Monday, June 9, 2014

Cloth Diapers: A Primer

Been thinking about cloth diapers?  Not sure where to start researching?  I have been using cloth on my son almost since his birth, and have always enjoyed talking about the hows and whys to anyone who is curious.  Read on!

Disclaimer:  I don't claim to be an expert on cloth diapers; in fact, there are tons of bloggers out there who know a whole lot more about the subject than I do!  This is just a little introductory guide complete with tons of links for additional reading, written since I have had a lot of people ask me about getting started with cloth.  For even more information, definitely check out other cloth diapering blogs, such as The Cloth Diaper Whisperer or Dirty Diaper Laundry.  Or check out a book!  My favorite is Confessions of a Cloth Diaper Convert.  Seriously.  If you decide you want to give cloth a try, get that book.

Reasons to Use Cloth Diapers

There are lots of reasons people why people choose to use cloth diapers!  Aside from the fact that they're just so darn cute, here are some of the biggest factors to consider.

Price.  One of the biggest arguments I hear against cloth diapers is usually cost.  They're so expensive!  In all reality, using cloth for your baby's diaper years is much, much cheaper than using disposables.  The biggest difference is that using cloth diapers requires a good-sized initial output, while using disposables spreads the cost out over the course of a few years.  When I actually went and calculated it out, I determined that I spent around $300 for my entire stash of cloth diapers, and that is a figure I hear frequently quoted by others.  That $300 worth of diapers lasted my son from beginning to end.  That price will naturally vary depending on what kinds of diapers you buy, whether you seek out organic materials, where you buy them from, whether you get any of them used, etc., but even allowing for those factors it is rare to spend more than $1000 on an entire stash.  By contrast, using disposable diapers for 37 months (which is the average age for potty training in the U.S.) will cost at least $2200, and that's not even including added costs from disposable wipes.  It can be estimated that Americans spend an average total of $27 million every day on diapers.  And if you have more than one child, most (or all) of your cloth diapers can be reused for the next baby.

Eco-Friendliness.  Disposable diapers take a long, long time to break down in landfills.  Some estimates say that it could take more than 500 years for a diaper to decompose!  Even diapers touted as "biodegradable" do not really break down unless you are personally putting them into a compost pile; biodegradable diapers thrown out with your regular trash end up in the same landfill as the rest of your trash, where the microbes that would break them down can't get to them.  But what about the water used to launder cloth diapers?  What about the carbon emissions from using the washing machine?  Cloth diapers require less energy, less water, and less raw materials to produce.  Add in emissions from laundering, and even if your washer/dryer are not energy-efficient, cloth still ultimately produces less emissions than using disposables for an equivalent length of time.  As for water usage, yes, washing diapers does use a significant amount of water.  (For the record, I noticed very little change in my water bill due to additional water usage.  The apartment we lived in for the first three months of my son's life did, in fact, have metered water.)  At least the water from washing cloth diapers is relatively benign though, especially compared to the waste water that comes from the industries necessary to produce disposable diapers.  Most people agree that cloth diapers are more environmentally-friendly than disposables.

Better for Baby.  All kinds of chemicals go into the production of disposable diapers, including dioxin (which is a carcinogen), chlorine, and the super-absorbent polymer (certain types of which have been directly linked to toxic shock syndrome) that sucks up all of baby's urine and keeps baby feeling dry.  It's hard to determine what all of the "ingredients" of a disposable diaper are because most companies that produce them refuse to tell consumers.  These chemicals are often the cause of diaper rash; many parents have witnessed their baby's persistent diaper rash magically clear up once the switch to cloth is made.  And even if the chemicals in disposables don't give your baby's skin a noticeable rash, do you really want such an unnatural product touching your baby's vulnerable, new skin in such a sensitive place all day, every day?  Disposable diapers have also been linked to asthma, and contain many ingredients that are known respiratory irritants.

And one final thought, courtesy of The Business of Baby:  "A boy's penis and testes are on the outside of the body in order to keep them at a temperature cooler than 98.6ºF.  But plastic diapers keep the genital area hotter than nature designed it to be.  A study of forty-eight healthy children, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, found that scrotal skin temperatures were significantly higher in boys who wore disposable diapers than in boys wearing cloth."

Types of Cloth Diapers

Most cloth diapers today are very user-friendly, and are similar in appearance and functionality to disposable diapers.  Here are descriptions of the basic types of cloth diapers available today.  Some cloth diaper enthusiasts divide cloth diapers into many more categories than I do; I tend to lump similar kinds together.  At the end of most descriptions are links to a few particular brands that make that kind of diaper.  I've tried to include a bunch of different brands, but there are so many out there that there's no way I could list them all!

Prefolds/Inserts and Covers.  The cover (sometimes called a wrap) is usually made of something waterproof (such as polyurethane laminate [PUL] or wool), and it is usually shaped exactly like a disposable diaper.  Some brands come in different sizes, while others can be adjusted using snaps in order to fit babies of different sizes.  The cover goes over some kind of absorbent cloth insert (which is next to baby's skin) and is generally closed either using snaps or velcro (although pull-on varieties exist as well).  Prefolds are composed of many layers of fabric sewn together (with an especially padded center section), and are folded in thirds before putting on baby.  Other inserts can be found that are a single long rectangle, no folding necessary.  There are also contour inserts, which are hourglass-shaped and provide better coverage over baby's bottom.  Some people like attaching the diaper to the baby separately, using diaper pins or some other kind of diaper fastener (such as a Snappi), while others just set the insert in the cover and rely on the cover's closure to hold the whole thing together.  (This has always worked great for me.)  Some brands actually let you attach the insert directly into the cover (usually with a snap); these kinds of diapers are sometimes referred to as "all-in-twos," or lumped together with other hybrid diapers (see below).  The covers do not need to be washed after each use (unless baby poop got on it), but instead can be rotated in and out until laundry day.
Pocket Diapers.  Pocket diapers also consist of a cover and an insert, except the cover is made of two layers: something waterproof on the outside, and something softer that goes against baby's skin on the inside and is usually designed to wick moisture away.  In between those two layers is a pocket, in which you stuff an absorbent insert of some sort.  Most pocket diapers have a hole at just one end through which the insert is stuffed, although some brands have openings at both ends (these kinds of diapers are sometimes referred to as sleeve diapers).  These are probably the most user-friendly of cloth diapers, and tend to be beloved by dads everywhere for their ease of use.  They can be a bit more expensive, however, since you need a lot more covers than you do when using prefolds; every time you change baby, the entire dirty diaper (cover and insert) needs to be washed.  There are a few extra steps involved, too: insert must be stuffed, and then it must be removed again before it goes into the washing machine.

Fitted Diapers.  Think similar functionality to prefolds & covers, only the inside part is shaped familiarly like a diaper too, and usually has a closure of some sort included.  Some sort of waterproof cover is still required, however.  These are pretty easy to use but can be harder to wash; the fitted diapers are oddly-shaped and may take longer to dry.

All-In-Ones (AIOs).  The most user-friendly of all, an all-in-one is all of the parts that make up other kinds of cloth diapers (waterproof cover, absorbent insert, softer layer against the skin), except they are all sewn together.  No stuffing needed, no separate pieces; just grab, put on baby, and go!  All-in-ones are generally thought of as extremely friendly to dads, babysitters, and daycare centers.  They also tend to be the most expensive cloth diapers, and can be the hardest to get clean.

Hybrids.  The benefits of cloth with some of the convenience of disposables--specifically, the ability to throw or flush away solid wastes.  That's what a hybrid is.  Basically, you have a waterproof outer cover and then you can either use cloth inserts or a disposable (and often biodegradable) insert.
Flip Diapers

Other brands:
BabyKicks (pocket, fitted)
Blueberry (inserts/covers, all-in-one)
Kawaii (inserts/covers, pocket)
Kissaluvs (covers, contour, pocket, fitted, all-in-one, hybrid)
Thirsties (inserts/covers, fitted, all-in-ones)

What About Baby Wipes?

If you're already using cloth diapers, why not go ahead and use cloth wipes too?  Many cloth diaper retailers also sell cloth wipes, which can be either used dry, by wetting with plain water, or by wetting with a special diaper wipe solution (either store-bought or homemade).  You can also make your own cloth wipes!

Other Cloth Diapering Gear

What other kinds of things do you need if you are using cloth diapers?  As far as I'm concerned, there are really only two essentials:

Diaper Pail.  Or some other place to store the diapers that have been soiled until you're ready to wash them.  Most "traditional" diaper pails work fine, but you will probably want something to line it with.  You can buy specific liners, use a wet bag, or just use a pillowcase!

Wet Bag.  This is basically a zippered bag that is lined with something waterproof, primarily used (by me, anyway) for when you are out on the town and need to do a diaper change.

How Do I Wash Them?

Washing cloth diapers is really not a difficult process.  First off, make sure that you clean poop off of the diapers immediately after changing baby.  (This is necessary once baby has started solids, or if baby drinks formula in any quantity.  The poop of an exclusively breastfed baby is water-soluble and will rinse away cleanly in the washing machine, but once anything else is going into baby's stomach the poop has to come off first.)  You can simply swish the diaper in the toilet to get it off; this is easy and requires no special tools, although you will likely end up with some on your hands in the process (which is, of course, nothing a little soap and water can't fix).  If you'd like, you can use a diaper sprayer, which is essentially like a hose that attaches to the water line of your toilet and uses a spray nozzle to let you spray the poop off.  (And if you're worried about this getting poop on other surfaces of your bathroom, which it can, invest in something like a Spray Pal, which further contains the mess in your toilet.)
Most people wash diapers at least every two or three days.  (I don't recommend letting it go any longer than that.)  And pretty much everyone has their own opinion on the best way to wash them; if you search the Internet for "how to wash cloth diapers," you will find dozens of different ways to try.  You will need to figure out your own washing routine; the best way to wash can be affected by your water supply (how hard/soft, etc.), what kind of detergent you use, your model of washing machine, and other factors.  Here's how I wash mine:
  1. Presoak or rinse with warm water
  2. Regular wash cycle with hot water
  3. Extra rinse cycle with warm water
  4. Dry prefolds/inserts in dryer on medium heat; hang waterproof covers to dry
If I've noticed my diapers seem less absorbent than usual or if they are starting to smell despite being freshly washed, I will strip them; I usually do this once every three months or so.  I use bleach to strip mine.
If you use wool diaper covers, be aware that they are washed and cared for differently than other types of diapers.  I personally have no experience with wool covers, but my sister loved them.  Many people swear by wool diapers as an ideal way to do cloth at night (but more on that later).

Another washing option?  You can always hand wash your cloth diapers at home!  This can help them last longer, as traditional washing machines can be a bit rough.  Could be a good option if you want to do cloth but don't have a washer at home and don't want to pay for a diaper service.
What kind of detergent to use?  Look for something that leaves no residue and has no added dyes, fragrances, or fabric softeners, all of which can irritate baby's skin and affect absorbency.  There are many commercial brands of laundry detergent that fit these requirements, and there are also a number of detergents specifically marketed for cloth diapers.  There are also plenty of "recipes" out there for making your own cloth diaper-friendly laundry detergent.

Where Can I Buy Cloth Diapers?

Online.  Lots of websites sell cloth diapers.  Try looking at the manufacturer's websites, or the website of your favorite baby store.  Some other suggestions:
Cotton Babies
Kelly's Closet
Diaper Junction
Green Mountain Diapers

Retail Stores.  Your local baby store likely has cloth diapers, and even Babies R Us generally carries some options.

If you are looking for used cloth diapers, try craigslist, ebay, or Diaper Swappers.  Also look into any local resale groups you know of.
"When you sign on for cloth diapers, you join the cult.  You, too, start wandering garage sales looking for used BumGenius, FuzziBunz, OsoCozy, BottomBumpers, TushieSombrero, and AssHat cloth diapers (okay, I made up the last two).  You'll talk about your diapers at parties, weighing the pros and cons of trifolds versus flat inserts."  (Brian Leaf, Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi)

Other Questions

Seriously?  I have to wash them myself?  I would totally be on board with cloth if I could only get someone else to wash them.
Luckily for you, such services exist!  Get online and search for "cloth diaper service [your city]" and you will likely find one or more companies that will provide you with clean diapers every week (in varying sizes that change as your baby gets older) and will come take away the dirty diapers to be laundered.  I have never used a cloth diaper service, so I have no idea how much one costs, but I have heard that sometimes they kind of negate the cost-savings benefit of cloth.  But if your baby's health and the environment is an concern (and money is not), or if you just can't stomach the idea of washing your own diapers, then go look one up.  Diaper services also make a great gift for expecting or new mamas.
But really, poop is gross.  I don't think I'll be able to handle getting the poop off.
It's really not that bad.  Honest.  You'll adapt.  And remember that you've probably already gotten pooped on, peed on, and spit up on by your baby.  (Or you will be.)  You will be able to deal with this too.

And for the record, you're supposed to dump the poop out of disposables before you throw them away.  Seriously.  Any package of disposable diapers you buy will say something to the effect of "IMPORTANT: Shake soil into toilet."  (That's a direct quote from the package of Target up&up diapers that I bought for our last vacation.)  If you wrap the poop up in the diaper and throw it away as one neat package, you're doing it wrong.

If I use cloth diapers, do I have to use them all the time?  Will people look down on me if I use disposables sometimes too?
Of course not.  And if people judge you for that, well, that's their problem, not yours.  Lots of people who consider themselves full-time cloth diaper users have been known to use disposables on occasion, such as when on vacation or if their baby has some kind stomach bug that gives them diarrhea.  (I've totally continued using cloth through a few of my son's stomach bugs, which either makes me hardcore, lazy [meaning too lazy to go to the store], or an idiot.  Or some combination of the three.)  Some people use disposables for the first few weeks/months after baby is born, and then switch to cloth.  Some people use disposables at night, cloth during the day.  Some use cloth while at home and disposables anytime they leave the house.  You don't have to prove anything to anyone; diaper your baby in a way that works for you.

What's this I hear about needing to "prep" my diapers?
Diapers made of natural fibers (cotton, hemp, etc.) need to be washed several times before you use them.  This is because these fibers have naturally-occurring oils in them, which ultimately make your diapers less absorbent until the oils have been thoroughly washed away.  Natural fiber diapers should be washed at least three or four times before use; some people and companies recommend washing eight or more times to reach maximum absorbency!  Diapers made from synthetic fibers only need to be washed once before you can start using them.

Can I use cloth from birth?
Yes!  If you want to, anyway.  I know some people like to wait at least a few days, until the super-sticky meconium is out of baby's system, but others say that doesn't matter to them.  It's worth noting that most all-in-one type diapers or other adjustable covers that can be re-sized as baby grows won't fit a small baby; I believe most of mine were recommended for a baby eight pounds and larger, and even once baby hits that minimum weight the diapers may seem HUGE.  Specific infant diapers, designed to fit smaller babies without being bulky/uncomfortable, are available if you look for them, and some companies offer them for rent.

Snaps or velcro?  Which is better?
I only owned one cover that was closed with velcro, and I hated it.  Snaps all the way, in my opinion.  The velcro didn't stay closed very well for me after a few months of use, and it was much easier for my little boy's grasping fingers to get undone.  (He figured out snaps eventually too, but it took longer.)  Velcro is a bit more adjustable, however, and sometimes a bit cheaper.

Can I use diaper rash ointment with cloth diapers?
Lots of commercial brands of diaper rash cream/ointment are not compatible with cloth diapers.  They cause stains and do not wash cleanly off, reducing absorbency.  Babies in cloth diapers do get diaper rash, and it's important to know how to treat it when it happens.  Natural remedies are an option; try coconut oil, olive oil, or breast milk, to name a few.  My ointment of choice is Earth Mama Angel Baby's Angel Baby Bottom Balm; it always soothed my son's rash quickly, and never was a problem with my cloth.  There are other options that are safe for cloth diapers too, and there is always the option of using a disposable liner or insert while using diaper rash cream.
Speaking of stains, won't my diapers get stained from all that poop?
They most likely will at some point in time.  The best stain remover is sunlight.  Seriously.  Leave stained diapers out in the sun for a day or so and the stains should fade away.  Bleach and vinegar can both be used to remove stains, or you can look for commercial products specifically designed to remove stains from cloth diapers.
I hate getting up in the middle of the night to change my baby's diaper.  What's the best way to do cloth overnight?
This is a common question, and different people will find different solutions that work for them.  I confess that I used disposables at night until my son was around 9 months old, because I had such a hard time finding any way of using cloth that didn't require a change during the night and that also didn't leak!  (Of course the disposables leaked pretty frequently too...)  You can add an extra insert or two; it's pretty bulky, but most babies don't seem to mind and the extra absorbency can help you both make it through the night without a diaper change.  And most babies don't seem to be bothered by the wetness against their skin, but some definitely are.  You could try using a microfiber insert, which will wick the moisture away from baby's skin; some people, however, say you should never put microfiber directly against baby's skin.  Other materials, like fleece, will wick away moisture as well.  Many people love using wool for overnight diapering, but some people balk at the price.  The solution I eventually hit upon was to use hemp prefolds; they are less bulky than many other prefolds, but they are absorbent enough to last the whole night through.  They are much more expensive than cotton prefolds, but they are worthwhile in my opinion!
What do I do when I go on vacation?  Can I take my cloth when we travel?
That depends on you and the specifics of your trip.  There are several things to consider.
  • Do you have room in your luggage for your stash?  Those diapers take up a lot of space, and may need an entire bag to themselves.  If it's a road trip, this probably won't be a problem.  If you're flying, you might end up with an extra checked bag. 
  • How long will you be gone?  If it's just a long weekend, then pack your diapers and the biggest wet bag you have and enjoy your trip!  If you're going to be gone longer than two or three days, you may want to reconsider.
  • Where are you going and where are you staying?  Will you have access to a washer/dryer?  If you are visiting family, using cloth will be easier than if you are staying in a hotel somewhere.  Many resort-type vacation places will have washers and dryers, either in the room or on the premises, so cloth remains an option so long as you're comfortable using more public machines.  If you have friends living in the city where you are visiting, perhaps they'd be willing to let you use their washer/dryer.
Is it true that babies in cloth diapers potty train earlier than babies in disposables?
It seems to be, generally speaking, but every baby is different.  Moms who use cloth often claim that because baby feels the wet diaper immediately after he goes potty, he becomes aware of that bodily function much sooner than babies in disposables who never feel the dampness against their skin.  Of course, if you use diapers that wick the wetness away from baby's skin, there won't be that effect.  As an anecdote, my son was pretty much potty trained by shortly after his second birthday, but that's just our story.  Potty training would be a whole different post for a whole different day.  (And I'm not promising anything.)  But keep in mind that when you are ready for potty training, you don't have to start buying those disposable training pants; cloth training pants are an option!

What do I do with them once baby no longer needs them?
You have many options!  If think there may be more babies in your future, you can hold onto them and reuse them for the next baby.  They make fantastic dust rags and are great for wiping up spills.  Some liners can be used as menstrual pads, if you are into reusable ones.  You can pass them onto a friend or family member to help them save some money.  You can sell them through your local resale website, craigslist, ebay, or elsewhere.  Or you can donate them; there are various organizations and cloth diaper "banks" around the country that accept used cloth diapers in good condition, which are then distributed to families in need.  Look for local places to donate (your local cloth diaper-selling baby store might have more information), or look for ones that accept donations from anywhere.

Other Sources
Real Diaper Association

The Business of Baby by Jennifer Margulis

The Other Baby Book by Megan McGrory Massaro & Miriam J. Katz

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