Cloth diapering: why? what? how?
By Christine, Minnesota Director
As soon as I found out I was pregnant (OK, that’s a lie, it was even before), I started to research anything and everything that had to do with babies. I looked into birth options and classes, health decisions, and baby gear. Oh man, there is a lot to think about when you have a baby coming! I wanted to make safe choices, and I also wanted to save money. I quickly learned that one HUGE way to save money is to use cloth diapers instead of disposables. We planned to have a few kids, and I learned that a good set of diapers should last for 2-3 babies. I quickly fell in love with the idea of "fluff" (washable diapers) instead of the standard throw-away diapers. I mean, let’s face it, disposable diapers ARE garbage. If you have decided that using cloth diapers might be right for your family, this is for you! I’ll give you the why, how, what on cloth diapers so you can get started. Be careful though, it can become an addiction. ;) The styles and prints that exist now are just so awesome, that you might get obsessed with buying them all!
The first reason I chose cloth diapers was the savings – there are 2 costs with cloth: buying the diapers and laundering the diapers. Some diaper websites estimate that if you use their diapers instead of disposables, you will pay only about 10% of what you would have spent on disposables. That might be a little too good to be true, but even if the number is 25% or 50% of the cost of disposables, that is a great savings. Beyond what you would save using them for one baby, reusing the diapers for a second (or more!) child is even better! Since you already purchased the diapers, you only have the cost of washing them. This blog includes a handy chart with their family’s cost of cloth vs. the cost of disposables.
Another reason to use cloth is that it’s a way to care for our earth. Humans consume a lot of stuff, and we throw most of it away when we are done. Our family is careful to recycle whatever we can, reuse as much as possible, and buy things that are just less wasteful. I know that my 3 children using cloth doesn't make a huge difference in the grand scheme of trash in the landfills, but it's what I can do. Yes, you do use more water because you wash them, but water and energy are needed to manufacture disposables also. Since they are used hundreds of times before landing in the garbage, cloth diapers are definitely the "greener" choice.
Finally, I love that cloth diapers are free from potentially-dangerous chemicals. The skin is the body's largest organ, and absorbs things that are put on it. Diaper makers say the chemicals are no problem and have been proven to be harmless - I like to play it safe and avoid them as much as I can.
So, what to buy? What are the best diapers to use? What are the easiest, the cheapest, or the cutest? I’m sorry to say, this boils down to individual preference, and there is no one answer that fits every family. I will describe for you the main categories and options so that you can decide what you would like to use. My advice is to buy 1 or 2 of a few different things and try them out. Some parents love to use prefolds, and some will only buy pocket diapers. Each style has its advantages, and you just need to check them out. If you have a friend who is using cloth diapers, ask them to show you the different things they have so you can get a sense of what you will like.
Prefolds and Flats
A prefold diaper looks like this, and comes in many sizes. I had prefold diapers in every size. "Newborn" were great for that tiny infant stage (2 of my babies were under 7 pounds). "Infant" and "Regular" were the ones I used the most, and I did buy some "Toddler" large ones toward the end. A flat diaper is very similar, but it's just one large square that you fold into various sizes and shapes. Both of these diapers require a second part, an outer shell or cover, as they are absorbent but not waterproof. This is the old-fashioned kind of diaper that your grandmother pinned onto her babies. Now there is a great invention called a Snappi which holds the diaper in place under the cover. However, the covers are so well-designed, you can just lay the prefold or flat diaper inside the cover and fasten it. If you go this route, you need about 20-30 of them, and about 5-8 covers, depending on how often you want to do laundry. The covers can be used for several changes as long as they don’t get poop on them. You just drop the wet/dirty prefold or flat into the diaper pail and lay a new one into the cover. I only wash the cover if it gets poop on it, or if I have used it all day. My favorite covers are Flip (one size fits all), Tiny Tush (sized and one-size covers) and Thirsties (sized and Duos which fit two sizes). Another option for covers is wool! You may not realize that wool is very absorbent and works to hold in moisture. I never used them, but I found this great article for anyone who wants to learn more about wool diapers, covers, and clothing.
Pocket diapers are a diaper cover with a pocket sewn on top where you stuff absorbent pads (microfiber, hemp, bamboo, cotton, or fleece) or even a prefold diaper. You can customize the absorbency based on the age/output of the baby. You have to own a good number of these diapers since the whole thing gets dirty each time. The advantage is that they are much easier to use, especially for someone who is new to cloth diapering. It's basically like putting on a disposable, just don’t let anyone throw it away! For these you would need 20-30, again depending on how often you wash them. A very popular type of pocket diapers is the BumGenius brand. They work well, but I also buy a cheaper version called Kawaii. They are around $7 each and the quality is very good, especially the elastic. Many work-at-home-moms make these pocket diapers in a stunning variety of patterns. This is the place where diapers can cross from a functional tool into a hobby and even an addiction! You might be able to find a diaper representing your favorite team, beverage, TV show, video game, or cause!
All-In-One (or AIO)
An All-In-One diaper has the absorbent pads sewn onto the waterproof shell. They are usually loose on one end so that they will flap around and get fully clean in the wash. These might be the most convenient style since you don’t have to piece them together like you would a prefold and cover, and you don’t have to stuff them as you would a pocket diaper. You need a large number of these, just like pocket diapers.
All-In-Two (or AI2)
An All-In-Two diaper is very similar to using a prefold and a cover, but it has a little more design and thought put into it. The outer covers have snaps or other holders, and the absorbent pads fit in just right. These are very versatile. If you own several different things and you run out of either your covers or your absorbent pads, you can easily swap in a plain cover or a different absorbent material like a prefold to get by. You can buy these in similar numbers as you would prefolds and covers.
These diapers are a full absorbent material that snaps around the baby. They require a waterproof cover. They are like having a prefold with wings and fasteners built in. Fitteds can be great for staying in place and for soaking up a lot (they are often used overnight because they absorb so well), but they are not easier to use than a pocket or All in one.
Cloth diapers come in two types of closures - snaps and velcro (also called "hook and loop"). Velcro is quicker to use (just like a disposable), but it wears out and gets clogged with fuzz. You can replace Velcro if you have basic sewing skills and keep those diapers going even longer. Snaps are a little trickier to do, but they work very well and last a long time. Also, if you have a kid who likes to take off their diaper, snaps are harder for them to undo. I buy snaps when I can, but all my velcro covers lasted pretty well considering how many times they have been used and washed.
Both the diapers (prefolds, fitteds, pockets, etc.) and the covers come in a variety of sizes. Some brands or systems make “one-size” diapers. These usually are the size of a toddler, but have a set of snaps or some hidden drawstrings that let you fold or scrunch the diaper down to a newborn size. Other brands make each size from XS to XL. Some brands take a middle road with 2 sizes that shrink or grow with snaps – they have a size that is small but covers XS and S, and then a second size that covers M and L. This is another reason why I think it’s great to buy a few things from a few different brands and styles, and test out what fits your baby the best. A chunky baby might fit into the one-size (snapped down to small) right away, while a tiny baby might need to start with XS sized diapers because the one-size is still too big.
This is the day-to-day routine part that you will develop over time. You will need a place to store your dirty diapers. I have a kitchen size garbage can with a lid that flips up. Inside is a pail liner wet bag that is waterproof. Alternatively, some people store them with no lid as the fresh air can help keep the smell down. You could use a laundry basket or a bucket for this, but be sure no kids or pets can get to it. Every 3-4 days I take the whole thing out, and dump everything into the washing machine. I do a rinse, then a wash on hot water, and one extra rinse. I line dry them when possible, just to save on energy costs, or tumble dry on low. That’s all you have to do, and they are ready for another round! One very helpful item to have is a diaper sprayer. It attaches to the water line of your toilet, and you use it to spray any solid poop off so that it doesn’t sit in the diaper pail and stink or swish around in the wash making it harder to get everything clean. I did not use it at all when my babies were only nursing – breastfed poop is very water-soluble and just rinses away. But I always used it to get the food (solid) poop off before throwing the diaper into the pail. Diaper sprayers can be bought on any cloth diapering store, but you don't have to buy one at full price. Search for a used one, try a bidet sprayer from a home store, or check out this DIY tutorial for making one with cheaper parts.
Starting out, you may need to "prep" your diapers before using them. Fabric right off the sewing line is stiff and not yet absorbent. The diapers should come with instructions on how many times you need to pre-wash and dry (prep) them before they are ready to be used. Contact the diaper maker if you are not sure, or if you feel your diapers are not working correctly. After lots of use, frequent washes in hard water, or contact with diaper cream or fabric softener, diapers may need to be stripped (washed extra well) to get off any build-up. Click here for more info on stripping.
So, here's the dirty fact: cloth diapers are more work and they are a little gross. You need to wash off poop, and you will be storing diapers that smell a little funky (the trash can with the lid is really the right choice here). But as parents, we deal with poop and other delightful bodily fluids anyway. It's just a matter of being willing to touch it on a regular basis in exchange for the other benefits of cloth diapering. My husband and I got used to it and we handle it just fine (most days!), and thousands of cloth diapering families will tell you that it gets to be just part of the routine. I am very happy that we bought and used cloth diapers. If you decide to use them, join a cloth diaper group where you can ask questions. Parents who use fluff are often quite passionate about it, and love to answer questions for newbies.
- How many diapers do I need? It depends on how often you want to wash the diapers. You will want at least 3 days worth, so 25-30 if you use pockets, AIOs or AI2s. If you use a cover with prefolds or fitteds, get 25-30 of the absorbent part and 5-8 of the covers. If you have extras, you can go another day or two without washing, but the smell will grow. Three days is ideal for most situations.
- Do I need special soap? Yes, you want to use soap that is safe for cloth diapers (some detergents will build up and cause them to stop soaking up liquid). There are many brands from which you can choose, and some soaps are specifically designed to go with hard water, soft water, etc. Click here for a complete list. Avoid fabric softener, as that causes cloth diapers to lose absorbency.
- Can I use cloth diapers right away after birth? Some parents take their cloth diapers to the hospital, or put them on immediately after a home birth. Remember that a baby’s first few poops will be meconium which is very dark and sticky and sometimes leaves a stain. You can also put a flushable liner down to catch most/all of the meconium poop and use them later on for poopy diapers. We chose to just use the disposables that the hospital offered, and then we switched to cloth after the baby’s umbilical stump fell off. That is because most cloth diapers have a high rise, and the ones we had purchased pressed on our baby’s belly button area. Some newborn diapers take this into account with a cut out for the belly button, so look into those if you want to start immediately.
- Can my son wear cloth diapers right after getting circumcised? A circumcision on a baby boy is a surgery that creates an open wound that can bleed or even ooze for days afterward. Doctors recommend that parents put Vaseline on a circumcision wound for at least a week, and some recommend up to 6 months, to prevent painful adhesions from forming. The great news is that circumcision is completely unnecessary! Every baby boy is born with a foreskin that protects the glans (head) of his penis from poop and germs and is a beneficial body part for him throughout his whole life. Keeping him intact is completely safe, natural, and beneficial. There is no need for any special care or Vaseline (very bad for cloth diapers), and the diapers will be just fine.
- What about travel? Many dedicated families take their cloth diapers on vacation. You can use a waterproof bag with a zipper, or a plastic tub that has a lid to store them. You would need to either wash them at your destination or find a laundromat along the way. However, you may decide that it is simpler to buy one pack of disposables to get through a road trip or a stay with relatives. Either way can work if you want it to.
- Can I use diaper cream if my baby has a rash? Some diaper creams and also Vaseline are not safe for cloth diapers. They stick to the surface and build up instead of washing out, and the diaper can lose its ability to absorb. But there are many options made with gentle ingredients that will not harm your diapers. Click here for a list of diaper creams.
- If I'm using re-usable diapers, why not wipes? Why not indeed! Many cloth diaper retailers also sell wipes. You can spray them with water, wipe the baby, and then toss them right into the diaper laundry.
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