Cloth Diapers 101: How to Get Started

How to get started with cloth diapers

The decision to cloth diaper is easy for some. But if you are like me, there are a million questions that need to be answered first!

Cloth diapering today is so different from the way our grandmothers did it. I have talked to many women who remember cloth diapering as a burdensome task that they were not sorry to see go with the dawn of “paper diapers.”

Thankfully, cloth diapers are nothing like they used to be! We have high-tech washing machines, advanced fabrics and designs, and a wealth of information via the Internet to aid us in the task. I also know that cloth diapering is not for everyone, so check out the bottom of the post for some eco-friendly disposable diaper options.

Why Cloth Diaper?

I have to confess… for everything else I do that is natural and organic, I was late getting on the cloth diapering bandwagon… and I’m kicking myself for it now.

For our first two children, I used disposables and didn’t think anything of it. I thought cloth diapering was a thing that our mothers and grandmothers did because they didn’t have a choice, and the horror stories of wringing out diapers in the toilet and endless loads of laundry had no appeal to me!

A couple of years and several of kids later, I decided to revisit the diapering subject, at the suggestion of some close friends (thanks ladies!).

Somewhat hesitantly, I decided to try cloth diapering and quickly found that I LOVE it!

Here are my top reasons I’m glad I made the switch:

  • There are now MUCH better options for cloth diapering than when our mothers and grandmothers were doing it.
  • There are a LOT of chemicals in traditional diapers. (You think that magic gel stuff that absorbs 100 times its weight in urine is natural?)
  • Cloth diapers (even the top-of-the-line ones) save money, especially if you have more than one child.
  • Cloth diapering can actually be easy!
  • The new cloth diapers are CUTE!
  • They actually leak much less than disposables. I only had a couple of leaks, ever, and no outfits ruined by yellow baby poop!
  • There are many brands of adjustable cloth diapers that can grow with baby from birth to potty training, so it saves space and shopping.
  • They hold their value, so you can sell them to someone else when your children are out of diapers and get much of your investment back, if you take good care of them.

Benefits of Cloth Diapering

If you haven’t considered cloth diapering, I’d definitely recommend looking into it! These are some of the reasons why I (finally) got on board:

Reduces Exposure to Chemicals

The biggest benefit, in my opinion, is that you are reducing baby’s exposure to chemicals. Disposables are plastic and contain chlorine, polyacrylate, and other chemicals that haven’t been proven safe for use on anyone, especially babies!

Saves Money (& the Landfills)

From a financial perspective, I’ve read that each child costs about $2,000 to diaper and can contribute about 600,000 diapers to the landfills. You can get a couple dozen really high quality (even organic) cloth diapers for under $500 and they can last through several children if you take care of them.

If money is really tight, it is even possible to completely cloth diaper from birth to potty training for around $100. (Some people spend that a month for disposables!)

Fewer Rashes and Leaks

Another huge benefit that I’ve noticed is my kids who I’ve cloth diapered have gotten NO diaper rashes, which even with a good diet were a regular thing with disposables. With my first baby, I found within a week that Huggies diapers created an awful rash, and most generic brands did too. Pampers were ok, but of course, more expensive.

In fact, on rare occasions when I have used a disposable, I still put a cloth diaper cover on over the disposable because they are so much more effective at containing messes.

One downside is that you can’t use diaper cream (unless you make it yourself) with cloth diapers, but I haven’t needed it!

Helps Potty Training

Another benefit is that children often potty train earlier in cloth diapers because (a) they are more aware of the wetness and connect the sensation faster and (b) mom gets tired of washing out the diapers and is more motivated to potty train. (Ahem…)

So (Stinkin’) Cute!

Seriously, cloth diapers work just like disposables and are so much cuter! There are even artist series “designer” diapers! Mix and match colors and patterns to your heart’s delight.

Meet the New and Improved Cloth Diaper

Diapering has evolved tremendously over the years. Imagine in ancient times when babies were wrapped in leaves and animal skins… women had almost no alternatives when it came to diapering their children and were at the mercy of what limited resources they had on hand. Today, mothers have countless options to choose from and cloth diapers have become very easy to use and care for.

And did I mention how cute they are now? You won’t want to put pants on them!

In the last 20 years have brought big changes to cloth diapers:

  • Improved materials – Plastic pull-on covers have been replaced by PUL (polyurethane laminate) or wool. (Surprised wool makes a good diaper cover? This article explains why.)
  • Better design – Square, flat muslin diapers have been replaced by fitted styles with snap or hook and loop closures.
  • More absorbency – We’ve come a long way from leaves and animal skins! Thick cotton and microfiber get the job done. Cloth diapers last several hours and even through the night with extra liners.
  • Elastic in the leg area – Gone are the days of leaky, messy babies. I have found that I have almost no blow-outs (you know what kind I am talking about) with cloth.

There is also more support than ever for those who choose cloth diapers. If you don’t have local friends who are cloth diapering and can lend support like I do, there are online support communities where you can find reviews, laundry help, special offers, and even people selling their gently used cloth diapers.

Which Cloth Diapers Are Best? Things to Consider

As I mentioned, cloth diapering is a whole new world from when our mothers did it and there are so many kinds and brands to choose from. There are a few things to consider before you begin your research that will aid your decision-making process:

  1. Your primary reason for cloth diapers (cost, health, environment, cute patterns)
  2. Your budget (because once you start looking you will want to buy them all!)
  3. How far into the future you plan to use them (one child, multiple children, etc.)
  4. The kind of environment baby will be in (at home, daycare, amount of travel, etc.)

Thinking these points through at the get-go will help narrow down the pool of options and make it easier to choose.

It’s not necessary to stick to only one brand of cloth diapers and may say there are benefits to having different brands for different stages. I have gone back and forth between having a diverse collection and wanting everything exactly the same for ease of use, washing, and storage.

Since I was late to the cloth diapering game I’m certainly not an expert, but I’ve found a few tips that have helped along the way.

Cloth Diapering Options

I know my favorite cloth diaper, but if you’re new to cloth diapering and would like to know what’s out there, here’s the run-down:

Flats and Prefolds Style ($)

The basic cotton diaper/cover system is still widely used and I have several friends who say it works quite well. Flats and prefolds (essentially flats that are “pre-folded” for you) are easy to wash and are very inexpensive. Paired with a collection of one-size covers, the big benefit to flats and prefolds is it makes it possible to cloth diaper for around $100. ($100 on diapers, ever?? Incredible.)

This style is not as good at containing messes and there is a learning curve with the different folding techniques, but they do dry quickly which is a huge plus in energy savings. These basic cotton diapers require a PUL or wool cover like the ones mentioned above. If you are looking for an affordable, healthy way to diaper your baby, this is a good option.

Fitted Diaper Style ($$)

Another diaper/cover style is the fitted. It works like the flat in that it needs a cover, but the diaper itself is fitted to the baby with a contoured shape and elastic legs. This can also be an economical system that is a bit easier to use than the flat diaper because there is no folding involved. Fitted diapers also do a better job than flats at keeping the poo in. Many of them also come in cute colors with decorative touches to up the cuteness factor.

Pocket Style ($$)

The pocket style is my personal favorite. They consist of an outer, waterproof shell with a stay-dry inner fabric that is sewn together to form a pocket. The pocket is then “stuffed” with an absorbent liner, usually microfiber or cotton. The legs are elastic and they have a built-in closure system so there is no pinning required. Diapers like BumGenius and FuzziBuns are shaped just like a disposable diaper. More recent designs use a snap closure both to keep the diaper on and to let the diaper out and make it larger as the baby grows.

The only downside I can think of to pocket style diapers is they are slightly time-consuming because they must be stuffed after they are washed, but this is really no big deal.

While I always went for solid colors, there is no shortage of cute patterns and decorative styles in this category.

Cloth diaper size comparison

Hybrid Pocket System ($$)

The hybrid system, as the name suggests, is a mix of two different styles. The constant component is the cover. From there you have an option to use either a fabric liner, similar to what is put into the pocket in a pocket diaper, or a disposable liner (usually biodegradable and often organic) that is thrown away when it is soiled. Flip by BumGenuis and gDiapers are examples of hybrid systems. If you use the cloth liners these can be very affordable but the disposable liners can be pricey.

All-In-One System ($$$)

All-in-one (AIO) diapers are by far the simplest to use. They are similar to a pocket but the absorbent liner is permanently attached and does not need to be stuffed. AIO diapers are great for dads and daycare because they are most similar to a disposable. They can be pricey since you are getting all the parts of the diaper in one piece. Another drawback is that they do take longer to dry because all the layers of absorbency are sewn in.

Like the pocket diapers, most AIO diapers are super cute and decorative with a lot of personality in the patterns, which is fun. You can even get them in organic cotton.

What I Use

We have a mix of BumGenius, Fuzzibunz, and GroBabys (which is now GroVia). I loved the simplicity of my GroBabys but they leak a bit more. Over all, I prefer the BumGenius and Fuzzibunz. Fuzzibunz are especially great for the teeny tiny newborn stage.

How Many Diapers to Buy?

With a diaper/cover system or a hybrid system, I would recommend 24-36 diapers with 6 covers for the infant stage and 18-24 diapers with 4 covers for a toddler. With a pocket system or AIO, 24-36 is good. Remember, the more diapers you have in your rotation, the less washing and wearing each one receives, therefore the longer they will last. I have at least 48 diapers in my stash and I have been able to use my diapers for more than one child.

So, for example, if you plan to wash every 3 days and your infant will need to be changed every 3 hours, you will need at least 24 diapers. Be sure to buy a few more than you figure because you don’t want to be stuck without a diaper while the others are washing. Basically, determine how many diapers your child wears in a 24 hour period and multiply it by however many days you will go between washing. And keep in mind that cloth diapers need to be changed slightly more frequently than disposable diapers.

Cloth Diaper Accessories

You really don’t need many accessories when you use cloth diapers. Some things you might need include:

Some other items that are not necessary but make things easier are a diaper sprayer and a few biodegradable liners for easy poo removal.

How to Store and Wash Cloth Diapers

Once you have your stash, how do you use and care for cloth diapers? It’s easy to learn, I promise… let’s walk through it step by step.

Diaper Pail Options

A clean-smelling home is definitely important, but today’s diaper pails do a great job of keeping soiled diaper odors 100% contained.

Option 1: Wet Pail. There are differing opinions on how to store soiled cloth diapers that are waiting to be washed. Some store in a wet pail, meaning the diapers are placed in a pail of water so they can soak until wash day. I have never done this. It was not practical for me because I have a front-loading washer and I couldn’t figure out how to load the diapers in without flooding nasty water all over the floor. I also felt uncomfortable with the dangers of having a pail of dirty diaper water in my home with little ones running around. So I opted for the dry pail method.

Option 2: Dry Pail. The dry pail method is essentially a medium-sized trash can lined with an old pillowcase. I usually placed a lid on my pail to keep mischievous toddlers out, but in the past I have left the lid off which I discovered allows the diapers to dry a bit and they become less stinky. You can also line your pail with a large waterproof pail liner or even use it alone if you prefer.

Since my days of cloth diapering, they now make diaper pails designed specifically for cloth diapers (my friends rave about this one) and they even have PUL waterproof diaper pail liners in adorable colors and designs. What will they think of next?!

What to Do With Soiled Diapers

Wet diapers can go straight into the pail as can all diapers from exclusively breastfed babies. Soiled diapers from formula-fed babies and those children who have started solids will need to be scraped or sprayed off into the toilet before they are tossed in the pail.

Before you get grossed out and stop reading, did you know that disposable diaper packages also ask you to shake solids off into the toilet? I was surprised to find this out, but now I use this bit of information as a response to people who tell me cloth diapers are yucky (like my husband!). Diaper sprayers are very helpful with removing solids and you can usually just turn the diaper inside out and give it a few shakes.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

It is advisable to wash diapers every 2-3 days to prevent them from getting overly smelly. What is the best way, you ask?

There are probably as many unique wash routines as there are women cloth diapering their little ones. There are so many factors that come into play when determining what works best for you and your diapers, including water composition, types of diapers, the age of your child, what your child is eating, what kind of washer you have, laundry detergent, and on and on. All of these play a role and it may take a bit of trial and error to get it right.

While my babies are exclusively breastfed my wash routine is very simple:

  • Pre-rinse diapers on cold.
  • Wash on a hot, delicate cycle (the delicate cycle uses more water in my machine) with a quarter of the recommended amount of a free and clear detergent. Country Save has been my favorite although I have used others that I can get locally.
  • Wash again, but this time without soap to give diapers a thorough rinse.
  • Dry in the sun on a clothesline (preferable for getting stains out) or hang covers on a rack to air-dry and dry everything else on medium heat.

It is also wise to thoroughly read the washing advice given by the manufacturer of the diapers you purchase as some may not recommend drying certain diapers or covers. They may also have tips for washing their diapers that will help reduce any build-up or unnecessary wear and tear.

Cloth Diapering: Frequently Asked Questions

Chances are you may still have a few questions… here are some of the ones I’ve gotten most frequently over the years:

Can I Still Use Diaper Cream?

With cloth diapers, babies rarely get diaper rash. If your baby were to get a rash, it is important to choose a diaper cream without any fish oil in it. I experimented once with diaper cream to see why this was not advised and it turns out the fish oil smell NEVER goes away! Take my word for it. Straight coconut oil works wonders on little bottoms and is safe for cloth diapers. (You can also try a homemade recipe like this one and omit the fish oils).

Seriously… Do I Have to Touch Poop?

Well, first of all, if you’re a mom the answer is probably yes, at some point! I get the hesitation though when it comes to cloth diapering.

See, as much as I understood the benefits and how much healthier cloth diapers are, I knew that about the time that the poop really started to get nasty and needed to be washed out in the toilet, I’d probably be pregnant. And morning sickness combined with sticking my hands in the toilet to wring out diaper…. not happening.

Learning I could use a diaper sprayer like this one is what actually convinced me to cloth diaper. Basically, it is a sprayer that hooks into the clean water supply on your toilet (before it goes into the toilet) and uses a high-powered stream of water to clean the diaper without having to touch any poop.

If you are exclusively breastfeeding, you don’t even have to wash out the diapers (even poop!) at all until you start giving baby solids. Once baby is on solids, in a few months his or her poop becomes solid enough to dump into the toilet without even using a sprayer. So the icky stage is very short-lived.

Won’t It Get on My Other Laundry?

Nope! You can clean your washing machine occasionally for good measure, but since the majority of the poop is flushed down the toilet, the hot water and soap cycle takes care of the rest.

More Questions?

If you are considering cloth diapers but are hesitant to take the plunge, there are great online communities where veteran moms are available and more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

If Cloth Diapering is Not for You…

As I said, while cloth diapers can be an excellent way to save money and avoid exposing baby’s delicate skin to chlorine and other harsh chemicals, they aren’t the best choice for all moms. Even for our family, I’ve used disposables at times, especially when we are traveling or if there are other factors that make it difficult to use cloth.

Thankfully, just as cloth diaper options have come a long way in recent years, so have disposable. There are now options for chlorine and plastic-free biodegradable diapers and they aren’t much more expensive than name-brand disposable diapers. These are my favorite disposable option, but there are several other great choices available as well.

Have you ever thought about using cloth diapers? If you already use them, what is your favorite type?

Cloth Diapers- how to get started

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