When I was pregnant with my first baby, I had vivid memories of my mom cloth diapering my siblings. In those days, a weekly diaper service picked up the dirty diapers and dropped off a clean round of prefold diapers and waterproof covers. While I think diaper services still exist today, they are not as prevalent as they used to be, and most families interested in cloth diapering will be selecting and laundering their own cloth diaper collection.
In the way that it is with first babies, I’m proud to say I cloth diapered my first baby from birth to potty training, which she did at a very early 18 months. In fact, one of the benefits of cloth diapers is that babies and toddlers tend to potty train earlier because they actually feel uncomfortable in a wet cloth diaper, unlike disposables which wick moisture away from the skin and are highly absorbent. I cloth diapered my next two children, both sons, until about 12-18 months–both times a big family move with laundry changes and limitations coincided with the time that cloth diapering becomes a bit harder (when they eat solid food…and therefore have totally different dirty diapers in terms of ease of cleaning). Over six plus years of cloth diapering, I’ve tried just about every variety on the market and perfected the laundry routine, and I’m here to share some of that wisdom with you.
Benefits of Cloth Diapering
- Gentler on the environment: While there is a debate about the amount of water needed to produce and wash cloth diapers, water is a renewable resource whereas disposable diapers end up in landfills for a very long time, even the ones marketed as biodegradable may not truly be fully biodegradable.
- Gentler for the baby: My babies almost never had rashes while cloth diapering unless we had a dreaded ammonia issue (more on that later).
- Earlier potty training: Babies and toddlers are more aware of a wet or dirty cloth diaper.
- Saves money: While the investment in cloth diapers may be higher initially, they can save you money in the long run, especially if used over multiple children and if you invest in more budget-friendly options.
- Provides for convenience and independence: You’ll never run out of diapers, at least in any manner that can’t be fix with a load of wash!
Options for Cloth Diapers
When I first began researching cloth diapers (anyone else an Enneagram One?), I was totally overwhelmed by all of the choices. It was hard to imagine exactly how all of the paraphernalia works together.
Here’s a breakdown of your options:
Prefolds & covers
This is the simplest, most cost-effective, and easiest to wash option in my option. Prefolds are the classic cotton rectangles in different sizes that can be folded certain ways to fit inside of a fitted diaper. While you can simply fold a prefold in thirds and place it inside a fitted diaper, you’ll get less blow outs (and therefore more wears out of a cover since it only needs washing when visibly soiled) if you use pins or a Snappi to hold the diaper in place on your baby. There are only 3 size options for prefolds: newborn, size 1, and size 2. I never really got into the size 2 because my children were petite–these are definitely quite large and add a lot of bulk to a baby bum.
Covers made of PUL, a waterproof fabric, keep anything wet inside since prefolds are 100% cotton and therefore not waterproof. These PUL covers come in lots of colors and prints. Alternately, a wool cover can be used over prefolds and is particularly good for “heavy wetters” during the night as your baby gets older and you stop changing them in the middle of the night. Wool is an all-natural fabric–unlike the PUL covers which have a polyurethane laminate (PUL) liner–and it is highly absorbent although it is not technically fully waterproof. That said, I found a good wool diaper that had been “lanolinized” (a process of treating the wool with lanolin) never resulted in leaks during the night, and I also used wool during the day because I liked the softness for my baby’s skin and the extra warmth in the winter. You can buy wool “longies” that double as pants and a diaper cover.
Fitteds and covers
As my time cloth diapering went on, fitteds and covers became my favorite combination. Specifically, I liked the 100% cotton Green Mountain Diaper fitteds, which come in different sizes. While its less cost effective than prefolds, fitted diapers eliminate the need for a snappi or diaper pin, keep runny breastfed baby poop inside the diaper better than a prefold, and are less sensitive to detergent build up and wash issues than pocket or all-in-one diapers (more coming on those). One drawback is that most fitted diaper options are sized, which means your baby may go through anywhere between 3-4 sizes over the course of their diapering; of course.
Fitteds can be used with either a PUL or a wool cover in the same way prefolds are, so it’s also possible to have a blend of prefolds and fitteds and use the same covers for both. PUL covers come with both snaps and velcro. I’ve found that snaps tend to have better longevity and don’t get stuck to each other in the wash, but the velcro is a bit cheaper.
Cotton or hemp liners can be added to the inside of fitted diapers to increase absorbency during the night.
Pocket diapers look and function more like a disposable diaper and might be a friendlier option for childcare providers or the more hesitant cloth diaper users. A liner goes inside of a pocket in a diaper that fastens with snaps or velcro. Generally, pocket diapers are more expensive than prefold and fitted diapers, although you will not need a separate cover because the exterior is waterproof, and they are often “one size fits all” through various snap systems that change the size of the diaper.
Many pocket diapers are made of microfiber fabric which can trap bacteria and odors and be more sensitive to an ineffective wash routine. Pocket diapers are therefore more prone to “stink” issues, which can be of various varieties but often are caused by ammonia build up in cloth diapers. Having a good wash routine and washing cloth diapers every 2-3 days can prevent ammonia, but sometimes it is just unavoidable if you have been cloth diapering long enough. Ammonia build up can also cause a terrible rash for babies.
These are by far the easiest, most straightforward cloth diapering option for people who are looking for something that is most similar to a disposable diaper. However, they are also most prone to issues with laundry (smells, difficulty cleaning) and are the most expensive option. They also take forever to dry since they are all one piece.
Takeaway: You’ll have to weigh benefits of each type for your family. If you’re looking for the most cost effective option, prefolds are the way to go. Most easiest option for grandma? Go with all-in-one or fitted diapers. I recommend actually investing in a small collection of a variety of options–you’ll need about 24 diapers for a newborn, so buying a variety can help you navigate which option works best for when it is time for a size upgrade.
Drawbacks of Cloth Diapers
Clothes can be challenging
Because most cloth diapers are bulkier than than disposables, you may have to size up in pants and may find that certain outfits just don’t work for your baby. I found that a harem pant worked well for my cloth diapered babes.
Time spent laundering (and generally perfecting a routine)
Once you get the hang of a flow with cloth diaper laundry, it’s pretty easy. But you will have to plan ahead because cloth diapers require one full cycle for rinsing (not just the rinse cycle, they need more than that!) and a full cycle for cleaning, followed by drying. And some diaper covers should be line-dried, including PUL covers and wool covers (although to be honest I did put my PUL covers in the dryer a lot and they made it through).
You will want to look into detergent options and may consider figuring out what kind of water you have to help guide your selection. I never had much of a problem with the water in Chicago and in the city of Buffalo, but I now live in a place with well water which may have brought challenges–fortunately our son was nearly potty trained when we moved there. In many cases, you won’t be able to just use whatever your regular detergent is on your cloth diapers. You’ll also want to eliminate fabric softeners and dryer sheets, although I recommend eliminating these anyway because they are full of harmful chemicals that you won’t want near your baby’s skin.
No diaper is perfect, and families experience leaks with both disposable and cloth diapers. However, one of the sad realities of cloth diapering is that you may inadvertently buy a brand or style of diaper that consistently leads to leaks. I found that I could not use one brand of diapers on my kids because it just didn’t get along with their body builds, but knew plenty of others who never had an issue with this brand. (And speaking of that, it is perfectly acceptable to purchase used cloth diapers, although you may consider stripping them before use).
Well…it’s really not, especially if you are exclusively breastfeeding. Breastfed baby poop easily washes out of diapers in the laundry and does not need to be rinsed. However, when your baby starts eating significant amounts of solids, it may totally change your routine as solids need to either be emptied into the toilet or rinsed with a diaper sprayer which can be installed on your toilet. No matter how you cut it, you’re going to be dealing with dirty diapers no matter what kind you use.
Cloth Diapering Supply List
- Approximately 24 diapers for the newborn phase, less as the baby gets older. This will provide enough diapers to go 2-3 days between washes. My favorite place to buy diapers is Green Mountain Diapers. Check out Thirsties (PUL) and Disana (wool) covers as well as the Cloth-eez prefolds and fitteds. I also loved Sloomb wool covers and longies. Several companies also provide introductory starter kits, including Green Mountain Diapers and Esembly Baby.
- Cloth wipes: You’ll find that disposable wipes become an annoyance with cloth diapers because you have to separately put them in the garbage. It’s easier to just throw them in with the diaper laundry. You might use a spray bottle to wet them, wet them in the sink when needed, or pre-wet them and store in a wipe warmer. You can find plenty of cloth wipe solutions online that are all-natural, and I loved the cute patterns I found on Etsy.
- Wet bags: You’ll need a large one for at-home dirty diaper storage–some are standalone whereas others go inside of a pail. Additionally, small wet bags are good for the diaper bag and also can be reused for wet clothes and bathing suits when you’re done cloth diapering.
- Laundry detergent: I tried plenty of varieties over the years, and in the end I landed with Tide powder. It wasn’t the most natural option, but I did an extra rinse to make sure all of the detergent came out. I found some of the natural detergents actually were not effective at cleaning my diapers.
- Diaper sprayer: This is optional but comes in handy when your baby starts eating solid food.
Cloth diapers can be a big investment for families. If you have access to a washer and dryer but the cost of investing in cloth is a barrier, you might check out The Cloth Option.
Maura Winkler, CNM, is the owner and Director of Midwifery at The Coit House Birth Center and Fika Midwifery. She is a mother to three children born at home and heavily cloth diapered!