Natural parenting: Reduce the impact having children has on the planet

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to ‘greener’ family life

Saving the planet is hardly foremost in the minds of new parents. Saving their sanity more like, as they try to cope with the new mini-dictator in their lives.

Newborns punch way above their birth weight when it comes to disrupting routine, rest and relationships. No wonder, then, that we shut our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears when anybody starts trotting out the anti-environment statistics about disposable nappies.

At that stage, who wants to think about the projected €1,000-plus outlay on at least 4,500 disposable nappies before the mite is toilet-trained?

Or consider how each nappy will be used for only a few hours, at most, and will then take about 500 years to decompose in landfill?


You can change just one little thing at a time, make it a habit, and then look at another area you can improve

Timi Nicholson and her husband, Michael, certainly didn't when their first child, Max, arrived three years ago. But she remembers a heavy, smelly nappy bin that needed to be emptied into their black bin as a constant feature of life for the first few months at home in Swords, Co Dublin.

When Max was nearly six months old, Hungarian-born Timi became curious about colourful reusable nappies that she saw, first, on sale and then another mother at a Cuidiú group using. Encouraged to investigate further, she went on to the website of the Cloth Nappy Library, which allows you to "try before you buy".

Michael was prepared to try switching to cloth nappies, provided they first looked at how it would work out financially as well as environmentally. “When you look to start using cloth nappies, some people will tell you, ‘Okay, you’re reducing waste but you’re increasing waste water and [use of] electricity’, so there is impact on both sides,” says Nicholson. Satisfied with their computations, they took a loan of 10 reusable nappies, liked them and started to buy their own.

It’s hard to estimate what you need to spend on cloth nappies, because there are two sizes and many different brands, she explains. But a good brand of “birth-to-potty” nappies, suitable from 5kg right up to potty training, cost about €18-€20 each.

"That sounds horrible because you can go into Aldi and buy one disposable nappy for nine cent," she acknowledges. "It's a big gap. But we have to understand we are buying 25 nappies altogether and this will do for 2½ years."

Break even

In the long run, it will work out about half the cost of good brand disposables – and there will be more savings if the cloth nappies are reused for siblings. The Nicholsons calculated that if they invested in 20 or 25 new reusable nappies, they would break even in a year.

But never mind the cost, what about the effort involved? “It does come with a little bit of extra work, no one can deny that. It would add maybe two or three washes a week to my wash load,” says Nicholson, but no bleaching or ironing is needed.

She was prepared to make that effort – and more – as this change started her on the road to “zero waste”. A concept that is the very antithesis of the accumulation of “stuff” that usually goes with starting a family, pushed by guilt-inducing marketing that implies you will be a better parent through buying this or that product.

“Zero waste” is more an aspiration than a reality, but the Nicholsons succeeded in reducing their household refuse for landfill down to less than 500g a month. They stopped their own bin service, instead using the local recycling centre regularly and her mother’s black bin occasionally.

Outlining some of the steps they have taken, ranging from avoiding plastics to cutting down on food waste, Nicholson says: “It is a change of attitude and a change of behaviour and I do appreciate it is not for everyone.”

Yet, it's a lifestyle that is attracting a lot more interest. When she and Michael joined the Zero Waste Ireland Facebook page in January 2016, it had 250 members. Now there are more than 10,000.

Nicholson, who set up her own website,, says she tries not to be fanatical. "You will achieve more inspiration if you are realistic because we all live busy lives – having kids or not having kids."

Their own high level of sustainability dipped when their second child, Lana, arrived in April, and had to spend three weeks in neonatal care. “My mum came and cooked and did not go out of her way to buy zero waste things so we definitely produced a lot more waste than we normally would.”

People such as American environmental activist Rob Greenfield live a proper zero-waste life, Nicholson adds, "but it doesn't suit me and I don't think it suits most of the population. I just try and encourage people to maybe make better choices – you don't have to go hardcore."


Sustainable living doesn't have to be all or nothing, agrees Karen McKevitt, editor of Natural Parenting Ireland magazine, which she set up last year. "You can change just one little thing at a time, make it a habit, and then look at another area you can improve."

She never intended to get so involved in “natural parenting”, but it is an approach that has grown on her as her family grew. She uses the term to cover practices such as attachment parenting, baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, child-led weaning, embracing the outdoors and using natural medicines and products.

After the birth of her first child eight years ago, she had little support in the locality of her Dublin home and while she went every week to the breastfeeding support group in the nearest HSE clinic, sometimes she was the only mother there.

"Myself and the [public health] nurse got to know each other very well," she laughs. But on the second baby she heard about Friends of Breastfeeding Ireland and started attending a group when he was four weeks old. The following week they had a baby-wearing demonstration "and it just opened my eyes to so many different things". She participated in various community groups during that maternity leave and took a more child-led approach to her parenting.

When becoming pregnant a third time, she researched home births. However “I wasn’t quite ready to go there. But I had a different birthing experience – I went with the Domino midwives and practised Gentle Birth”.

Through local parent groups and online communities, she feels she has learned “to be more confident in the type of parent I wanted to be”. She started the magazine because she felt the mainstream media wasn’t showing this side of parenting.

With three children – now aged eight, five and 2½ – and working as a teacher, she doesn’t always have the time to live as sustainably as she would like. While they didn’t use cloth nappies on the first baby they did switch to reusables for the other two.

“I am not a diehard – we use disposables as well,” she says, adding that she has dipped her toes into lots of areas, some that worked for her and others that didn’t. Elimination communication, the natural alternative to full-time nappies and conventional toilet training, was one she didn’t fancy although she has a friend who had great success with it.

Having substituted various disposable items with cloth, such as sanitary pads, face wipes, breast pads and make-up pads, they are now “looking into making the move to family cloth (instead of toilet paper) but that takes a bit more family agreement,” she adds wryly.

“Family cloth” is the correct term in eco-circles but it conjures up the rather alarming image of a family all using the one piece of cloth when in fact it means a stash of cloth wipes that are used once, temporarily binned and then washed for reuse.

Use of chemicals

It is not a product that Siobhán Elsom of has started to stock yet for her online shop, but it may be only a matter of time as she expands the range in response to customer feedback.

With pregnancy and parenthood having raised her awareness of the widespread use of chemicals and the need to ensure a greener, cleaner environment for future generations, Elsom set the business up eight years ago.  But she has only been able to give up the day job and devote herself full-time to it four years ago, while also raising three children aged 10, eight and six, with her husband, Chris.

“People’s habits are changing and they are looking for different things than when I started or when my oldest was born,” she says. “There are a lot more people who maybe have a bit more money to spend than they did five years ago and are spending it on the more natural or gentler option.”

She finds her customers coming either from an eco-conscious perspective, maybe having seen how many nappies go into the black bin, or in search of natural products after, perhaps, their babies have had skin problems.

While reusable or eco-disposable nappies make up a steady 10 per cent of her sales, she thinks there “are just too many hurdles and lack of information” stopping more people trying them. “When people do, they really go for it and go into reusable wipes and everything as reusable as possible.”

A third category of customers that has sprung up only in the last year or so are people “who have nothing to do with babies. I’m getting people like male office workers who are Googling ‘reusable coffee cups’.”

Two of her newest products are beeswax food wraps (substitute for cling film) and Pit Putty, a natural deodorant – both of which are Irish-made.

Cloth nappies

Orla Matthews decided during her first pregnancy that she was going to use cloth nappies, but new motherhood, as a lone parent, "was a bit overwhelming". Now she would advise others not to take on reusables initially when it's a first baby and you're trying to breastfeed.

“Give yourself a break – every nappy you can save is making a difference, but that doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch. My son was about three months old when I started using them. The nappy was the catalyst that drove me to become more sustainable in all areas of life.”

She volunteers with the Cloth Nappy Library of Ireland, helping people who are a bit unsure to borrow different types and get a feel for them before investing.

“Then at the end of it, if it’s not for you, you can put your hand on heart and say ‘I’ve tried it’.” However, “ultimately it isn’t all or nothing and we never advocate that,” she says. Even if you use just one reusable nappy a day or only at weekends, it helps reduce your carbon footprint.

Her friends would say they’re too busy to be “green” and she agrees that “there is never enough time” when babies are around. “But simple changes make such a huge difference.”

Before getting pregnant, “I would have been concerned for environmental policy but I wouldn’t have been mindful of my own consumption,” says Matthews. “The more I go on this journey, the more I realise we are just consuming on such an unstainable level and it’s not necessary.

“It doesn’t mean I won’t buy anything,” she stresses and, while she tends to buy second-hand and avoids “fast fashion”, she always buys new shoes for herself and her son. And if she needs new underwear, she heads to M&S. “It’s always within reason for me – it is not all or nothing but where I can.”


Just because you don’t want to overhaul your lifestyle and install solar panels, doesn’t mean you can’t make small changes to become a “greener” family. Here are a few areas to consider:

Try to eliminate single-use plastics – such as bags, bottles, coffee cups and straws – from your life. Substitute with mesh bags to buy loose fruit and vegetables, bring your own container to a butcher's, reusable coffee cups and stainless-steel water bottles.

Baby clothes and equipment
Hand-me-downs from family and friends can go a long way, while good-as-new items can be sourced through charity shops, online sites and events such as those run by Baby Market Ireland right around the country for parents wanting to buy or sell "preloved" goods.

Breastmilk is a supreme example of a product that's both healthy and sustainable. After that, avoiding meat and dairy products is probably the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to scientists behind an analysis of farming recently published in the journal Science. But a vegan diet is not for everybody – and is exceptionally difficult to get right for children. However, eating less meat and more seasonal and local fruit and vegetables is a good aspiration for all.

With Irish households chucking out an estimated €700 million worth of perfectly good food every year, there has to be room for improvement here, through more prudent shopping, cooking and use of leftovers. Asking "Do I really need this?" before any purchase, be it food, clothes or luxuries, might put a brake on some buying.

Just when we think we're getting good at recycling, we learn things like, no, those cardboard coffee cups can't go in the green bin because of the plastic lining – and compostable isn't compostable if they end up in landfill. So, revise to recycle responsibly.

Household cleaning
If you don't want the hassle of finding out what you could do with bread soda, vinegar and lemon, consider buying eco-friendly alternatives to standard, chemical-laden cleaning products.

Personal hygiene
The sight of a baby's pure soft skin can make us ponder on chemicals we're inadvertently applying not only to their bodies but to our own as well – not to mention flushing into our water systems. Parabens – chemical compounds used in cosmetics as preservatives – are being increasingly avoided for suspected links between some of them and cancer.

Think cloth…
Not just for nappies but for all those other once-off bodily encounters such as baby and cosmetic wipes, sanitary products, breast pads and, yes, even toilet paper.

Family planning
Let's be honest, having a baby is actually the most destructive thing we're likely to do to the environment in the long term. But if we all desisted from that, the human race would be wiped out a lot quicker.