This post is mainly for me to pass on to friends when they ask for information about cloth diapers since it seems EVERYONE I know is expecting a baby these days. I have had at least two or three people ask for some basic cloth diapering info in the last week or so and I can never find a *good* cloth diapering guide online. I know that when I was pregnant with Grace I was overwhelmed with all of the options out there and I wished I could find a guide with everything I needed to know all in one place. Two years later, I’ve learned a lot, so here goes!
If you already have an interest in cloth diapering, then you probably know the benefits of choosing a cloth, reusable diapering system over disposable- there is less environmental impact, you save tons of money, your baby is not exposed to the potentially harmful chemicals in disposables, there are no last minute diaper runs, and they are pretty darned cute (and way more fun) to boot. I like to share about using cloth because it has been so great for us and I would imagine there are others out there who will find the cloth love too.
This is not meant to be overwhelming. Some of the information here will be most useful as you make the decision about what to purchase while you’re getting started, and some you might come back to once you are already started and need advice about how to make things work. Feel free to skim or skip the parts that don’t apply to you right now.
So the general idea behind cloth diapering is pretty basic- you need an absorbent layer and a waterproof layer. Beyond that, there are endless possibilities of styles and materials.
Types of Cloth Diapers
These are your grandma’s diapers- one large square of single-layer cloth that can be folded in a myriad of ways to cover your baby’s booty, then covered with a separate waterproof cover. They might be old fashioned, but sometimes the simple approach is really smart. Flat diapers are incredibly versatile: they can be folded to fit just about any size child, they clean easily, dry fast, are small and light to travel with. They are also really inexpensive- you can even buy sets of flour sack towels for a dollar a diaper in the linen section of stores like Target- we have a dozen and love them! Kite fold, origami fold, or pad fold these diapers and throw them into a cover; you’re bound to find an approach that works for you. Hints: If you want help learning the different diaper folds, hit up YouTube. Also, these days you might use grandma’s cloth diapers, but there are alternatives to her pins!
A few brands to look out for: OsoCozy, Swaddlebees, store brand flour sack towels
Prefolds are the next step in line after flats. They are rectangles of multi-layer fabric with extra absorbent layers built into the middle strip. As opposed to flats, prefolds come in different sizes to fit different babies. They can either be fastened directly onto baby and covered with a waterproof cover or they can be pad folded into a rectangle and laid into the cover itself. For some great visual aids and sizing tips, check out Green Mountain Diapers. Prefolds typically run about $20-30 per dozen, so they are another simple economical option. What I like best is that prefolds, like flats, are virtually indestructible- they stand up to use and abuse and will survive even the worst laundry incidents… and they double as changing mats, burp cloths, and when your diapering days are over- cleaning rags. When buying prefolds, you’ll come across options such as bleached vs. unbleached or Indian vs. Chinese, and the option to buy premium prefolds, which have two extra layers of absorbency in the middle layer. These are a matter of personal preference. Cotton Babies can shed some light on the choice of Indian or Chinese prefolds.
A few brands to look out for: Green Mountain Diapers/ClothEez, Econobum, Bummis
Now we move into the more modern, structured diapers. A fitted diaper is similar in shape to a disposable. It’s made of absorbent fabric and snapped or velcro-ed onto baby- pretty easy-peasy. That is the benefit of more structured diapers- they are easy to use, even for those who are unfamiliar with or intimidated by cloth diapering, like daycare providers perhaps. They are also quick to change on the run. Fitteds, like prefolds and flats, must be covered with a waterproof cover of some variety. Fitteds are a popular choice for nighttime as they can be very absorbent (and additional absorbent layers can be laid in if necessary.)
A few brands to look out for: Thirsties fitteds, Bummis Bamboozle, Kissaluvs sized fitteds and Kissaluvs Marvels
The difference between an all-in-one (AIO) diaper and a fitted diaper is that an AIO has the waterproof layer of PUL built right into it. Functionally, this is the closest style of diaper to a disposable. You fasten it on and when the diaper is wet, you take the whole thing off and put on another. The benefit is obvious- these diapers are next to impossible to put on incorrectly, there is nothing to assemble or fold, and they are convenient to carry in the diaper bag. The downfall is that they can take a long time to dry due to the many layers of fabric, which are often sewn right up to the waterproofing.
A few brands to look out for: BumGenius Freetime, Thirsties Duo All-in-One, Grovia newborn and one-size All-in-Ones
As far as modern cloth goes, pockets are my favorite. Here’s how they work… The shell of the diaper has two layers- an inner layer, generally made out of fleece or microsuede which keeps wetness away from baby’s bum and an outer layer of PUL which makes everything waterproof. The two layers are sewn together in the shape of a pocket with an opening on one side. In the opening, you place absorbent inserts. Pockets generally come with one or two inserts of their own, but you can customize the absorbency by adding more or less or even stuff with a prefold or flat diaper. These are just as easy to use as all-in-ones, but do require the extra step of stuffing and unstuffing for the wash. The benefit, however, of having removable inserts is that the drying time is decreased compared to that of all-in-ones and the shell can be line dried separately, preserving the life of the PUL, elastic, and velcro.
A few brands to look out for: Bumgenius OS 4.0, Rumparooz, Sunbaby, Fuzzibunz
All-in-Twos and Hybrid Diapers
So, these are actually two different types of diapers, but they are very similar and somewhat interchangeable, so I will describe them together. Basically, both types of diapers are made up of an outer shell, which is waterproof, and an inner absorbent layer which attaches to the shell. When the diaper is wet, the inner layer is removed from the shell and replaced with a new one. The shell is only changed if it becomes soiled. The difference between these two systems is that in an all-in-two (AI2) the absorbent insert is cloth and in a hybrid diaper the absorbent insert is disposable, compostable, or flushable.
A few brands to look out for: Grovia AI2/Hybrid system, Flip Diapers, gDiapers
Doublers are a cloth diapering add-on. You might also see them called boosters, soakers, or inserts- there is no real uniform term. Essentially, a doubler is just a strip of absorbent material that is laid or stuffed into the diaper to increase its absorbency, typically purchased separately from a diaper itself. (We use cheap white cotton washcloths trifolded into our diapers as doublers and they work just fine!)
Cloth Diaper Materials
There are a few different options for absorbent materials used in diapering. Some people have a preference for using natural fibers (cotton, hemp, bamboo) over synthetics like microfiber or the microfleece or microsuede that are used in the stay-dry layer of some diapers such as pockets. Read here for more information on the topic of natural vs. synthetic diapering materials.
Cotton tends to be the most commonly found absorbent material in cloth diapers. Cheap, durable, and easy to find. Most all prefolds and flats are made of cotton, though some unique versions contain hemp or bamboo. Cotton can be used in any type of diaper.
Hemp and Bamboo
Hemp and bamboo are both extremely absorbent natural fibers. You will find that many doublers are made with these materials to help you boost the absorbency of your diapers or at the core of fitteds or all-in-ones. Both of these materials are antimicrobial, and though more expensive than cotton and microfiber, can do a great job in night time diapers or any time you need to increase absorbency without the bulk of cotton.
The majority of pocket inserts on the market are made of microfiber- a super absorbent and very fuzzy synthetic material. It does the job, but be careful not to use it directly next to baby’s skin as it can really dry out tiny bums.
If you are using flats, prefolds, or fitted diapers, you will need to use some sort of waterproof cover in order to make your diaper leakproof. The most popular are wrap-style covers made of PUL. In general, the cover can be reused for several diaper changes unless it becomes soiled. There is some variation from cover to cover, so although they are all similar, you do have options: snap vs. velcro closure, “rinse and wipe clean” interior vs. a more cloth-like interior, leg gussets (for extra coverage) vs. no gussets, and one-size-fits-all vs. sized covers. Some covers also have flaps on the inside which can be used to hold a pad folded flat or prefold in place (though they definitely stay in place alright even without.) The brand of cover that you use does not in any way need to coordinate with the brand or type of diaper that is underneath- the most important thing is that it is the right size for your baby, though you will probably find particular combinations that work well for you.
A great alternative to PUL wraps is wool. Wool covers allow the diaper (and your kid’s booty) to have some airflow. At the same time the wool has leak resistant properties, and is also resistant to getting stinky. Here is a little more information about why wool is such a useful choice. There are a great variety of wool covers available- from wrap-style covers to pull on pants, hand knit, “upcycled” from old sweaters or sewn from interlock wool fabric. They come in the form of pants, skirts, shorts, and soakers. Wooly diaper covers last a great many changings before they need to be washed due to the fabulous properties of wool- most of the time they only need airing out between uses. Periodically they do need to be hand washed and lanolized to renew the natural oils in the wool. The world of wool is vast, so I could never cover it all in this post… but that’s the general idea. By the way, when using wool, the cover functions as pants- you do not need to put separate pants over top.
A third option for covers is fleece. Fleece has some of the same properties of wool while being less costly and is a good option for those with wool allergies, vegans, and those of us who are price-conscious. It is used in pretty much all the same ways as wool.
If you are using a prefold or flat diaper, you may choose to use a fastener to hold the diaper together on your baby. (This is not necessary if you are pad folding.) Diaper pins are always an option, but these days they are not very popular. There is a learning curve for them, but it’s totally possible (and not as hard as it seems) to pin without sticking yourself or your baby. A more popular option these days is the Snappi, which is a somewhat stretchy plastic piece with small plastic hooks on each arm that grip the diaper and hold it together.
Hook and Loop and Snaps
For wrap covers, fitteds, all-in-ones, pockets, all-in-twos, and hybrid diapers there is usually a choice between hook and loop (velcro) closures and snaps. The benefits of hook and loop are that they are easy to adjust to exactly your baby’s size and shape and they make for slightly quicker diaper changes with wiggly babies. The downfall is that in the laundry, the velcro tabs tend to stick on things,causing wear and tear on your diapers and creating annoying chains in your washing machine. Cloth diaper manufacturers attach “laundry tabs” to the interior of the diaper to attach the velcro to when you wash, but over time these tend to become less and less effective. When using snaps, there is no worry about velcro catching on your diaper laundry and as an added benefit, they are great for toddlers because they are difficult for little hands to unfasten!
When shopping for diapers, you’ll notice that some diapers come in sizes- XS or newborn, small, medium, large, and even extra large. Usually these are also labeled with a weight range that they are likely to fit. Keep in mind that this varies based on the actual shape of your baby- the fit definitely varies dependent on whether your kiddo has chunky or skinny thighs and waist.
Other diapers are labeled as one-size (or OS,) short for one size fits all. These diapers have adjustable rise settings to ideally fit babies from birth to potty training- a major money saver. The rise is usually adjustable using snaps on the front of the diaper, but some diapers use an internal elastic system in the leg opening instead. Although your newborn might fit into a given OS diaper just fine, smaller babies often swim in even the smallest settings. It is very common to purchase separate diapers for the newborn stage until they grow into the OS diapers.
If you are cloth diapering to avoid waste, then using a cloth wet bag to hold your soiled diapers is a great idea. In all reality, you could use plastic bags, but they are not as sturdy and they are not reusable, so wet bags have a great convenience factor too. Besides, it will only take once to learn the devastation of losing some of your cloth diapers when your plastic grocery bag is mistaken for trash. What a wet bag is is a waterproof bag made of sturdy PUL. They come in all sizes- from small ones for your diaper bag that hold a couple of diapers while you’re out to large bags that hold up to two dozen diapers or so between washings. Most wetbags have a zip top, though some are open and elasticized at the top to fit as a diaper pail liner. Clean up is simple- when you throw your diapers into the washing machine you just throw the wet bag in too. We have two pail liners and two small bags so that we have one in use and one in the wash at all times. If you plan to travel with your cloth diapers, it’s a good idea to have at least one large zip-top bag.
Diaper Sprayers and Flushable Liners
A diaper sprayer is a spray hose that is attached to your toilet so that you can easily spray off “solids” waste from soiled diapers. In the beginning, you will probably not need to worry about spraying your diapers. When babies are exclusively breastfed (before the introduction of solids or any formula) the poo actually rinses clean in the washing machine. That is lucky because I can tell you that breastfed newborns poop constantly! Once other foods are introduced, the poo will need to be removed before you throw the soiled diaper into the laundry. An alternative to the diaper sprayer is the flushable liner- these are thin disposable sheets that come in rolls and are placed on the inside of baby’s diaper. That way any waste can be dumped easily into the toilet. Flushable liners are especially convenient when taking trips. Once kids get into toddlerhood and start eating more solids and less milk, the poo tends to be a bit more congealed and easily plops into the toilet without use of sprayers or liners for the most part.
So… if you’re going to be cloth diapering anyway, you might as well use cloth wipes. If you ask me, it’s easier to use cloth wipes than disposable because you can throw them right into the diaper pail instead of separating them out from your diapers. You can buy these online or in cloth diapering shops, but they are very easy to make by cutting up pieces of fleece or flannel, which is a great way to repurpose old receiving blankets. Flannel wipes will need to be sewn together and finished on the edges, but fleece does not fray, so simply cut into squares and you’re set. When you want to use them, just wet with water or homemade wipe solution (we use 1.5 tsp baby wash, 1.5 tsp olive oil, and 1 cup of warm water mixed together.) Wipe solutions can also be purchased in the form of tiny cubes called soap bits or in spray bottles.
Some rash creams are suitable for cloth diaper use, some are not. You can find a list of ratings here. If it becomes necessary for you to use a cream that is not cloth-safe, you can either switch to disposables temporarily, use hybrid inserts, or use liners made of fleece to protect your cloth. If you use fleece liners, you will need to wash them separately in order to protect the diapers from contamination in the laundry. Tip: Coconut oil makes a great all-natural diaper cream and is totally safe for cloth diapers.
How to Care for Cloth Diapers
Cloth diaper care is easy, if you ask me. I do 2-3 loads of diaper laundry per week and much prefer that to shelling out money on disposables all the time (which are not without work, since you still have to buy them at the store and you still have to empty your diaper pail.) Anyway, here is a pretty standard routine: Throw soiled diapers into a wet bag or diaper pail (a “wet pail” full of water is not necessary or preferable.) Once every 2-3 days, throw all of the diapers into the washing machine. Do one short wash or rinse on cold first (with NO detergent), then a long hot wash with detergent and two rinses. Flats, prefolds, and inserts can be put in the dryer, but anything with PUL, elastic, or velcro should be line dried to extend their life.
Choosing a detergent wisely is important: when using detergents with additives such as brighteners or dyes, sometimes buildup can occur on the diapers, causing them to repel moisture instead of absorbing it… this leads to leaks and strange smells. You can find diaper-safe ratings for a variety of detergents here. For the record, even though that site gives Tide a terrible rating, many people have found that plain old Original Tide works great for diapers. Never, under any circumstances, use fabric softener on your diaper laundry!
Inevitably, poo will create stains on your diapers. Luckily, the vast majority of these stains can be removed with sunshine alone. If you hang your clean, wet diapers outside to dry, the sun will work its magic to break down the organic compounds in the stain and voila! Magically the stains are gone. The more sun the better, but this can even work on cloudy or rainy days. For stubborn stains that resist the magic of the sun, you can try OxyClean or hydrogen peroxide (and rinse well,) though staining does not actually impair the function of your diapers.
Some retailers suggest bleaching your diapers on a monthly basis. Most cloth diaper users do not do this as the diapers are adequately disinfected using soap and hot water. On the off chance that your child develops a yeast-based diaper rash (which can happen to cloth and disposable users alike,) you may have to get a little more aggressive with your disinfecting as yeast is very stubborn and can live a long time on contaminated items. A bleach water soak followed by your regular wash routine and a few extra rinses should do the trick. I was skeptical about using bleach when we encountered a bad yeast rash, but it did the trick and my diapers came out of it in great condition and without yeast. I should have trusted the manufacturer in the first place!
IF you discover that your diapers are repelling moisture, they are stinky, or they are causing a rash, detergent or rash cream buildup is a likely culprit. It is also possible that your diapers are not being washed frequently enough. Never fear, your diapers are probably not ruined. Buildup can be removed by a process called stripping. Here’s what you do: Soak your diapers for an hour or so in the hottest water you can get your hands on and a squeeze of plain dish soap. You can do that in your washing machine or, if you have a front loader, you can use your bathtub instead. Swish them around periodically. Rinse the diapers and then do several washes without soap on hot, making sure that there are no suds left whatsoever. This should do a pretty good job of removing any buildup on your diapers.
Hard and Soft Water Issues
If your home water is particularly hard or soft, you may need to take that in mind when tweaking your laundry routine. If you have soft water, then you will need to use less detergent and possibly more rinses in order to get the suds out of your diapers. For hard water, you will probably need more detergent in order to get the diapers clean, and you might find a water softener like Calgon to be helpful. Buildup from either hard water or soft water detergent residue could cause repelling or stink, so you will likely need to strip your diapers once you discover that your problem is in the water. You can find a US map of water types by area here and some more troubleshooting tips here. Also, Rockin’ Green detergent comes in special formulas for hard or soft water.
Do I have to choose only one type of diaper?
No. Many people try a variety of types of diapers to see what works best for them. Often, people will prefer to have a few different styles in rotation for different uses (ie: daycare vs. home.)
How many diapers do I need to use cloth full time?
If you want to wash diapers every 2-3 days, probably you will need 24 diapers in a given size. For newborns, I’d recommend 36 diapers because they can go through 12 or more in one day. If you are using a system that requires covers, then 6-7 covers should be adequate (or 8-10 for newborns.)
If I am just thinking about switching to cloth, how many diapers should I purchase?
I would suggest buying enough diapers for about six changes- that will get you through the greater portion of a day and it’s enough to fill one small load of laundry. You might buy a few each of different styles to see what suits you. If you decide that cloth just doesn’t work for you, you can always resell the diapers. Another great option is to buy a sample kit like this or similar, available from most online cloth diapering retailers. For a small fee, most of these programs allow you to return the sample diapers within an allotted time frame for a refund or pay for only the diapers you wish to keep.
Will I have to touch poop?
You will probably not end up touching more poop than you would if your child used disposable diapers. With the innovation of diaper sprayers and flushable liners, poop-touching is minimal. Some people find that cloth is more reliable against poop blowouts and they actually touch less because they are not cleaning up after diaper explosions. I have not found much difference in that aspect.
Is my significant other/babysitter/mother in law/etc. going to be grossed out by this?
Maybe. Diapers ARE poop catchers, even disposables. But really, a good all-in-one or pocket diaper is the way to go for someone who is a skeptic. They truly do wash clean, so although they are reusable, clean cloth diapers are not contaminated. Personally, I’ve never come across a sitter who has refused to use our cloth diapers. Here’s one mama’s story: “While we were going through our ‘adjustment phase’ my husband would complain (a LOT) about how cloth diapers didn’t really work better than disposables and even suggested switching back, at least when I wasn’t around. All it took was explaining to him that our daughter had never had a blow out in cloth and he was on board. A little wetness around the legs of a onesie doesn’t seem so bad after steam-cleaning curry poo out of your beige carpet.”
What do I need to know about cloth diapering a newborn?
I recommend flats or newborn size prefolds during this stage since chances are your baby will be going through a LOT of diapers in those first days. Flats and prefolds are easy to wash and cheap to buy a big stash of. Be sure that whatever diapering system you choose, you are careful of baby’s healing umbilical cord stump. Most newborn diapers and covers will have a notch or will snap down on the belly to protect their cord, but if you’re using prefolds or flats you will have to take care to fold them down enough in front. Expectant parents often wonder if meconium (the dark, tarry poop that babies have during their first few days after birth) will stain their diapers. Everything I’ve heard indicates that meconium washes away just as easily as any other breastfed baby poo, but if you are concerned about it and still want to use cloth from day one, you can use flushable or fleece liners in the diapers to protect them.
Where can I find reviews of different brands and styles?
Dirty Diaper Laundry has a huge collection of video cloth diaper reviews which highlight the unique features of each type of diaper. They also have a cloth diaper finder function which allows you to search a database of diapers by style, size, price, closure, materials, etc.
How can I get the best deal on cloth diapers?
Many cloth diapers come in bulk sets (of 6, 12, or 24) at a discount. Also look out for clearance items and “seconds” sales when not-quite-perfect diapers are sold at deeply discounted prices. Usually the flaws in these diapers are undetectable and do not impair the function of the diaper whatsoever. You can also buy used cloth diapers through online sites and local swap groups.
Can I take cloth diapers on trips with us?
In short, yes. While cloth diapering is not a life sentence to using cloth exclusively in all circumstances, travel with cloth is totally doable. Here are a few tips: Know your laundry facilities ahead of time. Most hotels do have washing machines and dryers. Consider bringing a hybrid system or backup disposables if you don’t have a reliable laundry situation. Bring along your own detergent in sample-size packets or a plastic baggie. Flats and PUL covers take up the smallest amount of space in suitcases. A large, zippered wet bag is your friend. Cloth diapering on a plane is no more difficult than disposable diapering (and perhaps even easier since you don’t have to leave your seat to dispose of the dirty dipe.) Camping? Check out my post on how we made cloth diapering work for us while camping. We have been pretty committed to cloth diapering from the start, and we’ve managed to take trips to at least four different states via plane, train, and automobile over the course of Grace’s 21 month life, all while using cloth exclusively. It can be done! (By the way, we haven’t managed to make it out of the country yet with her, so if anyone has tips for traveling internationally, especially in more unfamiliar areas, I’d love to hear them!)
What about diaper services? Do they still exist?
Depending on where you live, yes. Diaper services still exist in certain larger cities. They deliver clean prefolds to your doorstep weekly and haul away the dirties. As I have no personal experience with using a diaper service, I can’t give much of a review on those.
What is YOUR favorite brand?
We are partial to snap closure BumGenius 4.0 OS pocket diapers with the addition of Hemp Babies doublers at night, Sunbaby pockets with additional washcloth “doublers” and Little Lions premium prefolds with Econobum covers or hand knit wool during the day currently. But that probably will mean nothing to you because the size, shape, and wetting habits of your baby will affect the fit and how well a diaper works for you.
How can I kick my cloth diaper addiction?
I can not answer that question. If you figure it out, tell me! They are just so CUTE!
Where do I buy these cloth diapers?
Many larger cities have local cloth diaper retail shops, which are really fun to poke around in and check out the different types of diapers. If you do not have a local diaper shop, there are many places to buy cloth diapers online- from the more popular manufacturers to small shops run by work at home moms. Here are some useful links:
New and used buy/sell/trade