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Cloth Diapering 101

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Cloth diapering is wonderful. Yes, there’s an up, close, and personal view of baby poo (but the same can be said for disposables). When dealing with poo, the key difference between disposables and cloth is the ability to quickly toss the offending diaper into the trash. Whereas cloth diaper users have to launder the diaper themselves or hire a service.

<img src="why-i-love-cloth-diapering.jpg" alt="The benefits of cloth diapering">

I briefly considered cloth diapers for my first baby, but I was soon dissuaded. I didn’t know much about cloth diapering. Neither did my mother, as I was diapered with disposables. Most baby showers, including my own, had diaper cakes made out of disposables. In a world where almost everything is considered disposable, cloth diapering didn’t seem to be an option. 90% of Americans use disposable diapers, despite many having laundry facilities in their home. Cloth diapering and diaper pickup services seemed to be a thing of the past, along with milkmen, Coke in glass bottles, and elevator operators.

<img src="cloth-disposable-infographic_the-bump.png" alt="Cloth diaper versus disposable infographic">
The Bump (click on image)

It wasn’t until I became a zero waster that I started to research the differences between disposables and cloth diapers. I learned cloth diaper lingo and all about the different types. (See below). In my study, I came across many reviews of cloth diapers, but one reviewer outdid them all. Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has one of the most extensive cloth diaper review sites I’ve ever seen. It’s awesome. After reading her reviews, I decided to purchase SoftBums, which is an All in Two (Ai2) system because I wanted a cloth diaper easy button.

Ai2s and All in Ones (AiOs) are the most similar to disposables in function. Once the inserts are snapped in, the Ai2 closes (by snaps or velcro) similar to a disposable. The only downside of AiOs appears to be the washing and drying time. Which is why I love Ai2s because the inserts can be removed, while the shell/cover can be used again (assuming no blowouts). I chose Softbums because they were adjustable. The elastics in Softbums’ diapers adjust to your baby’s legs. Adjusting the elastics is not an exact science, but I have made adjustments to all my son’s cloth diapers. He’s worn these same diapers from newborn to eight months old. He’s about 25 lbs and still fits into the diapers with ease. I listed all of the different types of cloth diapers at the end of the post.

RELATED CONTENT: Low waste nursery tour.

Benefits of Cloth Diapers

  • Environmental: less waste, lower environmental impact, lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (see below for detailed research)
  • Cost (see below)
  • Blowouts are not AS bad
  • Smell is not AS bad
  • Better on baby’s behind. Disposables have certain chemical components that MAY irritate a baby’s bottom.
  • Fun colors and prints

Ninety percent of Americans use disposable diapers and throw away 20 billion disposable diapers per year.

Ease of Use

Disposables were created because of ease of use. However, I would argue that cloth diapers have advanced to challenge this, particularly the AiOs and Ai2s. There are certain cloth diaper accessories that make cloth diapering super easy…and even fun. Thankfully handheld bidets (otherwise known as diaper sprayers) have become extremely popular in the cloth diapering community. I love my cloth diaper sprayer! I honestly don’t know if I could have cloth diapered without it. I’m currently using the Charlie Banana diaper sprayer. You can see my zero waste (actually low waste) nursery here.

Best Cloth Diaper Accessories

  • Diaper sprayer – Diaper sprayers are easy to install and take up limited space, but if you cannot install one you may be able to use a shower sprayer. If your baby is on breast milk then you can toss cloth diapers directly into washing machine until your baby is on solids. Parents without diaper sprayers can use the dunk and swish method.
  • Fleece liners – If you do not have a diaper sprayer, you can use reusable fleece liners, which may be easier to dunk and swish than the diaper. Smart Bottoms fleece liners work very well.
  • Disposable liners – I don’t use disposable liners, but I have heard the best disposable liners are not actual disposable diaper liners, but paper towels. Specifically, Viva paper towels. Please note: Do not place paper towels or supposed “flushable liners” in the toilet/commode. It will destroy your pipes and ruin your local sewer system (or septic). The ONLY thing you should ever flush is what Mother Nature requires you to do and toilet paper. If you use a disposable liner, keep a trash can nearby.
  • Cloth wipes – I love cloth wipes and wipe warmer. I use the Prince Lionheart cloth warmer and warmie cloths. I do occasionally use regular baby wipes (but I never flush them).
  • Wet bags – I use large Planet Wise wet bags. They contain the smell both at home and daycare. I do not use a pail. I also have a few small wet bags that are perfect for travel.
  • Diaper pail –  I have heard great things about the Dekor pail and liner. For travel purposes, the Thirsties diaper pail liner seems to work well.
  • Drying rack – When I’m referring to line drying I’m not necessarily referring to drying outside on an old fashioned line with clothespins (although that is certainly an option!). I personally dry my covers inside on a drying rack. My laundry room is a walk through from the garage so I have limited space. I could not fit a wooden drying rack in my laundry room. So I decided to go vertical and install a space saving drying rack on the wall.

Environmental Factors

It’s strange that a skill as fundamental as diapering would be lost to us. The disposable diaper is a relatively recent invention. In the 1940s, Marion Donovan invented the first diaper cover from her shower curtain! Donovan’s diaper cover is considered to be the forerunner of the disposable diaper. Valerie Hunter Gordon, another inventor/housewife came up with the prototype for the first disposable nappy. It makes sense that the disposable diaper came of age during and shortly after World War II. Women were entering the workforce more than ever before. Washing up cloth diapers/nappies was a time-consuming process.

It didn’t take industry long to see that money could be made. Johnson & Johnson, Playtex, and Procter & Gamble soon entered the disposable market and the rest is history. But what started as a young mother sewing cellulose pads and cotton wool into waterproofed pants, soon gave way to modern disposable diapers–an amalgam of wood pulp, chlorine, sodium polyacrylate, and plastic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency graph below illustrates how disposables gained hold in the market.

<img src="disposable_diaper_waste_management_graph_1960-2015.jpg" alt="Disposable diaper waste from 1960 to 2015">

The environmental calamity of Americans disposing of 20 billion disposable diapers in landfills EACH year (4.3 million tons of waste per year or 1.6% of municipal solid waste facilities) was likely not foreseen in the 1940s. Nor was the amount of time it would take a disposable diaper to degrade. One disposable diaper will sit in a landfill for 400 to 500 years. After we are all long gone, the diapers our grandparents used on our parents will still be here. How many disposable diapers will be languishing in American landfills 50 years from now, 100 years from now? That’s a sobering thought.

When dealing with poo, the key difference between disposables and cloth is the ability to quickly toss the offending diaper into the trash.

Cloth reusable diapers have been around in some form for thousands of years. Yet there is some debate on the environmental impact of cloth diapers. The Washington Post alleges that cloth diapers are more wasteful than disposables, but even the writer had to acknowledge that “disposable diapers in the United States end up almost exclusively in landfills, where they emit methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.” While I disagree that disposable diapers are somehow “more green” than cloth, I put aside my own bias and have tried to provide research from non-biased sources.

Water

One of the biggest issues cloth has against it is water use. The average family who cloth diapers will likely do an additional 10 loads of laundry a month. Admittedly, this is a tangible monetary and environmental cost. Additional laundry requires additional water, electricity (or gas), and time. On the other hand, each time you use a cloth diaper you save a disposable from the landfill. Water is a renewable resource, whereas diapers made from plastic are fossil fuel based. That said, in areas prone to drought water is a scarce resource. So let’s talk water.

According to Mental Floss, it takes 144 gallons of water to manufacture ONE disposable diaper. This does not include the timber and water resources needed for wood pulp. One cloth diaper requires 198 gallons of water (for cotton), however, if it’s reused at least 50 times (which is easy to do) a cloth diaper’s water footprint goes down to 4 gallons. I assume this does not include the additional washing required (we will get to that shortly).

Cloth diapering and diaper pickup services seemed to be a thing of the past, along with milkmen, Coke in glass bottles, and elevator operators.

The University of Queensland in Australia (University) did a study on this topic in 2009. The University examined the entire life cycle of both disposables and cloth diapers–including the growth of timber and use of fossil fuels (for disposables), growth of cotton (for cloth), the manufacturing process, transportation costs, washing process (water, energy, and wastewater treatment for cloth), and trash disposal (disposables). The study looked at changing times, hot or cold water for washing, top or front loader, etc. Overall the study concluded that disposable diapers used more water resources than cloth. If however, cloth diapers were soaked and washed in hot water, that would increase individual energy usage.

Ten years doesn’t feel like a decade, but cloth diapers have come a long way since the University’s 2009 study. The most up to date washing routines for cloth diapers do not include soaking in hot water. Fluff Love University (a highly reputable cloth diaper wash site) does not recommend wet pail storage or soaking, as wet pails are a drowning hazard to children. Most cloth diaper users store dirty diapers in wet bags or closed pail systems. Nor does Fluff Love recommend washing cloth diapers in hot water in high efficiency (HE) washers, because it damages cloth diapers. As an Ai2 user, I use even less water than other cloth diaper systems because I don’t wash the shells for every diaper change (just the inserts). I store soiled cloth diapers in a wet bag and wash in cold water. The manufacturer of SoftBums suggests either warm or cold water, so I choose cold.

According to the University of Queensland, if cloth diapers are washed in cold water in a HE washer then the energy usage is negligible. In closing, they concluded that “home-washed reusable nappies have the potential for the least environmental impact.”

Ethics

The Washington Post brings up a good point about ethical concerns in overseas textile factories. The shell of the diaper I use is made in the USA, but the inserts are made in China. The company claims it’s ethically and lovingly made in China. That is not a certification. I have recently had an education in ethical textiles. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the entity that certifies if a textile is manufactured in an eco-friendly and ethically responsible way. Many cloth diaper manufacturers have GOTS certification.

Energy Usage

The use of electricity and gas is a valid concern, as energy is typically created by the burning of fossil fuels (which increases CO2 emissions). More washes mean more energy usage. If however, you use cold water, this may decrease your energy usage dramatically. Your water and electric costs may increase, but if you have children (and are already washing multiple loads of laundry), the additional energy usage is small. All of the resources that go into making one disposable cannot be recaptured. One disposable has only one use before it goes to the landfill. A cloth diaper can be reused for years and for multiple children. There are also CO2 emissions associated with trash collection and the disposal of non-biodegradable material in landfills.

The Cost of Cloth Diapers Versus Disposables

I have recently read several articles about families struggling to buy disposable diapers, yet cloth is rarely mentioned as a viable option. Some readers on social media are downright hostile to the idea when cloth is suggested. Admittedly I am in a position of privilege to have laundry facilities in my home. I grew up very poor. I remember having to trek to laundromats or to darkened laundry rooms in the basement of an apartment complex. I was fortunate to live in a city with public transportation, but it was still miserable. So if someone doesn’t have laundry services on site, it can make cloth diapering very difficult. People who are working multiple jobs may not have the time to dedicate to cleaning cloth diapers and not many daycares accept cloth diapers. So there are many situations in which cloth diapering is not the best option given a family’s circumstance.

But typically cloth diapers will save families money. While some cloth diaper start-up costs can range into the hundreds of dollars, the simplest form of cloth diapering (flats/covers) will cost a family under $100. After the cost of laundering (water/energy) is taken into consideration, cloth diapering is still much cheaper than disposables. Simple Dollar has calculated that the additional laundry will add some cost to your electric and heating bills per year, but the cost is much lower than the costs of disposables.

Assuming five to seven diaper changes a day, the average family spends $1,200 to $1,500 for disposables per year for two years. That assumes the child is potty trained at two years old, without the need for pull-ups. Cloth diapers can be reused for multiple children, which significantly reduces the sunk costs spent for them originally. It’s the second year in which cloth diapering recovers most of its cost. See Mint’s analysis.

There you have it, the above listed reasons are why I decided to cloth diaper. I hope this gives others inspiration to try to cloth diaper if they have the facilities and the bandwidth to do so!

TypesDescriptionProsConsVideo
FlatsFlats are the old school diapers our grandparents used. They are typically 1 ply cotton fabric squares, which you fold in the shape of a diaper.Inexpensive. They are versatile. Can be folded to fit your baby. Can be used as insert for cover or as pocket diaper stuffing. You can use simple Flour Sack Towels, which are typically available online or in the towel aisle of a big box store.Requires folding, safety pins (or a boingo or snappi fastener) and a cover. A popular cover for flats is Best Bottom.Learn how to fold flats.
PrefoldsA flat that has been pre-folded and sewn together, so it requires less folding. Pre-folded into a rectangular shape and ready for use. Inexpensive.Requires minimal folding. Similar to a flat, pre-folds require safety pins, boingo, or snappi fasteners paired with a diaper cover.Learn how to use prefolds
ContoursContours are fitted cloth diapers with no closures (no snaps/no hook and loop). Contours come with or without elastic on the legs. When they are laid out they are shaped like an hourglass versus a rectangle. Like pre-folds, they must be folded and pinned onto the baby.Like flats and prefolds, contours will give a snugger fit. Inexpensive.Like flats and prefolds, contours require  safety pins, boingo, or snappi fasteners paired with a diaper cover.Learn how to use contours.
Fitted with snapsA diaper made out of layers of fabric. The layers are similar to inserts, but require a cover. The absorbency of fitted cloth diapers can vary.Fitted diapers have closures, typically snaps. Fitted diapers do not require safety pins, boingos, or snappis. They are moderately priced. Popular fitted diapers are Alvas or Cloth-eez Workhorses. Fitteds do require covers. Thirsties duo wrap, Blueberry, or Nickis covers seem to be popular pairings.Learn how to use fitted with snaps and cover.
PocketsPocket diapers are very popular, because of ease of use.  A pocket diaper includes a cover, with a fleece or a suede lining. It has one opening (versus a sleeve diaper that has two openings) to stuff an insert inside. Depending on the absorbency you want, you can use cotton, hemp, or bamboo inserts.Pocket diapers are waterproof diaper covers with an opening inside ( pocket) that can be stuffed with an insert. You can use different types of inserts for your pocket diaper or add more than one to increase absorbency. The pocket diaper shell and the inserts need to be washed with each use. Pocket diapers are more expensive than the diapers listed above. After being washed, pocket diapers require re-stuffing, which can be time-consuming. Popular pockets are Kawaiis, Bum Genius, Thirsties, and FuzziBunz.Learn how to use pocket diapers.
All in OnesDiapers that come in one piece (cover and insert).They are the most similar in function to disposables. The inserts are sewn in. You may be able to add additional inserts. It is the easiest diaper to use for family or caregivers. Have to be washed with each use and takes a long time to line dry. AiO users may be tempted to tumble dry, which is a big no-no for cloth diapers with elastic. Popular styles are Thirsties, Bum Genius, and Grovia. All in Ones are expensive.Learn how to use All in One diaper.
All in TwosAll in twos come in two parts: the waterproof shell and the soaker inserts. The cover allows you to snap in or lay in your insert. Ai2 inserts make it similar to AIOs.Functions similar to an AiO, but covers can be used for multiple diaper changes with new inserts. Because you are primarily washing inserts, you will do less laundry. If you haven’t noticed, Ai2s are my favorite!! All in Twos are expensive. They are not as versatile as other diapers, as you must use the same insert brand for functionality. Popular brands are Flips (which have both resusable and disposables), Grovia, Buttons, Best Bottoms, and of course my favorite Ai2 system is SoftBums!Learn how to use All in Two diapers.
HybridsDiapers in which the insert or lining can either be reused or disposed of. The outer shell/stuffing is washed between uses.You can reuse a diaper cover multiple times before it must be washed. Disposable inserts are just as absorbent as disposable diapers. Some caregivers may prefer disposable liners when they are traveling. You can use reusable fleece liners, such as Smart Bottoms. Fleece reusable inserts are absorbent.Disposable inserts have a similar impact as disposable diapers on landfills. They do not biodegrade. Disposable liners can contain some of the same ingredients as regular disposable diapers. However, they can usually be composted. If they are sent to a landfill they will not likely biodegrade properly. These companies claim they are flushable and biodegradable–which is not accurate. One popular liner not an actual liner at all, but Viva Paper Towels. Learn how to use hybrid diapers.
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