The Modern Parent’s Guide to Cloth Diapering
Ditching disposable diapers is easier than you might think. Check out our guide to learn about the different types of cloth diapers, the estimated cost, and how to use them properly.
If you're like most parents-to-be, you may have uttered the following words at some point: "I really want to try cloth diapers, but it seems like too much work." Or: "It's a lot of money to spend up-front." Or: "I can't deal with scraping baby poop into a toilet."
The fact is, cloth diapers do require more work than simply tossing a disposable into the trash, and they aren't the right choice for every family. But thanks to progress in modern tush-covering technology, they may make more sense than you realize. Check out our primer about cloth diapering—you might just be inspired to give an old-fashioned choice a new look.
Types of Cloth Diapers
Cloth diapers have come a long way, with nearly a dozen types available on the market today. "There are so many options—no matter your baby's body type or activity level, there's a style on the market that will work for him or her," says mom blogger Erin Odom, author of Confessions of a Cloth Diaper Convert: A Simple, Comprehensive Guide to Using Cloth Diapers. Here’s what to know about the most popular options.
Prefold Cloth Diapers
Prefold diapers are those cloth rectangles you picture when you think of old-school cotton diapers. They’ve been folded and stitched with more layers in the middle to create a thicker center. Prefold diapers come in a variety of other fabrics, including bamboo and hemp, as well as varied sizes. At about $2 and up each, prefolds are the foundation of your least expensive cloth-diapering option.
You'll still need to get cloth diaper covers—the waterproof outer layer that contains the inner prefold's wetness and mess. The most popular covers mimic the shape of disposables, wrapping around the prefold and closing at a baby's hips with either a series of snaps or Velcro, in place of sticky tabs. They're usually made of a poly-blend fabric with a waterproof laminated interior and come in all sorts of colors and prints. Price per cover starts at about $8, with the average landing at about $12.
When it's time for a diaper change, you can replace the soiled prefold with a fresh one and reuse the cover (after a quick wipe-off, if necessary), thus cutting down on laundry. To make sure the prefolds stay in place, you can use separate stretchy one-piece fasteners called Snappis, in addition to the snaps, or Velcro. At bedtime, many parents double up on prefolds, or add cloth inserts called soakers, to make it through the night without leaks.
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Hybrid Cloth Diapers
Hybrid diapers are designed to combine the benefits of cloth with the ease of disposables. They consist of a waterproof outer cover and two inner absorbent-layer options: a cloth insert or a disposable insert. Cloth inserts are basically rectangular runners, made in a variety of fabrics including cotton, microfiber, and/or hemp. They're sometimes filled with an ultra-absorbent microfiber. Disposable inserts are the single-use version; you can buy rolls of 100 inserts for roughly $10. The idea is that, like disposables, they're convenient when you're on the go, but they generate less waste than their full-size cousins. They're usually low on chemicals, and some are even biodegradable. You can reuse the diaper covers with hybrids too.
All-in-One Cloth Diapers
All-in-one (AIO) diapers get their name from the fact that they provide both an absorbent layer and a waterproof outer shell all in one piece. (Picture an all-cloth version of disposables.) You don’t need to stuff inserts, and you can toss the entire thing in the laundry when it’s soiled. As with prefold covers, they fasten at the hips with either Velcro or a series of snaps. AIO cloth diapers start at around $20 a piece.
Pocket Cloth Diapers
Pocket diapers are similar to AIOs but feature a built-in interior pocket, made out of a wicking material, and contain a removable absorbent insert. You can customize your absorbency level by trying different inserts, or stuffing the pocket with two. Pocket diapers' separate pieces require less drying time than thicker AIOs. (Remember, both kinds are single-use diapers, and a diaper service is not an option, so laundry adds up!) "I stuff the inserts into my pocket diapers right out of the dryer so they're ready to go, just like disposables," says Ellen Kucera, of Warren, Vermont, mom of 2-year-old Tarin and 11-month-old Eli. "They're easy enough that babysitters, day care centers, and grandparents don't need an in-depth tutorial." The cost is comparable to AIO diapers.
One-Size Cloth Diapers
Believe it or not, there are "one-size" diapers that grow with your baby, "so you can potentially use the exact same diaper on your eight-pound newborn as you will when she is ready to potty train," Odom says. Snap or Velcro closures let you adjust for size, and progressively larger inserts accommodate changing absorbency needs.
One thing all of these options have in common: a wide array of bright colors and adorable designs, from punk rock skull-and-crossbones to fire trucks and mustaches. They're also, admittedly, on the pricier side, ranging from about $18-$30 for higher-end mainstream brands.
Getting Started With Cloth Diapers
Are you wondering, “how does cloth diapering work?” The best thing a cloth-diaper newbie can do is go to a store—whether it's a big chain like Buy Buy Baby or a local baby boutique—and check out the options in person, says Bryana Guckin, owner of Diaper Junction in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and mother of three, who has sold cloth diapers in-store and online for nearly a decade. "There are so many choices, it can be overwhelming," she explains. "If you can see the diapers up close, they make a lot more sense."
Before you invest a big chunk of change in a particular brand, try a variety of different styles and types of cloth diapers to see what works best for your babe. You could also borrow from friends, try consignment stores or online diaper-swap sites, or visit the Facebook and Twitter pages of various brands, as companies sometimes issue calls for testers. In the end, it all comes down to your (and your baby's) personal preference.
Just as you do with new baby clothes, you'll want to run just-bought cloth diapers through the laundry. Set the cycle on hot with a bit of mild detergent. The exceptions: diapers made of hemp, which need to be washed as many as 8 to10 times before becoming absorbent; cotton, which needs to be washed 4 to 5 times; and bamboo, which should be washed 2 to 3 times.
How Many Cloth Diapers Do I Need?
No matter which type of cloth diaper you use, know that babies usually go through 10 to 12 diapers per day; toddlers generally go through six to eight; and kids being potty trained usually only need up to four diapers a day.
Keeping this in mind, you'll need two to three dozen diapers or diaper-plus-insert sets for a newborn, according to Shannon Griffith, owner of Green Diaper Babies cloth diaper service in Chicago. (You'll need fewer as your baby gets older.) If you use a weekly diaper service, you’ll need about 75-80 diapers.
Cloth diapering is easier if you invest in some accessories: a diaper pail for storing the dirties before washing, a waterproof "wet bag" for stashing soiled diapers when you're on the go, disposable diaper liners, and a diaper sprayer for rinsing solid waste off diapers and into the toilet. Cloth diaper-safe detergent is a must, too: In order to help maintain the diaper's absorbency, you'll want to choose a product free from fabric softeners, stain guards, and oils.
How Much Does Cloth Diapering Cost?
True, you can drop about $500-$600 to set your nursery up for cloth diapers, especially if you're buying brand-new pocket, one-size, or AIO styles. If you go cloth and launder them yourselves, the cost over two years might be between $800 and $1100—about half as much as disposables, which Odom estimates cost at least $1,400 for two years. Cloth-diapering a second child will only cost you the laundry and detergent.
Of course, the price will vary based on the type of cloth diapers you choose, where you buy them, and how many you get. Some families spend less than $600 on cloth diapering, while others spend $1,500 or more.
Also keep in mind that cloth diapers have an excellent resale value. "You could realistically earn back much of the cost by selling your diapers after your child outgrows them or potty trains," Odom says. Another way to save: Buy mint-condition used cloth diapers online. Moms-to-be often stock up on one brand while pregnant, only to discover they prefer a different brand once their baby arrives. Then there are moms who sell perfectly good diapers in order to upgrade to the newest designs. Save money by buying their cast-offs.
What About Diapering Services?
If your motivation to use cloth isn't based on finances, and the prospect of home laundering is an intimidating one, you may want to opt for a local diaper service. As a rule, services now use biodegradable detergents in their cleaning process rather than the harmful phosphates of old. Like disposables, the costs of using a diaper service plus diaper covers will fall in the range of $2,000-$2,500 over a three year period.
Are Cloth Diapers Better for the Environment?
Disposable diapers clog up landfills—nobody's arguing that they don't. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average baby uses 8,000 diapers each year. All of those disposables lead to staggering (and stinky!) 3.6 million tons of municipal solid waste every year.
Cloth diapers aren't perfect, either: Laundering requires energy and water and introduces chemical detergents into the environment. And while cloth diaper services that pick up your dirties and drop off clean ones use less water than home washings by operating in bulk, they require gas-driven cars, contributing to air pollution. From an environmental perspective, neither option is perfect; go with the one that feels best to you.
How to Wash Cloth Diapers
After taking off cloth diapers, place them in a holding container. Some parents put the diapers in a wet pail filled with some water, so they can pre-soak before a wash. Others shake the solids into the toilet and drop the diaper into a plastic-lined pail after a change.
Do whichever option you prefer, or try this method from Beth Eckert, founder of The Cloth Diaper Connection. Instead of having an actual pail full of water, you rinse the diapers off after changing your baby, then throw them into the dry pail. This way your diapers are still getting the benefit of getting rinsed and a mini soak because they're in the pail soaking wet. You may find it helpful to keep your cloth diaper pail in the bathroom if you use this method.
Follow these basic steps to launder cloth diapers:
- Remove inserts from pocket diapers.
- Always use the highest water level allowed by your washer.
- Begin with a cold rinse, no detergent.
- After the cold rinse, run a regular wash cycle on hot, using 1/4 cup detergent. If you're using a cloth diaper detergent, follow the instructions on the package.
- Follow up with an extra rinse on cold to ensure all residual detergent is completely rinsed away.
- Dry on hot.
Don’t worry that washing cloth diapers will leave your washer stinky. It will be exactly as clean as the diaper and drains to the same place your toilet does.
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Cloth Diaper Tips From Real Parents
These real-life tips might answer some of your top questions about cloth diapering.
"In nice weather, a clothesline helps dry our all-in-one diapers. They can take a long time in the dryer, and use a lot of energy. Plus, the sun is a fabulous natural stain remover."—Bethany Kohoutek; Des Moines, Iowa
San Clemente, California mom Kate Mudge put cloth diapers in the washer before bedtime every night (or every other night as her kids grew), then moved the clean diapers to the dryer at midnight feedings. "I'd fold and stuff diapers while watching TV at night, so it never felt like a huge chore," she says, "and once they were waiting in the drawer, they were just as easy to use as disposables."
"A diaper sprayer is a must. You can attach it easily to the toilet, and it allows you to get almost all the icky bits off without having to create a soak bucket."—Deborah Hudleston; Minneapolis, Minnesota
"When you're out and about with your cloth diapers, ditching a used diaper in the trash isn't an option. So I got a cute waterproof 'wet sack' and I keep dirty diapers in there for those times when we're on the go."—Ariel Meadow Stallings; Seattle, Washington
"I bought a variety of diapers, then resold the ones I didn't like. It's good to know that there's a big resale market, and cloth diapers retain their value."—Heather NcNamara, executive director of the Real Diaper Association; San Diego, California
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The Bottom Line
You don't need to be a hardcore, all-or-nothing cloth diaper user. Some parents use disposables in the first few weeks after their child is born, then switch to cloth. Others use cloth at home but travel with disposables. Still others go the hybrid-diaper route, which combines the best of both worlds: a washable cover that never really comes in contact with any bodily fluids (save the occasional blowout), plus a flushable and biodegradable insert that won't hang around the planet for as long as a disposable diaper. Choose the option that’s best for your family, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician for help.