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Cloth Diaper Basics: A Guide For Beginners

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For many people, cloth diapering is a no-brainer; the health, environmental, and cost benefits are well worth it. For others, cloth diapering may take a little more convincing and research. I hadn’t even considered cloth diapers until a close friend informed me that they’re nothing like they were a few decades ago. They’ve improved and so has washing machine technology, and honestly cloth diapering is no more difficult than using disposable diapers! I’ve included links throughout this post to my favorite diapers and accessories to use. I urge you to check them out!

Figure out your budget

Once you’ve decided you want to invest in cloth diapers, decide your budget. I’m saying this first before we get to anything else because once you get online and start browsing through the hundreds of adorable patterns it’s going to be hard to control yourself. It’s also good to have your budget in mind as you decide what type of cloth diapers you wish to use. There are several different cloth diaper systems to choose from. You may decide to have a variety of these diapers or you may decide to get all the same kind. In my case, I have all one type simply for convenience.

How cloth diapers have improved over the last 20 years

Just two short decades ago mothers had to deal with plastic diaper covers and square, flat diapers made of muslin. They had to mess with diaper pins and they were more difficult to secure in a way that would prevent leaks.

Now, cloth diapers are cut and sewn to the shape of the disposables that we’ve all become used to, and they’re made with PUL (polyurethane laminate) or wool. They usually have elastic in the legs and waist to create a leak-proof fit, and they’re secured with snaps or hook and loop (velcro) closures.

The best part of an elastic leg and waist fitting is that it greatly reduces blow-outs. I know all of you mothers out there know what I’m referring to. Its 3 am, you hear the baby crying, check his diaper, and you find a lovely smear of poo up baby’s back or leaking out of the leg hole. Cloth diapers are even better at containing these messes than disposables (in my experience) simply because the fit is better than a disposable diaper.

Cloth diaper styles

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Prefolds and covers

Basic flat cotton diapers or prefolds are a good option to cloth diaper on a smaller budget. There are a few folding techniques that are used with prefolds and flats, and when paired with a PUL cover or wool cover, they make excellent diapers. It takes a little bit to get used to folding them, but overall they are a good option that will let you cloth diaper your baby for anywhere from $80-$120.

Pocket diapers

This is the style I currently use with my boys. The diaper features an outer shell made of PUL, an inner liner made of cotton or another organic fiber, and then you insert an absorbent pad into the middle. Many pocket diapers that you’ll find online will come with microfiber inserts. These are okay, but they tend to have problems with compression leakage. That simply means that once the insert becomes wet, all your baby will have to do to make the pee squeeze out and leak is sit down too hard. You’re better off buying bamboo fiber or hemp fiber inserts in order to avoid these leaks. Alva Baby makes good pocket style cloth diapers that are affordable. With that in mind, it’s possible to use these as your diaper of choice for about $160, or $200 if you go with the bamboo fiber inserts (which once again, I highly recommend).

All In One (AIO) diapers

Another one of my favorite types, these diapers are the most convenient type to use. They look and feel like the pocket diapers, but the difference is that the absorbent liner is sewn into the diaper, so you don’t need to remove the insert and wash them and then re-stuff them when they’re dry. Many AIO styles also feature the pocket in order to let you put an extra insert in the diaper for added absorbency. I personally love that style of diaper because my little ones are heavy wetters at night.

Can’t decide which style to try?

When money is tight, it can be hard to decide which kind of diaper to buy. There are some programs out there that offer cloth diapers on loan to needy families and/or military families. They usually send you a variety of different kinds so you can try them out. This could be a great way to try a few styles before you invest in a set of your own. Try one of these organizations:

Now once again, these programs only cater to needy/military families, and they usually require proof of income before sending out diapers.

Accessories you also need

When it comes to the cloth wipes, you would simply wet them down before use. Then you throw the dirty wipes into the wet bag with the cloth diaper, and everything goes in the wash together. With disposable wipes, you’d need to throw the wipes away after and then put the diaper in the wet bag. It doesn’t sound more complicated, but it is.

How to care for dirty diapers

First things first: if your baby is eating solid foods, shake off any poo into the toilet and flush it. If your baby is exclusively breastfed or formula fed, then the dirty diaper, poop and all, can go right into the wet bag. You can also use a pail (basically a trash can with an old pillow case as a liner). I use a wet bag because it was cheap and contained the mess until I washed my diapers.

If you’re using pocket style diapers, make sure you pull the insert out of the diapers before you throw them in the bag or pail.

I always wash my diapers every 2-3 days. Any longer than that and they start to stink REALLY bad. First, do a cold pre-rinse to prevent stains. Then wash the diapers on a delicate cycle with hot water using your scent-free detergent.

It’s recommended that you hang your covers to dry either on a clothesline or on a rack, because the heat of your dryer may break down the plastic in the PUL and make them leak. Everything else can be dried on a medium heat cycle in your dryer.

How many diapers do I need?

This all depends on the age of your child and the system of diapers you’ve chosen. With the covers and prefolds, you need 24-36 diapers with 6 covers for an infant, and 18-24 diapers with 4 covers for a toddler. If you’re using a pocket system or AIO, 24-36 is fine.

If you can afford it, don’t be afraid to stock up. The more diapers you have, the less each one needs to be used, and therefore the less each diaper will wear down, so they’ll last longer.

A good way to figure out exactly how many you need is to figure out how many diapers your baby will wear in a 24 hour period, and then multiply that number by however many days you want to go between washing. In my case, I have 2 kids. They need about 7 changes per day each, so 14 total. I like to wash my diapers every other day, so I need a total of 28 diapers for my children. However, I do have a lot of extras, partially because I don’t want to be diaper-less if I happen to miss a wash day for some reason, and partially because I can’t control myself when I see a new print that I don’t have yet, so I have to buy it. I have about 50 diapers in my collection, however you probably won’t need that many.

Don’t be overwhelmed!

You’re automatically on the right track by doing you research first. Cloth diapers aren’t for everyone, and my boys still use disposables for certain occasions. I highly recommend jumping on a cloth diaper forum like one on BabyCenter, or Diaper Pin.

Questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll answer!

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