Cloth Without the High Cost: Are Flats the Solution?

Thank to to Kim Rosas from Dirty Diaper Laundry for this guest post.

The great irony of cloth diapers is that the families who could benefit from them the most are the least likely to use them.  The image many people now have of cloth diapers runs the spectrum at both ends; they are either too expensive at 20.00 each, or too old fashioned and need rubber pants and pins.   When a family struggling to buy food or pay bills thinks of cloth diapers and either one of these come to mind, do you blame them for not wanting to use them?  I don’t.  And I don’t fault families who have no washer or dryer access for choosing disposables.  But what if the family with no washer or dryer access had to choose between buying a package of disposable diapers or buying food?

That is often the case.  Neither food stamps nor WIC provide low-income families with diaper assistance.  Some food pantries have diaper banks, and some churches and other public assistance programs collect and distribute disposables but how many families are able to use these services or have them available?   After reading this article about families reusing disposable diapers by scraping out the waste or even blow-drying them I was moved to try and find a solution.  How can we break down the barrier to cloth diapers for people who can neither afford the start up cost or use a washing machine?

That is when the Flats and Handwashing Challenge on Dirty Diaper Laundry was born. I posted a survey for members of a blogging network I created asking who might be interested in using Flats, the old school squares of birdseye cotton, and hand-wash them for 7 Days.  I expected maybe 5-10 people.  In one day I had 40.   In a few weeks I had 300.  And on the day the Challenge began I had over 400.  Word spread like wildfire across message boards, Twitter, and Facebook.  My mission had struck a chord with others passionate about cloth diapers and the health of babies.

I worked furiously the first week to not only teach myself how to use flats and hand-wash them, but to educate the participants.  Believe it or not I had also never used flats before this event.  I will admit that before this Challenge I was afraid of trying flats.  Prefolds I could handle, but flats?  Still, I knew flats were the best bet for families on a budget and anyone hand-washing.  Flats can cost as little as 1.00 each or can be repurposed from old t-shirts, towels, or receiving blankets.  They are virtually one size because of the myriad of folds that can be used.

I filmed instructional videos on folds, how to make a camp style washer using a 5 gallon bucket and plunger, and how to prep and wash flat cloth diapers.  Hundreds of mothers and fathers practiced folding their flats and found out that they aren’t so bad.  In fact, they are pretty amazing.  This Challenge brought flats back into the cloth diapering public eye.

The hardest portion of the Challenge, hand-washing, has brought about many opinions.  Some of the participants hated it and others found it to be a refreshing way to save energy and ensure their diapers were truly clean.  The most surprising result of the Challenge was that I and hundreds of others found flats to be easy and fun!

The real question is how do we take the collective lessons we have all learned and distribute them to those who need them? As a final Call to Action I am asking cloth diaper advocates to reach out to their local communities and find ways to implement the skills they learned over the week by volunteering their services to help low income families.  This could mean working with local Diaper Banks or WIC to educate any family on how to start a stash inexpensively or for free and how to wash or even hand-wash diapers if need be.

Many participants have chosen to donate their flats and other diapers to Giving Diapers, Giving Hope, a new foundation helping low income families obtain cloth diapers, in the spirit of the original intent of the Challenge.

Melanie Mayo-Laakso


Melanie Mayo-Laakso is the Content Manager for Mothering is the birthplace of natural family living and attachment parenting. We celebrate the experience of parenthood as worthy of one’s best efforts and are at once fierce advocates for children and gentle supporters of parents.

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