for one parent to know whether or not wearing cloth diapers (or any diaper) has had an affect on when a child learned to walk. This study does show that wearing diapers has an affect on walking in the short term but cannot prove that this does anything except set them back a a few weeks in skill. As parents we all want what is the best for our children. According to this study being naked is the best! And sadly, there is no study of a child wearing trimmer and narrower cloth diapers that could have shown less disruption in walking than an old fashioned, thicker diaper.

“Although we found that diapers cause immediate decrements to infant walking, the current work cannot address whether these real-time changes have more lasting developmental implications. Cross-cultural data raise the provocative suggestion that child rearing practices such as how infants are dressed can alter the course of development. Everyday factors such as wearing heavy clothing or being placed in a constricted posture can delay motor development if spontaneous movement impeded… Possibly, infants who learn to walk while naked- without additional challenge posed by a diaper- might show more rapid gains in posture and coordination, facilitating earlier onset ages and faster improvements.” (788)

Parents who are truly concerned about the implications of what wearing cloth diapers might do to a baby in the early stages of walking might want to take up the practice of Elimination Communication, also known as “Infant Potty Training,” to avoid the child wearing any diapers.  The article also suggests allowing the children time to walk naked when possible.

And then the study goes on to make another potential observation for the optimists…

“…being forced to compensate for the perturbation of the diaper might actually accelerate skill acquisition by actively challenging infants’  developing motor skills.”

It will be up to you to decide if a few weeks in potential delays is worth your child wearing cloth diapers, or even any diapers at all.  Perhaps just a little extra naked time is just what the doctor ordered.  And really, what child doesn’t love being free as a bird to run around the house?


Source:
Whitney G. Cole, Jesse M. Lingeman and Karen E. Adolph, Go naked: diapers affect infant walking. Developmental Science 15:6 (2012), pp 783-790

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Kim Rosas began Dirty Diaper Laundry in 2009 out of a desire to help more parents understand modern cloth diapers. She lives in Florida with her husband of 5 years and her two boys. Even though none of her boys wear diapers anymore she is still just as committed to promoting them. In her spare time Kim enjoys video editing, photography, and coffee.
  • http://www.facebook.com/tonialuscianna Tonia Neal Johnson

    All I have is anecdotal evidence, but my sposie baby walked at 13.5 months and my fluffy bootied cutie walked 3 days after turning 9 months. Both had lots of nakey time

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7954376 Britni Bradford

    About as trust worthy as a Gerber study on breastmilk… We use a good amount of prefolds, even now that we’ve grown the stash considerably. We started CDing at 6 months (around the same time that DD was starting to crawl), and by 8.5 months she was walking almost exclusively and on her own 100%.

  • http://twitter.com/littlegreenling Greenlings Wool

    Wait, people want their kids to walk sooner? LOL. All I can say is – this is just one study. Very small sample size. Most probably biased. The bigger question is will this affect how we will walk as adults as we evolve? Is this bad? Is it that big of a deal? Would be interesting to see more studies that attempt to replicate these results.

  • http://twitter.com/danisuedreams Dani Sue

    The fact that this wasn’t funded by an objective/unbias organization makes me pretty much want to disregard any of it. They also didn’t compare modern cloth diapers…so it’s even more suspect to me. As someone with a science background I really can’t give their “research” any credit. But on a positive note…it seems like the disposable companies are getting scared…which means more mamas are using cloth which is awesome!

  • http://twitter.com/danisuedreams Dani Sue

    I should ask my grandma if she knows when she started walking and her siblings as well. That would be more accurate than this study. I would be interested in reading an article that polls hundreds of adults who wore the old-fashioned diapers and when they started walking.

    • katrina chandler

      most of our grandparents were potty trained by their first birthday, so that would leave them more in the diaper free walking category :)

  • Melissa Polk

    It sounds like they randomly put kids in cloth, disposable, or nothing. A kid who has never been in cloth is going to think it feels different and might walk differently because of it. Seems like it would be more beneficial to track infants who were diaper free, in cloth, or in disposables and check for delays over time rather than just pick a day to put 13- and 19-month-olds in something to see what happens that day. Plus they only used 30 babies. Plus the study was funded by a diaper company. We do EC and cloth, so I guess I’m not particularly concerned either way. I can just see “cloth causes motor skill delays” becoming a new thing against cloth and that makes me sad.

  • katrina chandler

    I part time cloth, part time disposable diaper my boys, both were very ahead on developing gross motor skills. Both boys rolled before they were 2 weeks old, were sitting on their own by 4 months, crawling between 6-7 months, my oldest walked independently by 10 months, and my almost 9 month old is creeping and trying to take independent steps. I rarely do diaper free time, because I hate to clean the messes. I Think that while diapers may throw off their gait a bit, I do not feel that they cause any type of serious delay. I personally think that they will walk when their bones and muscle development have progressed enough for them to be able to balance on their own and they will adjust to whatever clothing they are in. I have seen little girls that learn to crawl without touching their knees to the ground because it catches on their dresses. They were still mobile even with very restrictive clothing. Babies adapt quickly and learn at their own pace, so I wouldnt discourage anyone from diapering their baby in any way that they are comfortable with :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashley.renee.505 Ashley Renee

    My son was walking at 9 months, if cloth delayed him from walking even earlier, thank goodness lol

  • Ashleigh Swerdfeger

    It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I use a mixture of cloth diapers and disposables with my son. He walked at 7 months (very early but it tends to run in the family) So far cloth diapers have not affected his ability to walk, run or climb or crawl up or down the stairs.

  • Jaymee

    Interesting so where do my children fit I had a 10 mth, 9mth and a 11 mth walker. And all were in mcns. Another one of THOSE studies that are sponsored by a huge company to help their bottom line, and people wonder why I’m a sceptic of studies.

  • Jennifer Gerlach

    My oldest we used disposable diapers she walked at 13 months. My youngest we use cloth and he was climbing stairs by six months and walking before 9 months. I do not think diapers effected them in any way and this study did not even check a day time cloth diaper.

  • carlaboo11

    The simple fact that this was paid for BY a diaper company means it holds zero weight with me. That and the fact that my youngest child walked at 9 months with bulky fitted diapers… ‘ll take a bigger gape for a short period of time over chemicals being up against private parts 24/7 for at least 2 years.

  • Audrey

    I have 7 – all cloth diapered (the first 3 in pins and rubber pants). They have all walked “early” with the earliest being 8 months. The rest all between 9 & 11 months. I have to agree with someone else who said if cloth diapers kept them from walking earlier – thank goodness!

  • Jo

    Well, considering that pretty much ALL of us here in the states at least, were in cloth diapers when we were little, and we seem to be just fine, says a lot to me.

  • Laura Hammond

    Both my children walked at the same age – 11 months. One was in disposables, the other in cloth. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference for us.


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