A diaper (American English) or a nappy (British English) is a type of underwear that allows the wearer to defecate or urinate without the use of a toilet, by absorbing or containing waste products to prevent soiling of outer clothing or the external environment. When diapers become soiled, they require changing, generally by a second person such as a parent or caregiver. Failure to change a diaper on a sufficiently regular basis can result in skin problems around the area covered by the diaper.
Diapers are made of cloth or synthetic disposable materials. Cloth diapers are composed of layers of fabric such as cotton, hemp, bamboo, microfiber, or even plastic fibers such as PLA, and can be washed and reused multiple times. Disposable diapers contain absorbent chemicals and are thrown away after use. Plastic pants can be worn over diapers to avoid leaks, but with modern cloth diapers, this is no longer necessary.
Diapers are primarily worn by infants, and by children who are not yet potty trained or who experience bedwetting. They are also used by adults with incontinence or in certain circumstances where access to a toilet is unavailable. These can include those of advanced age, individuals with certain types of physical or mental disability, diaper fetishists, and people working in extreme conditions, such as astronauts. It is not uncommon for people to wear diapers under dry suits.
The Middle English word diaper originally referred to a type of cloth rather than the use thereof; "diaper" was the term for a pattern of repeated, rhombic shapes, and later came to describe a white cotton or linen fabric with this pattern. The first cloth diapers consisted of a specific type of soft tissue sheet, cut into geometric shapes. This type of pattern was called diapering and eventually gave its name to the cloth used to make diapers and then to the diaper itself, which was traced back to 1590s England. This usage stuck in the United States and Canada following the British colonization of North America, but in the United Kingdom the word "nappy" took its place. Most sources believe nappy is a diminutive form of the word napkin, which itself was originally a diminutive.
In the 19th century, the modern diaper began to take shape and mothers in many parts of the world used cotton material, held in place with a fastening—eventually the safety pin. Cloth diapers in the United States were first mass-produced in 1887 by Maria Allen. In the UK, nappies were made out of terry towelling, often with an inner lining made out of soft muslin.
Here is an extract from 'The Modern Home Doctor' written by physicians in the UK in 1935.
Nice old, soft bits of good Turkish towelling, properly washed, will make the softest of diaper coverings, inside which specially absorbent napkins (diapers), see below at 1A, soft, light, and easily washed, are contained. These should rarely be soiled once regular habits have been inculcated, especially during the night period in which it is most important to prevent habit formation
1A -(squares of butter muslin or Harrington’s packed rolls of “mutton cloth” in packets, sold for polishing motor-cars, would do equally well and are very cheap and soft)
Wool pants, or, once available, rubber pants, were sometimes used over the cloth diaper to prevent leakage. Doctors believed that rubber pants were harmful because they thought the rubber acted as a poultice and damaged the skin of infants. The constant problem to be overcome was diaper rash, and the infection thereof. The concern was that lack of air circulation would worsen this condition. While lack of air circulation is a factor, it was later found that poor hygiene involving inefficiently washed diapers and infrequent changes of diapers, along with allowing the baby to lie for prolonged periods of time with fecal matter in contact with the skin, were the two main causes of these problems.
In the 20th century, the disposable diaper was conceived. In the 1930s, Robinsons of Chesterfield had what were labeled "Destroyable Babies Napkins" listed in their catalogue for the wholesale market. In 1944, Hugo Drangel of the Swedish paper company Pauliström suggested a conceptual design which would entail the placing of sheets of paper tissue (cellulose wadding) inside the cloth diaper and rubber pants. However, cellulose wadding was rough against the skin and crumbled into balls when exposed to moisture.
In 1946, Marion Donovan used a shower curtain from her bathroom to create the "Boater", a plastic cover to be donned outside a diaper. First sold in 1949 at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in New York City, patents were later issued in 1951 to Donovan, who later sold the rights to the waterproof diaper for $1 million. Donovan also designed a paper disposable diaper, but was unsuccessful in marketing it.
In 1947, Scottish housewife Valerie Hunter Gordon started developing and making Paddi, a 2-part system consisting of a disposable pad (made of cellulose wadding covered with cotton wool) worn inside an adjustable plastic garment with press-studs/snaps. Initially, she used old parachutes for the garment. She applied for the patent in April 1948, and it was granted for the UK in October 1949. Initially, the big manufacturers were unable to see the commercial possibilities of disposable nappies. In 1948, Gordon made over 400 Paddis herself using her sewing machine at the kitchen table. Her husband had unsuccessfully approached several companies for help until he had a chance meeting with Sir Robert Robinson at a business dinner. In November 1949 Valerie Gordon signed a contract with Robinsons of Chesterfield who then went into full production. In 1950, Boots UK agreed to sell Paddi in all their branches. In 1951 the Paddi patent was granted for the USA and worldwide. Shortly after that, Playtex and several other large international companies tried unsuccessfully to buy out Paddi from Robinsons. Paddi was very successful for many years until the advent of 'all in one' diapers.
In Sweden, Hugo Drangel's daughter Lil Karhola Wettergren, in 1956 elaborated her father's original idea, by adding a garment (again making a 2-part system like Paddi). However she met the same problem, with the purchasing managers, declaring they would never allow their wives to "put paper on their children."
After the Second World War, mothers increasingly wanted freedom from washing diapers so that they could work and travel, causing an increasing demand for disposable diapers.
During the 1950s, companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Kendall, Parke-Davis, Playtex, and Molnlycke entered the disposable diaper market, and in 1956, Procter & Gamble began researching disposable diapers. Victor Mills, along with his project group including William Dehaas (both men who worked for the company) invented what would be trademarked "Pampers". Although Pampers were conceptualized in 1959, the diapers themselves were not launched into the market until 1961. Pampers now accounts for more than $10 billion in annual revenue at Procter & Gamble.
Over the next few decades, the disposable diaper industry boomed and the competition between Procter & Gamble's Pampers and Kimberly Clark's Huggies resulted in lower prices and drastic changes to diaper design. Several improvements were made, such as the use of double gussets to improve diaper fit and containment. As stated in Procter & Gamble's initial 1973 patent for the use of double gussets in a diaper, “The double gusset folded areas tend to readily conform to the thigh portions of the leg of the infant. This allows quick and easy fitting and provides a snug and comfortable diaper fit that will neither bind nor wad on the infant…as a result of this snugger fit obtained because of this fold configuration, the diaper is less likely to leak or, in other words, its containment characteristics are greatly enhanced.” Further developments in diaper design were made, such as the introduction of refastenable tapes, the "hourglass shape" so as to reduce bulk at the crotch area, and the 1984 introduction of super-absorbent material from polymers known as sodium polyacrylate that were originally developed in 1966.
Ever since their introduction several decades ago, product innovations include the use of superabsorbent polymers, resealable tapes, and elasticised waist bands. They are now much thinner and much more absorbent. The product range has more recently been extended into children's toilet training phase with the introduction of training pants and pant diapers, which are now undergarments.
Modern disposable baby diapers and incontinence products have a layered construction, which allows the transfer and distribution of urine to an absorbent core structure where it is locked in. Basic layers are an outer shell of breathable polyethylene film or a nonwoven and film composite which prevents wetness and soil transfer, an inner absorbent layer of a mixture of air-laid paper and superabsorbent polymers for wetness, and a layer nearest the skin of nonwoven material with a distribution layer directly beneath which transfers wetness to the absorbent layer.
Other common features of disposable diapers include one or more pairs of either adhesive or mechanical fastening tapes to keep the diaper securely fastened. Some diapers have tapes which are refastenable to allow adjusting of fit or reapplication after inspection. Elasticized fabric single and double gussets around the leg and waist areas aid in fitting and in containing urine or stool which has not been absorbed. Some diapers lines now commonly include wetness indicators, in which a chemical included in the fabric of the diaper changes color in the presence of moisture to alert the carer or user that the diaper is wet. A disposable diaper may also include an inner fabric designed to hold moisture against the skin for a brief period before absorption to alert a toilet training or bedwetting user that they have urinated. Most materials in the diaper are held together with the use of a hot-melt adhesive, which is applied in spray form or multi lines, an elastic hot melt is also used to help with pad integrity when the diaper is wet.
Some disposable diapers include fragrance, lotions or essential oils in order to help mask the scent of a soiled diaper, or to protect the skin. Care of disposable diapers is minimal, and primarily consists of keeping them in a dry place before use, with proper disposal in a garbage receptacle upon soiling. Stool is supposed to be deposited in the toilet, but is generally put in the garbage with the rest of the diaper.
Cloth diapers are reusable and can be made from natural fibers, man-made materials, or a combination of both. They are often made from industrial cotton which may be bleached white or left the fiber’s natural color. Other natural fiber cloth materials include wool, bamboo, and unbleached hemp. Man-made materials such as an internal absorbent layer of microfiber toweling or an external waterproof layer of polyurethane laminate (PUL) may be used. Polyester fleece and faux suedecloth are often used inside cloth diapers as a "stay-dry" wicking liner because of the non-absorbent properties of those synthetic fibers.
Traditionally, cloth diapers consisted of a folded square or rectangle of cloth, fastened with safety pins. Today, most cloth diapers are fastened with hook and loop tape (velcro) or snaps.
Modern cloth diapers come in a host of shapes, including preformed cloth diapers, all-in-one diapers with waterproof exteriors, fitted diaper with covers and pocket or "stuffable" diapers, which consist of a water-resistant outer shell sewn with an opening for insertion of absorbent material inserts. Many design features of modern cloth diapers have followed directly from innovations initially developed in disposable diapers, such as the use of the hour glass shape, materials to separate moisture from skin and the use of double gussets, or an inner elastic band for better fit and containment of waste material. Several cloth diaper brands use variations of Procter & Gamble's original 1973 patent use of a double gusset in Pampers.
Babies may have their diapers changed five or more times a day. Parents and other primary child care givers often carry spare diapers and necessities for diaper changing in a specialized diaper bag. Diapering may possibly serve as a good bonding experience for parent and child. Children who wear diapers may experience skin irritation, commonly referred to as diaper rash, due to continual contact with fecal matter, as feces contains urease which catalyzes the conversion of the urea in urine to ammonia which can irritate the skin and can cause painful redness.
The age at which children should cease regularly wearing diapers and toilet training should begin is a subject of debate. Proponents of baby-led potty training and Elimination Communication argue that potty training can begin at birth with multiple benefits, with diapers only used as a back up. Keeping children in diapers beyond infancy can be controversial, with family psychologist John Rosemond claiming it is a "slap to the intelligence of a human being that one would allow baby to continue soiling and wetting himself past age two." Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, however, believes that toilet training is the child's choice and has encouraged this view in various commercials for Pampers Size 6, a diaper for older children. Brazelton warns that enforced toilet training can cause serious longterm problems, and that it is the child's decision when to stop wearing diapers, not the parents'.
Most children no longer wear diapers when past two to four years of age, depending on culture, diaper type, parental habits, and the child's personality. However, it is becoming increasingly common for children as old as five to still be wearing diapers because of their parents' neglect or the child's opposition to toilet training. This can pose a number of problems if the child is sent to school wearing diapers, including teasing from classmates and health issues resulting from soiled diapers. Teachers' groups—who are attributing the epidemic to an increase in full-time day care use—are requesting that diapered children be banned from the classroom. The disposable diaper industry has been accused of encouraging this trend by manufacturing diapers in increasingly larger sizes. "[S]uper-comfortable nappies" have also been criticized; the advanced technology in modern diapers wick wetness away from skin, leaving the child oblivious to their accident and when they need to go to the toilet. Paediatric nurse June Rogers claims that the attitude of parents plays a major role in the problem, and that toilet training is simply not a priority for many of them.
Children may have problems with bladder control (primarily at night), until eight years or older, and may wear diapers while sleeping to control bedwetting. The Children's Health and Wellness website claims that diapering a child can prolong bedwetting, as it sends a "message of permission" to urinate in their sleep. Dr Anthony Page of the Creative Child Online Magazine claims that children can get used to their diapers and begin to view them as a comfort, and that of the children surveyed, most would rather wear diapers than worry about getting up at night to go to the toilet. In a series of online surveys, Robert A Pretlow, MD, of eHealth International, Inc., cites an identical figure. He argues that if Internet users are representative of society as a whole, these surveys imply that a fetishistic or emotional attraction to diapers may be responsible for these "comfort" cases, and that "these behaviors are a significant cause of enuresis and incontinence." He called for further studies to be done on the topic.
Manufacturers have designed "training pants" which bridge the gap between baby diapers and normal underwear during the toilet training process. These are similar to infant diapers in construction but they can be put on like normal underwear. Training pants are available for children who experience enuresis.
Although most commonly worn by and associated with babies and children, diapers are also worn by adults for a variety of reasons. In the medical community, they are usually referred to as "adult absorbent briefs" rather than diapers, which are associated with children and may have a negative connotation. The usage of adult diapers can be a source of embarrassment, and products are often marketed under euphemisms such as incontinence pads. The most common adult users of diapers are those with medical conditions which cause them to experience urinary like bed wetting or fecal incontinence, or those who are bedridden or otherwise limited in their mobility.
Diapers and diaperlike products are sometimes used on pets, laboratory animals, or working animals. This is often due to the animal not being housebroken, or for older, sick, or injured pets who have become incontinent. In some cases, these are simply baby diapers with holes cut for the tails to fit through. In other cases, they are diaperlike waste collection devices.
The diapers used on primates, canines, etc. are much like the diapers used by humans. The diapers used on equines are intended to catch excretions, as opposed to absorbing them.
In 2002, the Vienna city council proposed that horses be made to wear diapers to prevent them from defecating in the street. This caused controversy amongst animal rights groups, who claimed that wearing diapers would be uncomfortable for the animals. The campaigners protested by lining the streets wearing diapers themselves, which spelled out the message "Stop pooh bags". In the Kenyan town of Limuru, donkeys were also diapered at the council's behest. A similar scheme in Blackpool ordered that horses be fitted with rubber and plastic diapers to stop them littering the promenade with dung. The council consulted the RSPCA to ensure that the diapers were not harmful to the horses' welfare.
Other animals that are sometimes diapered include female dogs when ovulating and thus bleeding, and monkeys and apes. Diapers are often seen on trained animals who appear on TV shows, in movies, or for live entertainment or educational appearances.
An average child will go through several thousand diapers in their life. Since disposable diapers are discarded after a single use, usage of disposable diapers increases the burden on landfill sites, and increased environmental awareness has led to a growth in campaigns for parents to use reusable alternatives such as cloth or hybrid diapers. An estimated 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the US, resulting in a possible 3.4 million tons of used diapers adding to landfills each year.
The environmental impact of cloth as compared to disposable diapers has been studied several times. In one cradle-to-grave study sponsored by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) and conducted by Carl Lehrburger and colleagues, results found that disposable diapers produce seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process. In addition, effluents from the plastic, pulp, and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton-growing and -manufacturing processes. Single-use diapers consume less water than reusables laundered at home, but more than those sent to a commercial diaper service. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons (approx. 189 to 264 litres) of water every three days, which is roughly equivalent to flushing the toilet 15 times a day, unless the user has a high-efficiency washing machine. An average diaper service puts its diapers through an average of 13 water changes, but uses less water and energy per diaper than one laundry load at home.
In October 2008, "An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies" by the UK Environment Agency and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stated that reusable diapers can cause significantly less (up to 40 per cent) or significantly more damage to the environment than disposable ones, depending mostly on how parents wash and dry them. The "baseline scenario" showed that the difference in green-house emissions was insignificant (in fact, disposables even scored slightly better). However, much better results (emission cuts of up to 40 per cent) could be achieved by using reusable diapers more rationally. "The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies. Cloth nappy users can reduce their environmental impacts by:
- Line drying outside whenever possible
- Tumble drying as little as possible
- When replacing appliances, choosing more energy efficient appliances (A+ rated machines [according to the EU environmental rating] are preferred)
- Not washing above 60 °C (140 °F)
- Washing fuller loads
- Using baby-led potty training techniques to reduce number of soiled nappies.
- Reusing nappies on other children.
There are variations in the care of cloth diapers that can account for different measures of environmental impact. For example, using a cloth diaper laundering service involves additional pollution from the vehicle that picks up and drops off deliveries. Yet such a service uses less water per diaper in the laundering process. Some people who launder cloth diapers at home wash each load twice, considering the first wash a "prewash", and thus doubling the energy and water usage from laundering. Cloth diapers are most commonly made of cotton, which is generally considered an environmentally wasteful crop to grow. "Conventional cotton is one of the most chemically-dependent crops, sucking up 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of insecticides on 3% of our arable land; that's more than any other crop per unit." This effect can be mitigated by using other materials, such as bamboo and hemp.
Another aspect to consider when choosing between disposable diapers and cloth diapers is cost. It is estimated that an average baby will use from $1,500 to $2,000 or more in disposable diapers before being potty-trained. In contrast, cloth diapers, while initially more expensive than disposables, cost as low as $300 for a basic set of cloth diapers, although costs can rise with more expensive options. The cost of washing and drying diapers must also be considered. The basic set, if one-sized, can last from birth to potty-training.
Another factor in reusable cloth diaper impact is the ability to re-use the diapers for subsequent children or sell them on. These factors can alleviate the environmental and financial impact from manufacture, sale and use of brand-new reusable diapers.
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