Before my baby, Roy, was born, I decided I wanted to use cloth diapers, but I was too overwhelmed by the many different kinds to invest in any. Then a friend made the choice easy: She gave me her full set. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage to try them, but once I did, I was hooked. Well, kind of. At night and during long stretches away from home, we stuck with the ultra-absorbent disposables that got us through those first couple of months.
If you're considering cloth, you don't have to go 100 percent from the get-go. Start slowly, advises Bryana Guckin, owner of Diaper Junction in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and mother of three: "Get a few different kinds and rotate them in with your disposables." No matter which kind 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.
Follow this breakdown of the general types of cloth diapers to help you decide if cloth diapering is right for you, whether full- or part-time.
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. Actually, if you plan to go with a diaper service, they are often your only option. The dirties are whisked away regularly and replaced with a freshly laundered batch.
Whether or not you go with a service, you'll still need to get your own 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.
My hand-me-down set consisted of prefolds and diaper covers, and I loved that I could often replace the soiled prefold with a fresh one and reuse the cover (after a quick wipe-off, if necessary), thus cutting down on laundry. Fellow parents often asked me about diaper pins; I'm happy to report they're no longer necessary. Some people use separate stretchy one-piece fasteners called Snappis in addition to the snaps or Velcro to make sure prefolds stay in place, but I found wrapping the covers tightly worked just fine. And while I chose to use disposables at bedtime, many parents just double up on prefolds, or add cloth inserts called soakers, to make it through the night without leaks.
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 $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. You can reuse the diaper covers with hybrids too.
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.) As with prefold covers, they fasten at the hips with either Velcro or a series of snaps.
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, and grandparents don't need an in-depth tutorial." Both AIOs and pocket diapers start at around $18 apiece.
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 Guckin, who's 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." A handful of online stores, including Diaper Junction, offer the option to test-drive certain diapers and return them within 30 days. In the end, it all comes down to your (and your baby's) personal preference.
"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
Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.