I don’t know what it is, exactly, about cloth diapers that terrifies people, but does it ever! I’ve actually had people call me “brave” and “crazy” for using cloth diapers, and many tried to talk me out of it when I was pregnant. Interestingly, it was always the ones who never used modern cloth diapers telling me it was a bad idea. The friends I knew who cloth diapered their kids had nothing but good things to say about it. Parents who use cloth diapers are neither brave nor crazy. They are simply making an alternative choice. This is an instance where it is important to manage your expectations, so I will be completely forthcoming as I make the case for cloth diapers.
There is more laundry involved and a specified wash routine to follow. The number of days you can go between washing a load of diapers varies from once a day to once a week, depending on the size of your diaper collection. We washed daily for the first six weeks because we had a smaller collection of newborn-size diapers, knowing that baby would soon grow out of that size. After that, we were able to wash every three to four days. You should know that even babies who are diapered with disposables come with an increased laundry load – whether it’s spit up, snot, drool, breastmilk, pee leaks or poop blowouts, no item of clothing is safe and the feeling of constantly doing laundry becomes a way of life. If anything, I find the regular laundering of the diapers helps to keep my other baby laundry from piling up. Sometimes I’m pulling diapers straight out of the dryer as needed instead of folding and putting them away before the next wash day rolls around, but the washing gets done so that’s a plus in my book. For those who can afford it, there are laundry services for cloth diapers as well.
There will likely be leaks. This depends largely on the brand and style of your cloth diapers, as well as the rate and volume at which your child excretes. Disposable diapers can leak as well, although they tend to leak less often (depending on brand and fit). There are a few things that can be done about this. First, you can try different kinds of cloth diapers. If you go this route, I highly suggest buying only a few to begin with so you can experiment and buy more once you land on something reliable. You can also try different combinations of inserts to increase absorption. Different fabrics have different absorption capabilities; whereas some absorb a higher volume more slowly, others are quick absorbers but reach capacity more quickly. Do your research ahead of time. Get recommendations to find what worked well for others. Expect a few leaks and don’t get discouraged or give up too quickly if it’s not working perfectly. You may also decide that the incidence of leaks is manageable and that having to change an extra outfit or two each day is not so bad after all – especially when you’ve got to put the laundry through anyway.
Cloth diapers can be smelly, but this can be mitigated by proper storage and cleaning routines. It may surprise you that an open, airy container can quash the smell better than a sealed one. A proper cleaning routine is critical, and it may vary depending on the type of diapers and the type of washing machine, water hardness and detergent. You can find the requirements for various diaper brands through supplier and manufacturer instructions. There are also many experts and fellow parents online who can help with all kinds of questions and troubleshooting until you feel confident with your specific routine.
And then, of course, there’s the issue of coming in contact with poop when disposing of it. I think this is the thing that scares people the most. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but there’s no way to keep your distance when it comes to changing a poopy diaper, disposable or otherwise. You will encounter some doozies that no amount of words or wipes can prepare you for. There is one extra step with a poopy cloth diaper, and that is disposing the poop in the toilet. Some people use a utensil of some kind to scrape solids into the toilet (I use a rubber spatula). Others attach a spray hose directly onto the toilet, and there are various contraptions for holding the diapers in place and guarding you from the spray that make it a little less up-close-and-personal. Some parents also use disposable liners to make that step as painless as possible. You have to weigh the options for yourself. For me, dumping it into the toilet was such a quick additional step that I really didn’t mind doing it. Often times the poop is what we in the cloth diaper community call “ploppable”, meaning it will plop right into the toilet with no scraping or spraying needed, making it all the more expeditious. The fantastic news is that poop disposal is only necessary once your baby starts solid food or formula. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, the poop is water soluble and those poopy diapers can go straight into the dirty diaper pail (or bin, basket or bucket) and then directly into the washing machine as-is. That means if you are breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months prior to the introduction of food, it’s not much different than using disposables. For that reason alone, I would recommend starting out with cloth for the first six months.
One of the great benefits of cloth diapers is that they are gentler on babies’ skin. In general, parents who use cloth diapers report fewer rashes and skin reactions than those who use disposables. You can also use cloth wipes (moistened with just water), keeping irritating material, scents and substances at a minimum. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have had to apply diaper cream. I know some parents use it on a regular basis, and I credit cloth diapers and wipes for keeping my babies’ bums happy. Another huge perk with cloth diapers is that you can reuse and resell them. Not only do you save a significant chunk of money while your child is in diapers, but those same diapers can be used with a second child and beyond, as long as the fabric holds up. If they’re in good condition when you’re finished with them you can sell them, lowering your overall cost even more. Secondhand diapers can be easily sanitized and ready for the next lucky little bum down the line. I bought our entire stash secondhand for less than $500, and that kept my two kids diapered from birth until potty training. I encourage you to compare – ask a friend with kids how much they spend on disposable diapers per child, per year.
You may encounter partners or caregivers who refuse to use cloth diapers, which can be a deterrent for some parents. I would suggest having conversations with these people. Perhaps you can address some of their concerns or present some information they may not be aware of. I think it’s best to make your wishes known, since you are the spokesperson for your child(ren). Hopefully it is negotiable, though sometimes it can’t be avoided. Regardless, I still say using some cloth diapers is better than none. If you can only use them in the evenings, it will still save you some money. If you can only use them for the first year, you’re still keeping hundreds of diapers out of the landfill. If you want to use disposables for bedtime because the leaks are getting out of hand, then go ahead and do that too – there's no need to feel guilty about it. Do what works for you and your family.
There has literally never been an easier time to use cloth diapers. When I hear people talk about the difficulty or inconvenience of using cloth diapers, I look to my grandparents for a healthy dose of perspective. My maternal grandfather’s mother had 11 children. They did not have a washing machine, let alone an automatic dryer. One day a week was dedicated to laundry. They even had to make their own laundry soap. Their cloth diapers did not have snaps, buttons or Velcro on them, with a selection of styles and cute little patterns, the way they do now. They were literally pieces of cloth that had to be secured with pins. By a modest estimate, my great grandmother probably changed and handwashed over 50,000 diapers! I can only imagine what she would have given to have the conveniences of modern cloth diapers and the laundry appliances that we take for granted.