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