Cloth Diaper Details

I already explained some of the advantages of using cloth diapers.  Now, for those who are interested, I’m going to give all the details of how we did it.  Many different styles of cloth diapers are available these days, so there’s a lot to choose from, and it can be daunting.  Pre-motherhood, I found it very useful to read an individual family’s “method” and see how some of the options can work together.  We were very happy with our choices:

The equipment

Rather than deal with pins, we decided to buy fitted diapers, which are shaped like disposable diapers and elasticized.  We chose diapers fastened with snaps.  Many brands use hook-and-loop closures (Velcro, Aplix, etc.) but I don’t like that ripping sound, and our experience with that type of closures on other clothing was that they wear out quickly and they snag on things in the laundry.  Snaps were easy for us to use but difficult for Nicholas to open, so he never removed his own diaper and wreaked havoc like many Velcro- and disposable-diapered babies of our acquaintance!  We started with infant-sized diapers.  When he began to outgrow them around four months old, we bought “one size fits all” diapers, which have a whole lot of snaps so that you can adjust the size.  Those lasted all the way to toilet-training more than two years later, and they were still in good enough condition to pass on to another baby!  We tried several brands, all of which were pretty good, but Mother-Ease were the best: The fabric is very absorbent and soft even when line-dried, the diapers stay in place without being too tight, the snaps fasten and unfasten when you want them to but not when you don’t, and the price is lower than many other brands.  The Mother-Ease diaper we’d received as a new-baby gift had the stay-dry lining, and we did not like that–the fabric pilled after a few washings, and it had an unpleasant texture–so when we bought more, we got them without the lining.  We had 30-40 diapers at a time.

Fitted diapers need a separate waterproof cover.  We started with one each of several kinds and found that most of them leaked!  The good news was that the best covers were the least expensive.  Dappi nylon diaper pants pull on like underpants.  (Vinyl pants are similarly priced but smell terrible, pinch baby’s legs, and block all air circulation thus encouraging diaper rash–so they’re a bad choice even aside from the environmental hazards of vinyl.)  They can be machine-washed, but we found we could clean them quickly by hand with a squirt of liquid soap, and they air-dry in just a couple of hours.

Our initial purchases included one pack of flushable diaper liners, which we intended to use just for the meconium (gunk that lines baby’s intestines before birth and comes out in the first week and is very sticky), but we found that they make removal of poop from a diaper much easier, so we decided that the environment could handle an extra sheet of thin unbleached paper per poop.  One of the great things about flushable liners is that, although they dissolve like toilet paper when flushed (our upstairs toilet is very particular but did not object to them!), they somehow survive machine-washing and can be used again 3 or 4 times or until they get pooped on.

We used cloth baby wipes made from a layer of flannel sewn to a layer of terry or sherpa.  They’re much better than disposable wet-wipes: They don’t tear, they don’t let poop soak through to your hand, they’re not impregnated with disgusting chemical slime that leaves a pervasive fragrance on your hand, the terry side is excellent for scrubbing, they come in cute prints, and of course they’re better for the environment and your budget.  Before changing a diaper, we simply wet the wipe using water from a bottle with pop-up spout (a “sports” drinking-water bottle) that we kept on the changing table.  Some parents add stuff to their wipe-water or use a warmer, but we found that unnecessary.

Diaper doublers are extra layers of cloth to increase diaper absorbency when needed.  We started to use these in the last month or so of infant-size diapers.  Later, we used them at night and whenever we anticipated not being able to change the diaper as soon as he used it.

We stored used diapers in nylon laundry bags, or “wetbags”, like these.  They are so cool!  If you fill one with water, there’s some leakage at the seam, and of course if you turn it upside down most of the water comes out the hole in the drawstringed opening…but you can fill one with damp things and have no leakage at all!  They also contain odors well.  Aside from use with diapers, wetbags have radically improved my life in situations like bringing home a wet swimsuit or muddy hiking boots.  I always used to use a disposable plastic shopping bag, which can work just fine but tends to tear.  Wetbags are durable and reliable and come in nice colors, too!  Like the nylon diaper covers, they’re easily washed by hand or can go in the washing machine.

We used a large wetbag to line the diaper pail, a kitchen-size stainless-steel trashcan with lid operated by a foot pedal.  It has an interior plastic bin that I took out and cleaned every few weeks.  (After toilet-training, the bin found work in its field, as our kitchen trashcan.  My mother had predicted that the steel would become pitted from ammonia in the urine, but this did not happen at all.)  My parents stored dirty diapers soaking in water in a tightly-sealed plastic pail, and I remember an unpleasant odor every time that was opened.  In my pre-motherhood research, I learned that many people these days use a dry pail, and it worked out well for us.  It smells better, and I certainly appreciated not having to lug a giant pail of water down the two flights of stairs to the laundry room!

We learned that some of the popular diaper-rash treatments, such as Desitin and A&D, contain fish oil.  The way we learned was that when we or the babysitter had put them on Nicholas, next time we washed diapers our entire basement smelled like dead fish!!  It took three washes to get it all out!!  We mostly treated and prevented skin irritations with pure aloe vera gel or Kerry’s Herbals Miracle Salve, but a couple of times he got bad rashes that needed zinc oxide cream to keep the skin dry.  Balmex is fish-free and rarely left noticeable residue on the diapers.

The procedure

After changing a wet diaper, we put it and the washcloth and the flushable liner into the diaper pail.

After changing a dirty diaper, we carried it to the toilet and dropped in the liner and all the poop on it.  Sometimes the liner would shift out of place and some poop would get on the diaper.  We had a plastic scraper (intended for dishes) that we used to clean it off–that was our least favorite part!  It’s not that poop won’t come off in the wash; it’s that we preferred to put as much of it as possible into the toilet rather than into the washing machine where we wash all our other laundry as well.

Away from home, we usually did diaper changes in a bathroom, where we could wet the cloth wipe in the sink before setting up the baby for changing.  In a pinch, we could wet the wipe at a drinking fountain or with water from a bottle.  We kept a small wetbag in the diaper bag to store used diapers until we could put them in the pail at home.  We also carried gel hand sanitizer in case we were in a place where washing hands after diaper-changing was difficult.

Before packing a diaper into the diaper bag, we put in the flushable liner (and doubler if needed) and folded the diaper around it so it was all ready to use and we didn’t have to scramble with assembling components away from home.

I developed a four-day rotation of laundry chores that was very effective for keeping up with the diapers and my clothing.  (Daniel is responsible for washing clothing for himself and Nicholas.)  I started this when Nick was about six months old; earlier, I washed diapers more like every three days because he needed more frequent changes when he was tiny and because we had fewer infant-size diapers than one-size.  Here’s the four-day plan:

Day 1: Wash diapers and hang them up to dry.

Day 2: Wash clothes.  Take previous load of clean clothes off clothesline, fold, and put away.  Hang wet clothes up to dry.

Day 3: Put dry diapers into dryer for a 20-minute “fluff” cycle with no heat.  Put them away.

Day 4: Same as Day 2.

The beauty of this plan is that when life is extra-busy, Day 2 or Day 4 can be used to rest or to catch up on diaper laundry that didn’t get done the previous day, because I do not use enough clothing to make a full load every two days!  The catch is that you have to have enough clothesline/drying-rack space for at least two loads of laundry.  Daniel hung more clotheslines in our basement in preparation for parenthood, so we now have space for 3-4 loads, and it’s protected from the weather.

On Day 1, I took the wetbag full of diapers out of the diaper pail and emptied them into the washing machine.  I ran a presoak cycle with hot water and white vinegar or Bio-Kleen Bac-Out, a natural microbicide.  Twenty minutes later (or whenever I got around to it) I’d start a wash cycle with hot water and natural laundry soap.

The reason for the fluff cycle on Day 3 was that the layers of fabric in the diapers tend to get compacted together by the washing machine’s spin cycle; fluffing them improves absorbency and makes them feel softer.  We used a heated dry cycle only if we were behind schedule and needed the diapers before they’d have time to air-dry.

Nicholas became involved in the Day 3 proceedings from an early age.  He liked to ride in the basket with the clean diapers when I took them upstairs, and around 7 months he began to hand me the diaper or wipe he thought I should put away next.  (I encouraged him to do that rather than throw them around the room.)  Around 15 months, he began helping me take the clean diapers off the drying rack into the basket–he got the lower ones while I got the higher ones and the wipes clothespinned onto the clothesline above.  He also enjoyed putting the diapers into the dryer and taking them out.

The practical concerns

Our cloth diapers and all related supplies cost about $900 total.  That’s much less than the disposable diapers a baby uses in two-and-a-half years.  It’s possible to spend a lot less than we did, by choosing a different style of diapers or making do with fewer diapers and washing more often.

Our electricity and water bills increased by only a couple of dollars a month due to diapers.  The change in the gas bill for the extra hot water was so small we couldn’t see it.

While the idea of poop in our washing machine is gross, the machine didn’t smell bad or seem dirty.  Our clothing seemed to be coming out as clean as ever.  The machine’s output hose drains into the utility sink, and we usually didn’t have odor problems there either–but there were some times when Nicholas had eaten a lot of beans and I would notice dark flecks in the sink and realize they were undigested bean skins!  Ewww…but hey, you gotta clean the sink every once in a while anyway!

The few times Nicholas had a serious diaper rash, we found that the quickest way to clear it up was to use disposable diapers for a few days.  Although we’re concerned about the safety of the superabsorbent gel, it does pull moisture away from baby’s skin very effectively.

Did he toilet-train at an early age?  Well, Daniel and I didn’t think so–we were sick and tired of wrestling diapers onto a kicking kid about six months earlier!  But by today’s sorry standards, anytime before three years old is “early”, especially for boys.  Nicholas was ahead of the curve, and once he agreed to start using the toilet he became nearly perfect at it within a few weeks, with very few “accidents”.

What about childcare?

Until he was two years old, Nicholas spent workdays with a babysitter in her home.  She had used disposable diapers on her own child and all the others she’d cared for, but she was willing to use cloth on these conditions: no pinning, no rinsing, and I would replace dirty diapers with clean ones every day.  She wouldn’t use cloth wipes but was willing to provide disposable wipes.  After a few months, she really liked cloth diapers, commented frequently on the environmental benefits, and showed them to the other parents!

When Nicholas started going to a larger childcare center, they were willing to use cloth under the same conditions as above if we also would provide disposable wipes.  They also required their staff to seal each diaper in a plastic bag!  We were very annoyed by that–not only was it wasteful, but it meant that I had to handle each diaper to get it into the pail at home, instead of just dumping the bag into the pail–but since they also plastic-wrap each disposable diaper they discard, we still were saving resources.

I packed Nick’s bag every night with seven diapers, one extra cover, and a wetbag.  (He never used seven diapers in nine hours.  The idea was to have more than he needed.  The times he ran out, it was because I’d forgotten to restock his bag!)  After some experience, the sitter preferred the Mother-Ease diapers to the other brands, so I packed only those unless we were out of clean ones.  If the cover he was wearing got poopy, she put it into the wetbag, which was my cue to put another clean cover into the diaper bag for next day.

What about travel?

We don’t do a whole lot of traveling, and we’ve managed to avoid flying since Nicholas was born.  We did take several car trips while he was in diapers, including a two-week journey to Oklahoma with three days on the road each way.  I found that my nylon mesh laundry hamper was a handy way to transport all Nick’s stuff when we went away for more than two nights.  I’d put the folded diapers in two stacks and add a stack of cloth wipes, the water bottle, a large wetbag, a pillowcase for dirty clothes, the roll of flushable liners, several extra diaper covers, a mat for changing diapers on, diaper-rash cream, gentle soap, rubber duckies, etc.  The hamper helped to keep things upright, and the see-through sides made things easy to find.  Into the empty space at the top, I’d put a pillowcase containing his clean clothes and one containing toys.  (If you have a lot of pillowcases in different colors or prints, they’re great for organizing stuff!)  The hamper has handles for easy carrying and wasn’t very heavy.  We also brought along a large plastic tub with handles (like a laundry basket with solid sides) and put the hamper in that and set it on the front passenger seat; the parent who wasn’t driving sat in back with Nicholas.  At our destination, we had everything we needed to set up a diaper-changing area.  We kept the wetbag inside the plastic tub just in case it leaked.

On trips longer than five days, we washed diapers in our host’s home.  (If we hadn’t been able to arrange that in advance, we’d have used disposables for the trip.)  On shorter trips, we just brought home all the used diapers and started doing laundry immediately after returning.

I will admit that in a car with no air conditioning, five days’ worth of used diapers have a noticeable odor.  I wouldn’t have expected anyone other than immediate family to tolerate it.  But we could tolerate it–we noticed it, but it didn’t make us queasy or bother us constantly or anything.  Temperature is a factor to consider when deciding whether to use cloth diapers on the road.

  • After this article helped to inspire my friend Lynne to use cloth diapers on her second child, she wrote about her method, which is somewhat different from mine and more affordable.  Check it out!
  • I didn’t realize I hadn’t mentioned swim diapers until I read this article on reusable swim diapers.  Nicholas had one of the officially reusable cloth type, but according to the article “disposable” swim diapers can be washed and worn again several times!

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

7 Responses to Cloth Diaper Details

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