Cloth diapering gets a bad rap, and I'm here to tell you: Cloth diapering isn't as hard or as gross as you think it is! They make super easy all-in-one cloth diapers these days, and once you get your cleaning system locked in, you may find cloth diapering isn't much of a bother at all (plus it could save you literally thousands of dollars).
How do I know if I might be a good candidate for cloth diapering?
Consider cloth diapering if…
- You want to save money. You can save $500-$2300 per child by cloth diapering, even if you choose the most premium cloth diapers on the market. Seriously. The cost savings is that huge.
- You want to make a lower impact on the environment. Each kid in disposable diapers contributes between 5000 to 7000 diapers to landfill. If you're serious about wanting to make the world a little better, this is a great place to contribute.
- You don't mind doing a little extra laundry. Cloth diapers contribute ~3 extra loads of laundry per week. If that doesn't bother you in the slightest, you're a very good candidate for cloth diapering.
- You are a stay-at-home parent or have a nanny/au pair/family member caring for your child at home. Cloth diapering is tricky in daycares due to state-by-state regulations, but very do-able just about everywhere else, even if your child is out and about most of the day.
- You're cool with learning new things. There is a learning curve associated with cloth diapering, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty simple. You'll quickly learn when and how often to change baby (it's more often than with disposable diapers), how to wash them, how to store them, and how to deal with dirty diapers on the go.
How do I know if cloth diapers are not right for me and my family?
Cloth diapering may not be a fit for you if…
- You do not have an in-home washing machine. You’ll need to wash your cloth diapers every 2-3 days, and you can’t really stretch it much longer than that. Without an in-home (or in-basement or across-the-street) washer, this is unlikely to happen.
- You do not have a strong laundry routine or strong laundry habits. If you tend to be the type who lets laundry pile up all over the house—no judgement—adding more laundry to your life is probably not a great idea. If you’re invested in the cloth diapering concept but your laundry usage and habits disqualify you, consider a cloth diaper service or a compostable diaper service.
- You're already way overwhelmed. If learning one more new thing is too overwhelming right now, then now might not be the time to add cloth diapering to your life. The learning curve is real (and very surmountable, but nonetheless… real).
- You send your child to daycare. Nannies and family are often very amenable to cloth diapering, but many daycares are not. If you plan to send your baby to daycare full time, cloth diapering may only be possible at home. In this case, you’ll need a smaller diaper stash. Something is better than nothing, and this will still save you money (and landfill guilt) over the long run.
Cloth Diapering FAQs
If this is your first time foraying into cloth diaper land, you’re probably going to have a few questions. Here are the FAQs.
Which diapers should I buy?
My comprehensive article on cloth diapers is here, but the TLDR is this: Get yourself 18+ GroVia All in Ones for daytime use and 6+ bumGenius 5.0 pocket diapers for nighttime. The GroVia AIOs are nice and slim, meaning baby can wear normal outfits without the burden of having too much junk in the trunk. The bumGenius 5.0s allow a bit more customizability for nighttime heavy wetters. Your total cost of ownership for these diapers will run you $930 for the first kid ($490 for the diapers + $440 for laundry costs), and just the $440 in laundry costs for subsequent kids.
What accessories do I need?
My comprehensive article on cloth diapering accessories is here. You'll want everything listed.
Are cloth diapers actually easy to use?
It depends on which kind you buy, but all diapers with snaps are ridiculously easy to use. Pocket diapers, all-in-ones (AIOs), and all-in-twos (AI2s) all go on the same way as a disposable diaper does—by securing two tabs at the hips. Pocket diapers are the easiest, most foolproof cloth diapers out there. Some all-in-ones and some all-in-twos can be trickier to put on, but are also pretty easy. Specific details about ease of use are noted in each individual cloth diaper review.
What about the poop?
Baby poop is a thing you get used to pretty quickly whether you’re cloth or disposable diapering, but yes, there is an extra poop-related step when you cloth diaper. As soon as your baby is eating solid foods, you will need to rinse those solids into the toilet on the tail end. This step is not scary and involves only two extra tools… a diaper sprayer and a splash guard. Soft, huge poops can be more challenging to rinse off without getting your hands dirty (and might require a pair of kitchen gloves), but just remember, those bigger poops for sure would’ve been blowouts in disposable diapers, getting all over your baby’s clothes and whatever he was sitting on… so you were always going to deal with that mess. 😉
More poop questions… do you have to rinse exclusively breastfed baby poop? What about formula poop?
Breast milk poop is water soluble and can go straight into the washer without rinsing. Six months of easy. Formula poop is also water soluble, but sometimes can be more solid than breast milk poop. When the poop is more solid, dump it into the toilet before washing. When it is liquidy, it can be washed without rinsing.
What’s with all the different kinds of cloth diapers? Which ones should I get?
Cloth diaper land is a weird place and some people get really into it.
If you’re trying to keep your life simple, there are only three types of cloth diapers worth considering.
Pocket Diapers: The most foolproof of them all, pocket diapers go on almost exactly like disposable diapers, but with snaps instead of sticky tabs. On the bright side, it’s easy to spray solids (poop) off these bad boys before machine washing. The only downside is you have to remove the absorbent inserts from the interior pocket for washing and restuff the inserts into the pocket to prepare the diapers for use.
- Easy to put on all babies including squirmy toddlers
- Super simple for caregivers
- Easy to rinse
- Must stuff the pockets with the absorbent liners before reuse (this takes a considerable amount of time compared to folding all-in-one diapers)
- Must remove liners before rinsing, and that can get messy sometimes
Tongue All-in-One Diapers (AIOs): Other all in ones have an insert that is only attached at the back, folding out like a long tongue. This is good, because it allows you to adjust absorbency for your child (boys tend to pee further forward, girls further back) and it speeds up hang dry time.
- Slim fit
- Doesn’t take as long as single piece all in ones to hang dry
- Very easy to fold and put away since they don't require extra stuffing
- Easy to rinse clean
- Difficult to put on squirmy babies and toddlers, because the diaper is not one piece
These diapers have better alternatives.
- All-in-Two Diapers (AI2s): All in twos consist of a shell and interior absorbent pads, which typically snap into the diaper shell for security. There are two main benefits of all in twos. One, you only have to wash the soiled liner, rather than the entire diaper, since the outer shell usually remains clean and dry. And two, all in twos are about as easy to clean as pocket diapers. Because you can wash only the soiled liner instead of the entire diaper, those who use AI2s usually buy 24 liners and only 8 or so diaper shells, which is typically a cost savings since all in twos are more expensive than pocket diapers and all in ones. The downside to having fewer shells than liners is that you will have to assemble diapers on the go. This is difficult with squirmy toddlers, and not super recommended.
- Single Piece All-in-One Diapers (AIOs): All in Ones require very little effort in the laundry department and tend to be the slimmest fitting. Many all in ones fit under skinnies and leggings. However, there are downsides. Some all in ones are one piece, with the absorbent insert sewn into the front and back of the diaper. This is good, because it means you don’t have to do any fancy folding to put the diaper back together and allows you to do standing diaper changes on feisty toddlers. But it’s also not so good, because single piece all in ones tend to take forever to hang dry and it’s difficult to rinse off solids since there are a lot of nooks and crannies.
And I strongly do not recommend these diapers (unless you are on a super slim budget).
- Flats: These are large squares of fabric that can be folded a variety of ways and are secured with safety pins or snappies. These are basically old school cloth diapers. They are not easy for caregivers, difficult to clean, and require waterproof covers over the top. They are the most cost-effective cloth diapering solution, but at a high convenience penalty.
- Prefolds: These are absorbent rectangular pieces of fabric that can be folded around the baby for a variety of absorbency options. These are basically slightly more modern old school cloth diapers. They are not easy for caregivers, difficult to clean, and require waterproof covers over the top.
- Fitteds: These are absorbent but not waterproof diapers that secure with snaps similar to cloth diaper covers. Because they are not waterproof, you must add a waterproof cover on top of this diaper for full protection. This is an added step and ain’t nobody got time for that.
What’s the difference between microfiber, cotton, hemp, and bamboo inserts?
They all function a bit differently. Cotton is the least absorbent of the four, but still very absorbent. Microfiber is great at absorbing lots of liquid quickly, but it can tend to hold onto smells if not washed with the proper amount of detergent. Bamboo is slightly more absorbent than microfiber. And hemp is the most absorbent of the four, but not as good at absorbing lots of liquid quickly (so not great for baby's who pee a lot at one time). Microfiber inserts can be used straight out of the packaging, but cotton, hemp, and bamboo inserts will become their most absorbent after prepping, or washing and drying 5-8 times before the first use.
How do you wash cloth diapers?
Rinse off solids. Store in diaper pail. Dump contents of diaper pail liner, including diaper pail liner, into wash. Rinse cold with one line of detergent. Wash hot with three or four lines of detergent, with a double rinse. Line dry for diaper longevity or machine dry for sanity.
Note: Make sure your washer is at two-thirds full. You can accomplish this by adding small towels or other small items to your cloth diaper laundry.
How do you get stains out of cloth diapers?
Unless you’re concerned about the resale value of your diapers, your sanity might appreciate if you just ignore the stains for the time being. If the stains do bother you too much to ignore, there are a few simple tricks. It seems totally hippie, but sunning your diapers is your best bet to erase even pretty stubborn stains. Just hang damp diapers in a sunny spot and watch the magic happen. For particularly stubborn stains, you can squeeze lemon juice onto the diapers and then sun them… just make sure to wash them again after, since the citric acid from the lemon is not great for baby’s skin.
If neither of these things work, you may have to break out the bleach. But before you do that, contact your diaper brand’s customer service team to get their recommendations. Many diaper covers contain PUL that can be completely ruined by prolonged bleach exposure, so you’ll want to get their go-ahead and specific recommendations first.
How many cloth diapers do I need?
You’ll need about 24 diapers for infants three months and older.
What else do I need in addition to the diapers themselves?
You'll need a few other cloth diapering essentials. See the full list here.
Cloth diapering blogs talk about needing a “mixed stash” consisting of different brands and different types of diapers “to find what works.” Is this necessary?
No! Like we said, cloth diapering land can be a bit wacky. We recommend our favorite brands above, and you will not be “doing the wrong thing” by buying 24 of a single brand. If we recommend it, it’s good!
That said, to create the perfect quiver for all situations, consider buying a combination of pocket diapers and all in one diapers. Although we like pocket diapers more for overnight and lounging about the house, all-in-ones have a slimmer fit and look better under tighter pants and leggings.
How are cloth diapers sized?
Most pocket diapers, all-in-ones, and all-in-twos are a single, adjustable size and fit babies 8 to 30+ pounds. Using the snaps, you can change the diaper rise to be smaller or larger as your baby grows. Because these diapers are meant to fit through toddlerhood, they do tend to look quite bulky on infants under nine months. This, however, does not affect their effectiveness. As long as you have your diaper sized correctly, it will hold up expertly against leaks.
Do cloth diapers fit tiny newborns?
If your newborn is within the weight range of your one-size diaper (8 pounds on the low end), technically yes. Some brands do make newborn cloth diapers specifically for babies under 12 pounds. They are about $11 a piece, and you’ll need 30 or so to stay on top of newborn laundry. If you are planning to have multiple babies and are committed to cloth diapering, this can be a worthwhile investment. High-end, chemical-free newborn and size one disposable diapers will run you about $300-400 for those first three months. A stash of 30 newborn cloth diapers, including three months of laundry costs, will run you about $385. For each additional newborn you have in newborn diapers, you’ll be saving $300+ in disposable diapering costs, only paying the $55 in detergent and laundry costs.
Many cloth diapering parents decide to put their newborns in disposable diapers for the first 4-6 weeks. There are just so many diaper changes in those early weeks, and in addition to the sleep deprivation, the physical healing, and all the other life changes, cloth diapering can seem like too much. We hereby give you permission (though you didn’t need it) to use this disposable/cloth hybrid approach even if you are an environmental perfectionist… because sanity!
Let’s talk cost savings. How much money do you save by cloth diapering?
Assuming your kid is in diapers for 30 months (a national average we're using arbitrarily) and you’re only considering chemical-free diapers… we’re talking a ~$500 savings on the low end (vs. Earth’s Best or 7th Generation) or a whopping ~$2300+ savings on the high end (Honest Co., Parasol, Bambo, or equivalent), PER BABY. Cloth diapers average out to cost about $900 over their lifetime for 24 diapers, including detergent and in-home laundry operation costs, plus $300 for newborn diapers of one sort or another (cloth or disposable). High-end disposable diapers average between $1700 to $4000 (yes, seriously) for the same 30 month period. If you’re planning to have more than one kid, the cost savings is even bigger, since you’re only paying laundry costs (roughly $440 over 30 months) and can reuse the same set of cloth diapers for kid #2 (and 3 and 4…)
And some might find it kind of gross, but you can save even more by buying cloth diapers second hand. Buy/Sell/Trade groups abound on Facebook, or you can often find a great local deal on Craigslist or your local mom’s group.
But what about the cost of my time?
Yes, cloth diapers take more time to wash and stuff and put away than disposable diapers, but it’s kind of no big deal. One, babies and toddlers love to “help” while you do diaper laundry, and while most laundry is a pain to fold with babies who are constantly unfolding it, diapers don’t fall into that category since they can’t really be unfolded. Two, you’ll never have to run to the store (or Amazon) to buy diapers again.
Are cloth diapers really better for the environment?
The internet is full of debates and absurd headlines about this very topic, but the way we see it… it’s no contest. Upwards of 20 billion-with-a-b diapers are sent to landfill every year throughout the world, with each kid in disposable diapers contributing between 5000 to 7000 diapers to a growing pile of non-biodegradable filth. (Dismounting soapbox.) Yes, cloth diapers must also be produced and shipped. They also contain packaging. Some have inserts made from conventional cotton, which is a dirty industry. They use water and detergent when they’re washed. But the scale is important– 24 cloth diapers per kid versus several thousand disposable diapers. It’s a big difference.
What do you do with cloth diapers when you travel?
Most parents use disposable diapers when they travel to keep things simple, though if you are traveling to a place with a washing machine, you may bring a small cloth diaper stash along with you. If you’re just going on a day trip, you can store the dirty diapers in a wet/dry bag, rinse the poopy ones when you get home, and put them all into your diaper pail for future washing.
So You've Decided to Use Cloth Diapers
Pretty sure you want to use cloth diapers? We commend you. Head here to learn about the best cloth diapers and here to learn about all the accessories you'll need to be successful.
So You've Decided to Use Disposable Diapers
Pretty sure cloth isn't for you and you want to use disposables instead. Props for knowing thyself. Head here to learn about the best disposable diapers (including some commercially compostable options!) and here to learn about the best baby wipes.
Featured image courtesy of @katelynshanice