Holy Cross babies sport cotton bottoms.

That's not a nursery rhyme or tongue twister but an environmental precedent in Utah, a state where the birth rate increases about as fast as those "Be Kind to the Earth" books roll off the presses.Starting Jan. 1, Holy Cross and Holy Cross Jordan Valley hospitals switched from disposable diapers to the washable cotton kind.

"The hospital wanted to just focus on being a little bit more environmentally conscious," said Colleen Gatherum, manager of the maternal unit at Holy Cross.

"The moms are pretty excited. The nurses are adjusting to the change, and they're excited they're doing something nice for the environment."

Not only are those newborn bottoms now diapered into a kinder, gentler world, but the infants are doing their part to save the planet. Plastic diapers are thought to hang around a landfill for a long time, according to Dan Bauer, director for the Salt Lake Valley Landfill.

"It could be that some of the material that is thrown away here, including diapers, never totally decomposes."

Owners of Salt Lake City's five diaper services contend that, besides the advantage of not filling up the county dump, using cloth nappies cuts down on diaper rash and bacteria. They want parents to know that technology has changed cloth diapering. New chemicals in diaper pails cut down on odors. Velcro fasteners have replaced the old safety-pin-and-rubber-pants routine.

But some hospital officials say they aren't convinced using cloth diapers would be any cheaper, and they say all the detergent used to launder all those diapers also fouls the environment. University Hospital has set up a task force to consider all of its policies in view of environmental sensitivity. But the issue is more complicated than just landfill disposal vs. laundry facilities, said hospital spokesman John Dwan. "Most of our babies are sick babies, so we do very precise input-output measurements. And the weight of a cloth diaper would vary depending on how much it has been washed."

Other states have a head start at diapering their newborns in the environmentally correct way, said Cathy Stolebarger, owner of Cotton Bottom Baby diaper service, which won the Holy Cross contract.

Almost every hospital in Washington state uses cloth diapers, and 50 percent of the home market does, too. Vermont and Michigan are two states considering legislation to outlaw disposable diapers, Stolebarger said.

John Taylor, spokesman for Intermountain Health Care, said the company is considering its policies but for now is sticking with disposables.

About 1,500 babies are born at the company's Wasatch Front hospitals every month. Healthy babies stay in the hospital for about 24 hours, on average, which translates to about eight to 12 diaper changes per baby. "That's a lot of diapers," Taylor said.

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GRAPHIC\ Infants born in Salt Lake Valley hospitals receive diaper changes from 8 to 12 times in an average 24-hour stay.

Number of babies born in the metro area each year: 33,825

Dirty diapers generated in a 24-hour hospital stay: 338,250

Babies delivered per month:

Hospitals:

IHC* - 1,500

Holy Cross - 330

University - 170

St. Marks - 165

Pioneer Valley - 90

*Wasatch Front Hospitals