By Lindsay Evans
“I’ll definitely give them a try.”
Before the birth of my daughter, that was my tentative answer to questions from friends and family about cloth diapers. In my head, I was weighing the stereotypical cloth-diaper routine of pins and plastic pants, smelly diaper pails, and red bottoms against the carefree ease of disposable diapers. I was familiar with the environmental problems caused by disposables, but did this first-time mother really want yet another hassle?
In the first two months after Amelia was born, I didn’t. Albeit with a slightly guilty conscience, I used the mother lode of disposables given to me at my baby shower, and passed up opening the packages of diaper pins and vinyl pants I’d also received. But as my stock of disposables dwindled and Amelia and I settled in to our new life together, the thought of continuously buying — and supporting the makers of — disposable diapers made me sick. I began asking cloth-using mothers about their diapers, and exploring cloth-diaper websites. I discovered a world I’d never known existed. I found an amazing array of diaper choices (no pins or plastic pants required), and a loyal, dedicated group of eco-friendly mothers offering helpful advice and support in online forums and bulletin boards. I’ve since happily made the switch to cloth diapers, and want to share what I’ve learned so that you, too, can make a truly informed diapering choice.
Parents have a broad selection of cloth diapers to choose from, many of them designed by clever, crafty moms who put their ingenuity and experience to work. However, choosing the diapers that fit your preferences and budget can be an overwhelming process for the uninitiated. The first step in switching to cloth is to become familiar with the selection of diapers on the market today. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to choose the diapering system for you.
Most people, when they think of cloth diapers, think of old-fashioned cotton prefolds. Many mothers are content using these traditional and affordable diapers today, in combination with modern, well-designed diaper covers. While mothers diapering in earlier generations would pin a prefold diaper on a baby, mothers today have the option of using a plastic Snappi fastener (pictured at the center of page 48) to secure the diaper, or skipping this step altogether and using the waterproof cover to hold the diaper in place. Diaper covers are designed to keep the prefold snug next to your baby. Just fold the diaper in thirds, place it in the waterproof cover, and slide it under baby. Next, pull the diaper-cover combo up through baby’s legs and secure with the cover’s Velcro or snaps. Diaper covers are comfortable, they can “breathe,” and they’re made of everything from polyester to organic cotton or wool. They’re also offered in fun colors and prints.
Contoured and fitted diapers are made to fit baby’s shape, making diapering even easier. Contoured diapers are designed to fit snugly into a diaper cover without any folding involved. Their hourglass shape ensures that the diaper stays in place inside the cover. Fitted diapers take the idea even further by adding stitched-in elastic around the leg openings and waist, and Velcro or snap closures for a perfect fit under the diaper cover. Fitteds reduce the chance of messy blowouts; you might get through many changes of the diaper while keeping the cover clean enough to re-use. All-in-one and pocket diapers are closest to disposables in construction and ease of use. All-in-ones combine a waterproof cover with several layers of absorbent cotton or hemp into a one-piece diaper. Pocket diapers consist of a waterproof outer layer stitched to an inner layer of fleece or other material that allows moisture to flow through. Anything absorbent, such as a regular cotton prefold or a microfiber or hemp insert, is stuffed into the pocket between the layers. The beauty of these diapers is that your baby’s skin stays dry against the inner fabric as moisture is pulled into the insert. All-in-ones and pockets are especially popular with dads and other caregivers who might otherwise be unwilling to hassle with cloth diapers.
Still unsure which style of cloth diaper will work for you? I use a combination of 12 pocket diapers with microfiber inserts, along with cotton-flannel prefold diapers with polyurethane laminate covers. This combination works well for me, but be willing to experiment to find what works for you. Many cloth-diaper websites offer, at a discounted price, “starter packs” that include several different styles of diapers. Before you make your investment, ask cloth-diapering moms you know about trying out a diaper or two at home, or check out websites such as www.diaperswappers.com or eBay to find great deals on gently used cloth diapers.
Cloth Diaper Care
Yes, you do have to get used to the idea of not simply tossing away those messy disposable diapers. In fact, disposing of human waste in landfills is not just a bad idea, it’s illegal (users of disposables, too, are supposed to flush the poo). Every mother is required to become intimately involved in her child’s potty practices, whether she minds it or not. Learning to properly clean and care for your diapers will quickly become just another task that comes along with mama territory. What’s more, cloth-diapering mamas often develop a sense of pride in knowing that their extra work does what’s best for their babies and the environment.
When it’s time to change a diaper, separate the diaper or insert from the cover and store them separately (except for all-in-ones). Storing dirty diapers with dirty covers until wash day will wear out the covers early and lock in odors. Shake or scrape poo into the toilet — or, if your baby is exclusively breastfed, don’t even bother. You can dunk diapers in the toilet, but many mothers choose to add another wash cycle to their routine and let the machine do the work. I put my dirty diapers and inserts in a dry, uncovered diaper pail, and the dirty covers and pocket diapers in a breathable mesh bag. There really is no need to soak diapers in the pail, as mothers used to—and a bucket full of water is a drowning hazard. Soaking diapers in your washing machine works well. Fill up your machine with cold water and set it for a short wash or soak cycle.
Your wash routine will vary based on the style of diaper you choose. Your diapers may be made of different fabrics that require different washing methods. Always follow the washing instructions on the label, or contact the manufacturer or retailer with any questions. In general, cotton or hemp prefolds and microfiber inserts will need a good, long wash on the Hot setting. Most covers and pocket diapers do best with a warm or cold wash; hot water wears out their waterproofing. A couple of wash cycles, with plenty of water and room to agitate, are usually needed to get diapers truly clean.
On wash day (every two to three days), use a small amount of clean-rinsing detergent without perfumes or dyes to clean diapers thoroughly without leaving any residue. End your wash routine with an extra rinse to avoid detergent buildup. Synthetic fabrics are especially prone to buildup, which can lead to red bottoms and smelly diapers.
If you do encounter smelly diapers, the problem is either detergent buildup or bacteria. Try washing them a few times on Hot with no detergent, then hang in the sun to dry. Sunlight will naturally remove any stains and kill bacteria. Or try adding to your wash a few drops of tea-tree oil or a natural enzyme product. Chlorine bleach is not recommended for use on diapers, and will void any warranty they may come with. Some mothers report good results with an oxygen-based whitener, but check with your diaper manufacturer before use.
On your next trip with baby, you don’t need to revert to using disposables. Remember, in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations, disposables were used rarely or weren’t even an option — so don’t feel guilty about needing to do a load of diapers when visiting family members. Besides, you just might get an informative earful from mom or grandma about the trials of cloth diapering in her day.
Plan ahead to decide how many diapers and covers you’ll need, keeping in mind whether you’ll be able to wash them during your trip (if you plan to wash, don’t forget your detergent). Bring your most reliable diapers; this is not the time to try out a new diaper that might not fit.
Disposable diaper liners are a great option to keep your dirtied diapers cleaner while you’re traveling (these shouldn’t be used in a house that has a private septic system, however). With liners, your diapers will be easier to clean when you do wash them, whether at your friend’s house, at a self-service laundry, or once you get home.
A diaper bag designed with the cloth-diapering mama in mind is a necessity for a day out and about. Bring along diapers and covers for the day, cloth wipes and a gentle cleaning solution to wet them with, and a waterproof bag or tote to hold dirty diapers. Wet bags, available at many cloth-diaper retailers in a range of sizes and colors, are excellent at containing moisture, and can be washed along with the diapers.
The truth is, cloth diapers are an easy, convenient alternative to disposables and a major saver of money, resources, and waste. In her article Crazy for Cloth ( Mothering no. 116, January-February 2003), Laura Schmitt stated that a child will go through an average of 8,000 diaper changes before being potty-trained. At 25 cents a diaper, that comes to $2,000 spent on disposables.
With so many cloth-diapering choices available, you’ll be able to find a style that works for you and your budget. Diaper-service-quality prefolds made in China start at around $2 each, with covers starting at around $7. Clearly, even if you spring for the priciest diapers (all-in-ones and pockets can run $12 to $24 each), you’ll save money in the long run.
Studies comparing the environmental impacts of disposables vs. cloth diapers need to be taken with a grain of salt. The studies are often funded by or otherwise linked to corporations that manufacture disposables, or manage to leave out variables critical to holistically comparing diapering choices. But take a step back from the inadequate data and think about it: Cloth diapers directly save thousands of tons of solid waste from ending up in landfills each year, put human waste in sewer or septic systems where it belongs, and require a relatively small amount of water per wash—equivalent to just five flushes of the toilet. Proponents of disposables may argue that washing cloth diapers until your child is potty-trained uses more water and energy than are used to manufacture an equivalent amount of disposables. Take this argument to the trash by using the most resource-efficient washer and drier you can find (or use the free sunshine to dry), or by conserving household water and energy in other ways. After all, you aren’t about to start using disposable clothes or dishes. [For a thorough discussion and comparison of the environmental impacts of disposable and cloth diapers, see Peggy O'Mara's "A Tale of Two Diapers," in the September-October 2006 issue of Mothering, no. 138. Ed.]
I am so glad that I gave cloth diapers a try. I encourage any concerned or interested mother to do the same. It’s satisfying to know that I overcame my subconscious, disposable-society, market-driven belief that cloth diapers would be too much of a hassle or too antiquated a system to work for me. Give cloth diapering a try; the only thing you have to lose is more than a ton of household waste per year.
Lindsay Evans is a stay-at-home mom who lives in rural north central Washington.
Photo by Melyssa Holik.