Using Cloth Diapers: How to Get Started, etc.

June 23, 2012

My sons in cloth a few years ago.

Most of the stuff on this blog is about the intersection of joy and grief… and plants.  And babies.  And mothers.  But sometimes, most of the time really, life is about, you know, the daily stuff.  I’ve always wanted to do more posts about simple living (whatever that means), and so I thought I would post one of my recent freelance pieces here.

Lots of people ask me about cloth diapers, and so a few weeks ago I wrote up this article for Savvy Kids magazine in Little Rock, Arkansas.  There’s no online component to the individual articles other than the link to the current issue here, so I am reprinting the article via the blog, including the title Savvy Kids gave it, “Dare to Compare: Cloth Diapering Really Isn’t All That Bad.” Ha.   Hope you find it useful!  I’m going to be doing more articles about practical, frugal, simple, green parenting, so if you have any suggestions of topics you’d like me to cover, please let me know! Thanks!

Dare to Compare: Cloth diapering really isn’t all that bad 

By Meredith Martin-Moats

When you hear the phrase cloth diapers perhaps you imagine clumsy diaper pins, a poop-filled washing machine, and a general sense of inconvenience. Just like the car seats, strollers, and cribs of yesteryear, cloth diapers have come a long way in the last few decades. When I was pregnant with my twin sons and considering investing in reusable diapers, I’d hear my friends rattle off phrases like, “all-in-ones,” “pre-folds,” and “PLU covers.”  Cloth diapers have advanced so much in recent years that they have their own language.  And for those just entering the world of diapering it can be overwhelming to figure out what to buy, where to buy it, and how to use it once you get it home. 

At almost three years old, my sons are almost (fingers crossed) potty-learned.  Over the years we’ve occasionally used disposables, especially when traveling.  But, for the most part, we’ve used cloth and I can honestly say that I never felt overwhelmed with laundry, never had a leak, and never regretted the money we invested.  Along the way I’ve experimented with different brands, shopped online and in stores, and traded diapers via diaper swaps, and I’ve come up with this trusty guide examining how and why to use cloth diapers, where to buy them, and how to make sense of the dizzying array of options out there.

Why Cloth?

Let’s first tackle the why question. For many families, using cloth is the answer to their baby’s sensitive skin and the allergic reactions caused from the synthetics and petroleum byproducts in disposables.  For others it’s an outgrowth of their commitment to reducing waste.  It is estimated that each disposable diaper takes about 200 years or more to disintegrate and that these diapers make up over five percent of total landfill waste.  Just to give you an idea of how much waste they create, homes with children in diapers create approximately 50% more waste than homes without them.

When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to reduce our household waste, but what truly drove my dedication to cloth was sitting down with a calculator.  As I worked up a budget for our expanding family, I soon discovered that the average baby goes through $550.00 worth of diapers in their first year alone.  And that’s for the cheap diapers.  The name brands can run you as high as $800.00 a year.  Most babies aren’t potty trained until at least two or longer.  So when I added that all up multiplied it by two for twins, I realized that disposable diapers would cost us a total of $2,200.00 or more.  As a family on a tight budget, that struck me as a needless, and totally preventable, waste. 

So we pooled all the money from our baby showers, used some of the Walmart gift cards we received from family and friends to order cloth diapers via their online store, and made a $350.00 investment in over 30 high-quality, reusable diapers.  Sure, $350.00 sounds like a lot, especially when you spend it all in one chunk.  But in the end that investment saved us around $1,400.  I consider that a pretty good deal. 

First let me make clear that cloth diapers are a bit more time consuming than disposables and if you’re working full-time the money saved on cloth diapers may not be worth the extra minutes it takes each day to stay on top of the laundry.  However, it is important to note that once you develop a diaper-washing routine, and invest in handy tools like a diaper sprayer to help make the job easier, using cloth becomes nothing more than a few extra loads of laundry. In some cities you also have the option of hiring a diaper service that will pick up, wash, and return clean diapers.  We never tried this, but for some busy families this is a solution, even if it does bring on an added expense.  In the end you’ll still end up saving. 

The Language of Cloth Diapers 

So first let’s talk terminology.  You’ll probably need about 10-15 (20-30 for twins) diapers.  You can get by on less, but that would mean doing laundry every day rather than every other day.  What kinds to buy, you wonder?  Here’s a condensed list of many of the cloth diaper terms you will encounter. 

All in Ones:  These diapers come in various sizes, including adjustable one size fits all and function just like a disposable.  They are lined with absorbent microfiber cloth that pulls wetness away from the baby’s skin and lined with a PLU (polyurethane laminated fabric) exterior. Velcro tabs or snaps function just like the tabs on a disposable.  Once the diaper becomes dirty or wet you just shake off waste into the toilet and throw the diaper into the diaper pail to await washing.  They come in all colors, patterns, and hundreds of brands.   They typically run anywhere from $12-15 per diaper and can be purchased in package deals for reduced rates.

Pocket Diapers:  These also come in both all sizes and the adjustable one size fits all. On the outside they look much like the All in Ones, but instead of the absorbent cloth sewn into the diaper, these diapers contain a back pocket where you stuff absorbent cloth inserts.  These are especially great at preventing leaks and you can double up on the inserts for nighttime use.  Inserts come with the diapers and are available in a variety of materials ranging from hemp to bamboo.  They are considered the “gold standard” of diapering and tend to run around $20 a diaper.  These also come in package deals.

Prefolds: These are much like the diapers our parents used.  They’re absorbent pieces of cloth, hemp, or other natural fibers that can be folded in a variety of different ways.   When paired with a waterproof cover these are as effective as a disposable and surprisingly easy to use.  They’re also one of the cheapest options available.  If you choose a brand like Econobum, which offers a basic pre-fold start up kit, you can diaper your baby through potty training for only $100.

Diaper Covers:  Coated with waterproof PUL, these are used over prefolds to prevent any leaks.  Unlike All in Ones, you only need to change the insert when the baby gets wet and therefore can used over and over again before washing.  Additionally they wash and dry very quickly and come in a wide array of colors and designs.  Look for covers with snaps rather than Velcro, as the snaps tend to last longer.  These come in all prices from $5-20. 

Tools of the Trade: 

Diaper Sprayers:   In my opinion, a diaper sprayer is what makes cloth diaper truly easy.  Essentially it’s just a sprayer attached to your toilet that allows you to spray off the dirty diapers before throwing them into the diaper pail to await washing.  You can make one of these yourself or buy one from a company like Bum Genius for about $33.   If you do a little research, you can often find these used for half the price.  I was given one from a friend and I can’t imagine cloth diapering without it.

Diaper Pail:  This is your holding bin for the dirty diapers.  You can keep it in the bathroom right by the diaper sprayer and toss the dirty diapers in when rinsed.  A sturdy trash can works just fine.  You can also find things like waterproof pail linings that you can throw into the wash with the dirty diapers.  This cuts out any residual odors.


Washing Machine: Once you’ve got all these things together all you need is a reliable washing machine.  Most cloth diapers use very little detergent and require no special care.  Make sure you read the labels on each brand to ensure the best results.  If you really want to channel your inner grandmother, hang the diapers on a clothesline to dry.  We often did that, which allows the sun to bleach any stains.

Where to Buy

When you’re trying to decide which ones to buy people will often tell you that you need to experiment and see what works for you.  I agree with that sentiment, but that costs money and what if you buy something and don’t like it?  Thanks to people like Rebecca Taylor, owner of Natural Bambino store in the Green Corner Store on Main, you can attend events like cloth diaper swaps where cloth diapering moms get together trade their children’s outgrown diapers, talk shop, and try out new styles.  She began the store two years ago to provide education and purchasing options for local moms. She now offers store credit for gently used diaper trade ins and a handful helpful classes that cover everything from the terminology to diaper care. The store recently hosted the “Great Diaper Change” event in connection with Earth Day, an event attempting to set the record for the most cloth diaper changes and raise awareness about the world of cloth diapering.  

Once you get a sense of the options, you can also take advantage of online shopping including supporting the online like Arkansas-based Terra Tots in Fayetteville.  You can also go straight to the diaper companies to buy in bulk and score some great sales.  Popular umbrella companies include Cotton Babies and FuzziBuns, which offer literally thousands of diaper varieties and extensive information about how each style works. And for those thrifty mamas who love to find the best deals, check out the online community  Essentially an online market, you can find diapers for sale, trade, and even giveaway.  It can take some time to navigate the site, but if you’re pregnant and taking a break on the couch to decrease those swelling ankles or you’re a nursing mom who finds yourself perpetually attached to the recliner, prop up a computer in front of you and take some time to poke around the site.  I both purchased and sold used diapers there and always had good experiences with the site.

And don’t forget sites like Target and Wal-Mart.  Both companies offer diapers in their online stores, including the hybrid G diapers, which come with disposable liners.  Chances are you’ll get gift cards at your baby shower and why not use that money to buy re-useables online rather than disposables? When shopping for these diapers online be sure and type in “reusable diapers,” (rather than “cloth diapers”) to turn up the most results.   And finally, don’t forget to let people know you’re wanting to use cloth and ask for their support.  If you’re planning a baby shower for someone who’s interested in cloth you can set up a cloth diaper fund or register for cloth diapers at Natural Bambino.  And if you’ve already started out with disposables, it’s never too late to start experimenting with cloth!  Many people, myself included, used disposables for those first hectic weeks after birth then slowly transitioned to cloth.

Now that my sons are using the potty I’m happy to say that my large basket of cloth diapers are no longer being used.  Almost all of them, even the ones I was given as hand me-downs or I purchased used, are still in great shape. Should we have another child we won’t need to buy a single diaper.  And someday I’ll pass them on to another expecting mom.  That $350 just keeps paying off and is, by far, the most durable and lasting purchase I made during those fleeting baby days.


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