Cloth Diapering: An Introduction

There are a million blog posts about cloth diapering (and plenty of blogs devoted entirely to them) but I will add my two cents worth so that I can refer people to my post or in case I have an insight that has not been captured before.

When most people think of cloth diapers, they think of the old-fashioned prefolds or flats. While those are still an option, cloth diapers have come a really long way and are as easy to use as disposables – no pins or wet pails needed.  I’ll give a feel for the flavor of the new cloth diapers and help you decide how to go about purchasing, caring for and troubleshooting possible problems with the diapers.

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My reasons for cloth diapering

I have found that with anything you do with parenting or life choices, you can justify it one way or another.  Many people will look at you like you’re crazy when you mention you are cloth diapering.  Like anything that is worthwhile or isn’t “convenient” or part of our throwaway culture, it requires you to put in a little bit of  time/mental investment up front but then quickly becomes part of your routine.  I promise it’s a lot easier than you think has the potential to leave you feeling good about your choice.  I don’t think anyone “feels good” about disposable diapers.

I decided that I wanted to cloth diaper even before I knew I was pregnant. My reasons for wanting to do it were pretty simple.

  • Environmental impact.   I could look up a statistic that says how many pounds of diapers are thrown away in the average year or for the average baby and how long they take to decompose (500 years!!) but anyone who has used disposable diapers for a week is aware of this impact.  Besides the amount that ends up in landfills, there is also the amount that ends up in our weekly trash.   Which brings me to my next point…
  • Rubbish generated. We work hard to only create one tiny bag of trash in our house on a weekly basis by recycling, composting and trying to minimize our consumption.  It is a source of pride for us and I don’t want it to go away just because we had a baby.
  • Built to last.  I don’t like anything that is made for a one-time use. I like things that are well constructed and can be used over and over.  Most of today’s cloth diapers come with adjustable sizing and will fit a baby from 8-35 pounds (that’s from birth through to potty training!).
  • Economics.  Especially if you plan to have more than one child, the economics of cloth diapers wins.   There are many different options and I’m sure you can crunch the numbers yourself.  In our case, we purchased 24 cloth diapers to last the duration of our baby’s time in diapers.  We bought fairly “fancy” ones so our entire stash was about $500.  Detergent and electricity could be factored in but if a child goes through about 8 diapers per day and diapers cost an average of 30 cents each, that’s already nearly $1000 in the first year, not to mention wipes.  We do cloth wipes since we are doing the cloth diapers so we save money there too.
  • Less toxins and chemicals in contact with baby. The ingredients put in to disposable diapers (dioxins, VOC’s, sodium polyacrylate, fragrance) to absorb and wick and dye and advertise Disney and Sesame Street characters makes me a little nervous.
  • Eliminates errands.  I can’t stand shopping or running to places like Target, etc. It cuts in to my creative time or time that could be better spent with my baby.  I love that we never have to run out to pick up diapers or wipes in the middle of the night or on a nice day.  Avoiding these stores also means spending less money on stupid crap you don’t need that you never would have  bought if you hadn’t gone to the store.
  • Contain “blowouts” and smell.  The few times I have had to use disposable diapers I have noticed the baby becomes a lot stinkier after having a poo in the disposables and some of the poo gets dangerously close to exiting the diaper and getting all over the clothes.  I have never had a blowout in my cloth diapers.
  • Helps prevent diaper rash.  Anecdotally I have heard that cloth diapers can help with diaper rash issues and some people use them because of sensitivities their little ones have to the plethora of chemicals used in disposable diapers.  I have not really encountered diaper rash but also haven’t used disposables for an appreciable amount of time to determine if they happen more often in disposables.
  • Expedites potty training  I’ll update my thoughts on this when my baby gets older but I have heard that the child is more aware of the correlation between going to the bathroom and an uncomfortable wetness so can ask to use the toilet earlier.
  • They’re cute!  Today’s cloth diapers come in really fun patterns and colors and leave your babe with a really fluffy little mushroom butt.  For girls, cloth diapers can be used as little bloomers and both genders look cute in just their diapers, especially when the mercury rises or they saturate any shirt they wear in drool.
  • They hold their value  Believe it or not, cloth diapers actually fetch pretty good values on sites like Craigslist so if you are done with them, you can sell them or pass them on to a friend who is interested in trying cloth diapers.

Decisions to make if you decide to cloth diaper

  • Brand  Of course you can make up a stash of all different types but I chose to go with all one brand – bumGenius by Cotton Babies.  I don’t have nearly the experience as these blogs devoted to cloth diapers and simply went with the recommendation of a few other mommas I had trusted to have done their research.
  • Type You can generally choose between All-in-One’s (or AOI’s as they’re often called) or those that require stuffing with an insert (pocket diapers). Today’s cloth diapers generally have a cover or outershell often in a poly blend (the cloth diaper lingo usually refers to this as calls it PUL for PolyUrethane Laminate) and then have absorbent inserts that catch the poos and wees.  The AOI’s have these inserts sewn in whereas the pocket diapers need to be stuffed with an insert.  If you go with the type that require stuffing, there are different types of inserts you can use (e.g. hemp, bamboo, cotton, microfiber terry).  Moms seem to be pretty divided about which one they are loyal to and I’m still not sure which one I prefer.  I have made a list of the pros and cons below if you are more interested in pursuing that.
  • How many  The more diapers you have, the less things seem like an emergency at times.  I bought 24 diapers which equates to diaper laundry every other day – the same that is recommended by the manufacturers.  At the newborn stage, babies can soil up to 12 diapers per day.  Now, at the 4-month mark she generally goes through about 8 diapers per day but the extra diapers allow for long drying times on particularly cold or damp days.  The diapers generally need to be line dried.  I would say to err on the side of too few as you start.  You can ease in to it and see what you like.  They also put out limited edition prints and you may want to acquire some of these and will feel less guilty about it if you need to add to your stash anyway.  I also didn’t know the gender of the baby prior to the birth so wanted to get some pink ones after I found out it was a girl!  I used disposables for the first month just because my baby was under 7 pounds and because I wanted diapers that had a cutout for the umbilical cord, not to mention the first month after a baby’s arrival is a bit overwhelming.  That gave me a chance to slowly build up to the cloth diapers and get used to them.

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Pocket Diapers vs. All-in-One’s

The bumGenius brand calls their All-in-Ones (AOI’s) their Freetime diaper.  These diapers have the insert sewn in and the beauty of these is they give a little bit of extra free time (as the name implies) since stuffing them is not required. There are a few drawbacks to them though. The first is drying time. I find they can sometimes take quite a bit of time to dry in cold or damp air which can be kind of frustrating. On a hot sunny summer day they will dry in a few hours though.   The pocket diapers (called 4.0 by bumGenius) can have their inserts tumble dried and the covers dry quite quickly.  The other drawback to the Freetimes is that they can be a bit difficult to clean. I have not experienced this too much myself yet since my baby is still exclusively on breast milk (which is water soluble and doesn’t require pre-rinsing). The final drawback is that you don’t have the option to stuff them with an insert other than the type sewn in which is a terry microfiber for bumGenius brand.  On days it’s hot and sunny and I’m short on time, I love my Freetimes.  On days it’s cold or damp or I really want to use my hemp or bamboo inserts, I love the 4.0’s.  There isn’t a clear winner to me.

Caring for cloth diapers

My routine for caring for the cloth diapers is pretty simple. When the diapers first arrive, you need to wash them a couple of times. Then, when the baby is just on breast milk, the diapers don’t require any rinsing. This will make you a little nervous at first but, trust me, it’s a blessing and enjoy this poop honeymoon.  Once the baby starts on solids or formula, they need to be rinsed before being put in to the washer machine.  BumGenius makes a really nice sprayer that can attach to the back of your toilet which makes this job a lot easier.  I also love the SprayPal for particularly messy ones.

I put the dirty diapers in to a dry pail (i.e. don’t require soaking in a bucket like the old generation did).  I have a wet/dry bag from Planet Wise so I just keep that hanging next to the changing table and this can be thrown in to the washer machine with the diapers.  It’s also nice for daycare when you want to bring some clean, dry diapers in the front zippered pouch and then the soiled ones can be put in to the wet portion and be taken home to get washed.

I do cloth diaper laundry every other day and then hang them to dry in the sun whenever possible.  We don’t have a clothesline so I just use a drying rack.  I use bumGenius detergent but Ecos Free and Clear can be acquired commercially and I have also heard good things about Charlie’s Soap and Rockin’ Green.  Each time you wash the diapers, they should first go through a prewash in cold water.  Then they need to be washed on a regular cycle in hot water with an extra rinse.

Things about cloth diapers that they tell you but you may ignore. Don’t ignore them!

I did have a couple stumbling blocks along the way so I’ll share those with you now…

  • Wash with one of the detergents specified by the manufacturer. I tried washing mine with what I thought was an “even better solution” with nice natural ingredients but even some of these “good” ingredients with oils, etc. can build up on the diaper and cause stink issues.  You will need a detergent with no enzymes, softeners, brighteners, fragrances, oils, etc.
  • Do not tumble dry them. Doing so may eventually lead to wear and tear issues in the PUL and cause leaking.  You can use a low heat in a pinch and sometimes I throw them in for a few minutes if they have been drying outside to make sure any debris or bugs are removed.
  • Do not use diaper creams. There are some that can be used with cloth diapers (or can be made). If you use commercial creams, they may build up on the diapers and cause stink issues or will cause the fabric to repel water and cause leaks.  I have tried making some of my own but am still tweaking the recipe.  California Baby brand seems to work pretty well and is considered “cloth diaper safe”.
  • Use sunshine to clean the diapers.  They will tell you to line dry them in the sun which you may read to simply line dry them.  Putting the diapers in the sun actually gets out the stains and sanitizes them though.  Apparently sun will bleach all organic stains.  You can almost see it happening in front of your eyes.
  • Strip the diapers if you develop stink or buildup issues.  The manufacturer will have very specific directions for how to do this.  In my case, I really hesitated because it was using Dawn detergent and that just seemed wrong in my little granola heart but that is what works.  Again, there are whole websites devoted to this kind of thing but you will find them if you run in to the issue.

In a nutshell, cloth diapers are easy to use.  You can buy ones that function just like a disposable and simply wash them every other day with the right soap and line dry them.  You could potentially save thousands of dollars and keep your baby in a diaper you feel really good about.

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