Beginner’s Guide To Cloth Diapers

beginners guide to cloth diapers


Also known as cloth diapering 101. I realized that navigating around the amount of posts on my site was starting to get overwhelming, so here’s a handy index of everything you’ll need to know about cloth diapering. The table of contents links to each major topic and from there you’ll be able to click on the links to each individual post.

A quick guide to different types of cloth diapers

Cloth Diapering gear and equipment you’ll need (and want)

All about washing diapers

Guide to cloth diapering a newborn

Diapering a newborn is different in several ways to diapering an older baby.

The major difference is the amount of diaper changes you’ll go through each day. Newborns have smaller, but runnier and more frequent milk poos, especially if you decide to breastfeed. These bowel movements tend to be wet and come at the same time that your baby pees. You can expect to change a newborn’s diaper around 12-16 times a day versus 8-12 diaper changes for an older baby on solid foods.

Another difference is that you will need to be careful of the umbilical cord stub. You will want to avoid any diapers with hard cloth, elastic, snaps, or velcro in the belly area. Some cloth diapers are specially designed for newborn babies and will hang lower in the belly area.

This is why I prefer prefolds and covers for newborns. Prefolds can be folded to custom fit your baby so you don’t have to worry about finding the perfect diaper that fits chubby tummies or skinny legs. When your baby grows bigger, the old prefolds can be cut or folded and reused as liners for more absorbency.

Pocket and AIO diapers do come in adjustable sizes and newborn sizes, but I find that many of them have too many snaps and bulk in the belly and leg area to fit a newborn comfortably. Or the leg holes and belly area are too loose and you end up with leaks. Unlike prefolds, adjustable fit pocket and AIO diapers tend to have a narrow range of sizes for newborns, usually from 7 to 12 pounds. For preemies and newborns on the lower end of the scale, your best choice would be prefolds and covers.

What about nighttime diapering? Can cloth diapers last overnight without leaking?

I get a lot of questions about overnight diapering from expecting parents. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as you will discover, younger babies poop ALOT and they wake up ALOT during the night. That means night time diapering will be the same as daytime diapering for at least the first couple of months.

When your baby’s about two to six months old, they’ll begin to sleep through the night. That’s when you’ll have to come up with a way to make their diaper last. The worst thing is to be woken up by your crying baby when they’ve finally learned how to sleep for more than 3 hours at a time!

The easiest way to do this is to add an extra insert or prefold inside your regular diapering system. Trifold your prefolds (like a business letter going inside an envelope) for the most absorbency. The diaper will be thick and bulky, but it’ll be okay since your baby will be asleep anyways. If you use pockets and inserts and don’t want to buy a separate pack of prefolds, you can double up and stuff another insert into the pocket.

If your baby is a *very* heavy soaker, then you can triple layer your inserts and prefolds by placing another insert on top of your prefold. So you end up with insert/prefold/insert. Triple layering works well up until babies turn into toddlers. But by then they should be potty trained!

For toddlers who are not potty trained, you’ll have to go heavy duty. An extra cover over your normal triple-layered cloth diaper works well because the covers keep leaks in without adding too much bulk.

Frequently asked questions

Why should I use cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers?

There are three main reasons to choose cloth diapers over disposable diapers.

  1. Money.
  2. Your baby’s health.
  3. The environment.

Money:

A newborn will use 8-12 diapers a day. This number goes down to 4-6 diapers a day after 12 months. For a total of over 3000 diapers for the first year and up to 5000-8000 diapers until your baby is 2-3 years old and potty trained.

Here’s how the cents fall for disposable diapers. Let’s assume you use cheapo Costco brand diapers, which comes out to $0.20 per disposable diaper. If you get name brand diapers like Huggies or Pampers, expect to pay $0.30-$0.40 per diaper! You will end up spending $600-$900 on diapers in just the first year, and up to $2000-$3000 on diapers until your little one is potty trained! That’s a couple grand that could’ve gone into your little one’s college fund, literally thrown away in the trash! I still haven’t included the cost of wipes so in reality you should expect to spend more than 2k-3k on diapering supplies.

On the other hand, consider the case for cloth diapers. A complete set of diapers, which means enough diapers with spares to use during laundry days (20-40 diapers) will cost $200-$800, depending on if you get inexpensive no-name brands or if you splurge on bumgenius and the sort. You’ll also need accessories like a diaper sprayer, laundry soap, wet bags, and inserts/liners. Add another $150 to your budget. What about the cost of doing your laundry? Water and electricity bills can add up big time and if you use a laundry service… yikes! I recommend getting a cheapo counter top washer like the Panda washer and a spin dryer. That way you don’t have to do a full load of laundry just for your diapers, because really, who’s going to mix poopy diapers with their regular laundry? These machines barely use any water or electricity and you can get both for $100-$150, less if you look around on Craigslist.

Speaking of Craigslist, once you’re done with your diapers, you can also swap or sell your old diapers in local parenting groups and expect to get back 30%-50% of the retail value. And if you expect to have another baby, well everything can be reused with $0 additional cost! So at the end of 3 years, you’ll spend $500-$1300 on cloth diapering and if you sell your supplies, get back about half of that amount, for a total of $250-$650 for 2-3 years of diapers. And this cost is about the same if you diaper one baby or two or three or more.

With all that said, you will make up for the money saved with elbow-grease and time. I’m not a cloth diaper purist, so if cloth doesn’t work for your family, then use disposables! Or you could go halfway, disposables during the day and cloth at night. Even cutting down the amount of disposables you use by half will save you a lot of money.

Your baby’s health:

Besides the savings cost, the biggest reason why parents choose cloth over disposables is the health of their little ones. Disposable diapers contain nasty chemicals in the moisture absorbing gel and the materials are often bleached and treated. The materials in disposables are now better than in the 80s and 90s, but they still trap in moisture so skin can’t breathe naturally. Babies have extremely thin and sensitive skin so disposable diapers can cause problems like diaper rashes, chafing, and infections.

Cloth diapers made with natural materials like fleece, hemp, and cotton wick away moisture and let air circulate. With properly washed diapers, rashes and problems occur much less frequently with cloth diapers.

The environment:

Consider the thousands of diapers each baby will go through. The mountain of diapers that don’t degrade easily in landfills. All the chemicals and waste that goes into manufacturing disposable diapers. Cloth diapers have been used for thousands of years, with almost no waste. If you want to leave a better future for your children, then cloth is the superior choice.

What about poop and pee stains? Won’t cloth diapers get gross?

One of the main points of using cloth diapers is to avoid harsh chemicals. So even though bleach is guaranteed to get rid of stains, we want to avoid using it if possible.
There are lots of old wives’ tales when it comes to washing diapers and getting rid of stains. Some people claim that baking soda and vinegar work, but I’ve found that they’re only good for getting rid of odors, not stains.
If the staining isn’t too bad, then hanging your diapers out in the sun to dry works wonders. Sunlight and heat are mother nature’s bleach!
If the stains are more stubborn or you’re worried about germs and smells, then the very best thing to use is hydrogen peroxide. Not the stuff that comes in brown bottles at the drugstore, but the kind for washing clothes. You’ll want to get the unscented kind without any fabric softeners or additives as these can cause build-up on diapers and make stains worse. Oxyclean is a good dependable brand, though generics are pretty reliable and a lot cheaper! As long as your diapers do not have elastics (elastic weakens with heat), you can also use hot water to help flush out deep stains.

What’s a straightforward way for a busy parent to wash diapers?

Washing diapers is pretty basic. The most important tip I can give you is to always, always, ALWAYS do a pre-rinse. Either with a diaper sprayer as soon as the diaper is off your baby or with a rinse cycle in your washing machine. This will get rid of most of the gunk and odors stuck to the diapers.

Another major tip is to never ever use fabric softeners on your diapers. The waxy softeners create buildup and are impossible to wash off. They make diapers leak, smell, and will give your baby horrible diaper rash. The process for getting rid of fabric softener buildup is pretty intense (it involves boiling your diapers in a pot and lots of arm muscle) and at that point you’ll probably be better off buying new diapers. So in case I haven’t made that clear, NO FABRIC SOFTENERS! Not sheets, the liquid kind, or the kind mixed into all-in-one detergents. Just say no!

And while ‘green’ and natural detergents are always the best choice, regular laundry detergent will also work! Again, avoid any detergents with strong scents or added softeners and you’ll be fine. Even plain Tide Ultra works!

How often do I need to wash my diapers?

The number of days you can go between loads of laundry depends on how many diapers you have in your stash. Some people are on a budget and don’t want to buy too many diapers so they would rather have fewer diapers and do laundry every day. Others prefer convenience over savings. If you have enough spares to tide you over, you can go 2-3 days between washes. I really don’t recommend waiting longer to do laundry as dirty diapers can grow funky things fast!

How many cloth diapers do I need to buy?

The answer varies from as little as 24 to 48 or more. Mainly it depends on how often you do your laundry. You’ll need to have enough diapers on hand to use while your other diapers are being washed and waiting to dry.

So for example, if you go through 8 diapers a day, and it takes 1 day for you to wash and dry your diapers you’ll need at least 16 diapers in your stash.

If you have a newborn who goes through 16 diapers a day, you’ll want to get 32 diapers for a 2 day supply.

Let’s take the above example for a newborn baby. If you’re using prefolds with covers, you’ll want to get 32 prefolds and 3-5 covers. Since covers don’t have to be washed between every diaper change, you can get by with less. All of this should not cost more than $150 total.

I would advise that you get a 2 day supply of diapers to start with. That’s enough to keep you with a set of diapers you can use while your diapers from the previous day are in the wash. Then, if you decide that cloth diapers are for you, you can always add more to your collection. This way you can try out cloth diapering without a huge initial investment. Once you get more familiar with the process you can decide if you want to add more to your collection and cut down on the laundry to every 2-3 days or even try different types of cloth diapers.

What about wipes? Should I use disposable wipes or cloth wipes?

I don’t mind using disposable wipes with cloth diapers. I’m not a purist. I did so part-way through our first baby until I made the plunge into 100% cloth.

However some parents go all the way and switch to cloth wipes AND cloth diapers. It makes sense. Since any old towel, old cotton shirt, or prefolds your baby has outgrown can be cut into wipes, you’ll save lots of money over two years of diaper changes. And since you’re going to be doing all that laundry anyways, what’s a few extra pieces of cloth?

Where the pitfalls lie is the number of gadgets you can buy for cloth wipes. From warmer boxes to special wet bags and expensive cleansing solutions.

I just want to say that I hate, hate, hate wipe warmers since they’re so unhygienic. Think about it, a warm wet box is the perfect place for bacteria and mold to breed. Do you really want to wipe that on your baby’s sensitive skin? Unless you’re dousing your cloth wipes and the warmer box with bleach every couple of days, there is absolutely no way to keep the system sanitary. Plus there’s plenty of nooks and crannies in these boxes where black mold can fester. GROSS!

Instead, KISS (keep it simple, stupid) and keep a spray bottle of premixed wipe solution next to your stack of cloth wipes. Wet your wipes only when you’re ready to use them! This is much more hygienic with a lot less waste. If you need some wipes away from home, wet them ahead of time and keep them in a ziploc bag. Throw your soiled wipes into your wetbag together with your soiled diapers and wash them all at once, there’s no need to separate everything.

My cloth wipe solution recipe.

There’s only a couple ingredients you’ll need in your wipe solution. Water, soap, and oil. Some recipes include other ingredients like essential oils or vinegar for their germ-killing abilities.

  • 1/8 cup baby shampoo (or 1/2 tablespoon castile soap)
  • 1 tablespoon baby oil (I know baby oil isn’t ‘natural’, but natural oils go rancid very quickly and can get gunky on your wipes and diapers unless you wash them out 100%. If you prefer natural oils, olive oil, jojoba oil, and grapeseed oil are good choices. Just remember to throw out your solution and make a new batch as soon as you catch a whiff of rancid oil.)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 drop tea tree essential oil (optional)
  • 1 drop lavender essential oil (optional)

Shake everything up well and keep your bottle of solution out of direct sunlight. This amount of solution should last about a week so there really isn’t enough time for any of the ingredients to go bad, but just to be safe, you should make a new batch each week.

What are inserts/liners/prefolds/doublers/soakers? Arrgh…all these terms are so confusing.

When cd’ers talk about inserts, liners, prefolds, soakers, or doublers, they’re referring to an extra pad of cloth that you place inside your all-in-two pocket diaper or diaper cover for extra absorbency. The most common material for inserts is microfiber, which is great because they’re so absorbent. However, they can be too warm for summer and depending on the diaper creams you use, prone to gunk buildup and difficult to clean. For summertime, hemp and cotton are popular fabric choices and these natural fabrics are guaranteed to be allergen-free and easy to clean.

Inserts are great if your baby is a heavy soaker, or if you expect to go a long time in between diaper changes like when your baby (finally!) sleeps through the night.

To add to the confusion, there are also disposable liners which can be a life saver on long trips and vacations or when you’re dealing with caregivers who are squeamish about the mess of cloth diapers.

Oh no, my baby has diaper rash, what should I do?

First of all, take a deep breath. Diaper rash happens eventually to all babies, even those whose diapers are changed constantly, fed the perfect diet, and diapered with breathable cloth. It’s one of the consequences of having wet cloth constantly against baby’s bottom. The only way to avoid diaper rash is to let your baby ‘hang free’, but I doubt very many parents are willing to live so close to nature ;).

So for modern humans who like to live without poop and pee smeared everywhere, diaper rash is a natural part of growing up, just like teething and tantrums. Anything from new foods, food allergies, to teething, to detergent buildup can cause painful rashes. Your job to prevent any new rashes from showing up is to become an investigator and eliminate any of these possible causes.

  • Does your baby have irritation in other parts, including up to the anus? If you notice redness and irritation in areas not touching the diaper, then the most likely cause of your baby’s rash is a reaction to something they ate. Do an elimination diet, removing and adding foods from their diet to find the cause. Common triggers are milk, gluten, and sour foods.
  • Do you notice white, dry, crusty areas around the rash? Then the cause may be yeast.
  • Notice any angry pus filled pimples? This usually points to a staph infection.
  • Is the rash only located in the areas where your baby’s skin touches the diaper? Is the prefold/insert touching your baby’s skin wet? This is general diaper irritation. Check to make sure that the detergent you’re using isn’t causing a buildup of chemicals on your diaper. If the diaper is always wet, try adding another insert/prefold so your baby has more ‘dry’ hours.
  • Is your baby teething? Teething is a very stressful process and just like adults, stress can mess up baby’s digestion, causing diarrhea and painful bowel movements.
  • Is it summer or very hot where you live? If your baby is sweating a lot, this can cause a rash, especially in damp covered areas inside a diaper. Change your baby’s diaper more often and use thinner, cooler materials like hemp or bamboo for your inserts or prefolds.

In the mean time, use a diaper cream to form a protective barrier between your baby’s sensitive skin and any irritants. Find out which diaper creams I liked the best and which ones to skip.

What diaper creams can I use with my cloth diapers?

Okay, so diaper creams work by creating a protective barrier between your baby’s sensitive skin and the icky wetness of the diaper. That means that any diaper rash cream worth using will be thick, greasy, and tough to wash off. This isn’t a problem with disposable diapers, but will wreak havoc on cloth diapers.

Most traditional diaper rash creams build up on diapers over time and this stuck-on gunk will cause all sorts of problems, from leaks, stains, smells, to even making your baby’s diaper rash worse!

The best solution is to use any diaper cream you want, BUT create a physical barrier between the cream and the surface of the cloth diaper. The easiest way to do this is to simply lay a piece of cloth on top of the inside of your diaper. You want to cover the entire area where you’ve applied the cream. Make your fabric a bit bigger in case your baby wiggles around and spreads the cream to another area. You can use any cloth, as long as it’s thick enough to block the cream from leaking through. I’ve heard of people using old cut up strips of t-shirts, cloth wipes, and disposable diaper liners.

You will have to be careful and *remember* to keep these cloths separate from the rest of your diaper laundry. Wash them separately so the cream doesn’t get all over the diapers.

This solution applies to *all* diaper creams, even natural ones. I guarantee that no matter what bloggers have told you, all that wax and oil in the creams will build up over time and ruin your diapers. This is especially true for microfiber which can be a pain to wash. Once you get into a situation with build up, the only way to save your diapers is to strip them. Stripping is a VERY time consuming process involving lots of detergent and scalding hot water and almost impossible to do with newer HE washing machines. You do not want to spend your weekend stripping your diapers.

When do I need to strip my diapers?

  • Do smells and stains not come out even after washing?
  • Are the diapers giving your baby a rash?
  • Do your diapers leak even after you’ve just changed them?

If so, then you may have a problem with gunk build up on your diapers. This residue is caused by hard water, fabric softeners, oils, detergent, or waxes that coat the fibers of your diaper. This coating of gunk forms a waterproof barrier, preventing the fibers from soaking up urine, causing leaks and irritating your baby’s skin. Build up tends to be worse with some fabrics, with microfiber being the worst.

How do I strip my diapers?

Stripping means giving your diapers a really deep down scrub and soak in boiling hot water to loosen stubborn stuck on residue.
Before you begin stripping your diapers, you always want to clean them first. Do not start with dirty soiled diapers!

For parts like inserts, prefolds, and liners that do not have any plastic parts, you will want to soak them in a large pot of boiling water for about 10 minutes. DO NOT boil covers or any diapers with snaps, velcro, or other plastic parts. You will melt your diapers!

Next, you will want to soak everything overnight in a solution of laundry soda or borax. This loosens up the mineral deposits and gunk so they’ll wash out easily.

The next day, you will want to wash everything thoroughly with as much hot water as possible. DO NOT use the ‘water saving’ mode on your washer! DO NOT add any detergent! You may need to do this multiple times. Watch the water that comes out. Is it gray and sudsy? You want to put the diapers through wash cycles until the water runs 100% crystal clear.

After all this your diapers should be completely free of build up and ready to use again.


Thanks for stopping by! Leave a comment if you have any questions.
I answer each and every comment left by my readers. 🙂

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