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Whether for eco-friendly reasons, cost, or pure comfort and style, many parents are opting to use cloth diapers these days.

Once upon a time this meant swaddling a rectangular piece of white cotton fabric around your baby’s bum, fit and snugness secured by large safety pins. However, modern cloth diapers have greatly changed since then.

The alternative to cloth diapering is disposable diapers, with pros and cons to consider no matter which method you decide is best for your family. But what type of cloth diaper should you use? Traditional? Prefold? All-in-one? How do you use the cloth diaper? How many diapers will you need?

Read on. We cover it all, right here.

The pros and cons of diapering boil down their impact on your finances, the environment, and your lifestyle.

The fact is this, cloth diapers are less expensive than disposable ones. (If you use a diaper laundering service, the cost difference will be minimal, but still lower.) The cost seems higher during the first year, but by the time you have a potty-trained child, the overall amount of money spent is lower.

Cloth diapers will cost more up front. Most children need diapers for 2 to 3 years and use an average of 12 diapers per day. The total cost for a reasonable stock of reusable diapers can be anywhere from $500 to $800, running anywhere from $1 to $35 per diaper, depending on the style and brand you purchase.

These diapers need laundering every 2 days, 3 at the most. This entails purchasing extra detergent and running multiple wash cycles. All of this is added to a cycle in the dryer on tumble dry, if you decide to forego line drying, adding to your utility (water and electric) bills each time.

You’ll also want to purchase a special bag to contain the soiled diapers between washes, maybe even a waterproof travel bag for soiled diapers on-the-go.

However, once their child is potty trained, many parents will re-sell the diapers and other accessories they used. Other parents donate the diapers, keep them for their next child, or repurpose them as dust rags and cleaning cloths.

Two years of disposable diapers will cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000, per child. Consider this: Disposable diapers at about 25 to 35 cents per diaper, using around 12 diapers per day for 365 days in one year (about 4,380 diapers every year), add in the cost of wipes, a diaper pail, the pail’s “garbage bag” liners to contain the soiled disposable diapers’ smell … you get the idea. Also, you can’t re-sell the disposables.

Both cloth and disposable diapers have impacts on the environment, though cloth diapers have less impact than disposable. It’s estimated to take up to 500 years for just one diaper to decompose in a landfill, and with approximately 4 million tons of disposable diapers added to the country’s landfills each year. In addition to that, there is more waste from wipes, packaging, and garbage bags.

The environmental impacts of using cloth diapers vary depending on how you launder the diaper. A lot of electricity is used for multiple washes, high temperature washes, and tumble drying. The chemicals in cleaning detergents can add toxic waste to the water.

Alternatively, if you reuse the cloth diapers for multiple children and line dry 100 percent of the time (the sun is a fantastic natural stain remover) the impact is greatly minimized.

Always try to keep in mind that diapering is just one aspect of parenting. Everyone will have their own opinion, but the choice is truly yours and yours alone. There are many ways you can reduce your family’s impact on the environment, whether you choose cloth or disposable, and there’s no need to stress too much about this one decision.

Flats

These diapers are the epitome of basic. They’re similar to what your grandma’s great-grandma was probably working with when she diapered her babies.

Essentially, flats are a large square-ish piece of fabric, typically birdseye cotton, but available in varieties such a hemp, bamboo, and even terrycloth. They look like a flour sack kitchen towel or a small receiving blanket.

To use flats you’ll need to fold them. There are quite a few types of folds, ranging from super-simple to a little more origami. They can be tucked in, or held together with pins or other clasps. You’ll need a waterproof diaper cover on top to contain the wetness.

These are super lightweight and basic, making them easy to wash, fast to dry, and simple to use (once you’ve mastered your folds). They’re also likely to be the least expensive option for cloth diapering, both because of their low cost and because they can be folded to fit babies of all sizes, from newborn through the diapering years.

Cost: about $1 each

Shop for flats online.

Prefolds

These also closely resemble the cloth diapers of time long past. Bolstered with a thicker center of extra fabric layers, stitched together to fold, prefolds are among your least expensive reusable options. You can find prefolds in a variety of fabrics, such as cotton, hemp, and bamboo.

Prefolds are usually held in place with a cover, which waterproofs the absorbent prefolds by containing the wetness. Covers are made of polyester fabric and are adjustable, breathable, reusable, and waterproof. They wrap around your baby’s bum like a diaper and have hip and crossover Velcro or snaps to prevent droopage and elastic legging areas to prevent leakage.

When it’s time to change your baby, you simply replace the soiled prefold with a clean prefold and continue using the cover. Some moms use two prefolds for overnight use.

Cost: about $2

Shop for prefolds online.

Fitteds

Fitteds, or fitted cloth diapers, are contoured in shape and very absorbent, often favored for overnight use and heavy wetters. They come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. Cute patterns and cotton, bamboo, velour, or cotton/hemp blends give you plenty of options to choose from.

No folding is required and there is elastic around the legs. After your baby has soiled the fitted diaper, remove it and replace with a fresh fitted, reusing the cover.

Fitteds are available with snaps, Velcro, or loop closures, though you’ll still need a waterproof cover. Some parents suggest combining fitteds with a wool cover for ultimate overnight protection. Other moms warn that flannel covers will retain smells more than others will.

Cost: ranges from $7 to $35

Shop for fitteds online.

Pocket

These single-use cloth diapers are a complete diapering system with a waterproof exterior and an interior pocket, where you stuff an absorbent insert. The inserts are washable and reusable. Inserts come in several materials, including cotton, hemp, and microfiber.

No additional cover is needed, though you’ll need to take off the entire diaper, remove the insert from the cover (wash them separately), and replace with a clean cover and insert after your baby does his business.

Pocket diapers are adjustable and fasten with Velcro or snaps. Parents say pocket diapers dry quickly and won’t look bulky underneath baby’s clothing. Some parents say to use two to three inserts for overnight use.

Cost: about $20

Shop for pockets online.

Hybrid

If you are squeamish about removing baby’s poop, this option gives you that flushable out. Combining disposable with reusable, hybrid cloth diapers come with a waterproof outer layer and two inner options for absorbency. Some parents use a cloth insert (think: thick washcloth), others use a disposable insert (think: flushable pad).

The cloth inserts are available in cotton, hemp, and microfiber fabrics. The disposable inserts are single-use, but they don’t contain any chemicals, like disposable diapers do, and many disposable inserts are compost-friendly.

To change your baby’s diaper, simply remove the dirty insert and snap a new one in its place. If you’re using a reusable insert, you’ll want to remove any solid waste before storing it with your other dirties waiting for the washer. Parents say pockets with disposable inserts are great for when you’re on-the-go.

Cost: diapers, $15 to $25; disposable inserts, about $5 per 100

Shop for hybrids online.

All-in-one

This is the “no fuss, no muss” option, closest in form and function to disposable diapers.

An absorbent pad is attached to a waterproof cover, making diaper changes as easy as changing disposable diapers. The adjustable closures fasten at the hip with Velcro, snaps, or hooks and loops, and they don’t require additional inserts. Simply remove the diaper and replace with a fresh one. After each use, rinse off any solid waste and store it with the other soiled diapers waiting for the washer.

These diapers come in many different stylish colors and patterns. Parents say all-in-ones (AIOs) are great for whenever babysitters, friends, and extended family members are caring for your baby, but they take longer to dry and may look bulky underneath baby’s clothing.

Cost: about $15 to $25

Shop for all-in-ones online.

All-in-two

Similar to the hybrid, this two-part system has a waterproof outer shell and a detachable, absorbent inner insert that snaps or tucks into place. They are available in a variety of colors and fabrics. After your baby does their business, the soiled insert is changed out and the cover is reused.

It is easy to customize for overnight use and heavy wetters with the option of using a thicker insert. The inserts are washable. These are less bulky than AIOs and pocket cloth diapers.

Moms say that, due to being able to wash the inserts separately from the outer shell, all-in-twos provide flexibility with laundry, are long-lasting, and easier to use than prefolds. They also are easy to mix and match with multiple brands, but more time-consuming to change and not always very good at containing the mess to just the removeable insert.

Cost: about $15 to $25

Shop for all-in-twos online.

Tip

Don’t buy in bulk right away. Try a few cloth diapering options: buy one or two of each, or borrow from other parents, and learn which you prefer first.

Healthline

It really is much like changing a disposable diaper. Some diapers require pre-assembly of the parts in order to be ready to change. For some options you’ll use snaps or Velcro to adjust the sizing to fit your little one.

For all kinds of cloth diapers you’ll change diapers much like you would with disposables, using Velcro, snaps, or pins to fasten the clean diaper around your baby.

In addition to the above information,

  • Always close the tabs before throwing the used diaper into your diaper bag or pail, so they don’t get stuck to each other or compromise how they fasten.
  • Any snaps along the top of the diaper are used to adjust the waistline.
  • Any snaps down the front of the diaper make the diaper as big (long) or as small (short) as is needed.
  • Cloth diapers hang down or feel stiff when they need to be changed.
  • You should change cloth diapers every 2 hours to avoid rashes.

Before washing the diapers, check the product packaging or look at the company’s website for any recommended washing guidelines because many cloth diaper companies provide precise instructions, which must be followed in order to receive any given warranties if things go awry.

For a detailed explanation, check out How to Wash Cloth Diapers: A Simple Starter Guide. The basic steps to washing cloth diapers include:

  1. Remove any solid waste from the diaper, prefold, or insert by spraying the diaper down with water. Or you can also swish the soiled diaper around in the toilet bowl.
  2. Put the rinsed-off diaper in a bag or pail with other soiled diapers until you’re ready to wash them.
  3. Wash the dirty diapers (no more than 12 to 18 at a time) every day, or every other day, to avoid staining and mildew. You’ll want to do a cold cycle first, no detergent, and then a hot cycle with detergent. Line dry for optimal results.

If all of this sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t fear. The internet abounds with social media groups dedicated to cloth diapering. In-the-know parents share tips, tricks, folds, secrets to washing, and more.

Newborns will often go through more diapers than an older baby, who can use about 10 diapers per day. Plan on anywhere from 12 to 18 diapers per day for newborns and 8 to 12 diapers per day after the first month, until your baby is potty trained.

You’ll want to stock up on at least twice as many cloth diapers as you’ll use in a day, especially if you already know that everyday washing is less realistic than every other day. We’re not saying you need to purchase 36 cloth diapers, but you may want to stock up on at least 16 of them, or 24 to really cover your bases.

With all the fabric, fits, snaps, Velcro, and adjustable options, most cloth diapers will last for years and years, for multiple children. Though the upfront cost may sound hefty, the overall price beats the cost of using disposable diapers. If you want to use cloth diapers but don’t want to deal with the washing, consider hiring a local diaper laundering service.

Gone are the days of complicated folding and pinning. Cloth diapering is easy and eco-friendly, but no solution is best for all. Don’t worry about what others will think. Do what is best for you.