Cloth Diapers 101: What You Need to Know

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Choosing how to diaper your baby is a very personal choice, and there aren't necessarily specific health benefits to one choice over another. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not take an official position on diapers and neither does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). So, parents are often left to decide which option best suits their family's needs and goals.

For instance, some parents know from the beginning that they want the convenience of disposable diapers. Meanwhile, other parents are convinced that cloth diapers are the only way to go—especially when considering how long it takes a disposable diaper to break down in a landfill.

Regardless of your opinion or your reasons, if you are considering cloth diapers for your newborn, or if you want to switch to cloth diapers after starting out with disposables, it's important to make a well-informed decision. Here is a closer look at everything you need to know about cloth diapers.

Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers

Cloth diapers come in a variety of designs and are often more affordable than disposable diapers. However, they do require a greater time commitment and a larger upfront investment. Cloth diapers also may require more diligence, especially while your baby is a newborn.

For instance, if you do use cloth diapers, you need to make sure you're changing the diapers regularly, to avoid chafing and diaper rash. The fabric in cloth diapers doesn't draw wetness away from the skin like disposables do.

So, in the early weeks of your baby's life, this could mean a lot more diaper changes than a baby who is wearing disposables.

Likewise, with cloth diapers, you will need to allow extra time for cleaning and sanitizing your diapers. If you had a particularly hard birth experience or if you have little help at home, this can be a significant consideration. Cloth diapers also can be really frustrating for families who have hectic schedules, especially because you may be doing as many as three additional loads of laundry each week.

You also will need to purchase plenty of cloth diapers as well as the necessary cleaning aids for your diapers upfront. So, this initial expense may take some planning in order to make it work within the family budget. Here are some additional things to consider as you make your decision about cloth diapers.

Cloth Diaper
  • Costs less over time

  • Cuts down on landfill waste

  • May help with sensitive skin

  • Contains waste better

  • Takes time to launder

  • Requires more frequent changes

  • Uses energy and water to clean

Disposable Diaper
  • Costs more over time

  • Adds to landfill waste

  • Ingredients may irritate sensitive skin

  • Causes leaks sometimes

  • Requires no laundering

  • Makes diapering convenient and easy

  • Requires no extra water use

Cost

There is no doubt about it, diapering a baby can get expensive. On average, parents go through about 60 diapers per week—and even more for newborns and young babies. On average, these diapers can cost up to $60 per month for disposables, depending on the brand you buy and in what quantity you buy them.

These costs can quickly add up especially when you consider how long your child wears diapers prior to potty training. In the long run, cloth diapers can be a much more economical alternative to disposable diapers. However, it's possible that an initial diaper stash could cost around $400 to $600.

This investment can be significant especially when you factor in other supplies you might need. But, most of the time you can use this stash the entire time your child is in diapers—and you can use them for your next child, too.

Some parents are skeptical that cloth diapers truly save money in the long run, especially if you look at some of the more expensive cloth diaper products. For instance, cloth diapers can cost up to $40 each, and some options are even more expensive.

Though you might be spending more money on a stash of 30–40 cloth diapers, you can use this supply throughout your child's diaper journey, saving money long-term.

Additionally, there are many Buy-Sell-Trade (BST) cloth diaper groups that exist to help you build your diaper stash at a reduced price. And when your child is done with cloth diapering, you can even sell them back to a BST group—as long as your diapers are still in good condition.

Ingredients and Materials

Many people opt for cloth diapers because the inner lining is often made of cotton, bamboo, or other natural fabrics. Meanwhile, disposable diapers may contain ingredients or chemicals that could potentially irritate your baby's sensitive skin.

If you notice redness or other signs of discomfort, it may be worth trying cloth diapers to see if the materials can alleviate your baby's symptoms. Conversely, cloth diapers also can cause irritation, especially if the diapers aren't changed frequently enough as one downside to the natural materials in cloth diapers is that they are not as absorbent as disposables.

Though many parents appreciate the natural fiber options available with cloth diapers, you will be limited in the types of ointments you can use because some will stain or ruin the diapers. So, if your baby develops a serious diaper rash or a yeast infection that requires topical treatment, you may have to use disposables for a short period of time until the infection clears.

Environmental Impact

To a certain degree, cloth diapers cut down on waste. After all, you are reusing them and not adding to the landfill with each diaper change. But keep in mind that while disposable diapers add to landfill contents and solid waste, cloth diapers still use water and energy to wash and dry them.

Likewise, if you use a diaper service, you have the fuel use of the service vans to consider. And although it may not seem like much, in some states or other areas experiencing drought-like conditions or where water conservation is necessary, using cloth diapers may not make sense.

Convenience

There is no doubt that using disposable diapers is easier and more convenient than using cloth diapers—at least initially. After all, you just toss them when they are soiled and don't have to think about them again. But most advocates for cloth diapers argue that once you learn how to use and care for cloth diapers, the process can become a seamless part of your baby-care routine.

Additionally, the cloth diapers of today are much more efficient than the cloth diapers your grandmother may have used. You no longer have to worry about saggy sides and scary pins poking your baby.

Today's cloth diapers often are made to fit baby and most have waterproof covers with bands around the legs and the waist. Likewise, some cloth diapers have Velcro and snaps to make putting them on and taking them off easier. But, keep in mind that they are not as absorbent as disposables. So, you will need to change your baby more often.

Another downside to cloth diapers is the fact that you have to carry soiled diapers around with you when you are out and about. Because you cannot just toss dirty diapers in the trash can, you need to carry a special "wet bag" to store the wet diapers until you get you home and can wash them.

Additionally, cloth diapers might pose issues for other caregivers like grandparents, babysitters, and nannies because there is a learning curve involved in using and cleaning them properly. For that reason, among others, most daycares require disposables while baby is in their care. So, if your baby will be in daycare, you'll need to investigate the daycare's policies first before committing 100% to cloth diapers.

Ultimately, diapering your baby is a personal choice. You will have to weigh the pros and cons for your family and lifestyle.

Types of Cloth Diapers

Many modern cloth diapers do not require safety pins or plastic covers like more traditional cloth diapers required in years past. In fact, there are several types of cloth diaper products from which to choose, and some are as easy to use as disposables.

Because cloth diapers can vary in cost and ease of use, many people use multiple kinds at different points in their cloth diapering.

Flats and Prefolds

These diapers are most similar to old-fashioned cloth diapers. Although they are the most budget-conscious, these types of diapers are a bit more inconvenient. Prefolds are rectangular, so you have to fold them, fasten them with a diaper clip, and add a cover over them because they are not waterproof. When the diaper is soiled, you can put a new prefold inside the same cover if the cover is still clean.

Fitted Cloth Diapers

Fitted cloth diapers are made out of absorbent material with leg and back elastic and snaps or Velcro closures. They do not have a waterproof outside, so you need a cover over them.

Fitted diapers come in multiple sizes, so as your baby grows you will need to buy the appropriate size. Like prefolds, if the cover is still clean, you can reuse it and only replace the fitted cloth diaper when changing.

Contour Diapers

Contour diapers are a cross between fitted diapers and prefolds. They are contoured to fit your baby, meaning they fit snugly around the legs making them a good nighttime option. But keep in mind that these economical diapers do require a pin or diaper clip to secure them. They also require a cover in order to be waterproof, which you can reuse as long as it's not dirty.

Pocket Diapers

Pocket diapers are one of the first new designs of modern cloth diapers. They have a waterproof layer, which means no cover is necessary, and look a lot like a disposable diaper. Inside, you'll find a stay-dry lining with a pocket in which you place a diaper insert or a prefold for more absorbency. Of course, after the diaper is soiled, you must replace the entire diaper and take the stuffing out of the pocket before laundering.

All-in-Ones

All-in-ones (AIOs) are similar to disposables, except they are made of cloth. Like the pocket diaper, they have a waterproof outside and have multiple inside absorbent layers that you can fold for more absorbency as needed.

If you need more absorbency, there are boosters you can stick on top of the layers as well. These boosters may have Velcro or a snap. Like the pocket diaper, AIOs are used once and then once soiled, a new one must replace it.

Hybrids/All-in-Twos

Hybrids are also called all-in-twos (AI2s). They are similar to AIOs, but AI2 diapers often have detachable absorbency layers inside which allow you to customize absorbency more efficiently.

This feature also allows you to remove a soiled insert and snap in a new, clean one—as long as the rest of the diaper is clean. There are also boosters and nighttime inserts you can add for overnight cloth diaper use.

How to Begin With Cloth Diapering

If you have not yet tried cloth diapering, it can seem like an intimidating process. However, once you find the type of cloth diaper that works for you, it can be a great alternative to disposable diapers. Plus, there is a large community of support out there if this is the route you decide to take.

In fact, the cloth diaper community and many natural baby care retailers are happy to talk with you. They can answer any questions you might have and even help you troubleshoot if you are having difficulty using the diapers.

In the meantime and as you get started on your cloth diaper journey, you may want to start by purchasing just a few diapers secondhand in different styles. Purchasing secondhand will help you keep costs down and having a variety to test will give you some time to determine which style works best for you.

Additionally, you can experiment with combination diapering. In this scenario, you might use cloth diapers when you will be home and disposables when you are out and about. Or perhaps you prefer using cloth during the day and disposables overnight to cut down on the number of nighttime changes.

The beauty of diapering your baby is that you are not required to an all or nothing lifestyle. There are plenty of families who use a combination of cloth diapers and disposables.

If you do decide that cloth diapers work for you and your family, you may want to invest in a few supplies that will make the process more efficient. For instance, many people who use cloth diapers have found that using a bidet or sprayer in the bathroom to rinse the solids out of the baby's diaper and into the toilet is more helpful than other methods (like swishing the diaper around in the toilet).

You also will need a wet bag for carrying soiled cloth diapers home with you when you're out—assuming you're not going to use disposables. And some parents have found that using handmade wipes or flushable wipes to clean out any solids while out can be useful to have on hand.

Even if you plan to use cloth diapers all the time, it's still a good idea to have some disposable diapers on hand for emergencies. For instance, if you lose power for a few days and cannot use your washing machine to clean your cloth diapers, you may be happy to have some disposables on hand.

How to Clean Cloth Diapers

Once dirty, you should rinse the cloth diaper under warm water immediately. However, if your baby is not yet eating solids, this may not be necessary, especially if you are breastfeeding. If your baby or child is eating solids, flush any solid waste down the toilet.

Place dirty diapers in a cloth diaper bag or diaper pail with a liner in it. Disposable liners can be thrown in the trash or flushed in the toilet as long as the package indicates that they are flushable.

Most cloth diaper brands suggest that you wash diapers every two days, three days max. Doing so helps prevent smells and ammonia build-up in the diapers.

Keep in mind that once a smell gets locked into the fabric, it can be very hard to get out. You also will need to wash the wet bag or pail liner with each load. Just follow the guidelines provided by the diaper manufacturers. It's also a good idea to wash the diapers alone and not with other baby items.

Use plenty of detergent and run an additional rinse cycle to make sure all the detergent is rinsed off the diapers in order to avoid skin irritation. Keep it simple, and skip any extras like adding fabric softener. There are disinfectants that can be added to the wash, but these should be used sparingly and only on occasion.

A Word From Verywell

As you consider whether or not cloth diapering is right for you and your family remember that it is not an all or nothing decision. There are no wrong approaches. By trying different diapering methods, you may soon discover that cloth diapering can enhance the diapering experience for both you and your child.

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  1. Real Diaper Association. Diaper facts.