The Modern Mom's Guide to Cloth Diapering
Ditching disposables is easier than you might think! If you're considering reusables, check out our guide to the different types of cloth diapers.
If you're like most moms-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 poop into a toilet." Or: "I heard they're just as bad for the environment as disposables."
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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 for yours than you realize. Read our modern mom's primer for cloth diapering—you might just be inspired to give an old-fashioned choice a new look.
Cloth diapers have come a looong way, baby. These days, there are nearly a dozen types of cloth diapers, from the more traditional flat and prefolded squares of absorbent material that lay inside a diaper cover to hybrid diapers with washable outer covers and disposable inserts.
"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.
Types of Cloth Diapers
Prefolds, so called because they've been folded and stitched with more layers in the middle to create a thicker center, are those cloth rectangles you picture when you think of old-school cotton diapers. They 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, absorbent 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.
Beyond prefolds, more modern options (i.e., no bulky, ugly plastic covers) include:
Hybrid Diapers. Designed to combine the benefits of cloth with the ease of disposables, hybrids 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, hemp, and (sometimes) ultra-absorbent microfiber. Disposable inserts are single-use; you can buy rolls of 100 inserts for roughly $5. 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.
All-in-Ones (AIOs). No stuffing inserts here: AIOs provide both an absorbent layer and a waterproof outer shell all in one piece, so you can diaper your baby as normal then toss the whole thing in the laundry when it gets soiled. As a result, AIOs are exceptionally daddy/daycare/babysitter/grandparent-friendly, Odom says. (She likes the GroVia One-Size All in One.) They fasten at the hips with either Velcro or a series of snaps, like prefold covers.
Pocket Diapers. Pocket diapers are similar to AIOs but feature a built-in interior pocket, made out of a wicking material, that you stuff with an absorbent, reusable insert. Both kinds are single-use diapers, for which diaper service is not an option, so laundry adds up! They're the cloth diaper of choice for Odom, because they dry quickly, aren't too bulky beneath clothes, are more affordable some other options, and you can control the absorbency by how you stuff them.
"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, daycare, and grandparents don't need an in-depth tutorial." Both AIOs and pocket diapers start at around $18 apiece. Popular brands include bumGenius, Kawaii, and FuzziBunz.
One-Size. 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. (A poplar one-size diaper: bumGenius One-size Cloth Diapers, which include a miniature insert for newborns and a larger insert for growing babies.)
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.
The best thing a cloth-diaper newbie can do is go to a store—whether it's a big chain like Buybuy 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."
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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. A handful of online stores, including Diaper Junction, offer the option to test-drive certain diapers and return them within 30 days.
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. Or join a trial program, like Diaper Lab's $35, two-week "Experiment to Own" option, which is basically like leasing a car, only with nappies instead of a Nissan. Jillian's Drawers is another option. In the end, it all comes down to your (and your baby's) personal preference.
Once you're ready to build your stash, you'll need a 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.) 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.
Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers: Debunking Misconceptions
"But It Seems like Too Much Work"
Here's a little secret: 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, biodegradable insert that won't hang around the planet for as long as a disposable diaper.
As for all that laundry, take a cue from San Clemente, California mom Kate Mudge, who simply ran a load at 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."
"But It's A Lot of Money Up-Front"
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. But Odom estimates the average cost of disposable diapers for two years at more than $1,400—and that figure is higher if your child potty trains later than age 2, or if you buy premium-priced, eco-friendly diapers.
Cloth diapers also 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 on Craigslist. Moms-to-be often stock up on one brand while pregnant, only to discover they prefer a different brand once 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.
"But I Don't Want to Deal with Scraping Poop into a Toilet"
Who does, mama? But disposable liners, which come in a toilet paper-like roll and can be placed on the diaper next to your baby's skin, make that chore easier. Pop a liner in baby's diaper, then just gather up any solid mess and flush it before placing the diaper in the laundry. Easy-peasy!
"But I Heard They're Just as Bad for the Environment as Disposables"
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, creating a 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.
Tips From Moms of the Cloth
"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
"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
"I use prefolds and diaper covers on my 2-year-old. We haven't had any blowouts so far! It's a less expensive route, so I feel justified in using a diaper service, which helps a ton."—Sarah Grunner; Wheaton, Illinois
"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, on Craigslist and international sites like diaperswappers.com, and cloth diapers retain their value."—Heather NcNamara, executive director of the Real Diaper Association; San Diego, California