This is the post I was hoping someone would send me back in July before John was born, or December when I was about to jump into cloth diapers and was scared out of my mind.
I couldn’t quite visualize what cloth diapering would be like, and that was a major psychological roadblock for me.
I’m a planner, the type of person who spends two days in the new house with post-its in the kitchen, mentally putting away all the dishes, then testing out what cooking would be like to make sure it’s efficient. I feel much more comfortable in a situation when I know what to expect.
With cloth, even though I had had a few conversations with cloth diapering mamas about what they did, I just couldn’t quite wrap my brain around wet vs. dry pails, how to do the laundry, how messy it would be, if the toilet was involved, and so forth. And the number of different kinds of diapers absolutely blew me away.
I’m hoping I’m still green behind the ears enough to be able to speak through the eyes of a total rookie, explaining things from the most basic level (since that’s where I am after only 4 months!), yet covering all the bases so that someone who knows nothing about cloth diapers could leave this post feeling empowered to jump into cloth with confidence.
Different Types of Cloth Diapers
Whether you’re just getting into cloth diapers or have done it for years, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of options on the market today. Obviously, I’m going to tell you to check out my big old cloth diaper review to really understand the difference between various styles of cloth diapers. There you can see photos, descriptions, video tutorials, and honest reviews of 25 different diapers, about 20 brands, in 5 different categories, including:
- All-in-one cloth diapers (AIOs): These have the absorbent layer and the waterproof layer in one piece. They go on and off like a disposable and can be a great cloth diaper solution or a mess, depending on the brand.
- Pocket diapers: The waterproof cover has a pocket, usually made of a fleece material to wick away the moisture, into which you stuff one or two inserts. They are easy to put on but usually need to be taken apart to wash on the way off.
- All-in-two diapers (AI2): Typically the absorbent insert snaps into the waterproof cover, meaning they can stay together in the wash if you’d like, and no pocket stuffing.
- Fitted cloth diapers: A diaper shaped like a disposable, but 100% absorbent, usually snapping together around the baby. You need a waterproof cover separately for fitteds.
- Prefolds: Those things that many of us used as burp cloths for our babies. Prefolds are the old-fashioned “cloth diaper” that you can buy in a 12-pack at Babies ‘R’ Us, but I understand that you don’t really want to get them there as those aren’t very high quality. With a prefold, you need some sort of waterproof outer cover. Some people pin the diaper on the baby under the cover, some use “Snappis” which are neat little apparatuses that close the diaper up without pins, and some people (like me) just cram the cover on over the cloth diaper prefold and hope for the best.
- Flats: There’s a reason prefolds are prefolded; flats are what they used to look like before machines folded them up. I’ve never used a flat, but I think you can imagine either 3x or 9x the size of the burp cloth prefold – one large, thin piece of absorbent material that you then fold into thirds and thirds again before putting on baby. The advantage over prefolds is that they’ll dry really, really fast and you can customize the fit to baby. You do need a cover for flats.
- Specialty diaper styles: Some cloth diapers on the market have two pieces, a cover and insert, but they aren’t fitteds, prefolds, flats, or pockets. Some examples include the Flip, Tuck and Go (link no longer available), and Sprout Change. You can usually reuse the cover if the insert is only wet.
What did I miss?
Some Cloth Diaper Vocabulary
- Cover – waterproof layer, usually separate from the absorbent part, made of either PUL or TPU, both plastics. I don’t know the difference.
- Insert – the absorbent layer, usually microfiber, bamboo, cotton/hemp or cotton fleece. These come in all shapes and sizes.
- Doubler or Soaker pad – describing an extra insert usually added to the diaper for nights or naps, very absorbent
- Double gusset – an extra layer of fabric around the legs designed to hold in waste; see them on the Thirsties brand video at the cloth diaper review and in the photo above; also on Go Green and the Marvel cover from Kissaluvs.
- One-size – a diaper that uses snaps to alter its size to grow with the baby; often from about 12-35 pounds. Very cool for frugality because you don’t have to replace your diaper stash as baby grows. Most peolpe say that newborns just need a separate diaper until about 12 pounds, but some brands boast “newborn to potty trained.” I don’t know how well and of these one-size diapers work for newborns.
- Blowout – when poo goes everywhere outside the diaper. Common with breastmilk poop, but amazingly, hardly ever happens with cloth. I promise – this is a huge benefit of cloth diapering that really does come true!
Don’t forget to check out this awesome guest post from Calley of the Eco Chic, 7 Tips for the Cloth Diapering Newbie. She shared these cloth diaper vocab resources: Cloth Diaper Terminology, (link no longer available) Cloth Diaper Terms and Definitions, and Cloth Diaper Slang.
How to Choose the Right One
Every family is going to have different needs, and looking back, I’m really quite thankful I didn’t have to choose a style based on someone else’s reviews. I’m not a good decision maker (that’s why I get 3 flavors of ice cream when I’m allowed and why I am a glutton for punishment, testing 25 different diapers and 43 natural sunscreen brands just so I can figure out what’s best!).
When you’re trying to choose a cloth diaper style/brand, you’ll want to take into account:
- Needs of the diaper-er: Who will change the baby? Are they willing to learn a new skill or do you need to have simple diapers available that act like disposables?
- Baby’s body type, if known: Very skinny babies and very pudgy babies report drastically different results from the same diaper.
- Time: How much time do you have to do laundry and sort diapers? Some styles (AIOs) take hardly any time; others (pockets) need a few extra moments. Not a ton, but if you’re really pressed for time, there is a difference.
- Time/Baby’s temperament: How much time do you want a diaper change to take? You don’t have to stuff fitteds, but it takes twice as long to put them on. You can quickly pair up something like the Flip or Tuck and Go, or a prefold and cover, but you’re still going to spend a few moments longer while baby is trying to crawl away and/or crying and piercing your brain. Just something to think about.
- Your drying situation: If you can hang the waterproof parts of the diaper on the line, they’ll last longer.
- Cost: You can cloth diaper a baby for $100 start to finish, claim some brands. That’s about 3 months worth of disposables the way I used to shop, which is incredible savings (of course you’ll pay for water, detergent, and energy for washing, but still).
- The least expensive, and also effective, style is prefolds (or probably flats). Since you can reuse covers when it’s only a wet diaper change, you don’t have to buy as many. They dry quickly and are simply less expensive than other styles.
- How important are natural fibers? If you want only organic material touching your baby, microfiber inserts are out, for example. The natural fibers like hemp, cotton, and bamboo do an excellent job at absorbency, anyway.
- And lastly…
Velcro or Snaps?
Apparently this a never-ending debate in the cloth diapering world, and after a few days of CDing my baby with a mix of both, I get it. There are definite advantages and disadvantages to both snap and hook-and-loop style closures.
Velcro’s claim to fame is that it is so quick and easy. It’s simple to adjust the diaper if you need it a bit tighter or looser after the first fasten, and there’s no figuring out which snaps to do first, etc.
Velcro’s problem that I learned about at first is that they all stick together in the wash/dryer. I decided that wasn’t a big deal, and for the speed and ease, I was a Velcro (hook-and-loop, Aplix, etc.) lover.
Snaps were just too clunky, and especially when there were three snaps, people would mess them up and I’d have wet clothes because the side of the diaper was hanging funny.
I’ve been converted, for three strong arguments against hook-and-loop:
- They come open too easily. When baby is scooting around on his belly, the last thing you want to see is bare buns moving across the floor. (Grovia is probably the exception, in my experience. I’ve never met stronger hook-and-loop.)
- They can BE opened too easily. Like by a curious 9-month-old (see above for problem). Snaps usually are too tough for kids to open until about age two.
- Longevity. This type of closure may only last about 6 months, which puts your cloth diaper investment in jeopardy far too quickly for my liking.
When it comes to snap closure, you’ll find either two or three snaps.
There’s a reason for three: stability. Sometimes that extra snap can prevent the diaper from gapping at the upper leg.
Perhaps on thinner babies, that’s an issue, but with my guy, user error is a much greater concern. Three snaps has proven too confusing for dads and grandmas, so I rest firmly in the camp of “two snaps is best.”
Prepping Your Cloth Diapers
When you get your cloth diaper stash, you can’t start using them right away. In order to obtain proper absorbency, most diaper materials have to be washed and dried between one and ten times before wearing. The average is three times; bamboo is ten.
I found that the best way to do this is to wash diapers a few times along with normal laundry (if and only if you use natural, gentle laundry detergent for the whole family!), then do one load of just diapers and include an extra rinse cycle to make sure all the detergent is out for sensitive baby skin.
Some diapers take many, many times to be fully prepped, often even more than the directions will say. Plan to use new cloth diapers only at home and be honest about changing them every hour and a half to two hours, or be ready to do lots of extra laundry with wet pants and onesies.
What do Do, Step by Step, to Cloth Diaper a Baby
The pails full of water and bleach from a generation or two ago are kind of a thing of the past (thank goodness). That part made me very nervous. Although soaking in water (just plain water) does tend to help stain removal, according to some readers, most people nowadays use a wet bag – which is dry. You could just use a garbage can, with or without a plastic bag liner. You just need somewhere to collect the diapers.
The wet bag is nice, in my opinion, because it can go right into the wash, so there’s no cleaning of pails, etc. When you take a diaper off an infant who is exclusively breastfed, the whole thing goes into the wet bag – dry – and into the washing machine. Taking the diaper off baby is no harder than tossing a disposable, except for pocket diapers which need their inserts pulled out. (One exception: if you have pocket diapers with openings on both sides, I’ve been very successful at not un-stuffing, and the inserts work their way out in the washing machine.) See one of the pocket diaper videos at the cloth diaper review for a demo on how to stuff and unstuff pocket diapers.
It turns out this step, which I thought was most important when I outlined the post, isn’t much beyond “Put diaper on” and “Take diaper off” except for a few points that really belong under “doing the wash.” I hope this is encouraging to you as a cloth diapering rookie – it’s not as hard as you might think (except for the hard parts). Here are just a few tips for diaper changes:
- If you have the kind of diaper that has a cover separate from the inserts, you can reuse it up to 3 times for wet-only changes. Just drape the cover over your wipes box or the edge of the changing table or the side of your diaper pail to air out until the next change, when you put it back on the baby with a new absorbent layer. (If it’s poopy, toss it in the wet bag – which is dry.) This kind is my ultimate favorite because (1) there’s no stuffing = quicker, (2) less laundry overall, and (3) you preserve the life of your covers using them less.
- One friend of mine hangs the pocket inserts over the edge of the diaper pail to let them air out/dry out a bit, reducing the smell of the diapers in the pail. (The smell really isn’t bad, by the way, nothing different than disposables in a pail in the room.) UPDATE: Until the inserts start to get “buildup” which basically means everything smells like pungent ammonia and worse as soon as they get wet with urine. Easier to tell when baby is wet, but potent in the wet bag!)
- If you have Velcro diapers, fold the tab down for washing.
- Microfiber liners shouldn’t touch baby’s skin directly – they are almost too absorbent and can dry baby’s buns out, and that sort of scratchy feeling that many don’t like on their hands with microfiber cleaning cloths also probably doesn’t feel all that great on the bum.
- Wondering about wipes? Here’s my monologue on cloth diaper wipes.
Doing the Wash
This is perhaps the most daunting part of cloth diapering, at least in my humble shaking-in-my-boots opinion. It turned out to be not nearly as bad as I thought, after all.
- Wash diapers approximately every two days. Most cloth diapers stashes don’t last much longer than that anyway, and the smell/stains will build up too much.
- This means you’ll have a small load, every time – use a bit more water than you think. Mine are usually a medium load, if not large. Enough water is needed to get the good agitation to get all the stuff out.
- Prerinse first – some say on cold, some say on warm because stains get out best at the temperature they were created, which is body temp in this case.
- Add detergent, following instructions on the bag. (More on detergents below)
- Set the cycle to hot wash, cold rinse, 2nd rinse, and use a nice long wash cycle.
- Either hang diapers to dry, throw them all in the dryer (although you’ll shorten the life of the waterproof covers), or dry the inserts and hang the covers. I do a bit of a hodgepodge, and my favorite solution is to hang the covers, then do another load of laundry and dry the inserts with that load. Many of the natural fiber inserts take a long time to dry, and when it’s such a small dryer load, you’ll end up hanging them damp anyway.
My laundry room is a main bathroom as well (yuck), so this is all the hang-to-dry space I have.
This morning when I chose to hang all my covers, now I’m out of space to air dry anything else from the next load.
- Some folks say to dry the covers for about 10 minutes to speed things up, then hang to dry.
- Dryer balls are a great idea to speed things up; I have some wool balls from Willow Store.
- If you hang covers that are just covers, they’re usually totally dry by the time your dryer is finished tumbling the inserts. I love that.
- When you’re finished, you’ll want some way to organize your diapers. A basket, a bag to carry them from the dryer/line to changing table, or multiple baskets for inserts and covers. I use a reusable shopping bag to carry them around, at least ideally. Here’s what usually happens in reality:
So clearly, don’t take all my advice. I knew if I didn’t figure out a good system right away, I’d end up doing this, but I didn’t…so I did. Oops. Someday I’ll get baskets and everything will look nice, but for now, I’m just trying to keep up on the laundry and sorting every two days!
Dealing with Poo for the Baby on Solids
Actually, poop is the most daunting and boot-shaking part of cloth diapers for most people. Breastmilk poop is easy; I highly recommend starting cloth early on just to take advantage of that fact.
Once baby is really eating solids, you need to deal with poop differently, or you’ll have little pieces of carrot that have been through your baby’s digestive system, well washed, on your clean diapers. Ask me how I know that.
I am just barely entering this phase (see carrots, above), so I don’t know much, but from what I gather, you’ve got about four options for dealing with this poop.
- Tip the solids into the toilet and swish the diaper in the water, then drop it immediately into a wet bag (which is of course, now, actually wet). This one scares me and I think it sound gross and fraught with poop splashing problems. I have tried it once. There were problems I’m trying to block out from my memory, so we won’t be describing them here.
- Install a sprayer, like the ones at a kitchen sink, onto your toilet hose and use that to spray the solids off the diaper. I’ve heard more than one story of people who say that if it weren’t for this little gadget, they would not have lasted cloth diapering. I like the idea of no dunking, but I’m still a bit worried about my propensity to splash things and make messes…I can’t decide if I want a sprayer or not. UPDATE 9/12: I decided against it, for good.
- Use flushable liners, available from multiple brands. Some readers tell me that you can wash and reuse the Imse Vimse brand if you just have a wet diaper change, so you don’t go through that many, and it’s worth it. My next Amazon order, I’m getting some, no joke.
- UPDATE 9/12: I’ve been using the Imse Vimse liners for a few months now, and I do recommend them. They’re still not simple and “one more thing” to remember during a diaper change. Invariably Murphy’s Law of Babies applies and every time I forget the liner, John poops. Here’s what I’ve learned about the liners:
- You just lay them in. They don’t fit exactly and they do scoot around while baby moves, but they’re better than nothing.
- They do not protect the diapers/inserts from stains, not at all.
- They won’t catch everything most of the time, so you still want your scraper (see no. 4), but a liner definitely reduces the time spent hovering over the toilet, and when you’re out and about they really simplify things.
- Yes, you CAN reuse them. Just throw in the bag with the diaper when they’re just wet, let them go through the wash and hang to dry.
- The trickiest ironic part? The inserts are the biggest hassle to remember/pack/use when you’re away from home, yet that’s when they’re most helpful, since your poopy spatula doesn’t usually come with you in the diaper bag. It’s gross, but the only way I’ve been able to get solids off the diaper while out (other than the blessed liners!) is to tap/scrape at the poo with the wipe. Yuck. The other option is to wait until you get home to deal with it, but if it’s more than an hour or two, that’s a pretty gross proposition as well.
- Use a dedicated spatula to scrape solids into the toilet. Put dry, scraped diaper into wet bag…which is still dry. This is what I’m doing so far:
Classy, right? I just shared a photo of the stuff next to my toilet with the entire world. There is no shame in cloth diapering…
I grabbed a 50-cent spatula at Goodwill that will never do anything but diaper duty. I scrape and swish the spatula in the potty. It’s not all that pleasant nor simple, but so far, I don’t have too much staining on the diapers, and no more “clean” carrots coming out of the washing machine.
UPDATE 9/12: The staining is out of control over here. Real food poops have wreaked havoc on our diapers! Sunshine does a world of good but still can’t fix some of the worst offenders.
It’s vital to remember here that this task, technically, isn’t exclusive to cloth. Read any disposable diaper box and you’ll see the note about putting solid waste in the sewer system, not the landfills. Poop doesn’t belong in landfills, but every disposable diaper-er I know (including my former self) just wraps it up and throws it away. They’re supposed to dump it out anyway.
My husband watched me scrape poop once and said, “This. This is what would be the last straw for me and we’d be back to disposables.” Bummer, I thought, I guess the poop duty is up to me for the next two years… I’m hoping he’ll be more amenable to the flushable liners…
UPDATE 9/12: 95% of the time, my husband deals with poop like this: “Dear, there’s a poopy diaper on the counter in the bathroom.” 😉
Any suggestions for me about this new phase?
What About Diaper Cream?
Don’t use your diaper cream on cloth diapers before checking out the ingredients. Many creams can begin to coat the diapers, making the absorbent parts repel liquid instead. That causes big leaks and big problems. I know the cream from Earth Mama Angel Baby is approved for cloth diapers, as are some other natural brands.
I can’t quite pin down whether MadeOn‘s zinc-based cream is okay. Some sources say zinc itself is a repelling problem, but many, many cloth diapering moms have used the cream and report no problems. Renee of MadeOn and I are theorizing that perhaps the zinc in many mainstream creams is pegged as the bad part, when really, it’s some other ingredient in the tube. ??? Hopefully, cloth diapered babies have less diaper rash than others, so they won’t need as much cream, period. For basic protection and minor redness that isn’t too bad, straight coconut oil, kept in a special jar on the changing table, is a wonderful option. Zinc oxide is really a good help for those tougher rashes – you can even make your own with a DIY kit.
I do use Redmond Clay‘s baby powder, which is in a handy shaker bottle and totally safe for baby and cloth diapers. It’s just bentonite clay, which helps keep baby’s bottom dry. I don’t use it with every change, just occasionally if he seems really wet (like in the morning) or is getting a little irritated.
Troubleshooting Cloth Diapers
Problems with cloth often include stinky diapers, poo staying on through the wash, and the worst: leaking on the clothes. Here are a few ideas, but mostly, I still don’t know enough to be considered an expert!i
- For leaks, give it time. For real, many diaper inserts take 10 times to get up to snuff. Be forgiving the first few weeks…
- Try snapping up one side or the other on one-size diapers – sometimes you can get a better fit around the legs by snapping one snap or the other, and it doesn’t feel lopsided to baby.
- Use a different material insert – hemp/cotton and bamboo absorb much differently than microfiber. I like these for extra stuffing.
- Experiment with different detergent and different amounts – an ammonia smell usually means you need more detergent.
- Use more water in the laundry.
- Add a 15-30 minute soak in the washing machine.
- Use the sunshine to “bleach” out the diapers.
- A very helpful post: Simple Effective Ways to Disinfect Cloth Diapers
- Another very helpful post, all about diaper laundry: The 5 Variables of Washing
- Soak inserts (not covers) in oxygen bleach and hot water, for maybe 24 hours or so.
- You may need to “strip” your diapers if they’re super stinky after washing OR are repelling liquids because of diaper cream, for example. Sometimes stripping means soaking in oxygen bleach or detergent water, sometimes it means adding baking soda or vinegar to a wash cycle (not both) without detergent, sometimes it means boiling your diapers. I haven’t had to do this (yet), so I must refer you elsewhere! I am getting a bit of a smell lately after John tinkles once, so I’m thinking I’ll have to strip eventually.
- UPDATE 9/12: Ugh, definitely have to strip diapers. I’m thinking of trying an oxygen bleach soak in the washer or 12-24 hours and then if I have to, I’ll boil up the inserts in my canning pot. Yuck. Not looking forward to that!
- UPDATE 5/2013: 5 Cloth Diaper Problems that Haven’t Sent Me Running Back to Disposables (and One That Might) — supporting the cause still one year later, along with some laundry problems you’ll want to know about
Break it Down for Me: What Exactly do I Need to Get Started?
Technically, one diaper and some natural laundry detergent. I got started with 5 in my stash and used extra liners and some old burp rags and got through about a day before doing laundry, just filling in with disposables. You just balance with disposables as you’re transitioning, and it works! Every cloth diaper you use is one less ‘sposie in the trash, you know?
It’s nice to start easy and give yourself permission to go half-and-half, but I’m sure it’s also great to jump right in. To CD a newborn (or older breastfed baby) full time, you should probably have:
- about 2 dozen diapers, or equivalent with covers that can be reused (8-10 covers plus 2 dozen liners? I’m guessing here…)
- somewhere to put them – if that’s a wet bag, great, if it’s a dry garbage can that you’ll wash out if necessary, cool, if it’s a plastic grocery bag, make it work for you.
- something to wash them with – I’m currently using Rockin’ Green, soap nuts have done fine, 7th Generation is on the ropes, and My Green Fills (formerly Selestial Soap) is a maybe. Lots of people use homemade laundry detergent with borax, Country Save, or many small brands sold with cloth diapers. I really haven’t done much research here, but know that once you get the water amount and system correct, many detergents should work fine with your water (but not necessarily all of them…).
- something to wipe the bum with – mine are T-shirts cut up. You do not need anything fancy!
- when baby starts more solid poops, you might need something to help out – see details above. Again, I spent 50 cents. Keep it simple if you want to save money.
Will cloth diapering save me money? As far as the bottom line goes (pun intended), I used to spend $30/mo. on Target diapers. I’m sure it would be more nowadays, plus double that for newborns. So if you go with Econobum’s $100 claim and no fancy accessories, you are ahead with cloth after 4-5 months (guessing at cost of washing).
I am far from an expert, but I hope the perspective of a rookie is helpful and fresh. (Now…what did I miss?)
Disclosure: I received products for my review, and I am an Amazon affiliate. I am also an affiliate of the eBook and will receive commission for purchases. See my full disclosure statement here.