I never considered using anything but cloth diapers, so this isn’t a post about how I like them (fine!) so much as a how-to for anyone who’d like to try them.
This tutorial will not include pictures of Sam in the different types of diapers. You can thank internet predators for that. If I know you, I will be happy to share pictures — just ask. I will be posting pictures of just the diapers (no baby) in a separate post, along with a list of resources. This post is already the longest blog post of all time at almost 3000 words. (If you want to skip to the previous post, it is right here and has just 26 words and a picture.)
Cloth diapers save money and are good for the environment. For a couple hundred dollars you can own enough diapers to last through multiple children; putting one child in disposables costs thousands of dollars. Plus, disposables stay in landfills for at least 500 years. Any concern about the water used to wash cloth diapers or the energy used to make them should be mitigated by the fact that Shakespeare’s disposables (had they been available back then) would still not have decomposed. Not to mention the horrible health risks associated with disposing of fecal matter anywhere but the toilet.
There are also studies that show that disposables are bad for babies. In fact, a diaper manufacturer conducted a study that proved that with the use of their diapers, incidence of diaper rash went up from about 7% to 60%. You can read more about the health risks of disposables here.
There are options. SO MANY OPTIONS.
Flats and prefolds
Our grandmothers were limited to flat diapers, which are huge squares of birdseye fabric that must be folded (and folded and folded) until they fit around a baby’s bottom. Our parents were limited to flat diapers or prefolds, which are rectangles of cotton sewn into multiple layers, thicker in the center, and are usually folded in three, placed around baby’s bottom, and then splayed at either end to go around the baby’s waist. Both of these options require pinning, though you do have the option now to use a snappi (which replaces pins) or just lay the diaper, folded in three, into a wrap cover (these were not an option thirty years ago — they just had pull-on plastic pants or wool soakers, which I’ll get to later) and fasten the wrap around the baby. I don’t like that option because the cover gets soiled faster and the diaper doesn’t really stay put. However, everyone should obviously use the method they’re comfortable with and that works on their baby. Some of the ways to fold a prefold are described here. Prefolds come in three sizes: preemie (teensy!), infant (still just barely fits Sam) and regular/premium. The diapers are described with a series of numbers, such as 4-8-4. This means there are four layers of fabric on each side and eight layers in the center panel.
Prefolds cost around $1-2 each. When I was pregnant I bought 3 dozen used infant prefolds on ebay for $25 and we still use them daily. If you prefer to buy them new, many shops have package deals (this is a good one). The Gerber prefolds you can buy anywhere are total crap, but make great burp cloths.
Fitteds are shaped more like disposables and fasten with either velcro or snaps. They are not waterproof and require a cover. They’re great if you want to let the baby run around without any plastic on his body, but don’t want to let him run totally naked. We used fitted diapers primarily for the first few months. We liked them better than prefolds because they’re super-easy and were more absorbent. Sam pees A LOT and hates being wet, which was a challenge — we changed his diaper every five minutes for a long time.
We use Very Baby fitteds which my mom sews for us. If you do not have my mom, there are many WAHMs (work at home moms) licensed to sell Very Baby diapers, and there are several other brands to choose from as well. We also have some Lovey Bums and Mudpies which are great (very absorbent) but I do not love the way they fasten (you’ll find that’s very much a matter of your preference and your baby’s shape).
Fitted diapers often require a doubler, or booster, which is an absorbent piece of fabric, often contour shaped, that you lay into the diaper. The booster being separate makes the diaper dry much faster, and makes poop easier to clean up (more on that later).
Fitted diapers range from about $8-13 each.
All In Ones
All in Ones (AIOs) are exactly what they sound like. A fitted diaper with a built-in absorbent layer and a waterproof outer layer. An AIO goes on like a disposable and works pretty much the same. These are sometimes referred to as Daddy Diapers, as if Moms don’t like shortcuts too. I do imagine they’re very handy for babysitters and relatives unaccustomed to cloth, but I also don’t think it would be very hard for anyone to learn whatever diaper system you choose.
Brands we’ve used include Very Baby (I am not crazy about the fit on Sam), Rumpsters (awesome but very low rise and outgrown quickly), and Bumkins (would be perfect if the velcro tabs overlapped).
Also available are All In Twos, which I believe just have a separate booster to speed drying time. I don’t have any of these but I think they sound awesome.
AIOs cost about $15-20 each.
Pocket diapers are very expensive and totally worth it — to us. A pocket diaper is shaped like a fitted diaper. It is just two layers: an outer waterproof layer and an inner microfleece layer which wicks moisture away from the baby’s bottom. There is an opening at the back and you stuff the “pocket” with absorbent material. The two most popular brands are Fuzzy Bunz and Bum Genius. We’ve tried both and did not think Fuzzy Bunz were absorbent enough, but absolutely love Bum Genius. At $17 a pop we could not possibly use these exclusively, but we don’t really want to. While it is nice for Sam to not feel too wet, never feeling when he pees would delay potty use significantly. Did you know that babies today potty train (gah, hate that phrase) an average of 1.5 years later than in the 50s? I am quite certain it’s because disposables don’t let babies feel when they are wet, so there is no motivation for them to move on.
We use Bum Genius pocket diapers, stuffed with an infant prefold (tri-folded) and the micro terry insert they come with overnight. This is the FIRST cloth diaper Sam has ever made it all night in. We had a little luck with Rumpsters, but he had to be changed an average of twice a night, which was our entire stash. Until he was almost a year old we were using disposables at night, which I hated to do. When I bought a sampler pack of premium diapers (Bumkins AIO, Fuzzy Bunz, and Bum Genius) it was like a whole new world opened up for me. I spent the next $100 I made from ads on this site on half dozen more Bum Genius and we’ve used them every night since. We often change him once in the night, but not always. (Note: Bum Genius are a one size diaper, which means they fit from birth — or shortly thereafter — till potty training.)
Pocket diapers cost around $17 each.
Micro terry is the stuff shop towels are made from. It feels like sandpaper, only nastier. You would NEVER put it next to your baby’s skin, but it is super-absorbent and great for stuffing a pocket diaper. In addition to the inserts you can buy that are made for diaper stuffing, you can buy micro terry towels in the automotive department and fold them to fit. You’ll need to wash them at least once before they are absorbent enough.
You can use anything absorbent to stuff a pocket diaper. Some popular ideas include cotton prefolds, flat diapers, and hemp terry.
You basically have two options: plastic or wool. Plastic generally comes in the form of PUL (polyurethane laminate) wrap covers; wool is either a fleece wrap cover or a knitted soaker. All covers can be used multiple times — until they are soiled or start to smell like pee.
We have some Very Baby covers and some Bummis Super Whisper Wraps. The Very Baby ones are great, but I have had some trouble with the fit between sizes. The Bummis are awesome, my very favorite with any type of diaper. I have never used them, but several friends swear by Prowraps, especially with newborns (who are harder to fit in cloth diapers because their thighs are so skinny, making for leaks). Fleece wraps are the same style as the PUL ones but made from microfleece. I’ve never used them, but am considering cutting up a maternity sweatshirt to make a few.
Wrap covers run about $9-12 each, and up to $20 for wool/fleece.
I love to knit wool soakers. I use my own pattern which I will someday write down and make available. There are plenty of patterns already on the web, some free and some for sale. Some of the patterns do not require knitting or crocheting, just cutting up old sweaters. Some sewing may be necessary.
Basically, they are just a little pair of pants that pull on over the diaper — sometimes just to cover the bum and sometimes with long legs. Wool is naturally absorbent, and some people like to boost the absorbency by either partially felting the pants or soaking them in lanolin.
Wool soakers can be purchased for anywhere between $15-40, but everyone I know makes their own.
There are lots of other types of cloth diapers. Contours are kind of like fitted diapers with no elastic to contain poop. I don’t see the point, but I’ve never tried them. Maybe they’re great! Who knows. Poo Pockets are semi-fitteds, with elastic gussets at the legs. They’re another one-size, but didn’t work on Sammy till he wore a medium. They work best with a booster or prefold. They are not a pocket diaper — the name describes the pocket formed by the leg gusset. We have some of these in our backup stash.
Another great possibility is gDiapers. These are an absolute revolution in diapering: cloth pants with a snap-in nylon liner that holds the absorbent part: a flushable liner. We’ve used these and love them — but the best part about these is reusing them with infant sized prefolds instead of the pricey flushables. Essentially, they become another diaper cover. We use these all the time.
A gDiaper “starter kit” with two pairs of pants, four liners, and ten flushable inserts costs about $25. Refills of the inserts are around $14.
Disposable wipes are kind of icky when you think about it. I do like the Seventh Generation ones, though, and they are really cool because you can throw them in the wash and reuse them! Tushies disposable wipes are OK. They’re slightly perfumed and can be flushed (use caution, of course). You can buy cloth wipes, but it is much cheaper to just buy a yard of nice flannel and cut it into squares. Surge the edges if you have a surger, stitch a hem, or just let them fray (they won’t fray too much).
You can just wet the wipes with tap water, or you can make a wipe solution of water with a squirt of baby wash (I like California Baby), a little oil (olive works nicely), and a few drops of tea tree oil. Use a spray bottle or just dunk the wipes in the solution.
Oh yes, the big one: caring for cloth diapers. Aren’t disposables easy? You just roll them up, wrap them in plastic, wrap that in more plastic, and stick it in a bin that promises no stink (but really, really smells). Yeah, they’re bad for the environment, but you don’t have to touch the poop!
Look, I’m poking fun, but I really do sympathise. It’s true: while cloth really is easy (once you wade through all the damn choices), disposables are easier.
Have I mentioned how much less cloth costs? We have spent (estimated) around $250 on supplies for making diapers; $200 on new fancy diapers; and $100 on assorted used diapers. We have coin-op laundry, and spent about $9 a week washing diapers; now that we’ve hung a line to dry them, I expect that amount to go down to about $5. Disposables cost between $7 and $15 per package of ~36. That’s an average of $11 every three days for two to three years! Which comes to $3,345.84. You could maybe cut that down to around $2,500 if you buy them by the case at a warehouse store. I estimate that by the time Sam is using the potty we will have spent $1,408 (assuming we continue to use pay washers). That is still a lot of money, but only $550 of it is actual diapers, which was spent over a year and a half… and they will all be usable for subsequent babies. PLUS, the resale value on cloth diapers is ridiculously high. Used Fuzzy Bunz ($17 new) often sell for $15. Keep in mind, too, that we have fancier diapers. If you just want prefolds and covers, you could probably lay out a full supply for well under $100.
Assuming that I’ve convinced you it’s worthwhile, you’ll need to know how to clean the diapers.
First of all, do not use a wet pail and do not use a pail with a tightly fitting lid. I know it seems counterintuitive, but letting the diapers breathe keeps them from smelling too much. We use a canvas bag on a wooden frame, and we drape Sam’s changing pad (homemade: PUL on one side, flannel on the other) over the top. Before putting the diapers in the bag we prep them for washing, so that when we go down to the laundry room we can just invert the bag into the machine (we then wash the bag right with the diapers).
Prepping the diapers consists of separating any layers (boosters, etc.), closing any velcro (there are often fold-down tabs for this; if not, just fasten the diaper inside-out), and disposing of poop. Before your baby starts solids, you do not have to do anything with poop (assuming you breastfeed — treat formula as a solid here). It is basically liquid and will be washed away just as the pee is. Honest! Once poop becomes, um, poopier, you will need to remove it from the diaper. Folks used to “dunk and swish” which is just as revolting as it sounds and I think involves holding the diaper in the toilet while you flush. Yuck! Trust me, there is a better way. It will cost you about $35 and is worth twice that: the mini shower diaper sprayer. Ours (a gift) was purchased here. Separate the dirty part of the diaper — with any luck it is just the innermost part, whether that is a booster or prefold or whatever. Let any true solids roll off the diaper, then spray off any gunk. Spray off the wipes, squeeze the water out of everything, and drop it all in your laundry bag/pail. Done!
The actual washing of diapers couldn’t be easier. Use about a tablespoon (really) of dye-free, perfume-free detergent and 1/2 to one cup of baking soda. Add dirty diapers (they will get cleaner if you only fill the machine about 2/3 of the way). If it’s an option, soak for about 30 minutes. Wash on hot with warm or cool rinse (extended rinse doesn’t hurt). Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup plain vinegar to the rinse cycle (NEVER use store-bought fabric softener, as it keeps diapers from being absorbent and can cause irritation). Dry on warm (NO dryer sheets!) or hang in the sun (this bleaches out stains).
Wool needs to be handwashed, which is very easy: fill a small tub or bucket with lukewarm water and add a few tablespoons of no-rinse wool wash (Eucalan is great). Let your wool soak for 15 minutes. Gently squeeze out the water. Do not wring. Roll the wool in a towel to draw out more water, then hang or lay flat to dry.
That’s it. Really. And if it is still more than you’re willing to do, hire a diaper service! You will only get prefolds, but they provide everything and you don’t even have to rinse off the poop.
So! Any questions?