diapering

Time for a Change: The Complete Guide to Cloth Diapers

Are you looking for an alternative to traditional disposable diapers?

While elimination communication (EC) remains far and away the cheapest, most ecological option, it’s often not the most practical option. I knew I couldn’t commit to practicing EC 100% of the time.

Enter the cloth diaper. When I knew I wanted to try cloth diapers, I found the whole process rather daunting. I was completely overwhelmed with information overload!

Luckily, I’ve done all the dirty work for you. With 2 years of experience and counting, I now know my way around cloth diapers. They don’t scare me!

I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to cloth diapers in the hopes that it will both convince you to try them, and help you to use them successfully.

I hope you already had your coffee, because we’re diving into some admittedly unappetizing subject matter today.

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Why you should consider cloth diapers

When people learn that I use cloth diapers on my daughter, they want to know why on earth I would do that. There are 6 great reasons why cloth diapering has become part of my conscious parenting:

1.      Better for the environment

Did you know:

Stop the madness! This kind of consumption creates immense environmental pressure first due to the demand in manufacturing, and then the demand in disposing of these items.

Instead, you can use the same cloth diaper system for nearly the entire diapering period of not just one baby, but two or even three!

By reusing the same products, we are reducing our CO2 footprint. There is a lower demand for manufacturing something reusable, and then when you are done diapering your babies, you can repurpose your cloth diapers for anything else you can think of! You won’t even have to throw your cloth diapers in the trash in the end, which makes the landfills happy.

2.      Better for your wallet

You are going to have to make an initial investment if you want to use cloth diapers. There is no getting around it.

However, the great thing about cloth diapers is that over time, you are actually going to SAVE MONEY.

Consider how you spend your money using the two different systems:

Traditional disposable diapers

  1. Gas for your car to get to and from the store that sells diapers
  2. Money to buy the diapers

Every time your baby soils a diaper, it gets thrown out. You keep buying new ones over, and over, and over—for about 2 years.

Cloth diapers

  1. Gas for your car to get to and from the store that sells diapers—in one trip!
  2. Money to buy the diapers
  3. Utilities: water to wash the diapers and electricity to power the laundry machine

Like traditional diapers, for cloth diapers you still need to procure the supplies from a store—ONE time. And once you’re home, they’re yours to use forever. From then on, it’s just a little more in your budget for utilities. That’s it.

As a bonus, you are saving time in the long run. With cloth diapers, no more rushing to the store in a panic because you just put the last disposable on your baby. If you run out, you can just do a load of wash at home! Spend more time with your precious baby while your laundry machine is readying a new arsenal of diapers.

diaper change

3.  Better for your baby

Let’s go out on a limb here. Maybe you don’t care about the environment. Maybe money is no object for you. Lucky you!

But don’t you care about your baby’s bum?

Traditional disposable diapers contain all sorts of chemicals: perfumes and aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and furans, and even glyphosate, to name a few. These chemicals sit against your baby’s skin and may cause skin allergies.

In order to hold liquid waste, disposable diapers work by transforming liquids into a gel. The waste is then wicked away from your baby’s skin, leaving a dry(er) feeling.

But the diaper stays on until you change it. Your baby can pee and poop a few times before the next change. Considering the price of each diaper, it’s in your best interest to get good mileage out of each one, so you’re probably not changing it after each and every pee. But that means that the waste stays on (hello, 12-hour protection). Gross.

4.   Better for potty training later

Because we tend to change a disposable diaper after a longer period of time, we essentially train our babies to get used to the feeling of being soiled all the time.

Cloth diapers do not have the ability to transform liquids into a gel. Neither are they completely leak-proof. This means that we need to change a cloth diaper more frequently—ideally after each pee, but let’s be real, who’s doing that?

Because the waste remains directly against your baby’s skin in the cloth diapers, he has a feeling of being wet. Your baby will more easily notice the difference between wet and dry when you change his diaper, because he hasn’t gotten used to the drier feeling that gel provides.

This will be an important factor in the success of your potty training down the road. Your baby’s natural preference for feeling dry instead of wet is preserved by using cloth diapers that allow him to feel the difference.

5.   Better for you

If the above 4 reasons resonate with you, then ultimately using cloth diapers on your baby will be better for you. You’ll feel great about an option that is aligned with your values.

It’s important to remember that choosing cloth diapers is NOT an all-or-nothing method. You CAN combine the use of cloth diapers with both EC and disposable diapers.

We found cloth diapering to be the happy medium between EC and using traditional diapers. Find what works best for you and your family, and do that thing.

6.   Better designs

Still not convinced? Well, what about all the cute patterns on cloth diapers?! Honestly, who can resist them?!

What you need to get started with cloth diapers

As I mentioned above, going the cloth diaper route will require an initial investment, but don’t worry, you’ll save money in the long run.

Here is everything you need to get started with cloth diapers.

What you need to buy

The entire cloth diaper system of your choice. I’ll go into this more below, but for us, we chose outer shells for leak-proof protection, muslin cloths (called flats) for absorption, and diaper liners for easier cleanup.

Washcloths for wiping. As long as we’re over here saving money and the planet, let’s not waste our efforts with disposable baby wipes. Washcloths are a great alternative to wet wipes which are also manufactured with chemicals and can also wind up clogging the pipes.

Storage. If you are using diaper paper and have a septic tank, you can’t flush diaper liners like you would toilet paper, so you need some sort of closed bin. For the washable parts, I highly suggest storing them in a mesh laundry bag so that once it’s full, you can just throw the entire bag into your laundry machine. But it’s going to smell a bit like a public toilet, so get a large bin with a lid or construct a small cabinet to store the mesh laundry bag until it’s full enough to do a load of laundry.

A wet bag for on-the-go. When you’re out, where do you keep the soiled diapers? In a wet bag, basically the washable version of a Ziploc bag. Genius!

What you probably have already

A laundry machine with detergent. Cause no, you are not gonna be washing the poop out yourself. Let your laundry machine do the work.

Optional: bleaching agent and vinegar. It won’t be possible to use this with the outer shells, but they will clean the absorbent inserts and liners like nobody’s business.

A laundry hanging unit. You might have a dryer. Try not to use it as long as we’re being environmentally friendly here. Even if you use it for the absorbent inserts every time, you won’t be able to put outer shells or liners in the dryer. You’ll need a space where you can simply hang-dry some items.

The different cloth diaper systems

Cloth diaper systems are getting sophisticated, my friends. I have only tried one, but they all have their benefits and drawbacks. You should consider the following when purchasing a cloth diaper system:

  • Whether you want to spend time folding absorbent inserts
  • Whether you need inserts to dry quickly (access to a dryer)
  • Your budget

All-in-ones & All-in-twos

If you don’t want to spend time folding and packing inserts, this system is for you.

All-in-ones are just what they sound like: they are manufactured with an absorbent insert and a leak-proof diaper cover, called an outer shell, in one piece.

You snap it on, and when it gets soiled, you don’t need to take different sections apart; you just wash it all in one piece.

All-in-twos have a removable absorbent insert that you switch out during the diaper change. The insert is manufactured to fit the outer shell perfectly by snapping together.

Pocket

The outer shell has pockets inside where you place the absorbent inserts. Mamas, you know when you wash your swimsuit and you need to put the bra cups back in? It’s those kinds of pockets we’re talking about. But they have a larger hole so it’s easier to put the inserts back in.

Fitted

Imagine the design of a regular disposable diaper with Velcro or snap closures at the waist and elastic at the legs.

 Now imagine you can wash the entire diaper.

The only caveat is that fitted diapers are absorbent, but not leak-proof, so you still need to buy a separate outer shell.

Flats & Prefolds

This is the system I use because it is the cheapest one and the most quick-drying (I don’t own a dryer).

Flats are basically muslin cloths (like a burp cloth) that you fold over several times to create more of an absorbent padding.

Prefolds are, well, pre-folded and sewn flats, if you don’t feel like spending time folding cloth.

Flats and prefolds are absorbent, but they are not leak-proof, so you still need to buy a separate outer shell. I have about 40 flats and exactly 9 shells.

From here on out, I am going to be referring to the cloth diaper system I use with flats and leak-proof outer shells.

How to use cloth diapers

Using cloth diapers is really simple! But if you already have experience using disposables, you’ll find it’s a little different.

Time it right

You’ll need to change cloth diapers more frequently than you probably would disposable diapers. As I mentioned above, waste stays against your baby’s skin in the cloth diapers. You don’t want the acidity to cause a rash, so change often.

How do you know when it’s time for a change? With a disposable diaper, you can see if it’s starting to get full. You can feel it from the outside. You can also smell it sometimes. Cloth diapers will give you none of these clues.

Basically it just takes some practice to know when and how often to change your baby. Currently, I don’t wait longer than 1.5-2 hours before I change C. I just make sure to look at the time when I change her—we have a clock right above our changing table.

You will have to adapt your timing according to the age and development of your child. As his bladder grows, the pees will get less frequent but more abundant. Also, as his diet changes, the poops will thankfully get less frequent, too.

Store them right

Diaper liners

If your toilet is connected to the city pipes, feel free to flush poop-soiled diaper liners as you would regular toilet paper.

If your toilet is connected to a septic tank, do not flush it! Buy yourself a small garbage bin specifically for poop-soiled diaper liners. Make sure it’s completely sealed when it’s closed! Then dispose of the contents with your regular garbage disposal.

If the diaper paper is only soiled with pee, you can store it to be washed later. I wash ours with clothes, which is the right temperature and spin cycle, so I throw it all together. (I promise, everything is totally clean when it comes out of the laundry machine.)

Absorbent Inserts

You’ll need a separate storage setup for all your inserts because they will make up the bulk of what needs to be washed and on a more frequent basis.

I highly suggest you make or purchase a simple cabinet. I have a small wooden one in our bathroom which I lined with plastic garbage bags (which I replace now and again), then with 2 mesh laundry bags.

If you don’t have a cabinet in place or don’t want to make one, you could purchase a plastic bin that will do the same job.

All dirty inserts—whether soiled with pee or poop—go into the mesh laundry bags. When the laundry bags are full after a couple of days, I throw the 2 bags into my laundry machine and replace them with 2 clean laundry bags inside the cabinet.

Outer shells

The great thing about the outer shells is that you don’t need to wash them after every change.

If they were just soiled with pee, you can hang them to air out before fitting them with an insert again, and you can do this over and over.

If they were soiled with poop—as in, some actually got on the material—you need to store them to be washed.

newborn wearing cloth diaper

Wash them right

Diaper liners

If a diaper liner is soiled with poop, you can’t wash it and you need to dispose of it (see above).

If a diaper liner is only soiled with pee, you can wash it at 40°C, with some sort of bleaching agent. I wash mine again and again with our regular clothes.

Absorbent Inserts

You can wash the inserts at 60°C. It’s the same temperature you would use for towels, so throw them all in together if you need to fill the machine a bit more. Use a bleaching agent and fabric softener if you want (I use percarbonate and vinegar, respectively).

If you find the inserts need a deeper clean once in a while, you can wash them at up to 95°C. I usually do this before we go away on vacation, so that I know they are clinically clean when they will just sit around in folded piles in the dark for a week or more!

Outer shells

When it’s time to wash the outer shells, you need to take a few more precautions to preserve the material.

Do not use any fabric softener (such as vinegar or commercial options) or bleaching agents. Only use a gentle detergent.

It’s the temperature that really gets them clean: wash the plastic pants at 60°C. Any less will not sanitize them enough, and any more will begin to break down the fabric and potentially compromise their leak-proof quality.

Make sure the spin cycle is under 800 rpm.

Do not put outer shells in the dryer. Instead, hang dry them. Turn them inside out first to make sure that moisture doesn’t get trapped inside the plastic folds. I turn them right side out again after half a day or so. It usually doesn’t take more than 24 hours for them to dry completely.

Tips and tricks

You’ll inevitably run into a few snags. Luckily, I’m here to help, with my 2 years of experience and counting!

  • Double up on inserts. If you find that the diapers are leaking often, you can put 2 flats inside the plastic pants instead of 1.
  • Tuck the insert in the front of the outer shell and leave some out in the back. If poops are leaking onto the back of the outer shell, a little trick is to put the insert between your baby’s back and the outer shell so that it’s not tucked in back there.
  • Always have 2-3 diapers already made up. I have all our flats folded under the changing table, but I don’t want to assemble a new diaper at every change. To save time for a quick diaper change, have a few already made up and make sure you replenish your stock throughout the day.

Cloth diapers are an easy, practical solution

When I told a friend of mine that I was using cloth diapers on my daughter, she replied, “Brave woman.”

I don’t consider myself brave! I’m just doing my part for the planet, and saving money at the same time.

I hope this article gave you the basic information you need to get started with cloth diapers. It’s really a very small learning curve once you try them out, I promise!

For further reading, I would recommend you check out this post:

Still—do you have any questions I didn’t answer in this article? Please let me know in the comments below and I will answer each and every one of them the best I can! Thanks for reading!

-Jessica
photo of me

Jessica is an American expat living the dream in Normandy. She is wife to a French hubby and mama to a Franco-American daughter, born in 2018, and one whippet. Passionate about all stages of writing, this Francophile created her blog in 2020 to help others navigate motherhood with a focus on conscious parenting and bilingual parenting. Bonne lecture !

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