In these modern times, it’s difficult to imagine life as a parent of a baby without modern diapers. So what exactly did people in ancient times use as diapers and how did diapers come about? The answers may surprise you.
First, in ancient times, there were no diapers. That’s right, no diapers at all. Most women carried around a small pot, usually made of clay, for their baby to urinate and defecate in. When it looked like the baby might start urinating or defecating, the mother would hold the pot under the baby’s bottom to catch the waste. It might seem crazy, but even today; there are millions of women in poor countries that still use this method. Not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. There are no disposable diapers or cloth diapers available to them or they are too poor to afford them.
Another method used since ancient times, and still in use today, is called elimination communication, or natural infant hygiene. With elimination communication, the parents take the time to learn or tune in to their baby’s body signals that alert them to when they are going to urinate or defecate. Then the parent places them on the toilet or a pot to eliminate their waste. Elimination communication has made a comeback in recent years, thanks to the more eco-conscious parenting trend.
Before modern day diapers were invented, there were different types of cloths and fabrics used as a sort of diaper. The word “diaper”, refers specifically to a white cloth made of linen or cotton. The very first diapers were made of cloth cut into rectangular or square shapes. The first versions of our modern day diapers can be traced back to 16th century England. Today in England and other parts of the world, diapers are actually referred to as “nappies”, which seems to be derived from the word “napkin”, as cloth diapers did take a shape similar shape to a napkin used for a dinner service.
There is evidence that other ancient cultures used natural plant based fabrics as diapers, like peat moss, for example. It would be no surprise that ancient cultures used whatever they had available to them, including things like animal skins, grasses and leaves from certain plants. In ancient Egypt, babies were wrapped in bands of wool or linen cloth, similar to a mummy. Eskimos were known to use moss under sealskin. Similarly, Native American mothers used grass tightly packed in rabbit skin. However, in warm and tropical climates, most mothers let their baby go au naturel, practicing a form of elimination communication.
It was in the late 19th century when the first iteration of our modern diapers came into popular use. In North America and parts of Europe, babies wore a square of cloth, typically flannel, cotton or linen, which was folded around the baby’s buttocks area and held in place by the use of safety pins.