Cloth Diapering 101
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So, you’re thinking about cloth diapering. Kudos to you! This is an environmentally conscious, hands-on choice that may decrease your baby’s landfill output in their first few years of life. But it’s definitely a privilege and a process, so cloth diapering requires some research and option-weighing before you embark on your journey.
In this article, we’ll break down the what’s, how’s, and why’s of using cloth diapers, including the main types of cloth diapers and everything you will need to stay stocked and ready. We’ll also include insight from real cloth-diapering moms to help you get started.
Like with any parenting choice, once you’re doing it, you’ll become an expert soon enough. And, your process will end up customized to what works for you and your family. But before you gain all that personal insight, let’s kick off with some cloth diaper basics.
Disposable Diapers vs. Cloth Diapers
There are several questions families might consider when figuring out whether to use cloth diapers. Such as…
Are cloth diapers more environmentally friendly?
They can be! Disposable diapers are the third-largest single consumer item in landfills and make up an estimated 4% of all solid waste. And in homes with kids, they contribute to up to 50% of household waste!
However, it’s important to consider that cloth diapers require more water and electricity, and create detergent waste plus associated plastic waste from extra detergent purchase.
If the environment is a factor in your decision to cloth-diaper, remember that your choices add up. Only launder full loads of diapers rather than washing a few at a time, to reduce water use. Use the lowest water temp you can, line-dry whenever possible, and as hinted above – consider buying and reselling your cloth diapers.
Are cloth diapers better for babies?
Many parents who choose cloth diapers make their decision with their baby’s health and comfort in mind. Because cloth diapers tend to be less absorbent than disposable diapers, they get changed more frequently, which means your baby’s bum isn’t sitting in pee or poo as long—which is thought to cut down on diaper rash. But the research hasn’t been so clear. In fact, a 2017 case study found that cloth diapers actually contributed to more diaper rashes and more severe rashes than disposables. Because there’s not strong evidence on one side or the other, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t have a stance in favor of one type of diaper from a health perspective.
Types of Cloth Diapers
If you thought the decision to go cloth was the only one you’d be making, think again. There are four main types of cloth diapers, and they all offer different features and benefits. Here’s what differentiates one from another:
All-In-One Cloth Diapers
This is the cloth diaper for the parents who want less to think about, and less to pack. The all-in-one cloth diaper is easy to use and beginner-friendly. As its name suggests, this diaper packs all you need in one piece, so no inserts or accessories are necessary.
While this diaper is “all parts included,” some parents do choose to purchase inserts too, for added absorbency overnight, especially once their littles are sleeping through the night.
While the all-in-one cloth diaper ranks high for ease of use and is considered the most babysitter-friendly with little to teach caregivers, it is also the most expensive option and will create the most laundry as the entire diaper needs washing after every change. Expect to invest in 25 to 30 diapers and five (optional) inserts for overnight.
Pocket Cloth Diapers
Pocket cloth diapers are similar to all-in-ones as they consist of one main diaper, but they also have an interior wicking pocket and removable insert for extra absorbency. This option allows you to customize thickness and absorbency of the interior layer and is also easy to use, for babysitter- and grandparent-friendly cloth diapering.
Many parents choose to pre-stuff the diapers with inserts so they can be put on Baby like a traditional diaper and off you go. Insert materials vary–terry is light, hemp is heavier, and even disposable inserts can be used with a pocket diaper.
While pocket diapers are user-friendly despite their two separate parts, they do require washing after every change, so they are not as kind to your laundry bin as the two types to follow. You’ll likely need a base set of 25 to 30 outer layer pocket diapers, and the same amount of inserts in a variety of absorbencies for day and night.
Prefold or Flat & Cover Cloth Diapers
The prefold cloth diaper consists of a long piece of fabric with a thicker layer at the center to absorb liquid. The flat is the same basic idea but does not have the thicker midsection. These are generally the most affordable variety of cloth diapers (costing as little as $2 per), and are the closest to “old-fashioned” diapering.
You will need to use a cover with prefolds or flats, but assuming a low level of soiling, you can use the same cover throughout much of the day and just change out the wet layer within. Expect to invest in at least 4 covers and 30 prefolds or flats for the newborn days.
There are a variety of cover closures to choose from (Velcro, front snap, side snap) and your preference there will depend on Baby’s thigh chunkiness as well as age. (For example, Velcro is easier to close in the early days, but they’re a cinch for curious toddlers to pull open!)
Fitted & Contour Cloth Diapers
These cozy cloth diapers are similar in nature to the prefold or flat, but without any folding and shaping required. Rather, they consist of a diaper-shaped piece of absorbent fabric that goes beneath the diaper cover and can be put on Baby in one easy step.
“Hybrid” is an offshoot of this diaper type, which allows use of disposable inserts along with cloth covers. These are a fantastic option for on-the-go diapering and create less waste (pun very much intended!) than full-on 'sposies, while still allowing ease and convenience outside the house.
Fitted and contour diapers can be bulky because they consist of two separate, fully diaper-shaped layers, so you might consider sizing up in Baby’s pants to accommodate extra junk in the trunk. You won’t need to do laundry daily, but you will need to run the washer with some frequency. An average basic investment in fitted or contour diapers is 4 covers and 25 to 30 inserts; you can find packs of 100 disposable inserts for on-the-go for about $10 if you choose that option.
What You’ll Need to Start Cloth Diapering
In the opening we mentioned that cloth diapering is a privilege, and that’s for a few reasons. While over time cloth diapering ultimately saves you money (more on that soon!), up front you will need to make an investment in the materials. You’ll also need access to your own washer and dryer as most public laundromats do not allow diaper laundering.
Cloth diapering basics include:
- Cloth diapers and inserts as outlined above
- Diaper pail or step-on covered trash for holding dirty diapers & liners until laundering
- 2 pail liners for wet inserts and diapers (keeps laundry contained and you have a clean liner waiting when the first rotation goes into the wash)
- Diaper sprayer for bottle-fed babies, babies and toddlers eating solids, and any exceptionally messy poop changes
- Cloth wipes (Optional– if you want to go all the way with cloth vs. standard wipes). Moistened cotton swabs, small terry washcloths, and other simple cloths all do the trick!
- Travel wet bags to cut mess and keep the wet contained on-the-go
How to Wash Cloth Diapers
Like any fabric you place on your child, cloth diapers need to be washed before use. After a diaper change, your process will vary slightly depending on your chosen diaper type, but the basics include rinsing heavy soiling (aka major poop!) off directly into the toilet followed by a cold rinse of the diaper. Run a hot load of dirty diapers with detergent followed by a warm or cold rinse, then line- or tumble-dry.
It is important to note that while you are absolutely encouraged to wash cloth diapers in your washing machine, they should be their own load—don’t combine them with other clothing. This is where those travel wet bags and diaper pail liners come in handy, allowing you to contain soiled diapers in one place until laundry day.
If this sounds like too much work, but you’re still committed to cloth, can look into cloth diaper laundering services which vary state-to-state but do exist. For those who can afford it, this is a great way to cut down on your workload while allowing you to enjoy the benefits of cloth diapering.
The Cost of Cloth Diapering
Rather than spending money every month or so on disposable, you’re likely going to drop a decent chunk of change on your diapers, inserts, and laundry materials right away, which can cause sticker shock. Your exact cost will depend on what brands and materials you select, as well as how much of a collection you want to build right off the bat.
That said, cloth diapering saves money in the long run, especially if you would otherwise seek an eco-friendly or organic/more natural diaper. The data says that in the first year of cloth diapering, families save on average 27% over those using disposable diapers. But in the second and subsequent year (because let’s face it, most of us will be diapering for at least two years if not three!), you will save 60% as you’ve already amassed much of your stash.
Parent pro tip: Real cloth diapering mom-of-two Amber from Massachusetts let us in on her favorite, not-so-dirty little secret: Cloth diapers can be bought and sold second-hand to save you money when you stock up, and let you gain back some of that initial investment once you’re out of the diaper phase.
At first, the concept of buying and selling used diapers admittedly “sounds gross,” but with a few necessary steps to sanitize and make safe for the next baby, Amber says, “pre-loved cloth diapers are just as great new ones,” and “better for the environment.” Win-win!
More Cloth Diapering Need-to-Know
We’ve already tackled some of the biggies from cost and work to mess, but here are some more bullet points on the yays and nays of cloth diapering, to help you decide if this is the best choice for your family:
- Be upfront about your choice to cloth diaper. Unsolicited opinions, unfortunately, tend to come with parenting—no matter what choices you make! So, it's understandable if you want to stay mum about your diapering decisions. However, letting people know that you're going cloth will help you sidestep well-meaning but unnecessary gifts of disposable diapers. And remember, people want to buy you things you will use—it is perfectly acceptable to include cloth diapers and related supplies on your baby registry!
- Disposable diapers are usually returnable, even without a receipt. Unopened mainstreamed or store-brand diapers can be brought back to any Target, Walmart, and other major retailers. If you receive some, release the guilt and take them back. Also, DV shelters and other women’s charities always need diaper donations, so the gift someone gave you that you do not want could be a blessing to another family. Let them go guilt-free, and return to your regularly scheduled life as a fluff-butt parent.
- Daycares do not love cloth, but most childcare providers can be taught how to use them. Cloth diapering at home and using ‘sposies at daycare is another great option for working parents.
- Traveling with cloth diapers is worse...and better. Lots of avid cloth-diapering parents choose to travel with disposable diapers to cut down on work, logistics, and plain-old ick level of toting dirty diapers around. However, one of the real cloth-diapering moms we spoke to pointed that she and her family of avid hikers, campers, and outdoor travel buffs actually prefer to bring cloth on that type of trip because they weigh less than disposable diapers even when heavily soiled. They also can be easily rinsed out and draped over a tree, for example, to dry before packing up and heading home for a proper clean.
Like any parenting decision, there are benefits and drawbacks of cloth diapering. There is also the option of a hybrid compromise that fits your family’s needs. Ultimately, the best way to diaper you baby…is whatever works best for your family!
More on Baby Care:
- How to Change a Diaper
- How Many Diapers Does a Baby Need?
- How to Bathe a Baby
- How to Dress a Newborn
- How to Trim Your Baby's Nails
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.