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Diapers may not be an important part of most people's' lives, and even parents with young children deal with diapers for only a few years. The environmental impact of the vastly popular disposable diaper, however, affects us all and is a problem that won't go away.

It’s estimated that 10,000 tons of disposable diapers are tossed into landfills each day.
They can take up to 500 years to decompose! The manufacture of disposables uses over 1 million metric tons of wood pulp and 75,000 metric tons of plastic each year. Disposables are the diaper of choice for over 80% of North American parents.

Toddler wearing cloth diapers.

Benefits of Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers have changed considerably over the years, and offer many benefits to parents of newborns:

Healthier

Disposables are laden with chemicals which have been associated with many physical problems. Diaper rash also increases with disposable diaper use due to allergies to chemicals, poor airflow, and longer time spent in wet diapers which feel dry when wet.

Benefit the Environment

Cloth diapers are reusable. Quality cotton diapers will hold up for 75 – 100 washings (at minimum), and can be saved for the next child. Although energy is required for washing the diapers, it is a fraction of the energy used for disposables. Cloth diapers are also recyclable, making excellent cotton rags in their ‘afterlife’.

Less Expensive

Many studies have compared the costs of disposables diapers vs cloth washed at home, and cloth diapers provided by commercial diaper services. Results vary, but most agree that the cost of cloth diapers, home laundered, is considerably lower than buying disposables.

Estimates range from $800 – $1600 in savings over the 2 1/2 years, and 6000 diaper changes, of diaper use. Using a commercial diaper service, depending on which study you consult, is either comparable to, or a little less expensive, than using disposables.

Styles

There are three basic styles of cloth diapers available today: flat, fitted and all-in-ones.

Flat

Flat diapers are the classic cotton square which is folded to fit the baby, and secured with diaper pins. There are two additional variations on the flat diaper design:

  • Pre-folded: Which includes extra layering in the center, and
  • Contoured: Which are similar to pre-folds but more form-fitting. Contours are less bulky under baby clothing.

Flat diapers are the least expensive choice in cloth diapers, costing in the area of $20 per dozen. These diapers require waterproof outer covers which are available in several options, described below.

Fitted

Fitted diapers are similar to the contour diapers, with an added advantage: elastic. The waistband and the leg area have elastic sewn in to provide a snug fit and reduced leakage. Fitted diapers also have built-in closures, such as snaps of Velcro, which eliminate the need for diaper pins. Like the flat designs, fitted diapers require the addition of waterproof outer covers. These diapers are more expensive than flats, usually between $12 and $16 apiece.

All-in-Ones

This style has the waterproof cover ‘built-in’. These are convenient because only one item is needed for diaper change. All-in-Ones have snap or Velcro closures, and are adjustable for size. This style of cloth diaper is the most convenient, and suitable for babysitters, day care centers and quick changes at the mall.

There are several accessories used with cloth diapers: Covers, Liners and Inserts

cloth diapers

Covers

Waterproof covers are used over flat or fitted diapers. The most common cover is the plastic pull-up which is inexpensive and lightweight, but not breathable. Covers are available in the following materials:

  • Plastic covers are the least expensive but do not last particularly long, especially if run through the dryer. They eventually crack and tear.
  • Nylon covers, a bit more expensive, are also lightweight, but less susceptible to tearing. To avoid chafing, be sure the cover has brushed or coated elastic around leg and waist.
  • Wool covers are now available which are breathable and comfortable. They are not as waterproof as the plastic covers. However, they are water-resistant.
  • Fleece covers are another breathable cover option, especially for those babies with wool sensitivities.
  • Polyester covers are waterproof and breathable, as well as long-lasting. They come with a brushed outer finish for a soft texture.

Polyester, wool and fleece covers also come with snap or Velcro closures, so you can put them on without having to pull them up over the feet. This is handy when the baby has pants and shoes on. These covers also come in a variety of colors and designs, so your baby can look stylin’ even in diapers!

Liners

Liners can be added to the diaper, on the inside, for extra absorbency. This is useful for overnights and naps when you don’t want to wake the baby for a diaper change. Liners are available as reusable or as throw-aways. Reusable liners often have a facing of polyester which helps prevent diaper rash because they stay drier against the skin.

Inserts

Inserts are pads which can double the absorbency of the diaper. They are bulkier than liners, and useful for overnight or longer periods between diaper changes.

Care and Laundering

Washing and caring for your cloth diapers is much simpler than it used to be. Here are the basics:

  • After changing, deposit the solid contributions into the toilet and throw the diapers into a diaper pail. The pail should be plastic with a fitted lid.
  • Pre-soak diapers, and set the washing machine on double wash, double rinse, hot water wash, and rinse.
  • Check for stains, and treat with stain remover if necessary. Rewash with a load of regular clothes or towels. Do not use bleach.
  • Line dry, or put in a dryer with the heat set on ‘high’. If line dried, you can finish off by putting the diapers in the dryer for 10-15 minutes to be sure they are dry on the inside.

Cloth Diapering Tips

  • Cloth diapers can be supplemented by disposables. Use disposables when travelling or if your child goes to daycare.
  • Vinegar is preferable to commercial fabric softeners. Commercial fabric softeners can decrease the diaper absorbency because of the oils imparted to fabrics. Vinegar also helps to get the last soap out of the diapers which minimizes skin allergic reactions.
  • Avoid using bleach.
  • Keep the diaper pail out of sunlight and away from heat sources.
  • Use detergents recommended by the supplier of your diapers. Commercial laundry products leave residues which can chafe the baby and cause premature diaper wear.
  • Diapers dried on the clothesline will last longer. Some all-in-ones have the inner pad lift up so it can dry faster on the line. However, diapers can get stiff when line dried only. To address this problem, line-dried diapers can be “finished off” for a few minutes in the drier. This will ensure thorough dryness and softness.

Online Sources

Where to Find Cloth Diapers Online: