How to Start Cloth Diapers
Updated: Jan 9
The first time I heard someone say they wanted to use cloth diapers for their baby was during my last year of college. I remember being surprised this was still a thing and I thought it was weird to do when there are so many more convenient options available.
A couple of years later, I got pregnant myself. I wanted the best for my baby and after some research, I did not want to use disposable diapers on my baby. Not only because of the enormous waste production but also because of the large number of chemicals in regular disposable diapers. I remember my mom telling me that I was allergic to disposable diapers which encouraged me even more to use cloth diapers instead of disposables.
Why cloth diaper
There are several reasons to consider cloth diapers. The most important one is waste production. Did you know that in a household with a child in diapers, over 50% of that household waste is the diapers? In landfills, disposable diapers take up about 4% of the total amount of waste. Disposable diapers are one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste globally as plastic is what makes most disposable diapers waterproof. A baby uses about 4,000 to 6,000 disposable diapers until potty training which results in about 300.000 disposable diapers being thrown away every minute globally. These diapers end up in landfills, incineration, or pollute the environment, including our oceans.
To me, the waste production of disposable diapers together with all the chemicals that are present in disposable diapers are enough reasons to use cloth diapers.
Benefits of cloth diapers
There are many benefits to cloth diapers both for the parents, for the baby as well as for the environment.
You save money when you decide to use cloth diapers. Cloth diapering can be as expensive or as cheap as you would like it to be but on average a set of cloth diapers will set you back around $800. This set can be used for multiple babies and when you no longer need them they can be sold again (there is a big market for secondhand cloth diapers. Disposable diapers will cost you about $70 per month or $840 per year . This means that cloth diapers are considerably cheaper to use. Even if we add $100 per year for washing and other cloth diaper accessories, it is still considerably cheaper.
Cloth diapers don’t smell. I know this is hard to believe but I have had many occasions that I completely missed the fact that my baby had pooped in her cloth diaper. This is because PUL (which is what the outer layer of cloth diapers is often made of) contains the smell so well. Only once I opened the diaper there was a smell…
Another great thing about using cloth diapers is that you never run out (as long as you wash regularly).
Cloth diapers also look adorable. This might not be a big pro but I loved seeing my girl walk around in her cloth diaper.
A cloth diaper does not contain any chemicals to absorb moisture. Disposable diapers may contain traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process (to make the diapers white). It is a carcinogenic chemical, the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals.
A baby feels wet after doing its business. This is both a pro and a con as the baby may remain wetter when they do their business which could cause rashes while they also feel they wet themselves which may help in becoming potty trained earlier.
Babies have a big bum when they wear a cloth diaper. This might be a bit of a disadvantage for parents because clothes may fit poorly but when a baby starts to walk there is always a cushion around their bum to break their fall.
Cloth diapers are made from a renewable resource. This is usually cotton, hemp, or bamboo. While for disposable diapers over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce diapers for one baby each year.
Cloth diapering saves lots of water. Even though lots of water is needed for both the production of cloth diaper material and washing of the diapers, disposable diapers require more water. This is because the manufacturing process of a disposable diaper is rather water-intensive. Overall, a disposable diaper amount to 2.3 times more water wasted compared to cloth.
Modern cloth diapers
The cloth diapers your grandparents used are not the same as the modern-day cloth diaper. Although this way of cloth diapering is still possible (and done by some parents) most parents choose a different way of cloth diapering that is much easier and user-friendly. Not only did the cloth diaper go through changes over the years, but also our washing machine did. Where our parents boiled the diapering fabric to get them properly clean, we no longer have to do this as our washing machines can do the job much better than what we can do by hand. The washing machines nowadays can do a very good job at cleaning our clothes and even very dirty items like cloth diapers are no match for the washing machines nowadays. So, not only did the cloth diaper become much more modern, our washing machines became much better and more efficient.
Types of cloth diapers
Many cloth diaper types exist but I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many options right away. Below you can find the most popular options out there. They vary greatly in price and user-friendliness so I recommend purchasing a few of each type you might be interested in to try them out to see if you like using them and if they fit your baby.
This is a square piece of fabric, usually cotton, bamboo, or hemp, that can be folded into the shape of a diaper. It is placed around your baby's bum where it is closed with a snappi. As a flat/pre-fold is only the absorbent material, it needs a waterproof cover.
Popular brands: Gerber, Osocosy
The cover can be used again when the flat is wet.
More work is involved. First diaper on the baby then the cover
Needs to be folded before use
Thick absorbent fabric (usually cotton, hemp, or bamboo) shaped like a diaper. Snaps or velcro are attached to this cloth diaper which is used for closing the diaper. This diaper needs a waterproof cover as it is absorbent fabric only.
Popular brands: Thirsties, Mother-ease
Suitable for nights
The cover can be used again when the diaper is wet.
More work. First diaper on the baby then the cover
Dries very slow
A pocket is a waterproof diaper with an opening on the inside. This opening needs to be filled with absorbing material, the inserts.
Popular brands AlvaBaby, bumGenius, Charlie Banana
Similar in use as a disposable diaper
Fit is important
The whole diaper goes in the laundry.
Inserts need to be removed before washing
Inserts have to be placed in the diapers before use
Not suitable during the night
Things to consider when choosing cloth diapers
When you decide to go for cloth diapers, you enter a whole new world. There are so many different shapes and brands to choose from it can be a bit overwhelming.
To help you get started, there are a few things to take into consideration before you begin your research as this will make the decision-making process much easier.
Why do you want to use cloth diapers? What is the primary reason to choose cloth (cost, health, environment)?
How much time do you have? Cloth diapering requires a little more time compared to disposable diapers. However, some cloth diapering systems require less than others.
What is your budget? You can spend thousands on an enormous cloth diaper stash with all the cute prints but you can make it as cheap as $100 as well. It all depends on your budget.
Will you be using them for 1 child or more?
Where will the baby spend most of its time? (Home, daycare, grandparents)
All these points will help you decide which cloth diapering system will suit you and your situation best. For example, if you are going to be a stay-at-home mom/dad and your budget is tight, folding pre-folds and using covers might be a great option for you.
If you are both working parents and your kid will spend a large part of the day at daycare or with grandparents, pockets might be best as these are very easy to use.
Try out different brands and systems to find out what you prefer and what suits your situation.
When should I start using cloth diapers?
There is no specific time that you have to start using cloth diapers. You have not missed the boat when you decide to start cloth diapering when your child is a little older. In my opinion, every disposable diaper that does not end up in the trash is a win in my book so don’t worry about starting late.
Some moms start cloth diapering their baby right away after birth. I think this is great but this might be too soon for some. I think it is best to start cloth diapering once you are ready. This might be a week after the birth for some while it could take a couple of months for others. Both are ok. You need some time to adjust to a new routine with a newborn and once that is accomplished you can add cloth diapering to that routine.
I don’t recommend cloth diapering a premature baby as there are no cloth diapers designed with their size in mind and the fit might be poor. You also might not even be at home and hospitals prefer not to use cloth diapers.
What do I use
When I was pregnant the decision for cloth diapers was already made but I did not know yet which type of cloth diapers I liked best and which suited my baby best. So, I purchased several different brands of cloth diapers. I choose both fitted diapers to try as well as several brands of pockets. My boyfriend agreed with the use of cloth diapers as long as it was as easy as possible so all the diapers I choose had velcro as he didn’t like snaps.
My girl was (and still is very small) so one of the two fitted diapers I choose fitted her very poorly. These were sold after only 2 uses as the other brand worked much better for us.
We had the same difficulty with pocket diapers. Most were far too wide for her. Only one brand of pocket fitted her nicely which was, unfortunately, a brand I purchased on Aliexpress (the prints were too cute!). So after some trial and error, we found our brands and systems. We have pockets for daycare and fitted diapers for the night and at home.
How many cloth diapers do I need to start?
If you are unsure whether or not you want to go cloth diaper full time, don’t invest in a full set yet. It is perfectly ok to cloth diaper part-time if that suits your schedule best.
If you want to start cloth diapering full time you need a decent number of cloth diapers. On average a newborn uses about 8 - 10 diapers per day. You will need to wash your diapers every 2-3 days (when you have a full load of diapers) meaning for a newborn you need 24 to 30 cloth diapers. In this case, you use your diapers for 2 days. These 16 to 20 diapers will go into laundry and will be line-dried (I don’t have a dryer so drying of the diapers takes at least a day). The remaining 8 - 10 diapers will be used that day.
A 6-month-old uses about 6-8 diapers per day. In this case, you would need 18 to 24 diapers while a 1-year-old uses about 6 diapers a day, meaning 18 diapers.
Keep in mind that the more diapers you have in your rotation, the less washing and wearing each one receives, therefore the longer they will last. On the other hand, when you have just enough diapers, you will use all of your diapers to the fullest.
How many do I have?
My cloth diaper stash has both pockets and fitted cloth diapers. I have 24 fitted diapers and 10 pocket diapers. So my set is rather large because during the winter, it sometimes takes longer than 24 hours for my diapers to dry and I don’t want to go without.
How often should you change a cloth diaper?
How often you need to change your baby depends on the pee and poo schedule. This is something you learn over time but overall a cloth diaper needs to be changed more frequently as there are no chemicals in the diaper to absorb liquid. You are completely dependent on the amount of absorbent material in the diaper.
After the first couple of weeks of cloth diapering, we found out that our girl poos and pees the most in the morning right after waking up. Meaning the first diaper is changed as soon as she wakes up and the next one an hour to 90 minutes later when she had something to eat and drink. The night diaper and the morning diaper are always to the fullest so we know she does most of her business early in the morning. These diapers are both fitted diapers because of the large amount she produces in the morning. For the second diaper change, we put her in a pocket diaper for the convince of the daycare. She goes there from 7:00 to 13:00 where they change her diaper twice (every 2,5 hours). So in the morning, she had her diaper changed four times. During the afternoon she is often changed two more times and right before bed she also gets a clean diaper. So she has 7 diaper changes per day on average. But, my baby is not a predictable computer and on some days there may be more diaper changes depending on what she ate. When she had blueberries we knew we had to change her diaper more frequently during the remainder of the day as these filled her diaper quickly.
What to do with the poo
If you are a soon-to-be parent and you are grossed out by poop you will have to toughen up real fast. Even if you will not start to cloth diapers, you will see lots of poo and it will get everywhere. Disposable diaper explosions are not uncommon (but they are when cloth diapering) and having a baby poo in the water you are bathing them or the two of you in is also something that has happened to most parents. That is the joy of parenthood. Luckily your tolerance for this greatly increases the longer you are a parent but this may take some time.
There are several options to deal with the poop in cloth diapers. When your baby is 100% breastfed, you don’t have to do anything with the poop as this type of poop is completely water-soluble. Meaning your washing machine will have no problem cleaning it.
If this doesn’t feel right for you or if you are bottle-feeding your baby, there are more solutions.
When your baby is bottle-fed or is already eating solids, you could place a biodegradable (disposable) liner into the diaper. Liners are used in cloth diapers to collect the baby poo to prevent most of it from entering the washing machine. Liners can be disposable, in this case, liners are disposed of in the trash can when it has collected poop (change your trashcan frequently!). Even though most liners are biodegradable I don’t recommend putting them in the compost bin as human feces contains bacteria. A home compost bin does not become hot enough to kill these bacteria.
There are also washable liners, in this case, a filled liner is emptied above a toilet when it has collected poop and washed afterward. The latter is often made from fleece which helps with a dry feel around a baby's bum. It is also recommended to switch to reusable liners once the poop the baby produces is more solid to make removing it into the toilet easier.
Another option is to use a diaper sprayer. This is a toilet attachment used to rinse poop from dirty diapers over a toilet. This eliminates the use of a liner but can use lots of water in some cases.
How to wash
If the liners and diaper spray did their job well, there should hardly be any solid waste entering your washing machine. This, however, does not mean that your diapers don’t need a proper washing routine to make sure they are properly clean. Just like our worn underwear will have bacteria that you will need to properly clean, dirty cloth diapers have even more bacteria so they need an even better washing routine.
The first step is to make sure there are sufficient diapers in the washing machine. How many this depends on the size of your machine but it should be between 2/3 and 3/4 full.
Start with a short cold rinse cycle to get rid of any remaining solid waste that might have missed the liner. Hot water solidifies protein that is present in our poop making it difficult to wash out so we use cold water. Use a little detergent and detergent enhancer for this rinsing step.
The next step is the washing step. We do this at a higher temperature to kill bacteria. The rinsing removed the protein but did not kill bacteria so we do that in this step. After rinsing you can leave the diapers in the machine and start the new cycle. Choose a regular length program at a hot temperature. I choose 60 °C which is about 140 F. This is sufficient to kill bacteria. Use a strong laundry detergent with enzymes (because enzymes break down protein) to properly clean your diapers. Soapnuts are not strong enough to clean cloth diapers.
Line dry your diapers. I don’t have a dryer as these are not very eco-friendly and they deteriorate your diapers and clothes faster but I understand the convenience of using one.
Clean your washing machine every 3 months just to be sure.
Cloth diapers accessories
To make cloth diapering easier, some accessories could be helpful. They are not required but they will make your journey much easier.
Diaper sprayer or liners
I recommend choosing either one of these options to make removing poop from cloth diapers easier. We used biodegradable liners.