so you wanna go all cloth…

Cloth diapers that is.

Disposable diapers are pretty straightforward–buy them, put them on, attach with sticky tabs, throw out. Cloth diapers are not so intuitive. My only familiarity with them was what I remembered my mother using on my younger sisters, and way back then, they were squares of cotton my mother sewed, folded, secured with huge plastic-headed safety pins, and threw soiled in a plastic bucket which, despite the heavy duty lid, still made the bathroom smell like a toilet that had been backed up for weeks. You would these mental images would have deterred me from going cloth, but for various reasons (which you can read about in this post) I decided to go ahead anyway.

But going ahead in practicality was, for me, confounding. Perusing cloth diaper-selling sites did not help, and neither did other baby sites and baby blogs. What I needed was a clear, concise list of what exactly I needed and a basic instruction manual. So for those like me who have little time, find the topic boring, and are totally confused, here you go.

Basic components:

  • diaper
  • high-absorption diaper insert
  • waterproof diaper cover

 

Diaper options:

  • A pre-made diaper that is already sewn in a diaper shape and has velcro or snaps
  • A piece of cloth that you fold into a diaper shape and secure with diaper pins or a little plastic contraption (called “pre-folds“, which was always a confusing name to me, since you have to fold them….)
  • Specifically sized (for newborn, baby, toddler, etc)
  • Adjustable size (for all sizes, although I found them too big for a newborn)
  • Pull-ups (for toddlers)
  • With/without waterproof cover incorporated

 

Insert options:

  • Inserts–rectangular pieces of absorbent cloth you lay in the diaper–are technically optional, although they reduce the risk of leaks.
  • Pre-made (usually made to fit whatever diaper you choose–some diapers are made so that you can slip the insert into the diaper itself, although this usually ends up being more work)
  • Piece of folded cloth

 

Covers:

I made the mistake of assuming that the diapers really didn’t need covers. I mean, they were so thick! Only after a week of changing my newborn’s outfit five times a day did I realize that yes, duh (pregnancy brain…), cloth diapers will get completely wet. A cover is necessary.

  • Diapers with a cover integrated (convenient, but more expensive typically)
  • Fitted plastic cover with elastic and/or sometimes snaps (usually specifically-sized but sometimes adjustable at the leg holes and waist with snaps)
  • Reusable pieces of pre-cut plastic that you tie on the sides (fit all sizes)
  • Heavy-duty wool underwear
  • A thin fitted “diaper” with water-resistant cloth (not 100% waterproof)

 

Finding what works

From talking to other moms, it seems that babies actually differ quite a bit in their elimination (e.g., our baby poops once every other day, while a friend’s baby of the same age poops four times a day). Makes sense, then, that the best kind of cloth diaper differs from baby to baby. When and where you use cloth diapers–day/nighttime, home/away, every day/weekends–also will influence the choice of cloth diaper.

From the beginning we have used disposables for nighttime and daytime outings, as well as shorter vacations. Finding out what worked as far as cloth diapers took about 9 months. We started with the fancy organic cotton “utrafit” (adjustable for use from newborn until potty training) and fancy matching inserts. I was able to purchase them on ebay for about $4-5 a diaper (new cost $20-25 per diaper). I bought about 20 diapers to start, so an initial investment of about $80. Covers–once I realized I needed them–were a bit trickier. I had some hand-me-down plastic covers with the snaps from Michi’s mother, but they were way too big for a newborn, so I ended up using thin plastic pre-cut covers that tied on both sides (I believe they are meant to be disposable considering they came about 50 in a box, but I would wash them with a little soap and warm water and get about 15-20 uses out of each one before they would tear). As she got bigger, the snap-and-elastic covers were still not ideal because she was a a very chubby baby and the elastic around her chunky legs was cutting off circulation, so we continued with the wraps.

I won’t lie–this all made for a lot of laundry, especially at the beginning when she was peeing and pooping 15 times a day. The diapers are bulky, and one pee meant the insert and the entire diaper would need to be washed. I was doing laundry almost every day. Complicating the issue was that the diapers, due to their velcro waist tabs, had to be line-dried, which meant a large laundry rack took up permanent residence in our kitchen over the winter. All this hot water washing was also driving up our electricity and water bills (electricity is very expensive in Germany). I started to consider if going all disposable wasn’t a better idea. Environmentally, using cloth versus disposables is a wash as far as impact, so there went that argument (see “Are cloth diapers that much greener than disposables?” and “Why cloth diapers might not be the greener choice after all“). But I was still skeptical of all those chemicals making contact with her skin constantly (see BabyGearLab “What’s inside those disposable diapers“, overview from Toxipedia and list of disposable diaper chemicals from Peaceful Parenting). I had already noticed when we would be on short vacations and she would wear disposables for several days at a time, she would get very red and start to get diaper rash. In contrast, we have never had a diaper rash issue with cloth. (While it’s likely disposables are so-so safe, there are a crapload (excuse the pun) of icky chemicals in them, and it is not unreasonable to suspect that constant contact with them for two years or longer could have negative health consequences that will only be “discovered” (most likely from top secret diaper company memos) in ten years or so. Johnson’s Baby Powder and ovarian cancer–case made.)

The solution we arrived at was to use a thin, lightweight, water-resistant diaper (technically, it is more like a cloth cover) with two thick cloth inserts. We go through one diaper and about eight inserts per day. We have five diapers in total and about 40 inserts (over half of which are simply folded pieces of old T-shirts). I only do one or two diaper washes per week now, and everything can be thrown in the dryer if need be.

So far we are pretty content with our diaper situation. For anyone else considering cloth, here are a few advantages and tips:

  • Buy used. There are tons of second-hand diapers for sale on ebay for about a quarter of the price of new. Many times the diapers are practically new from people who gave up on cloth after a few weeks. It can also be convenient, since most people sell diaper packs, complete with 20 or so diapers, inserts and covers.
  • Make your own inserts. If you sew, you can make some fancy ones. If not, or you just want something quick, cut an old cotton T-shirt in half cross-wise and fold. Inserts are guaranteed to get stains and need to be replaced, so this is a more economical option. Plus, for those blow-outs you have ‘kein bock’ (German for ‘absolutely no desire whatsoever’) to clean, you don’t have to feel so guilty just throwing the whole insert in the trash.
  • Use a cloth diaper with an integrated water resistant cover. This saves time and space. Extra bonus if the diaper is thin and dries extra-quick. Doubling up on the inserts makes up for the lack of absorbency in the diaper itself.
  • Cloth diapers stop blow-outs in their tracks. We have never had an up-to-the-armpits situation with cloth, whereas we have had countless messes with disposable.
  • Cloth diapers are quicker to change. When I change to a disposable, I always have to fully clean her, pat and air her dry completely, and smear on diaper cream before even getting to the diapering part. With cloth, it’s just a super quick swipe and on goes the diaper. The cloth immediately dries the moist skin and lets it breathe. There is no worrying about plastic trapping all the moisture and suffocating the skin, and there are no irritating chemicals the skin must be protected from.
  • Cloth diapers are more economical in the long run, especially if you buy second-hand. (“Cloth diapering: a real-world analysis“, “Price check: are cloth diapers worth it?“,  “Cloth diapers vs. disposables: price comparison“)
  • If you keep the dirty diapers in a covered pail filled with water and a few drops of essential oils (Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap also works well), there is no discernible smell.
  •  Babies in cloth make a connection between peeing and being wet. That they have made this connection can mean in some cases quicker potty training.
  • Using cloth is the risk-adverse option. Your baby is not constantly exposed to chemical materials that research might one day prove were harmful (there’s no dearth of examples here—remember Triclosan in diaper wipes?).
  • Using cloth can get a little unpleasant once the solid poops begin. While newborn poo is practically harmless and require no pre-cleaning before washing, it’s a whole other story with solids.
  • Cloth means more laundry, which means sacrificing precious time.
  • Cloth diapers are big, especially on newborns. This means many of those super cute outfits will not fit over the diaper. (When they reach about 9 mos, this doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.)
  • Cloth *could* mean less irritation and diaper rashes (this can vary from baby to baby, and if you leave a wet cloth diaper on for too long too often, diaper rash will usually follow).
  • As per the last point, cloth diapers must be changed more often.
  • Daycare centers and babysitters probably won’t be thrilled about cloth (if they even agree to use them in the first place). Of course, a disposable can be used for these instances.

My advice to anyone considering cloth is to buy a few second-hand to experiment with. Then give it a little time–it definitely can seem like too much work at the very beginning. If you are uncertain about continuing with the cloth, try disposables for several days for comparison. You may find your baby is too sensitive or that disposables aren’t that much more convenient. And do what works for you and your baby–fundamentally one is not “better” than the other (e.g., one choice is not more “moral” or “enlightened” than the other).

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