Cloth Diapers FAQ

May 17, 2011

I think if I had an FAQ page for my life, my top two questions would be "what do you eat?" since I'm an almost vegetarian (I eat fish), and "what do you recommend for getting started with cloth diapers?".  I know many of our parents used cloth on their kids (us), but when they started making better disposable diapers, most people stopped doing it. 

When I was pregnant with my first son four years ago, a friend of mine mentioned to me how she was planning on using cloth diapers for her baby.  Up until then, I hadn't given it any thought.  Once I started looking into it, I found that in the last few years there has been a movement towards using cloth again.  Diapers have come along way since the days of prefolds, pins, and rubber (plastic) pants, but the essential idea hasn't changed at all.
Baby Carlee rocking the cloth diaper and rubber pants look with my older brother
(he's adorable right?) and Grandpa
I'm not going to revisit the arguments about why cloth diapers are a good idea in the first place (if you are interested in that I can refer you here), so let's just assume that you are interested in using cloth diapers and want to learn more.  Personally I think using cloth is better, but if it doesn't work for you, I won't think less of you.  I occasionally use disposables during the day and almost always at night, so I can hardly be considered a purist.  I do think that parents should try it, because I have found that it's not nearly as hard to do as I worried it might be. 

There are currently a million different types, 'systems', and brands of cloth diapers, and over the last few years that I've had kids in diapers, I've tried a variety.  For a nice overview of what is out there, Sew a Straight Line, has a really great summary.  It can be overwhelming at first, but let me tell you what I use and why I think it's the best way to go. 

Right now I have one kid in diapers (he's a year and a half) and this is what I have been using exclusively for the last year:

  1. 2 dozen Medium sized Premium unbleached prefolds (either Indian or Chinese - I don't remember which I have and I don't think it matters anyways).  Half of these have been converted into 'fitted' diapers by cutting off part of the sides and adding elastic.  More on this later.
  2. 4 or 5 wool covers.  I have one baby beehinds wrap in medium, one aristocrats wool soaker in small, and a couple of homemade wool soakers.  I plan to blog about making these covers and the fitted diapers next week, so stay tuned! 
  3. 2 regular and 2 toddler sized snappis
  4. 2 dozen cloth wipes
  5. Charlie's Soap
  6. Eucalan Wool Wash
  7. Lansinoh lanolin (which you probably have anyways if you are a nursing mother)
  8. A basic diaper pail.  Mine was a 10 gallon sterilite trash can with a flip lid that I bought at walmart.  It doesn't need to be fancy, but you'll want the lid to fit tightly.
  9. Diaper pail liner 
I should confess that I have lots of other diapers that I will occasionally use if I run out and haven't done the wash, but this is what I use 99% of the time.    

Are you still with me?  The first two items on the list are the ones that I want to talk about.  All the other stuff is either general to all cloth diapers, or will just help you keep your wool clean and working well.

Baby #2 wearing a prefold and snappi at about age 3 months
If you have looked at cloth diapers at all, you may have noticed that there is a lot out there.  I like to use cotton and wool for a few reasons.  First, it's really cheap.  If you want the quick break down, the prefolds are about $2 a piece, and even if you buy all expensive wool covers, you will only spend about $100 per size (and you will likely just need small and medium sized covers).  One of my main motivations for doing cloth in the first place was saving money, and this is by far the cheapest way to go.  Especially if you make most of your wool covers like I do.

Second, I think it's better for babies to be in natural fibers.  Think about how you would feel if you were wearing plastic pants.  True confession time: I once had a pair of pleather pants, they were for a Halloween costume, and wearing them was hot, sweaty torture.  Natural fabrics, like cotton and wool, allow air to flow, and it's more comfortable to wear.  This is particularly true in the summer and in humid climates.  I know it sounds cruel to put wool on a baby's bum when the temperature is soaring, but it really isn't!   

Third, this combination is the easiest to care for.  Wool does require some extra attention, but since you don't have to wash it nearly as often, it's really not a very big deal.  In my experience, and I've had friends face this as well, synthetic fabrics start to retain smells the more you use them.  Here's a good example: When Emily used to work at Taco Time in high school, she would wear our favourite thrifted black polyester pants for her shift.  It was impossible to get the smell of tacos out of those pants!  The same thing happens with diapers, except they don't start smelling like tacos, just urine.  Additives from the detergent slowly build up on the fabric, and smells start getting trapped.  Using Charlie's Soap (or I've heard great things about Soap Nuts or even just plain Dawn in your washer) really helps, but eventually it all gets stinky.  And when you are using synthetic fabrics, it happens faster and is harder to get rid of.  I used to spend lots of time scrubbing my pocket diapers with Dawn dish soap to "strip" them, but now that I've switched to all cotton and wool, I haven't had to do this once.  Line drying your diapers in the sun also helps to kill any bacteria and keeps them smelling fresh.   

Fourth, the more expensive options like pocket diapers and all-in-ones don't last as long as regular prefolds and wool covers.  All my stuff is in great shape after constant use, but I can't say the same for the expensive pocket diapers I used with my first son.  The velcro and elastic was the first to go, but everything started looking worn far before I thought it should.
Small handmade PUL cover with fold over elastic and resin snaps I made in 2009 for a friend
I should also mention that newborns and small babies have slightly different needs.  I think it's nice for the first few months to invest in some fitted diapers (along with infant sized prefolds), and I'm less particular about using wool covers.  Mostly because they wear each diaper for much less time and both my kids had a messy diaper every three hours or so.

Now that I've talked all of your ears off, I think that just about sums it all up.  Next I am going to show you what I do to make fitted diapers and wool soakers!  Exciting stuff!

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