cloth diapers 101: what to buy, how to wash

cloth diapers 101Consider this your official crash course: Cloth Diapers 101!

From birth to potty learning, cloth diapers don’t have to be expensive, complicated, or any more gross than changing ‘sposies.

Cloth diapers are incredibly cute, and believe it or not, cloth can be even more convenient than disposables.  You’ll never make a midnight run to the corner store again!

Why cloth diapers? Well, why not??

There are a multitude of reasons, from health and environmental concerns, to baby’s physical comfort and significant cost savings.


Disposable diapers have only been around since the 1950s, and there is still some concern over the safety of the chemicals used in them.

Sodium polyacrylate is what makes disposable diapers absorbent, and turns to gel when wet.  Google “sodium polyacrylate”, and you will be rewarded with a laundry list of potential risks and concerns associated with its use.

Since it is so absorbent, sodium polyacrylate has been reported to actually pull blood toward the surface of the tender genital tissues, creating a constant “diaper rash” in some babies.

The thick gel also traps heat near the body, and that’s never comfortable, especially for little boys, whose genitals are biologically designed to be a few degrees cooler than the standard core body temperature.

Further, the paper-bleaching process creates dioxin, which is the most toxic cancer-causing compound known to science.

Dioxin is scary stuff, banned in most countries, but not the US.  Together, these two chemicals make disposables a toxic disaster that we are putting next to the tender skin of newborn babes.


There will always be those who debate the eco-savvy of using cloth diapers, claiming that cloth wastes more water and pollutes by the use of extra laundry detergents.

Consider, however, that it takes 500 years for the average disposable to biodegrade + the already brimming landfills around the world.

There’s even contamination of groundwater from solid human waste inside disposable diapers that SHOULD have been flushed instead of thrown away

Yes, you’re supposed to knock solid waste from disposable AND cloth diapers into the toilet for flushing.

Never heard that before, hmm?  Yet it’s true.

Cost savings:

Bought brand new, an entire stash of cloth diapers and accessories can cost an average of $300—however, this figure can vary widely.

When you consider that disposables cost an average of over $100 per month (wipes not included), you can easily recoup the upfront expense of a cloth diaper stash (which will theoretically be used for an average of 30 months from birth ’til potty learning) in a matter of only two to three months.

Buying used or crafting your own diapers can drastically lower the total amount spent, while using certain styles of diapers or venturing into the “hyena arena” of custom + handmade cloth can cost much more (but can be much more fun!)

Diaper styles:

 There are many different types of cloth diapers available today, and the choices can be overwhelming.  Cloth has most definitely evolved from the pins and rubber pants of your great-grandma’s time!

Basically, all cloth diapers have two parts—something absorbent inside, and something that is moisture-resistant on the outside.

Diapers such as fitteds and prefolds need a cover to make them waterproof, while All-In-Ones (AIOs) can be used alone.

There are also accessories such as doublers, liners, and snappis.  Pins are not required!

  • Flats:  These diapers most closely resemble what great-grandma used to use.  They are extremely versatile and inexpensive, but have to be folded and either snappi’d or pinned.  These need a cover of some sort to be waterproof.  They’re great for when your baby is still young and/or not very squirmy, and if you’re primarily worried about cost (or don’t have a dryer!).
  • Prefolds:  These are the diaper that diaper services often use.  Can be snappi’d or pinned, and need a cover.  These take longer to dry than flats but are much more convenient (no origami-folding involved!).  They’re still very cost-effective at roughly $2 per diaper.
  • Fitteds:  These are very convenient, and are fastened with either snaps, or velcro/aplix.  These often have elastic around the legs, making them the most blowout-proof diaper you can buy, even including disposables! These require a cover to be waterproof – for use under clothing or outside of the home.  Some brands include GoodMamas, SustainableBabyish (SBish), Swaddlebees, Thirsties, etc.
  • Pocket diapers:  These have an absorbent insert sandwiched in between a wicking or stay-dry inner layer and a waterproof outer layer.  They are often trim and the absorbency can be customized by adding more inner layers.  Brands include Thirsties and FuzziBunz.
  • All-In-Ones/Hybrids:  These are diapers which have the waterproof layer “built in”.  These are most similar in build to disposables, but take the longest to dry.  Examples include GroVia, bumGenius!, etc.
  • Covers:  These can be made of PUL/plastic, fleece, or wool, and there are so many choices.  Not all covers work well with all diapers, or fit well on all babies, so be sure to ask around online before you purchase a lot of any one type.  Covers can have snaps or velcro/aplix, and gussets around the legs are typically a good feature to look for.   A few of my personal favorites include Thirsties Duos, Imse Vimse Bumpy, and knit wool.

A note about wool:

Wool is an excellent material for cloth diapering.  It is breathable—cool in the heat, and warm when it’s cold out.

Wool is naturally water-repellent (due to the lanolin content) and anti-microbial.

Wool covers or “longies” (to be used with fitted diapers; these double as cute + comfy pants in cold weather) can be hand-knit or crocheted, and lanolized periodically to retain their moisture resistance.

Wool is delicate, however, and must be hand-washed when soiled, or every 2 weeks.  You can buy special wool washes, but any mild soap will work in a pinch.

TIP:  If you live near a big city, it’s worth a visit to a natural baby store (like this one, in Round Rock, Texas!) to actually SEE and TOUCH all the diapers.  The lovely folks who work at these stores are usually uber-knowledgeable about cloth and eager to help you find the perfect system for your baby.

What do I need to buy, really?

How many diapers and/or covers you will need depends largely on the age of your baby and the type of diapers you choose.

A good starter stash for a newborn (and new-to-cloth parent!) is 2 to 3 dozen prefolds or fitteds, 6-8 covers, and two snappis (or two sets of pins, if you prefer).

This gives you enough extras for any washing hangups—but typically, you will want to wash every other day.  Prefolds are a little less convenient, but they’re easy to use on younger babies who can’t attempt to crawl away from you mid-diaper-change!

I usually switched to using All-In-Ones or fitteds exclusively by the time my babies were mobile.

An older baby needs to be changed less often, but since they are more mobile, you might wish to branch out into other, more convenient diaper styles to minimize changing table wrestling matches!  As an absolute minimum, 18 prefold diapers and 4 covers will suffice.  I prefer to have at least 24 diapers, to cover washing delays or other unforeseeable circumstances.

A special diaper pail is nice, but not necessary.  Any regular to small-sized trash can with a lid will work.  You can buy washable diaper pail liners, or just use trash bags.  Similarly, washable wetbags are really useful to tote home used diapers when on an outing, but again, they are not necessary.

You can also buy a special cloth diaper sprayer, which hooks up to your toilet tank and can be very useful in rinsing out diapers.  I have never personally had one, but some cloth mamas swear by them.

There is no need to soak used diapers in a “wet pail” (especially not with bleach!).  With most diapers, prolonged soaking will actually ruin them before their time.

Cloth wipes?

It might sound like trouble, but the fact is that cloth wipes are much more convenient if you’re already using cloth diapers.  Much easier than picking disposable wipes out of your dirty pail or dryer load–!

A nice way to use these is to buy a wipes warmer (like Prince Lionheart’s) and fill it with folded baby washcloths.

Just pour an easy-to-make wipes solution over the washcloths in the warmer box, and you will have anti-microbial, nice-smelling, toxin-free cloth wipes, ready to use on your baby.  These will get used up quickly, and it’s so easy to just refill the box and make more.

To make your own wipes solution, in a mason jar, mix 1 Tbsp. Baby shampoo or castile soap, 1 tsp. natural oil such as apricot or jojoba (NOT baby oil!), and three drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil, then fill to the top with water.

Washing—the scary part?  Not really.

Some diapers will have particular washing instructions, but often, you will be able to wash them with little extra fuss.

Solids need to be knocked into the toilet if at all possible.

Breastfed babies (or babies not yet eating solid food) will not likely have solid poo, and so you will have to trust that modern washing machines can handle this sort of soil!

A “full load” of diapers shouldn’t take up more than 2/3rds of the space in your washing machine.

They need plenty of water and space to move around in there!  With the correct number of diapers, you should be able to wash every other day or every third day, at most.  I don’t recommend waiting much longer than that between washes, however!

I have front-loading machines, which some people say don’t clean diapers as well as top loaders, but I have found that they work just fine so long as I use the correct amount of detergent and use the “extra rinse” setting.

Many people prefer to use a natural soap such as Charlie’s or Seventh Generation, but All Free and Clear or any other commercial detergent that is not heavily laden with scents and softeners will typically work fine.

In my experience, it’s just better to stick with all-natural fibers, and have less stress and worry about voiding warranties or washing in the wrong temperature and “ruining your investment”.  They’re *just* diapers after all

After ten years of using cloth, I’ve personally found that keeping things SIMPLE is just so much better (and cheaper!)

Natural fibers are more durable and long-lasting – and you can take care of them with common sense and have them last through several children instead of needing meticulous care, only to be rendered useless after the wear and tear from one child.

My wash routine (yours may vary!):

No cloth diapers 101 post would be complete without a detailed wash routine – even if you don’t end up following it!

  1. Set your machine to do a cold pre-wash, and then a hot wash on the longest setting.
  2. Don’t use too much soap, and DON’T use fabric softener! This will make your diapers water-repellent over time – not a good plan.
  3. I do a second rinse cycle, and occasionally I include a cup of vinegar with a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil for its disinfecting properties.  You can actually put this in a Downy ball at the beginning of the wash cycle – throw it in and forget it!
  4. I then separate any covers  or shells (the waterproof parts) before I run the diapers through the dryer. You can machine-dry your synthetic covers, but it shortens their lives and may make them leak! I air-dry my covers whenever possible.  
  5. One dryer cycle may still leave your diapers damp-dry, even on the longest setting.  You can either do another cycle, or simply let them hang-dry to finish off.  I try to line-dry outside whenever I can.

For stains, an excellent product is called BioKleen Bac-Out. Alternatively, you can spritz lemon juice on stains when damp, right out of the washer, and then line-dry the diapers in the sun (this is very effective).

You can also just decide that you don’t really care if your diapers have a few stains.

Finally, I highly encourage you to check out DiaperPin and DiaperSwappers – these two sites are excellent resources for all things cloth, complete with instructions, store recommendations, and extensive product reviews.

They’re the places online where I first learned about cloth, many years ago. Tried and true!

Check your local community as well!  Cloth diapers are becoming more and more mainstream, and you never know what kind of clever stores, groups, or moms you’ll find if you never look.  

Cloth diapering doesn’t have to be complicated, scary, or expensive, after all.

So what did you think of this under-ten-minute Cloth Diapers 101 course?

Don’t be intimidated – just jump in and see what you think about cloth.  Your baby will thank you!

Let’s stay in touch, k?