Diapers Etc. :: Introduction to Cloth Diapers

Introduction to Cloth Diapers

Introduced in 1961, disposable diapers now dominate the market, accounting for over 80 percent of the diapers used in the United States.  When asked why they choose to use disposable diapers "convenience" is the major reason given by parents, particularly in a two-career household where time for cloth diaper care is limited. However, what many parents don't realize is that the cloth diapers made today are not exactly like they were even 10 years ago. 

The days of giant cotton wraps, uncomfortable rubber pants and dangerous sharp pins are gone.  Most cloth diapers today are as easy to use as any disposable diaper. 

The following is your user’s guide to cloth diapers, "crib notes" on cloth diapering if you will.  Today there are as many different diapering systems as there are colors in the crayons box but hopefully the following information will help dispel the idea that cloth diapering is complicated, inconvenient, or messy...well, no more messy than disposable diapers anyway!

Let's start at the beginning…why choose cloth diapers over disposable diapers?

This one's easy.  The benefits of using cloth diapers can be broken down into three very relatable categories:

1. The benefit to your wallet.

You'll change thousands of diapers by the time your child is 2 to 3 years old and ready to be potty trained.  Disposable diapers are undeniably convenient, but they're also costly.  Many parents think nothing of buying a pack of disposable diapers, as the cost is typically hidden in the weekly grocery bill, but when you add it up over the entire diapering period, the costs are substantial. The figure of course depends on the number of diaper changes a day and the age at toilet training, but assuming an average two and a half-year diapering period, and an average of eight to ten diaper changes a day this translates to 7,000 to 9,000 diapers over the diapering period. 

At an average price of $.24 per disposable diaper ($.28 for name brands) the price tag for disposable diapering is around $2,000.  And as if that wasn’t enough, Huggies has announced they will be increasing the cost of their diapers an additional 6-8% in 2008.  This after an already substantial cost increase in February of 2008. 

Home diapering, on the other hand, can be done for as little as $400, or as much as $1,200, depending on the type of products you buy. Well-made products should last for use on other children. Diapers can range anywhere from $20.00 a dozen for Diaper Service-Quality prefolds, up to $60.00 or even $100 a dozen for fitted, contoured diapers with snaps or organic cotton diapers. You'll need somewhere between three and five dozen. Covers range from $4.00 to $18.00 apiece, depending on the quality and material, and you'll need up to 25 (about five in each size range). Figuring in detergents and energy costs of about $.60 per load, the average parent will spend well under $1,000 (usually more like $500) for home diapering. 

Additionally, if you’re savvy, it’s often possible to earn back between 50-80% of your original cost through resale, depending on the quality of the diapers and covers. 

And finally, an interesting note…money spent on cloth diapers is usually money that goes to support small businesses.  

2.  The benefit to the Earth.

Don't get sucked into thinking you are only "one" person making a negligible difference.  The habits of one tiny baby can make a huge impact on the earth.
Over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill. In 2001, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags. No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone.

Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste.  In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste.
Disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials than cloth diapers.  The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth.  Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby each year. 

In light of the recent increase in gas prices using our petrochemical resources to diaper our babies is probably using those resources in the wrong way, when you consider that we have cotton, hemp, wool, and other renewable materials that can use equally well.

By choosing cloth diapers, a family can keep from adding diapers to the landfills, while keeping their impact on the earth lower by using renewable resources.

3. The benefit to your child's health (and yours too!).

Disposable diapers contain traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process.  It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals.  It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S.. 

Disposable diapers contain traces of Tributyl-tin (TBT).  In May 2000 Greenpeace found TBT in Pampers Baby Dry in Germany. TBT is one of the most toxic substances ever made. It harms the immune system and impairs the hormonal system. There is speculation that it could cause boys to become sterile.

Disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome.  It is interesting to note that studies show employees in factories manufacturing sodium polyacrylate suffer from female organ problems, slow healing wounds, fatigue and weight loss.

On the other hand, cloth diapers are mostly made of natural fabrics and are gentle to baby's skin.  Now I know that some commercially produced cotton is not without its evils but overall there is no contest between the chemically enhanced disposable diapers and its cloth counterpart.

Cloth diapers can also aid in determining whether your child is getting enough milk and in terms of early detection of whether your baby is ill.

When a new mother starts breastfeeding, one sign that she has produced enough milk for her baby and that it is ok is her baby’s wet diapers. Many women have a difficult start to breastfeeding and worry about their child getting enough milk (even supplementing with formula (which also can be flagged for having a negative effect on a child’s health). If you use cloth diapers, the wetness in the diaper will reassure you that your baby is getting enough or the dryness will alert that something may be wrong.  With disposables you cannot get this reassurance as the chemicals in them turn any liquid into a gel-like form, in order to keep baby "dry".
A reduction in urine can also be an early sign of illness (sometimes even before other symptoms) and if you can’t monitor this or aren’t aware of this through changing diapers, it could be quite major.

Disposables also leave you blind to any changes in consistency or color of waste, which can be a good indication of the state of a child’s stomach. They leave you blind to this, because people claim one of the advantages of using them is the ability to wrap up the poop and dispose of it quickly, without even looking, pretending it isn’t there. This is exactly what people do. With reusable diapers you will notice the consistency and color of the poo, because you actively flush the contents down a toilet.  After a while, like anything, you do get used to dealing with excrement and thus cloth diapers are also helping make you less squeamish to everyday messes. 

Lastly, many experts believe that toddlers need to be able to feel wetness so they can make the connection between feeling and going to the potty. Cloth diapers, therefore give a great start to potty training, because the child can feel wetness, whereas the chemical in disposables absorbs wetness, keeping everything dry so the child cannot feel it.
As a result, children using cloth diapers have been found to potty train much earlier and a lot quicker, than those that wear disposables.  This has an obvious impact on the child's self-esteem, not to mention the added impact on landfills.

* Did you know...even disposable diapers containing fecal matter are supposed to be shaken out over the toilet before they are thrown away. It says so right on the package!  If this doesn't happen, fecal matter that should enter the sewage system goes into the landfills, where it could seep into the ground water.

Okay, I'm sold on the benefits of cloth diapering.  What do I need to know to get started?

There are many different diapering systems as there are colors of crayons in a Crayola box but to be effective they all must have two general things in common, an absorbent inner layer and a waterproof outer layer.


Flats - These are the old-fashioned diapers. These 27 inch squares of cotton require folding to fit the baby properly and pinning to stay in place.
They are very easy to launder and dry, durable and should last through several babies. These diapers are very cheap and you also only need one size, as you are folding them to accommodate the size of your baby.

Prefolds - Also called, Diaper Service Quality or Chinese Prefolds. They are the staple of almost any diapering system. Prefolds are just what they sound like, prefolded diapers. These rectangular diapers have been prefolded to create a multi layered 3-section diaper. The outer sections have 2 to 4 layers and the center most absorbent layer has 4 to 8 layers. Prefolds are described as being 2x4x2, representing the 2 layers on the outer section and then 4 layers in the middle and 2 on the other outer section. Some folding is still required to fit a baby properly. They can be secured with pins, fasteners or use a snug fitting wrap. Although, usually 100% cotton, Prefolds also come in a variety of fabrics including hemp and terry cloth.

Contours or Shaped - These are the next step up. Shaped diapers are absorbent diapers in an hourglass shape. These require fastening or a snug fitting wrap. No folding is required. The shape fits the contour of the baby. They are often made of the same fabrics as prefolds.

Fitted - Fitted diapers are also shaped more like disposables with the added benefit of elastic around the leg openings and some sort of built-in fastener, either snaps or Velcro. Fitted diapers contain messes better than the contours and prefolds. A diaper cover is still required.  With shaped diapers, you have to buy different sizes as your baby grows.
With all of these diaper types, you'll also need to use a waterproof pant or covering.


Covers - This is the waterproof layer that is used with prefolds, contours and fitted. The absorbent cloth can be put into place on the baby and the cover goes under baby much like a disposable. The covers may snap or Velcro to stay snug. Or, some styles are pulled-on. Covers are available in a variety of fabrics, nylon, wool or fleece. Wool and fleece are especially good for nighttime diapering.

All-in-ones - All-in-ones combine the diaper and the outer waterproof cover into one piece so cloth diapering is a one-step procedure. These are the closest to using a disposable diaper and can be an invaluable for baby sitters, daycare or outings. They're convenient for quick changes and, with an extra diaper inside, can work well overnight.  However, they're bulky and thick, so they may not dry quickly after laundering and you have to buy larger sizes as your baby grows.

Pocket diapers - Pocket diapers are a type of all-in-one. With a pocket diaper the absorbent layer is placed in a pocket. The outer edge of the pocket is waterproof, like a cover. The inner layer of the pocket is a soft cozy fabric. The absorbent layer is stuffed in between a pocket created by a soft cozy fabric that goes next to baby skin and a waterproof cover.


Doublers - Doublers are thick rectangular or hourglass shaped pads, sometimes referred to as a liner, that are used to add extra absorbency to a diaper. They are great for heavy-wetters, nighttime, long car rides or anytime extra protection is needed.

Liners - The term liner is generally used for a thin reusable or flushable fabric layer. They are used to eliminate the need to shake solid waste off of a diaper. A liner is placed between the baby and the diaper. When it becomes soiled, the waste is dumped into the toilet. If it is a flushable liner, the liner and all go into the toilet. The reusable liners go right into wash with the diapers.





• Very cheap
• Absorbent
• No need to purchase other sizes – fold to fit baby
• Easy to launder
• Quick drying
• Durable
• Versatile – can be used as cleaning rags as well!

• Can be difficult to master at first.
• Not as convenient as the others.


• Easy to use
• Medium drying time
• Velcro may need replacing
• One size type can be bulky for a newborn

• More Expensive than Flat


• Most like a disposable
• Easiest to use
• No separate cover required

• Slow drying time
• More expensive than other types
• Less reliable
• Harder to clean effectively

What are my options for diaper materials?
Cloth diapers are typically made from absorbent cotton fabrics: terry (like towels, but softer), bird's-eye (similar to old-fashioned tea towels), gauze (thin and lightweight), and flannel (similar to the material used in flannel sheets and pajamas, but denser and thicker).  Flannel is the softest against the skin, and the most absorbent.  A combination of terry and flannel is also quite absorbent.

How about covers?

There are tons to choose from.  The old "rubber pants" have been replaced by fabrics like Polyurethane Laminate (PUL).  This is polyester fabric that is laminated on one side to make it waterproof.  There are also covers made of a waterproof nylon.
Additionally, fleece diaper covers a great alternative, more breathable than PUL and are nice and soft, great for very chubby or rash prone babies. They are very easy to care for and can be washed with any load of laundry. 

Wool and hemp covers are the only all natural choice for a diaper cover.  Wool covers are made with very soft wool, not scratchy like you may be thinking.  They are very breathable and not as hard to care for as you may think.  Wool and fleece diaper covers are bulkier than PUL though, so clothing may not fit well over them.  Both wool and fleece are however great for night time diapering.

Are there special washing instructions for my cloth diapers?

Worried about washing?  Don't be.  What with baby spit up possible breast milk leaks alone you are going to be doing some laundry.  There are many variables to consider when washing your diapers; baby sensitivities and water hardness to name two, but overall caring for cloth should be no harder than doing any other load of laundry.
Here are very basic laundry guidelines for washing cloth diapers.

First, make sure that you have removed the solids from the cloth diaper.   It is easiest to shake the solids into the toilet at each change.   A spatula in the bathroom is great for removing as much as you can.
Take your diaper pail liner full of soiled diapers to your washer.   Dump all the diapers and the liner into the washer.   Put the washer on a cold rinse. Nothing to add.   This cold water rinse will remove any protein based stains, i.e. poop.  

Restart the washer on a hot wash with your diaper detergent of choice.   If you are using a detergent available at your local grocery store, use much less.   About a quarter of the recommended amount will do it.   This will ensure the diapers rinse clean. Set                     the water level on your washer as high as possible.   Make sure you don’t overstuff the washer. There has to be enough space for the water to circulate around the cloth diapers.  

Never use fabric softener in the washer or dryer.  It will destroy the absorbency of your diapers. 

A hot dryer will fluff up your prefolds nicely.   Most prefold diapers are made to withstand harsh conditions.  Most covers can stand the heat with the exception of
nylon and wool.   However, you could place the diaper covers on top of the dryer to capture some of that escaping heat. 


Use a clothesline for all your cloth diapers.   The sun will naturally bleach out any stains.   If you find your diapers are too hard after air drying check how much detergent you are using.  

What Type of detergent should I be using?
With the many “'high-tech” fabrics around, this has become an increasingly difficult question. My research has uncovered for certain that Dreft and Ivory Snow, Trader Joe’s, Seventh Generation etc, as well as any detergent containing fabric softeners, optical brighteners and stain protectors that are definitely not okay to use on your cloth diapers. Why? All these detergents include substances and oils that will coat the fibers and prevent your diapers from being absorbent and will cause them to leak.

Many of the natural soap products have also gotten mixed reviews, due to the fact that in hard water the soap will leave a residue that can also coat the fibers. Many moms rave about Bi-O-Kleen; however they note that they make a point of never using more than the allowed amount, do two rinses after the wash cycle and added a little vinegar every now and then. All this l helps to get rid of the extra soap that can build up.

The real factor seems to be the water quality. In soft water you can use most detergents, but always use less than directed. In hard water, you need to use much less detergent and definitely rinse super well.

When it comes to washing your diapers find out what water (hard or soft) you have and never use too much detergent. Check your diapers frequently and change detergents if you detect a problem. For a list of recommended detergents to use with your cloth diapering system please check out this convenient guide http://www.cottonbabies.com/clothdiaperdetergents.pdf.

One more note on washing. You should expect all cotton prefolds to shrink 5-10% after washing.

*Did you know...the soiled diaper of a baby exclusively breastfed can go right into the washer without pretreating. Yet another benefit of breastfeeding!

What if I use wool covers?  That has to require some extra care when washing...
First off, you will need to lanalisze your new wool covers to prevent leaks.  This is pretty easy to do.  Heat one cup of water along with 1 teaspoon of lanolin (Purelean has been recommended).  Put the mixture in a small container and shake until the lanolin is completely dissolved. Add the mixture to eight cups of warm water.  You can use an Ivory soap bar to gently rub out anything needing special attention.  Allow to soak for fifteen minutes or so.  Swish the cover gently through the water to make sure the lanolin is in the wool. Do not rinse the lanolin out of the wool cover.  Roll in a towel to remove excess water and lay the cover flat to dry.
As an alternative to lanolizing, you may choose to hand wash your wool covers with a lanolin soap. The type of soap you use may determine how often you have to lanolize.  You will know you need to re-lanolize when you start to notice your wool cover wicking moisture, developing an odor or getting wet to the touch between diaper changes, assuming that the diaper isn't completely saturated.
When it is necessary to wash a wool cover, simply hand wash in cold water using the wool wash of your choice. It is important that the woolwash contains lanolin. LANA Lanolin Soap has been recommended.  If you need to lanolize your cover between washings, try dissolving one tablespoon of lanolin in a cup of very hot water.  Cool the water to the point that it feels warm and then press the cover into the water. Swish it around gently. Drain the water and roll the cover in a towel to remove excess water (do not rinse). Lay the cover flat to dry.

Sometimes baby poop will get on the wool cover. If this happens, just rinse that part of the cover under cold water until the stain is gone, pat and then hang to dry. If an odor remains, follow the directions above for washing the cover.
Wool diaper covers may be air dried between uses and rotated unless soiled or smell like urine.  Really!  Wool has wonderful natural qualities that keep it dry and odor-free. 

Okay, I understand the different diapering systems.  What will I need to get started?

Here's a good jumping off point for building your diaper wardrobe. Please use this as a general guideline. Your laundry habits and preferences will be a major factor in your diapering supplies.

The amount of cloth diapers needed depends on the age of your baby. Newborns go through more cloth diapers then an older baby. It is recommended to wash every 2-3 days.  A newborn will typically go through 10-12 diapers in a day.  A six month old and up requires about 6-10 diapers a day.  A great set-up for any age would include:
3 dozen diapers
3 dozen inserts (if using a pocket style diaper)
4-6 diaper covers (if using fitted or prefold diapers)
4 sets of pins or fasteners
3 dozen cloth wipes
1 spray bottle for wipes solution
1 tote bag for outings and daycare

1 diaper pail. 

2 diaper pail liners. 

Help!  Clother diapering 911:

How do I prevent leaks?
Remember that cloth diapers are not made with super absorbent chemicals. They need to be changed frequently.  About every two hours is typical but will depend on your baby.   Make sure the cover is fitting properly.  Not too big or too small.  Run your finger around the edge to make sure the diaper is completely tucked in.  Maybe you just have a heavy wetter in which case try using a doubler for added absorbency.
Also, make sure that you have prepared your diapers properly.  For example, unbleached prefolds must be washed in very hot water.  Depending on your water hardness and your detergent, 2 or 3 washes may be necessary to prepare the cloth. 

How do I introduce my cloth diapering system to my daycare?
Of course, parents aren't the only ones who change diapers. If your baby attends or will attend a daycare center, you may be wondering if cloth diapers will be accepted.  It’s best to start a dialogue with your daycare provider, a dialogue that is cooperative, not confrontational. Ask what kind of diapers will work for the daycare, and what you can do to help make it work.

How do I recognize the different kinds of diaper rash and how do I treat them?
The most common kind of diaper rash is IRRITANT DIAPER RASH and occurs in the genital area, the folds of the thighs and the buttocks.  The skin will appear red and puffy; this can cause some discomfort. It is often caused by diaper chafing, long exposure to a wet or poopy diaper, antibiotics, teething, introducing solids, diet e.g. high concentration of Vitamin C, etc.
YEAST (CANDIDAL) DIAPER RASH appears as tiny red spots that multiply and mass into a raised, patchy bright or dark red rash with distinct borders.  The affected area is red and may be tender or painful, and the rash can creep into the folds of the skin around your baby's genitals and legs.  It almost never appears on the buttocks, but it can.  Antibiotics are often responsible for a yeast diaper rash.
SEBORRHEIC DERMATITIS is the worst looking diaper rash, but is very rare.  It is characterized by a big red rash that extends from the lower abdomen to the groin and genitalia.  It is raised, rough, thick and greasy. It is caused by overactive oil glands in the skin.  Try some of these as treatment:  Change your baby's diaper very frequently, making sure you allow the skin to dry before putting on a new diaper.  Clean your baby's diaper region very well with each diaper change.  Leave your baby open without a diaper as often as you can, this works wonders.  Rub breast milk on the affected area.  Continue breastfeeding for as long as you can.  Apply a diaper rash ointment (preferably one containing Calendula or Red Clover).  Do a second rinse if you are washing your own cloth diapers.  Change the detergent.  Discontinue using wipes. Introduce solids one at a time to rule out food allergies.  Adjust your diet (if you are breastfeeding) or the baby’s diet.  If the diaper rash does not clear up within 3 to 4 days or if the rash gets infected (blisters or open sores) please consult your doctor.  If you want to continue using cloth diapers either iron them, or soak them in the following solution overnight: 80% vinegar, 20% water and 20 drops of lavender per gallon.  Then wash hot like normal. Continue this until the rash has cleared.

My diapers are stained.  Now what?
The best stain remover is the sun! Wash your diapers and then lay them out wet on the lawn with the stain facing the sun. It usually only takes a few hours before the stains are gone! If some remnants of the stain still linger, rinse the load again and repeat the process.

My diapers smell like ammonia after being worn. What should I do to fix this problem?

The chief culprit for an ammonia smell is detergent scent or detergent residue. Make sure that you are using an extra rinse when washing your diapers and that you are using a detergent that does not contain any perfumes. A warm wash with a squirt of liquid Dawn (the dish detergent), rinsed well, does a great job removing stinky residue from diapers. Using 1/4 cup of bleach may be occasionally necessary to kill odor causing bacteria in the diapers.

I live in an apartment and need to wash my cloth diapers in a laundromat.  How do I do this?

The system that is most often recommended is very simple:
Wash everything together.
Wash the load one entire cycle on cold using just a little detergent.
Wash the load again one entire cycle on warm or hot using 1/4 - 1/2 the regular amount of detergent.
Sort the pocket diapers and the covers out of the load and dry everything else.
Costs:  Depending on your Laundromat it should cost no more than $7.00 to wash diapers once a week.  When evaluating the cost benefit of cloth you'll want to calculate how much extra you'll spend washing twice a week versus just buying enough diapers to last all week. If you spend an extra $3 a week washing diapers, in four months you could have purchased another two dozen prefolds with the money you saved by washing once a week.  Most mothers in this situation find that it cost less in the long run to have a seven day supply of diapers.