The kind of diapers you use has nothing to do with your parenting. I do think it reflects the importance you place on preserving natural resources, which is another important topic, but it’s not directly related to parenting.
Though if we’re talking about doing the least damage to the environment, cloth diapering is only second-best, anyway. If you really want to make the least impact possible, you’re probably focusing on using elimination communication (EC) so you don’t need diapers at all.
EC causes the least damage to the environment, followed by hemp or organic cotton or wool diapers, regular cotton or artificial fabric diapers, diaper service, and biodegradable disposable diapers like g-Diapers (the liners are flushable) or Nature Boy & Girl (compostable in a community compost system), “natural” diapers (like Tushies or Seventh Generation) and national, or store-brand gel-filled diapers.
Cloth Diapering and Diapering History
However, when it comes to cloth diapering you also have to factor in the cost and your ability to wash, too. If you have your own washing machine, you can do cloth. If you don’t and have to go to a laundry room or laundromat, it’s super-tough to do cloth, and you’ll probably choose to use a diaper service or disposables. And the cheapest of those options is store-brand gel diapers. So while washing your own cloth diapers is cheapest by far, that’s only if you’ve got easy access to a machine, which takes some money, to begin with.
Let’s talk about a little diapering history here. If you’ve mentioned cloth diapers to any mother over a certain age, you’ve probably gotten horrified looks or chuckles and mutters of ‘You’ll change your mind soon enough’. That’s because years ago the only diapering options were flat diapers, a big single layer diaper that you folded into the shape and thickness you wanted.
You’d take them off the line, fold them, and then when you put them on the baby you’d fasten them with two (or one if you were really adept) diaper pins. Then you’d put rubber or plastic bloomers with elastic waistbands and leg openings on over the diapers. The folding and then the pinning and then the elastic pants, not your piece of cake task. And let’s not forget that back day washing machines were more close to the power of a duster compared to our machines, so think soaking detergent and a very humid “drying atmosphere.” Just to imagine how many toddlers tipped wet pails and got poopy, detergent with water all over the floor. No thank you.
Using cloth after just imagining the above scenario is definitely not the first choice, but nowadays technology has been such a change in cloth diapering, making it almost as easy as using disposables. Even the most complicated systems are nothing when thinking what many grandmothers had to do!
There are a ton of different ways to cloth diaper now since most diapers are made by small businesses (many by work-at-home moms) so you really have to browse around to see what all the diapers look like, don’t limit your research just to a few sites. Remember, always be prepared for a diaper rash, carrying around baby medicine for god knows what scenarios, those are part of what makes you a good parent. Using cloth diapers doesn’t make you a better parent, and using disposables doesn’t make you a worse parent!
Cloth Diapering—Cheapest Solution
The cheapest way is to buy 2 dozen diaper-service-quality (DSQ) Chinese pre-folds and 6-8 nylon pants (with elastic waistbands and leg openings). A “pre-fold” is called the old-fashioned flat diaper that’s been folded and sewn into place so that there are 4 layers of absorbency on each side and 6 down the middle. You can get bleached or unbleached. Bleached are nice and white, but unbleached are softer.
You’ll also need some diaper pins or a Snappi. A Snappi is a little rubber thing that lets you fasten pre-fold diapers without pins, and reduce the danger of poking yourself or your baby. You put the diaper on the baby and pin both sides with the pins.
The benefits of this system are that it’s cheap, should be less than $100 to get set up for a newborn. The drawbacks of this system are that you have to pin or use a Snappi (this site shows how to fold and pin a pre-fold with a Snappi), which takes time when your baby is old enough to squirm, and the nylon pants might not fit your child correctly and could leave gaps (which cause leaks) or bind and leave red marks on the legs and waist.
Another Cheap Cloth Diapering Solution
Also cheap, but not as cheap as going with plastic pull-on pants. You buy 2 dozen DSQ Chinese pre-folds and 6-8 velcro or snap covers, or ‘wraps’, and scroll all the way down. Fold each pre-fold loosely in thirds the long way, then lay it in the cover. Then attach the sides of the cover with the velcro or snaps, and you’re done. If you really want a tight fit on the diaper, you can pin or Snappi the diaper first before you put on the cover.
The benefits of this system are that it’s still pretty cheap (around $100 should get you set up for a newborn), it’s easy, and you won’t have many poop blowouts with runny breastmilk poop because the cover stops it (the covers will get poopy, though). The drawbacks of this system are that the two parts are confusing for some people, you may have to play around with cover brands before you find one you like that really fits your child well, and you have to buy new covers (and, eventually, diapers) when your child grows out of a size.
A real drawback of using pre-folds and velcro covers is that you feel like you should or could be using something fancier and you let your head get turned. For most SAH parents and even many WOH parents, this system is completely adequate to all their needs (except for nighttime, which I’ll cover below). But there are fancier, more exciting diaper systems, which most people end up dabbling in unless they make an effort not to look at anything else.
The Two-Piece System
There are fitted diapers (either with their own velcro or snap closures or without) that go in covers. They can be made of cotton or hemp. All sorts of WAHMs make fancy fitted diapers and/or equally fancy covers out of all sorts of fabrics. You can get covers with teddy bears, dinosaurs, Darth Vader, flowers, and almost anything you want. Just go to eBay and search for “covers” in “Baby” “cloth diapers” to understand the diversity. The benefits of these diapers are that they’re really cute. The drawbacks are that they’re more expensive and can become an addiction.
For people who are confused or creeped out by separate diapers and covers, all-in-ones (AIOs) can be a great relief. AIOs (click on “All-in-ones” on the left side) are exactly what they sound like: a cover and diaper all together in one. They fasten with either snaps or velcro and are basically the same to put on and take off as disposable diapers are. This makes them great for daycare situations or reluctant partners.
The benefits are that they’re so easy to use, so you may end up using cloth diapers longer than you would if you had a two-piece system. The drawbacks are that they’re expensive and they often take a long time to dry. To fight the drying time, some AIOs have snap-in liners that dry separately.
This is a fabulous solution to the problem of AIO drying time. Pocket diapers consist of two pieces. This system is especially good for nighttime because you can put in a bunch of soakers to be super-absorbent. The real benefits are that it’s super-easy, great for daycare and reluctant caregivers, quick-drying, trimmer than most other cloth diapers.
It’s also good for people who can’t change their babies as often (like little siblings who go along to the older one’s activities). The drawbacks are that it’s expensive, although you can mitigate that cost by getting one-size pocket diapers so you don’t have to buy new sizes.
Choose Your Fabric: Cotton vs. Hemp
Cotton farming is really hard on the environment, but cotton is soft and cheap and absorbent. Organic cotton is more expensive but far better on the environment. Hemp is fine for the environment, 40% more absorbent than cotton by weight, and has natural antibacterial properties, but it’s more expensive than cotton and is stiff until it’s been washed a bunch of times.
You can do cloth diapers part-time at home and on weekends, and you’ll still save a bunch of money. A mom friend of mine used only 10-12 disposable diapers a week in a daycare center once her son was over a year. Depending on your childcare situation, you may be able to use cloth diapers full-time.
With a nanny, it’s no problem, although you’ll probably want to get her input on which system you go with. If you’re doing in-home daycare or a daycare center, ask your providers as you can never know what they’ll say. We use pocket diapers at home, but in-home daycare providers actually prefer pinned pre-folds and covers.