Diapers are a part of everyday life with a baby. Cloth and disposable each offer advantages and disadvantages. For optimal motor development, there are some important considerations that tend to affect cloth-wearers more, but can also affect disposable-wearers. Note, this article address typical development. For babies experiencing hip dysplasia, please consult your doctor(s).
The Effects of Big Diapers
When you’re shopping for cloth or disposable options, take into account the size of the diaper when worn. Some diapers can be big, spreading Baby’s legs wide and limiting movement in the lower spine.
For healthy movement development, Baby needs to be able to:
- Curl into a C-shape, called “flexion” (important for milestone development, digestion, and the nervous system’s ability to balance stimulation with recuperation)
- Bring each leg into alignment with her hip joints and spine in belly crawling so that the push of her foot will travel well through her body to carry her forward
- Bring her knees under her hip joints in hands-and-knees crawling, and into optimal alignment for kneeling and walking.
The relationship of the legs, hip joints, pelvis, and spine supports a healthy back for life. Diaper-induced wideness can skew alignment, cause compensations, and lead to W-sitting (See “W-Sitting Revisited” by pediatric physical therapists).
Don’t listen to me—listen to your body! For fun, get down on the floor and experiment so you know for yourself.
- Crawl on your hands and knees comfortably. Notice where your knees land and how much distance is between them.
- Then spread your knees wider, as if you were wearing a diaper that didn’t allow your knees to come close together, and crawl like so.
- Experiment with the placement of your knees and feel the difference it makes in your lower back, side muscles, jaw, mindstate, and other parts of yourself.
Watch Your Baby Crawl
The next time you see your baby crawl, notice where her knees land. Optimally, the knees will come through under the hip joints. Diapers can make a baby’s knees spread wider than the hip joints while crawling, which can have an unhappy affect on the lower back, whether it shows up now or in 40 years. Wide knees are also less stable in movement because they don’t allow force to travel efficiently in the most direct route through the bones and joints. Wide diapers and widespread knees can also encourage W-sitting. Even if your baby is not yet crawling, spend some time watching how your baby’s legs relate to each other.
What to Look For in Diapers
This doesn’t mean ditch diapers altogether! It’s about making informed choices.
- Lie your baby (6 mo or older) on her back. Without a diaper on, gently bend her knees and bring them toward each other. (Do not do this with a newborn or if there’s concern about hip dysplasia) How close together do her knees move easily? Then put a diaper on and do the same thing to compare. Does the diaper allow movement of the knees toward each other? How much of a difference is it? The intention here is not to force the knees together, but to gently feel your baby’s natural range of motion without a diaper, and then to find out if the diaper restricts access to her natural movement.
- Younger than 6 months: with very gentle, non-forcing touch, you may be able to get a sense of your baby’s natural range of movement. Please don’t force the knees together, for hip safety.
- Look for companies that offer a variety of sizes and stick to the smallest possible size needed.
- No matter which diapers you choose, give your baby diaper-free time, wearing only swimming/training pants if desired.
Kneeling (kneel-sitting back on the heels and kneel-standing on the knees) offers many wonderful benefits! Kneeling comes in once babies begin to crawl on hands and knees, sit back from crawling, and pull to standing. For optimal movement development, babies need access to knees-together time in these positions. Kneeling–with the forelegs under the body (not W-sitting)–re-engages midline, provides an efficient transition into and out of hands-and-knees crawling, and supports coordination of the legs and torso. It even helps establish healthy support in the lower back. If you notice Baby’s legs spreading wide while crawling or W-sitting, respectfully and gently scoot her knees in toward each other underneath her so that she can kneel-sit. Kneel-sitting generally provides healthier alignment, as well as more options and freedom of movement than W-sitting.
But before disposables all babies were in cloth, and they ended up just fine didn’t they?
I can’t speak to what cloth diapers were like in history; but I can speak for the babies whom this issue affects. “Fine” is relative. Again, this is about looking at the size and effects of any diaper, but especially cloth because it has more potential to be bulky. Many physical challenges in adulthood stem from a variety of issues in infancy. In the case of big diapers, the diapers direct the movement, rather than the baby’s natural reflexes—and this can create compensation patterns. These compensations can easily go unnoticed in a “healthy,” active child, but they linger in the body and can become problematic later in life (including back, hip, and knee challenges).
Think Functionally and Shop with Awareness
Some babies may not be affected by their diapers. For some babies, this is a question of optimal development vs he’ll-be-okay development. For others still, it can turn a “normal” situation into an unnecessary difficulty that can affect not only movement, but also learning and self confidence.
Whether there are concerns or none, whether cloth or disposable, every baby benefits from diaper-free time! Optimal joint development… Freedom of movement… Having the most potential available within ourselves to rely on in everyday life… Why not make the effort to build the best foundation possible in the first year?
Eliza Parker is a certified Infant Developmental Movement Educator®, Aware Parenting Instructor, Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and is trained as a Feldenkrais® Practitioner.
© Eliza Parker 2014, All Rights Reserved