Cloth Diapering: My Basics

Sometimes people ask me about cloth diapers, as I have used them with two children. I thought it might be useful to post an overview for easy reference. I call this "my basics" because everybody seems to have slightly different reasons for using cloth diapers, and slightly different ways of using them. The key, of course, is just to do what works. This is what works for me. I hope it's useful. (Please note that nobody paid or rewarded me to mention any particular brands, they're just what I happen to have. However if one were to click through to Amazon and buy something, I might make a few cents on those links.)

Basic supplies

I've tried several kinds of cloth diaper and there are many many more options available. What works best for me and my slap-dash manner is prefolds--basically just a piece of cloth that has a thicker section in the middle third (most visible in the top diaper shown below). I fold these and put them into a "wrap," which is a washable diaper-shaped holder that can be reused over and over... and over.

A note on fabric: the prefolds shown below are Indian I believe (there are also Chinese ones). They are a soft cotton with a smooth-ish surface. There are also prefolds available, like Gerber brand, that seem more gauze-y, not so smooth. I don't recommend these for diapers (though they make excellent burp cloths).

Prefolds: Infant size on top, larger on bottom

How many prefolds do you need? As many as you can afford! The more diapers you have, the less often you have to do laundry. However, prefolds do seem to cost around 2 dollars apiece, so don't go too crazy. Kitting yourself out with 24 prefolds and 4 wraps might cost you up to $100. (Put them on your baby registery or ask for a gift card if you can!) To compare, a package of disposable diapers might contain 48 diapers and cost $10. I am feeble at math, but I think that means that the cloth diapers start paying for themselves after about 3 weeks. (I use an average of 12 a day, so I'd be buying a new bag of disposables every 2 days or so.)

Also, kids grow and diapers don't. So one would need several sets of diapers. Here's what I use:

For the first 6 weeks, 24 infant size prefolds with 3 newborn wraps. I have Bummis brand for wraps.

From 6 weeks to about 6 months, 24 larger prefolds with 5+ wraps. For wraps I used Bummis again, Imse Vimse (I have "Bumpy" style) and Mother-Ease ("Rikki" style especially). More important than brand here I think is the velcro--if you're changing diapers 12 times a day, I'd suggest velcro wraps and not snaps, cuz the snaps get really old really fast.

These are both velcro--so easy to secure.
The top is Imse Vimse and the bottom is Mother-Ease.

The top is velcro--Bummis brand. The bottom is a Mother-Ease with snaps.

After 6 months I also started rotating in Mother-Ease One-Size Diapers. Theoretically these can be used for small babies too but it takes a lot of folding & snapping and I was just too darn lazy. But once the child is bigger and not wetting/soiling a million times a day, the One-Size gets more worthwhile. (Note, I've used both regular and organic and frankly like the regular better. It has a more absorbent/washable lining, and I found the organics started to fall apart rather quickly.)

For a large baby or toddler, use the One-Size unfolded and at the outermost snaps.For an infant or smaller baby, fold down the top row of snaps and there are more snaps on the back. Then cinch in the side flaps and snap as tightly as needed. You can even snap the right-hand-side on top of the left-hand-side for the smallest possible fit.

A few more supplies: I recommend a plastic bucket with lid for holding used diapers (see pic at very beginning of post), and a simple dollar-store basin for rinsing (more below).

Using the Diapers

I was taught by our local "natural parenting" store, where we purchase diaper supplies, that prefolds can be folded differently for girls and boys.

For a girl baby, place the diaper sideways as shown on top, then fold in either side to make a 3-layer rectangle. The thickest part of the diaper will be in the middle.

For a boy baby, start with the diaper sideways, then fold in one side just a few inches. Fold down the top and bottom so they meet in the middle. The thickest part of the diaper is now in the front. (You then flip it over and put the smooth side toward the baby.) Actually, that first inward fold is optional--the key is to just fold both sides in to the middle.

Then whichever way you folded it, you put it in the diaper wrap and put it on the baby. I keep using a wrap over and over again until it gets poopy. That means I might go through 3 or 5 or 8 prefolds in the same wrap before I need to change the wrap.


So cloth diapers, super cheap & easy, right? Yay, right? Well I must disclose that using cloth diapers does involve Touching Poop. You can't just fold up a nasty one and throw it away like with disposables. So here's the deal with washing these reusable beauties.

My 2 dozen diapers seem to need washing every other day. I put used ones in a bucket with lid. (Honestly, the diapers of an exclusively breastfed baby are not very smelly. When "real" poop starts, I might start keeping the bucket in the bathroom.) Then when I use the last diaper (and usually not before!) I haul out the bucket and follow these washing steps:
  1. Separate out any poopy diapers and wraps.
  2. Soak these in a dedicated plastic basin in the bathtub.
  3. After 10 minutes or even overnight, I rinse these out, rubbing a little to dislodge matter. I try to catch all rinse water in the basin. I pour any soiled water down the toilet. My goal is not to let the diaper water touch the bathtub... much. (Once solid food is started this job will get yuckier.)
  4. Throw all diapers and wraps into washing machine. We have an HE (High Efficiency) washer that doesn't use much water, and we found a "normal" cycle leaves the washer smelling funny. So we use an extra rinse cycle, and also pour some white vinegar (maybe 1/4 cup) in the bleach dispenser. We wash on Hot. (Never use bleach because it will destroy the diapers quickly. Washing them constantly is already wearing them out.)
  5. We air dry the wraps, but do put diapers in the dryer. That's where the nice soft wrinkly texture comes from. (When we first bought prefolds they were large and stiff. They need to be pre-washed and dried to shrink and soften. We actually didn't have a dryer back then so we boiled the diapers and then line-dried them. Line-dried diapers are not as soft and cuddly though.)
  6. Use those clean cloth diapers and wraps, and be ready to wash all over again in 48 hours.

Further Thoughts

**An Important Disclaimer: I always use disposables at night, so I am not a total-cloth gal. Gasp, I know! With baby #1, I found she woke up less often with disposables, and sleep trumped sustainability for me. Baby #2 seems to know when he's wet whether it's disposable or not, but it's also easier to put on a disposable in the dim night-time bedroom, so that's what I do.

Also for the very first week or so after birth, we used disposable Newborn diapers because it's just such an intense time. The last thing we needed to deal with was more laundry. (Basically, using disposables in a pinch is always my policy, be it laundry time, an expedition somewhere, or just cuz.)

Washing costs:
Even though cloth diapers pay for themselves after several uses, they aren't exactly free after that because they need to be washed and dried constantly. Our electric bill does show a slight change.

Checking for wetness: I think it's amusing that many moms have a two-fingered "swipe" they do to see if a cloth diaper is wet--rather than undressing the baby to check (that's what dads do--ha!). If the baby is wearing pants one can check for wetness up the leg and into the diaper with no undressing/unsnapping at all.

Blowouts: I believe that cloth diapers are better at holding poop explosions than disposables. Or at least the disposables I use. It's always a little sad when a cute onesie gets stained (and you have to change everything the baby is wearing) because a blowout went "up the back." For us, this happens less often with cloth.

Wipes: Do I use cloth wipes? Nope! :)

DIY wraps, inserts, doublers, etc.: I know people who sew their own wraps. I know people who have used flushable liners. I've seen "doublers" to go into One-Size diapers at night and soak up more during that time. I know people who use wool wraps and swear they hardly ever need washing, just a wipe and some drying time. I know people who have tried cloth and gave up because it was yucky or the baby didn't seem to like it. I know people who used disposables all the time except in the evenings, when mom would use cloth. I know people who wouldn't dream of using disposables unless it was some kind of emergency. This is all to say again--if you want to use cloth diapers, just do what works for you. There are no laws or terms that must be followed!

Links: I did not do any researching because I want to use my own words here. While I was putting this together, I did see a post come out on Simple Organic about rationales for using cloth: Cloth Diapering: It Doesn't Have to Be All or Nothing. Also as a Vermonter I must mention Green Mountain Diapers, an online store based in Vernon, VT!


Wallace said...

VERY helpful and informative. Thanks also for the notes at the end. Where did you buy the covers and the non Gerber brand diapers?

"Prof. Kitty" said...

Thanks, so glad it's helpful! We got our stuff at Sprout, the natural parenting store in Brattleboro VT. Seems you can buy some of this stuff on Amazon, but also check out the Green Mountain Diapers link I give--it's an online store (I'll add that to the post!)

CatUnderTheCovers said...

Thank you for simplifying what others seem to take pages and pages to do! Eko is one week old today and we have felt not a twinge of guilt for using disposables during this time. But we're gearing up for more cloth now, and your overview is so easy on my sleep-deprived brain!
PS we bought the starter kit from green mt diapers - great deal.