How to Choose and Use Cloth Diapers
Don’t know a prefold from a pocket? Don’t worry -- we’ve got the answer to that and all of your other burning questions about cloth diapers. Photo: Erin McFarland Photography
Why should I consider going cloth?
Fact: Your baby will go through thousands of diapers a year (some estimates run as high as 3,000!). Disposables can only be used once before they end up in your local landfill. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, can be used over and over for up to five years. “If and when they end up in the garbage, they’re a piece of cotton that will biodegrade in a few years,” says Liz Turrigiano, cofounder of Diaper Kind, a cloth-diaper service in New York City. Bottom line? Cloth diapers really are better for the environment.
They’re also pretty awesome for your baby. When you’re putting a cloth diaper on a baby, nothing touches her skin besides cloth (oftentimes organic, unbleached material). Meanwhile, most disposables contain chemicals that help make them extra absorbent, a fact that makes some parents uneasy, Turrigiano says.
Cloth diapers are budget-friendly, too -- believe it or not. The cheapest route is to buy a bunch of prefold diapers and a few covers, which could run around $70. After that, your only cost is laundry. Considering a diaper service? You’ll probably spend about the same as you would if you were spending extra to buy eco-friendly disposable diapers.
Plus, Turrigiano says, her clients often potty train their kids earlier than those who use disposables do, usually around 16 to 18 months of age. This is because cloth diapers don’t wick moisture away from the skin like disposables do, so children are aware of feeling the wetness.
But aren’t cloth diapers more work than disposables?
Taking care of a newborn is tough enough without also having to wash dirty diapers, right? Not really, Turrigiano says. The difference is, instead of tossing a soiled diaper into the garbage can, you put it in a diaper pail and, on laundry day, into the washing machine with baby’s other dirty clothes. If you use a service, they do the cleaning for you.
“Sure, home laundering diapers or sending them off to a service can be gnarly, but so is washing dishes after cooking a pot roast or mac and cheese,” she says. “And you wouldn’t think of using disposable dishes and glasses every time you cooked. We wash silverware, glasses, laundry. We just add diapers onto that list.”
How exactly do I wash cloth diapers?
Hot water will set in stains and soils (ick), so first give dirty diapers a quick cold rinse sans detergent. The cold water flushes away poop and urine. Then wash them on hot with a cloth-friendly detergent, and for extra sanitizing, add an oxygenated bleach. Check your laundry detergent’s label for enzymes and fragrances -- over time, they can leave residue on the diaper. Many cloth-diapering parents also go for eco-friendly detergents. (Turrigiano likes Bio-Clean, Planet and Charlie’s Soap.)
What kinds of cloth diapers are out there?
There are tons of options on the market, but here are the four major ones:
Prefold. These diapers are basically big, cotton rectangles that are folded to mold to your baby’s unique shape and kept in place with a cover. They’re the cheapest of all the cloth diaper types and almost never leak, since the cloth is tailor-fit and the cover acts as an extra barrier. When the diaper is dirty, simply remove the prefold and replace with a clean one. (The cover can be used over and over again.) Another perk? The prefolds still have life long after baby is out of diapers -- they work well as cleaning cloths or bedding for your pet, and can even be passed on to other families.
All-in-two. Fairly new to the scene is the all-in-two, which has the same type of cover as a prefold but uses an insert that doesn’t require any folding. This is particularly handy when baby soils the diaper -- just swap out the insert.
All-in-one. With their waterproof cover, snap or Velcro closures, and fabric interior (often cotton or hemp), these diapers look like disposables. They work the same, too, except instead of throwing dirty ones in the garbage, you just put them in the diaper pail for washing. Though pricey, all-in-ones are a breeze to use and are perfect for when you leave baby with the grandparents, since there’s no guesswork.
Pocket diaper. This style has a diaper cover, like a prefold or all-in-two, but there’s a slot under the fabric where you tuck the absorbent material (usually a cotton insert). When baby does his business, you take the entire cover off, pull out the insert, and wash both separately. They’re fairly common, though Turrigiano says they can be “cumbersome and a little disgusting.”
How do I know which type is right for my baby?
You probably won’t find just one type that will cover all your needs. Most families have one go-to style -- nearly all Diaper Kind clients use prefolds, for example -- and supplement with a few fancier diapers, like all-in-twos.
What do I need to buy to get started?
Turrigiano says a new mom should stock up on 20 to 30 diapers if she’s washing them at home, since you’ll be changing baby every two to three hours. You should also pick up a few covers, a diaper pail and cloth-friendly detergent. If you use a service, they’ll provide the diapers, but you’ll need to buy some diaper covers.
Plus, more from The Bump:
How to Buy a Diaper Pail
Top 10 Diaper Bags
Dealing with Diaper Rash
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