How to Use Cloth Diapers

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This post was originally written in January, 2008, as part of my “Thrifty Tips You Can Use” series. It has been updated and reposted by reader request.

I began cloth diapering when my firstborn was a baby, and I’m currently cloth diapering my son. I choose to cloth diaper for many reasons, the biggest being cost, and concern for the environment. 3 ½ tons of single use, disposable diapers, swim diapers and training pants are dumped into landfills each year, but did you know that in most states it’s illegal, as well as a violation of World Health Organization guidelines, to dispose of human waste in landfills? Yet the law isn’t enforced when it comes to disposable diapers, perhaps because they’re considered a “necessary evil.” It’s my opinion that while disposables are convenient, they’re certainly not “necessary,” and I’m committed to reducing my personal contribution to a serious environmental problem.

I find that many people are quite put off by the idea of cloth diapers. The general attitude is that cloth diapers are too much work, and having to handle wet and soiled diapers is, well….gross. I have what I refer to as a very high “squeam factor,” and therefore I’m not the least bit bothered by swishing poopy diapers in the toilet. Also, I’ve found the work to be pretty minimal (honest!)

Cloth diapering is very different today than you might remember. Gone are the days of diaper pins and plastic pants. You’ll find that there are endless choices available to you, so let’s talk about some of them. First, there are three types of diapers that are typically used:

The standard, prefold diaper

This picture illustrates two sizes – a small one for newborns, and a large one for older babies.

The fitted diaper

These diapers are similar in style to disposables, with elastic around the waist and leg openings, and they typically fasten with Velcro or snaps. For both the prefold and fitted diapers, you must use a waterproof diaper cover. Here’s an example, in a very cute little-boy print:

The all-in-one diaper

These are fitted diapers with a waterproof cover (usually nylon) built right in. No extra diaper cover is necessary, which saves a step during changing. These are the easiest cloth diapers to use, and also the most expensive.

Note: The very cute fitted and all-in-one diapers were given to me by my blog friend, Angie, and the newborn-size prefolds were a gift from my blog friend, Katherine, because they’re both sweethearts.

All of these diapers have their advantages, and I like and use them all. However, the least expensive way to cloth diaper is with standard prefolds and diaper covers. This method is also quite simple, once you get the hang of it. To start, I recommend two dozen diapers, and 4-6 covers. Before Bee was born, I purchased 2 dozen, heavy-duty prefold diapers at an Amish general store for $50, and 6, medium Dappi diaper covers for $18 from Baby Best Buy. I later purchased 4 medium Bummis Super Whisper Wraps for $44 from Montana’s Diaper Store, and was given a variety of other diaper covers and nylon pants. I much prefer the Bummis for my prefolds. Dappis are fine for fitted diapers, but the velcro isn’t sturdy enough to hold up over the bulky prefolds. Though I’ve been the recipient of several generous gifts of diapers, my original purchase has so far been sufficient for all three of my children because I wash diapers every other day. However, DJ is a much larger baby, so while the medium diaper covers (weight range 15-30 pounds) fit my skinny little girls for as long as they were in diapers, I anticipate needing larger covers in the future.

My total investment: $112.

Now, let’s do some diaper math:

In my area, the cheapest disposables cost approximately $14 for 96 size 3 diapers. At age one, my girls usually went through about 5 per day, so my yearly disposable diaper cost would have been approximately $200 per kid (this doesn’t even consider the 10-diaper-a-day newborn phase). Both of my daughters were trained at age 3, so I would’ve spent approximately $1200 on disposables for them. This means that by the time DJ is out of diapers, cloth diapering will have saved me a minimum of $1500. This is a conservative estimate, which takes into consideration my initial cloth diaper investment, and our minimal disposable diaper purchases (see below). Not to mention that I’ll have prevented 6000 disposable diapers from going into the landfill! Also, in our town we must pay $2 for each 40-pound barrel of trash we put out for collection, so using cloth diapers offers additional savings in trash collection fees.

A couple of facts:

1) I don’t start cloth diapering until my babies are about two months old. The reason for this is very simple – I’m tired. It’s OK, when you’re sleep-deprived and recovering from childbirth, to go easy on yourself. After 6 weeks of age, my babies seem to settle into more of a schedule and we all get more rest, so I’m much more willing to deal with extra diaper laundry.

2) I use disposables at night, and when traveling. My children were/are heavy nighttime wetters, and the wet cloth against their skin seems to wake them up a lot more at night, even with a liner on top. I consider happy babies, and sleep, to be a bargain.

The basics of cloth diapering:

Here’s how to put a prefold cloth diaper on your baby:

Simply fold the diaper in thirds,

and place in the diaper cover like this:

If you want, you can use a flushable diaper liner on top (Bio-Soft Flushable Diaper Liners are a good choice). Liners catch the “solids,” and make rinsing out poop much easier.

Now fold the diaper up between baby’s legs, and fasten snaps or velcro. Make sure that the cover fits snugly, and that the diaper is completely tucked into it, especially around the leg openings, to prevent leaks.

It isn’t necessary to purchase several sizes of prefolds. Until Katherine sent me some small ones, I had only one size. To use, just fold the bottom up to the desired length, and then fold into thirds.


I try to have some of these folded and placed in covers on my changing table, so they’re always ready to go. See, it’s easy!Handling soiled diapers

I used to use the wet pail method because I thought that it helped minimize stains, but I switched to the dry pail method for several reasons:

1) Pails of water are a drowning hazard for small children.
2) Today’s fabrics are not as durable, and don’t hold up as well to soaking. It seems to cause diapers to deteriorate more quickly.
3) A diaper pail full of water and sopping wet diapers is heavy. I found myself putting off washing day because I dreaded lugging the pail downstairs.
4) Wet pails are more stinky. Dropping a diaper into the pail on wash day may burn off nose hairs, or cause you to lose consciousness.

***IMPORTANT!***
If you elect to use the wet pail method, do not soak your diaper covers! This deteriorates their waterproof shell, causing them to leak! Also fabric softener, Borax, bleach or other laundry boosters are not recommended. They can be harsh on baby’s sensitive skin, and may break down the fibers in your diapers, or leave them with a sticky, oily coating. My diaper pail is a 9-gallon, kitchen trash can with a hinged lid and foot pedal release. It’s lined with a large mesh laundry bag. This helps minimize the handling of soiled diapers, because I just pull the bag out and empty it into the washing machine.

1) Wet diapers go straight into the pail. Wet diaper covers can be used again, but allow them to air dry completely, and rotate them between changes.
2) I dunk poopy diapers in the toilet to remove solids. If it’s a particularly messy diaper, I just hold the diaper in the toilet and flush. This seems to remove most of the mess. Remember that breast milk poop is water soluble, so don’t worry if you can’t get it all off. Your washing machine can handle it. After I dunk poopy diapers, I don’t wring them out, because I find that keeping them super-wet until wash day helps minimize stains. Poopy diaper covers also go right into the pail.
3) Make sure to unfold your diapers, and close all Velcro fasteners on diapers and covers before dropping them in the pail.

How to wash cloth diapers:

1. Dump the contents of the diaper pail into the washing machine. Throw the mesh bag in too.
2. Run a spin cycle to spin out the yucky, excess water.
3. Wash the diapers in hot water, with half the soap you normally use. I use free and clear detergent (All or Purex) because it has no perfumes or dyes. Use a high water level, to ensure effective cleaning.
4. After washing, an extra hot water rinse is a good idea. An extra spin cycle will help reduce drying time, as will putting a dry towel in the dryer with your diapers.
5. In the summer, I dry my diapers in the sun on the clothesline. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant and whitener. In the winter, I dry them in the clothes dryer to ensure sanitation.
6. Stains don’t mean your diapers aren’t clean! Don’t get too concerned over this.
7. Smell your diapers and covers after washing. They shouldn’t smell stinky, or like detergent. If they smell clean, they are clean!

I hope this post has taken the mystery out of cloth diapering, and that it will encourage those of you who are on the fence to give it a try. If you’re interested in a starter kit, Bummis offers one that includes:

•18 baby size (15+ lbs) prefold diapers (You can also get infant size, which is 8-15 lbs)
•2 Super Whisper Wraps and 2 Super Brite Covers (size medium)
•1 large roll Bio-soft liners and 5 reusable stay dry liners
•Fabulous wet bag large (to line your diaper pail)
•User Guide

You can buy this with free shipping through Amazon.

Also, look into Diaper Swappers. This is a cloth diapering community, and moms there often buy, sell, or trade diapers.

If you have specific questions not addressed in this post, please feel free to ask!

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3 comments… add one

  1. Heather McClure March 23, 2008, 3:38 am

    Wow! I didn’t realize pre-folds could be so easy! I need to get thicker ones, I think…I have some really thin cheap ones…or maybe just use two at a time? Anyway, I need to get some wraps and then I think I can use cloth diapers exclusively. Thanks for the great post.

    Reply
  2. jedda January 23, 2013, 7:10 pm

    How is the odor? Do you find that you can smell the contents of the pail when it is closed? Also, do you have a wet bag liner in your pail as well or do you clean the pail at each wash? I’m trying to find a solution to a stinky diaper pail.

    Reply
  3. Charity February 3, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! You actually started me considering cloth diapers for the first time, and now I plan to use them when our little one arrives in July. I linked to this article on my blog, so I’m sure others will be finding it helpful, as well. Thanks again!

    Reply

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