Complete Guide to Cloth Diapers
My daughter is already grown up and well out of diapers, but I decided it was time I shared my experience using cloth diapers. Why? Because whenever I recommend cloth diapers to my pregnant friends, they immediately dismiss cloth diapers as being “too difficult.” Cloth diapers really don’t require much extra work at all – especially when you consider the benefits which come with cloth diapers like saving tons of money and getting your kid out of diapers sooner. I am going to be as honest as possible in writing this guide so you can decide for yourself whether or not to use cloth diapers, which type of cloth diapers to buy, and also share some tips on how to make cloth diapers work for your lifestyle.
Complete Guide to Cloth Diapers:
Everything you need to know about types of cloth diapers, best brands of cloth diapers, pros and cons of cloth diapers, how to use cloth diapers, and more.
This guide will cover:
Benefits of Cloth Diapers
Drawbacks of Cloth Diapers
Creating a Cloth Diaper Changing Table
The 5 Types of Cloth Diapers
How Many Cloth Diapers Do You Need?
Cloth Diapers While Traveling
Best Brands of Cloth Diapers
Benefits of Cloth Diapers
There are 4 major benefits of using cloth diapers: saving money, easier potty training, better for health, and better for the environment.
1. Cost of Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers
No, diapering your baby doesn’t have to break the bank. According to Daily Finance, parents will spend a total of $2,577.35 on disposable diapers before the child is potty trained! By comparison, cloth diapers are a lot cheaper. Yes, you will have to make a larger initial investment, but it will quickly pay off.
I bought Thirsties Duo Wrap diaper covers plus 50 standard prefold diapers. In total, I only spent about $123 on prefold cloth diapers.
- 4 Size 1 at about $12 each = $48
- 4 Size 2 at about $12 each = $48
- 50 prefolds at about $1.50 each = $75
Yes, I really only spent $123 on diapers for my child for 2 years! And, if I were to ever have another child, I wouldn’t have to spend anything!
*I also bought a few used AIO diapers but didn’t end up using them (found them impractical) so I didn’t count this towards the total. And, yes, I did use a few disposables.
At the site Michael Bluejay, you can calculate laundry costs. Most people are probably spending about $0.85 per laundry load and another $0.50 for drying. With cloth diapers, you will be doing an extra 1-2 loads of laundry per week. So, over the course of two years, you would spend about $278 on laundry and drying. My laundry costs are even lower because I have a front-loader machine and air-dried the cloth diapers.
In total, that adds up to $401 on diapering for 2 years!
Bear in mind that some types and brands of cloth diapers are pricier. If you are going to use All-In-One diapers (we will get into the types of cloth diapers later in this article), then you will shell out a big initial investment – but can use the same diapers for your second child or sell them after your kid is out of diapers.
If I’d had a bigger budget for cloth diapers, I would have bought hybrid diapers. Hybrid shells cost about $18 each, and the soaker pads are around $2.50 each. Since I would have needed about 20 of each size of hybrid shell, plus 50 soaker pads, it would add up to $845 for two years of diapering. That is $1123 with laundry costs added in. Still better than using disposable diapers!
2. Cloth Diapers Make Potty Training Easier
Disposable diapers do a fantastic job of absorbing liquid. In fact, they do too good of a job. When babies wearing disposable diapers pee, they don’t even realize that they’ve peed. Because of this, it takes them much longer to make the connection between the feeling of pressure in the bladder and peeing.
By contrast, babies who wear cloth diapers will realize they have peed right away. Okay – they won’t necessarily make the connection (infants don’t even realize things like they need to shut their eyes in order to fall asleep!). But, by the time they are about 2 years old, they should associate that pre-pee feeling in their bladder with the act of urination. As a result, children who wear cloth diapers get potty trained much sooner and much easier. According to some sources like SMH, children in cloth diapers are potty trained 12 months earlier than children in disposable diapers! As the use of disposable diapers has increased, so has the age of potty training. The average age of potty training in the US is now 21-36 months – compared to 18 months in the late 1940s!
3. Health Benefits of Cloth Diapers
We do a lot to protect our children from dangers. Just look at all those “child-proofing” gadgets you can buy. But what about the diapers? It probably didn’t occur to most parents that diapers could be dangerous!
Researchers have found all sorts of chemical toxins in disposable diapers. The list is too long to go over them all here, but here are some of the major ones:
- Dioxins: an extremely toxic byproduct from the bleaching process. It is banned in most countries but not the US or Canada.
- Tributyl-tin: A toxic pollutant which is known to cause hormonal problems
- Sodium polyacrylate: This is what makes disposable diapers super absorbent, but a similar substance used in tampons is linked to toxic shock syndrome. Exposure to sodium polyacrylate dust is shown to cause eye, skin, and lung irritation.
As a result, disposable diapers are linked to diseases including asthmas, cancer, hormone disruption, infertility, and more. For more on the health risks of disposable diapers, read this article from CBC Canada, or this article from Baby Center.
Aside from all this, there is diaper rash (which every new parent will have to deal with at some point). Because disposable diapers are so good at keeping baby butts dry, you’d think that they would be better at reducing diaper rash. Not so! Cloth diapers don’t contain the perfumes, dyes, latex, and numerous chemicals of disposable diapers, so many claim they are superior at preventing diaper rash. Many types of cloth diapers are also more breathable.
A German study found that male children in disposable diapers had higher scrotum temperatures than children in cloth diapers. They theorized that this could be a cause of male infertility. Though the researchers didn’t look at rashes, a higher temperature could also definitely be the cause of more diaper rash.
4. Cloth Diapers are Better for the Environment
When it comes to the environment, cloth diapers are the way to go. According to the EPA, an average baby will go through 8,000 disposable diapers and disposable diapers last for 450 years before biodegrading. Let’s not forget that taking trash to the landfills also requires resources. One report from 1988 (which is admittedly outdated) found that, for each disposable diaper purchased, there is an additional $0.10 cost for trash removal.
There is a lot of debate about how “green” cloth diapers really are. After all, you do have to wash them — and washing machines require energy to run. An article in Slate Magazine addresses this issue well. They go over two studies which compare the environmental impact of cloth vs. disposable diapers. The first study, from 1992, found that disposable diapers use 6,900 megajoules of energy vs. 1,400 megajoules of energy for cloth diapers. Since then, washing machines have become a lot more efficient.
The second study was conducted in 2005 by the British Environmental Agency. They found “no significant difference” between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. This study found that disposable diapers create 1,380 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared to 1,232 lbs for cloth diapers. This study was highly criticized for many factors, like that they didn’t take into consideration the specs of modern washing machines, or the waste management resources of trashing disposables. Even so, it is still clear that cloth diapers are better for the environment. Considering the threat of global warming and state of the environment we are leaving to our kids, even a difference of 148 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent matters!
Potential Drawbacks of Cloth Diapers
I loved using cloth diapers. They didn’t seem like any extra work, especially because I was spared from having to make shopping trips just for diapers (I don’t have a car so lugging boxes of diapers home from the store would have been a pain). The only real downside for me was when my daughter started having solid poops. Here I will get into all the main downsides of using cloth diapers.
1. Extra Work
I’m not going to lie and say that cloth diapers don’t require any extra work. But, honestly, it isn’t that much extra work at all. It isn’t like during our grandparent’s generation when people didn’t have washing machines and had to wash diapers by hand. You just throw the diapers in the washing machine. Viola! You’ve got clean diapers. I just kept a stack of clean prefold diapers near the changing table and would quickly fold one (it takes about 10 seconds), put it in the diaper cover, and be on my way.
And don’t forget that using cloth diapers means you don’t have to make any middle-of-the-night trips to the supermarket to buy diapers. You always have them on hand!
2. Bad Smells…
I admittedly was worried that cloth diapers would be smelly, but they weren’t. Instead of having 1 diaper pail at the changing station, I had 2 pails. The smaller one was for baby wipes (those are biodegradable so I didn’t reuse wipes). The large pail was for the cloth diapers. Instead of tossing the diapers into the trash, they just went into the pail. When the pail was full, I put them in the washing machine. Easy peasy, right? There was no bad smells, or at least not any that would be worse from disposables. Well, until baby starts to make solid poop…
3. When Babies Start to Have Solid Poop…
This was the only real drawback of cloth diapers for me. When babies are breastfeeding, their poop is soft and can be easily cleaned in the washing machine. However, when babies start having solid poop, you can’t throw the poop into the washing machine. You’ve got to empty it out into the toilet.
There are cloth diaper liners you can buy to solve the solid-poop problem. I didn’t use these though, so can’t attest to them. Otherwise, you have to carry the dirty diaper into the bathroom and shake the poop into the toilet. Sometimes you have to shake it a lot to get it to come off. It isn’t exactly a glamorous job. You can also buy a special diaper sprayer which attaches to the side of the toilet and is used to spray off the poop. I didn’t get one of these, but it probably would have been helpful.
I found it annoying to have to walk to the bathroom to dump out the poop. One solution for this is to have your diaper changing station in the bathroom. My bathroom was ridiculously small, so this wasn’t an option.
By the time your baby starts making solid poop, you won’t have to change diapers very often. This means it takes a lot longer for the diaper pail to fill up. If you leave a bunch of diapers coated with solid-stool (as opposed to milk poop), they can quickly get stinky. I just used a normal trash can for my diaper pail. Needless to say, it was NOT air-tight. During the summer once, FLIES got into the pail which then turned into MAGGOTS. It was gross. Make sure to clean the diapers every few days — don’t leave poopy diapers in the pail for over a week like I did! Or get a diaper sprayer and use it! (or rinse out poopy diapers before putting them in the pail).
If you buy fitted cloth diapers, then you need to use a diaper cover over them. Otherwise the diaper will leak! I used diaper covers made from PUL, which is waterproof but still breathable, and never had any leakage problems. Even overnight.
IMPORTANT ADVICE: BUY CLOTH DIAPERS WITH LEG GUSSETS!
Otherwise, leaking can occur around the leg area. Also, if someone else is changing your baby (like a helpful mother in law), make sure they know to tuck the cloth diaper into the cover. If any of the diaper is sticking out, then it will leak.
Creating a Cloth Diaper Changing Station
A changing station for cloth diapers isn’t really any different than a station for disposables. The only difference is that you need two pails: 1 pail for trash (baby wipes) and another pail for the cloth diapers. If you are doing reusable wipes too, then you will only need one pail.
Off to one side of my diaper changing table, I had a pile of prefold diapers, the spare diaper covers, butt cream, and baby wipes. That was it. Simple. Cheap. Effective.
The 5 Types of Cloth Diapers
Option #1: Prefolds + Diaper Covers
This is what I used for my daughter and recommend. It is the cheapest and simplest solution. You just fold a cloth “prefold” diaper into thirds and lay it inside the diaper cover. Or you can get creative with how you fold the prefold and secure it in place with a diaper pin or Snappi.
When you go to change the prefold, you just take off the plastic cover, remove the prefold, and put a new prefold in its place. If the plastic cover got wet, then wipe it down with a baby wipe. Every few days, wash the plastic covers by rinsing them out. I only had 4 covers and this was more than adequate because the covers air-dry in less than an hour.
Just make sure you get diaper covers with leg gussets. Otherwise, they might leak!!! I used Thirsties Duo Wraps and they were great. As for the prefolds, they are cheap and readily available. I wish someone would have gifted me some bamboo or hemp prefolds because these are supposed to be super absorbent and fast-drying.
Pros and Cons of Prefold Cloth Diapers
- Pros: Cheapest option, no leaking, plastic covers can be reused multiple times
- Cons: Some plastic may touch the baby’s skin, may look a bit bulky on newborns
Option #2: Fitted Cloth Diapers
Fitted cloth diapers are made from layers of fabric. The main benefit of these is that they are soft on the baby’s skin. Bear in mind though that these are not waterproof. This means you will have leakage if you don’t use them with a diaper cover! That kind of defeats the point of them being “more breathable.” Since you have to wash the fitted diaper after each use, you will have to buy a lot of them – and they are pricy. I had a couple fitted cloth diapers and I found them really impractical, but some parents love them.
Pros and Cons of Fitted Cloth Diapers
- Pros: Easiest to put on, comfortable for babies
- Cons: Expensive, are not waterproof — need to be used with a plastic cover, must be washed after each use, take a long time to dry
Option #3: Pocket Diapers
Pocket diapers were the first innovation in cloth diapers in what was probably hundreds of years. They have a waterproof exterior and a polyester lining which creates a pocket. You put a prefold or insert into the pocket to absorb moisture. The polyester lining is “stay dry” and helps keep the moisture from the prefold away from the baby’s skin.
I can’t imagine using pocket diapers for several reasons. First, you have to pull the dirty insert out of the pocket. Gross. Because the polyester lining gets wet, you have to wash the entire pocket diaper (not just the insert) after each use. This means you will have to buy a lot of them, which can add up to a big expense. Further, pocket diapers are usually poorly fitted and don’t have leg gussets, which means some leaking. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy this type of cloth diapers.
Pros and Cons of Pocket Diapers
- Pros: You can adjust the amount of padding you put into the pocket for more absorbency
- Cons: Have to remove the dirty insert from the pocket (gross!), have to wash diaper and insert after each use, are fairly expensive, poor fit
Option #4: All In One (AIO) Cloth Diapers
If you can afford it, this is the easiest option. AIO diapers are fitted diapers which have a waterproof outer so they are waterproof. When it is time to change the diaper, you just toss it into the diaper pail for cleaning and put on another. They are easy to put on and well fitted so no leaking occurs (still make sure you get leg gussets!). But, since you have to wash them after each use, and because AIO cloth diapers are pricy, you will have to spend quite a bit to buy enough of these. Also, you will probably have to buy a whole new set as the baby grows, though there are some adjustable AIO diapers available.
Pros and Cons of AIO Cloth Diapers
- Pros: Easiest option, good fit, don’t leak
- Cons: Most expensive option, must wash after each use
Option #5: Hybrid/ All In Two (AI2) Diapers
Hybrid diapers get their name because the inserts can be either cloth or disposable. They are basically a modernized version of the prefold option. Some really aren’t any different than the prefolds option, except that you use an insert or “soaker pad” instead of having to fold the cloth diaper into shape. This also means that you can put more soaker pads into the diaper if necessary, or choose thicker soaker pads for more absorbency.
What makes hybrid diapers so “modern” is that there is a layer of poly fleece within the body (sandwiched between the outer print and inner velour). The fleece deflects moisture back inside into the insert, soaking up more urine. This means you can use the shell of the hybrid a few times before having to wash it.
Hybrid diaper manufacturers often make their soaker pads in different absorbency levels, so you can increase absorbency (such as for nighttime) without having to add a lot of bulk.
Pros and Cons of AI2 Diapers
- Pros: Can use disposable inserts, hybrid shell can (usually) be reused a couple of times, soaker pads come in different absorbency levels, easy and budget-friendly
- Cons: Many brands aren’t fitted well so leakage could occur – must look for brands which have leg gussets
I did A LOT of research into which cloth diapers to use. Again, I was on a really limited budget. In the end, I went with Thirsties Duo Wrap diaper covers with prefolds for three reasons:
- Cheapest option
- Thirsties are adjustable, so you only need two sizes to take you through potty training
- They have leg gussets
I also had a fitted cloth diaper, but found it bulky. And it took forever to dry, so I never used it. But, some people like these. There are a lot of different types and brands of cloth diapers, and each parent has his or her own preference. I’d recommend getting a few and testing them out before you buy a huge stockpile of one type (if your friends have babies, ask if you can test them out on their kids!).
Regardless of the type and brand of cloth diapers you choose, I recommend:
- LEG GUSSETS! If the cloth diapers or covers don’t have leg gussets, then leaking is going to occur.
- CHOOSE “ONE SIZE” CLOTH DIAPERS: Unless you want to buy an entire new set of cloth diapers each time your child grows a bit, then buy “one size” diapers. This means they can be adjusted (usually through snaps on the front of the diaper – for this purpose, snaps didn’t bother me at all because you don’t unsnap them during changing). One-size cloth diapers or diaper covers will be listed by weight. For example, Thristies Size 1 is 6-18lbs, and Size 2 is 18-40lbs, which will take you through potty training.
How Many Cloth Diapers Do You Need?
The number of cloth diapers you will need to buy depends on
- What type of cloth diapers you choose,
- how often you will do laundry and
- If you have a dryer.
Infants usually need their diapers changed about 7 times per day. I did laundry about once every 5 days. Since I don’t have a dryer, it takes about 1-2 days for diapers to dry. Even if you do have a dryer, it is still good to give yourself an extra couple days, in case you don’t get around to doing laundry. So, you will need about 7 diapers for 7 days. This adds up to 49 cloth diapers. Let’s just call it 50 😉
Prefold Cloth Diapers: You will need about 50 prefolds. You will also need diaper covers. The diaper covers can be used through multiple changings and can just be wiped out with a baby wipe if they get dirty. They also dry really quickly. I only had 4 diaper covers and was fine. So, buy 50 prefolds plus at least 4 diaper covers.
Fitted Diapers: You will need 50 fitted diapers (because they have to be washed after each use!). If you don’t have a dryer, you will need more because fitted diapers take a long time to dry. Calculate 2-3 days for drying. You will also need at least 4 diaper covers. So, buy at least 50 fitted diapers plus at least 4 diaper covers.
Pocket Diapers: You will need 50 pocket diapers plus 50 inserts. Get inserts of various absorbency levels.
AIO Diapers: You will need 50 AIO diapers and NO diaper covers. If you don’t have a dryer, then get more AIO diapers because they take about 2-3 days to dry on the line.
Hybrid Diapers: Hybrid diaper covers can usually be reused about 2-3 times before you have to wash them. So this means you will need to buy 17 covers and 50 inserts.
As your baby grows: I recommend getting “All In One” cloth diapers. These have snaps so you can adjust their size to fit your baby as he/she grows. Yes, they will probably be a bit bulky on your newborn – but who cares? It beats having to buy a complete new set of diapers each time your baby grows (which will happen quickly!). I was able to use just two sizes of cloth diapers to take me through potty training.
Cloth Diapers When Traveling
So what do you do about diapers when you are traveling somewhere with the baby?
For short trips, I would still use the cloth diapers. I’d just make sure to have a spare cover and prefold with me, as well as a plastic bag to put the dirty diaper in.
For longer trips, I would use biodegradable disposable diapers. Who wants to carry a bag of dirty diapers around in her purse?
There is also the option of getting disposable inserts/soaker pads for cloth diapers. These are designed for hybrid diapers, but I you could use them with a standard diaper cover too. You just throw the insert away, put in a new one, and are on your way.
Top Brands of Cloth Diapers
- Prefolds: Dandelion (organic), Imagine (bamboo), Thirsties Hemp, BabyKicks (hemp), GroVia (bamboo/organic cotton), OsoCozy (organic cotton, bamboo/organic cotton)
- Prefold Covers: Thirsties Duo Wrap (this is what I used), Imagine, Bummis, BB2, Bumkins *All of these have leg gussets!
- Fitted Cloth Diapers: OsoCozy (organic), Kissaluvs (organic), THX (organic), Ecoable (hemp/organic cotton), Bumpkins