Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Cloth Diaper Manifesto

I get questions about cloth diapers a lot.  I cloth diapered both of my kids and there is a growing interest in using cloth diapers because of the economic and environmental benefits.  Not to mention they are freaking cute. 

But what kind of diaper makes the most sense for your style, budget and environmental concerns?  Let's explore that!

Let's start with some cloth diaper lingo, including all the types of diapers available.

AIO (all in one): And all-inclusive diaper.  No parts to disassemble, no stuffing.  These are the most similar to disposable diapers, just wrap it around the baby and go.  They include an absorbent layer and a layer of water proof material (usually PUL) to keep the diaper from leaking.  These are also usually the most expensive option, and they can be hard to clean, since they don't come apart.  But they're great for babysitters and others who have no experience with cloth diapers.  Footprint wise, these probably cost a little more as well, since the PUL layer is basically super thin plastic.  If you use a diaper and a cover separately you can re-use the cover for several diaper changes, thus reducing the total amount of PUL in your diaper collection (also called a stash).
A Bumgenius! AIO diaper

AI2 (all in two):  These are similar to AIOs but they usually have an insert that snaps into the shell (outer, waterproof part) or one that slips into a pocket in the shell.  These are usually a little cheaper than AIOs and clean a little easier.  If you get the kind of AI2 diaper that has an insert that snaps into the shell sometimes you can re-use the shell and just snap in a new insert.  If baby poops, though, it usually gets on the shell and then you have to change the whole thing.  So you will save a little bit on the PUL/plastic footprint part.

This is a Flip AI2 diaper

Fitted Diapers:  These diapers look similar to AIOs and AI2s, but they require the use of a separate waterproof barrier if you want to keep baby's clothes (and your furniture... and your own clothes) dry.  It seems more expensive if you use one fitted diaper and one cover for each diaper change, but overall this option is more economical, usually, than AIOs or AI2s, since you can re-use the cover over and over again until it starts to smell or gets poop on a part that doesn't wipe clean easily (like the waistband).  Because many fitted diapers AND covers hug the baby around the legs and waist, I found that this is the best leak protection.  They are easy to clean, too, and it's nice to be able to let a baby's bottom breathe sometimes.  You can use these without a cover for days when you're at home and can change diapers frequently, and this can help heal or prevent diaper rash.


A prefold diaper being used with a Snappy instead of pins
Prefolds:  Many cloth diapering families consider these the "workhorse" diaper.  They are cheap, easy to clean, and as with fitted diapers you can re-use the covers many times with them.  A lot of parents are initially opposed to prefolds because they look old-fashioned and don't come in pretty colors or prints like the other diapers do.  I say that they are a great, easy-to-use, economical, environmentally friendly option.  You can fold them in thirds and put them right inside a cover, wrap them around the baby by folding in thirds except for "wings" at the top, which are used to pin the diaper on the baby, or use them as an insert for your AI2s.  They come in both natural and synthetic fibers, and you can even purchase organic prefolds, an option that I have not found in other diaper types.  These do tend to wear out quicker than other diaper types, so be aware that you will probably have to replace some of the larger sizes, since kids wear them for longer than the newborn and small sizes.

Prefolds come in different sizes.  These are the sizes from

Flats:  As the name suggests, these diapers are not "prefolded" but instead are large flat sheets which must be folded to fit the baby.  I have never known a family who used these, and they are not highly available in the US.  They ARE, however, super easy to make and clean.  You can find patterns online, just type "flat diaper pattern" into your preferred search engine.

Doublers:  These are just strips of fabric layers that you can add to your diaper to increase absorbency.  Super handy for heavy wetters or for overnight and nap time.  They come in colors or plain, synthetic or natural fibers.  I LOVED my hemp doublers.  They were so soft and so absorbent.  You can use them with any type of diaper.  On the outside of the diaper, between the diaper and the cover, or inside the pocket of an AI2 or just laid inside an AIO diaper.

Covers:  I've mentioned these in some of the above sections, but they are worth their own definition, I think.  These are just waterproof barriers between diapers and the rest of the world.  They come in all colors and prints and sizes and styles.  If you want to stick with all natural fibers you can use wool soakers, which are little wool shorts that go over diapers.  They're not quite as waterproof as PUL covers, but everyone I've known who used wool never went back to PUL covers.  

Other things you may want to consider in purchasing your diapers are:

Synthetic fibers or natural?  Most diapers made with natural fibers are cotton or hemp.  Hemp is heavier but more absorbent than cotton.  Cotton comes in bleached and unbleached, organic or not, and the benefit of using natural fibers is that you avoid the "polyester stink".  Polyester, after repeated use, can start to smell of ammonia, mildew or just "funky".  A vinegar soak usually cures this problem, or "stripping" the diapers by washing them with a small amount of dish soap or Calgon laundry soap.  Cotton and hemp don't do this to the same extent (but will still need to be stripped from time to time to rinse away oils that build up in the fibers, reducing absorbency).  Synthetic fibers are usually less expensive, though, and are usually just as absorbent.  They can also feel much softer than natural fibers.

How often do I want to do diaper laundry?  New babies go through a lot of diapers... up to 10 a day.  If you want to avoid having to do diaper laundry every day, every other day, etc, you need to plan accordingly.  I recommend a starting stash of about 30 diapers.  Especially when you're a new mom and need to be resting with your baby, you don't need to be worrying about diaper laundry all the time.  30 diapers allows you to do diaper laundry every second or third day and won't be so expensive as to deter you from the purchase of cloth.

Sticker shock!  I can buy a whole pack of diapers for the cost of ONE of these!  Yup.  There are some really expensive options out there.  They're nice, I'm not gonna lie.  They are the Caddies of the diaper realm.  Cloth diapering is a long-term investment.  The cost of buying disposable diapers and wipes over an average of 2 1/2 years (though many kids potty learn later than that age) is about $2000.  The cost of even the most expensive cloth diapers and wipes from birth to potty learning is about $1500, and the cheaper options run about $500, plus maybe another $200 in detergent and water to wash them.  And don't worry, you don't have to buy them all at once.  You can start out with the smaller sizes, see how you like them and then size up, spending as little as $100 for each size.  And you can be buying one or two here and there until your baby grows into the new size. 

Crash course in cloth diaper care: When you get a peed in diaper, just toss it in your diaper pail (for which you can use a cheap trash can lined with a cloth diaper pail liner).  For newborn, breastfed poop you don't even really need to rinse the diaper, although rinsing does help prevent stains.  You can buy a diaper sprayer, which hooks up to your toilet or you can dunk them.  Once baby is eating anything other than breast milk their poop changes and will need to be rinsed.  I always just scraped off what I could and washed out the rest, but rinsing really is recommended.  Eventually the poo will just come right off the diaper and they won't need to be rinsed at all, since poop evolves as babies age and becomes more "formed" and less "loose".  On laundry day, empty your stash into your washer, add a detergent that doesn't have enzymes, dyes or fragrances.  Some people use detergents like Tide and have no problems, other people experience build up and babies with diaper rash or even chemical burns when those detergents are used so go with one of the ones recommended here.  Cloth diapers do very well when they are line dried.  They last longer and the sun helps kill off any germs.  If you can't line dry, there are racks you can use indoors to air dry.  I always dried mine in the dryer and it was fine, though.

Phew!  That's a lot of information to take in.  Feel free to absorb it piecemeal.  And happy diapering!

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