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By Kristen Bahler
Updated: July 9, 2021 1:56 PM ET
Baby wearing a cloth diaper over a background with baby icon drawings
Money; Getty Images

By the end of the summer, I’ll go from living the charmed life of a 30-something who has never, not once, changed a diaper, to someone who’s very existence revolves around the activity. And like many soon-to-be moms with a stack of parenting paperbacks and an embarrassingly long baby registry, I’m starting to feel pretty smug about the whole thing.

Case in point: I’ve decided to give cloth diapers a try.

My reasoning is the same as most parents seeking eco-friendly alternatives to disposable diapers: I compost, I recycle, and I try to use sustainable substitutes for my replenishable household products (paper towels, coffee filters, plastic bags). Cloth diapering just sort of … makes sense.

Plus, it could save me a lot of money.

A 2018 deep dive by the Tampa Bay Times found that the cost of disposable diapers hovers around $1,000 a year per child — a prohibitively expensive price tag for many families that is only going up. The fact that many communities have suffered widespread diaper shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic added fuel to an already heated debate about the advantages of switching to cloth.

The thing about cloth diapering is it can introduce a sh*tload (pun intended) of extra work to a new parent’s routine — work that’s unpleasant, and involves getting a lot closer to your baby’s bowel movements than you would otherwise have to.

I’ll admit: I’m not psyched to experience this first-hand. No matter how valiant my efforts, there’s a lingering possibility that after a few months (or … days) of keeping a paycheck-sucking poop machine as clean, fed and un-agitated as is within my capacity, cloth diapers will start to feel less like a doable alternative to landfill-crowding ‘sposies and more like a curse.

Will it all be worth it? Or am I in over my head? How much money can I reasonably expect to save, anyway?

To help sort through the muck, I turned to the best experts in the biz: moms who have tried cloth diapers themselves, and agreed to be brutally honest about their experiences. Here’s what they told me.

Cloth diapers for beginners

If you’re new to cloth diapering, know that the options are vast — and a bit overwhelming.

Every parent has his or her own preference when it comes to fabric, brand and closure type (the velcro vs. snap vs. pin debate is an eyeroll of its own accord), so it’s wise to experiment with a few different types before committing to a specific one.

Style-wise, cloth diapers come in four different constructions. Here’s a breakdown of each, and why some parents gravitate toward one over the others.

All-in-one (AIO) diapers

All-in-ones mimic the simplicity of disposable diapers. After every diaper change, you throw one of these bad boys — which are made of several layers of highly-absorbent material like microfleece and sewn into a waterproof cover — into your dirty diaper pile to be laundered (not thrown away). Then you slap on a clean one.

This is the easiest way to cloth diaper, and often the most expensive — AIOs can run upwards of $30 a diaper. But since many designs are stitched with closure settings meant to re-size as your baby grows, you should get a lot of use out of each one. Grovia’s O.N.E. diaper, a $23 to $28 option recommended to me by multiple moms, can last from birth all the way to potty training. Some popular AIO brands, like Thirsties and Bambino Mio sell diaper bundles at a discounted rate.

“Even before having a baby, I never felt I had enough time, and feared I wouldn't stick with more complicated types, so I was drawn to the AIOs,” says Jennifer Kelley, a mom to a baby girl in Albany, Oregon. "Many styles are as easy to put on as a disposable.”

Pocket diapers

Pockets are another simple cloth diapering method that requires a little more busy work than AIOs. They’re also made with waterproof covers, but the insides are less bulky (and less absorbent) and have a stitched-in pouch where a washable, maxi pad-like insert slips in.

Kristina Todini, mom to a 1-year-old in Sacramento, California, tells me she favors pocket diapers over the other styles.

Todini runs the green living blog Fork in the Road, and says she was “on a mission” to reduce her consumption of single-use items before she got pregnant.

Some of the crunchiest parents learn to sew their own diapers from old t-shirts and nursing blankets, but Todini didn’t want to overload herself with chores while “learning how to care for a baby and become a mother,” she says. So she and her husband used disposables for the first month of their daughter’s life, and then transitioned to pockets.

On Amazon, you can get a six-pack set of AlvaBaby pockets (and 12 inserts) for $30. Nora’s Nursery, one of the top-rated cloth diaper stores on Amazon, sells four-packs of pocket diapers with four bamboo inserts for $38, and seven-packs with seven bamboo inserts for $65.

Fitted diapers

Fitteds, another two-step system, come as two distinct parts: a cloth diaper and a waterproof cover. That means two separate items to buy (and wash) — though the covers can be worn through multiple diaper changes, so you don’t need an equal amount of each.

Using a diaper encased in a waterproof shell means that, if the fit is right, you’ll get the same absorbancy as a disposable diaper. And since that shell comes off before it gets tossed in the laundry, the inner layer tends to dry pretty quickly.

Cloth-eez sells a popular line of organic fitted diapers, which will run you about $12 a piece on the Green Mountain Diapers website (covers, sold separately, cost about $10).

Stephanie Miller, mom of one, uses a mix of different types of cloth diapers, but says Grovia’s “hybrid” fitteds are her favorite (currently available in a 12-pack on Amazon for $194). She lives in humid Houston, Texas, where air drying certain materials is next to impossible. With fitteds, she can dry the inners in her machine dryer while she hangs the covers outside.

Flats and prefold diapers

As the name implies, these come as a flat sheet that you fold onto your baby in the shape of a diaper. It’s the cheapest, and most complicated, way to cloth diaper, but lots of parents swear by it.

“You can Google how to do it,” says Shay Boudreaux, mom to two sons, a 5-year-old and a toddler, in Louisiana. “It probably takes 10 extra seconds.”

Pre-folds still require a waterproof cover, but like fitteds, you’ll need far more diapers than covers. Another bonus: If the whole cloth diapering thing doesn’t work out, you can use them as burp cloths instead.

As of this writing, you can buy a 12 pack of pre-folds on sites like Green Mountain Diapers and Amazon for $22 to $30 — or a bundle of 36 (with four covers included) for $94.

How many cloth diapers do I need?

Before you stock your nursery, think about how much you can reasonably spend — and how much extra laundry you’re comfortable taking on.

Most baby blogs and cloth diaper social media groups suggest starting out with at least 24 diapers, plus about 6 covers (if you’re not using AIOs), which should tide you over laundry-wise for two to three days. Older babies don’t go through as many diapers, so you can get away with buying less of each if you’re past the newborn stage. Same goes for parents who want to try out cloth diapers before giving up on disposables entirely.

Keep in mind that, depending on the type of cloth diapers you choose, and how they end up fitting your kid, you might have to size up as they grow. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are lots of “try it" kits you can buy (or register for!) from brands like OsoCozy, Esembly Baby and Green Mountain Diapers. Also, if you’re on a super tight budget, you can buy pre-owned diapers on Facebook groups and online communities like Diaper Junction. Or you can hit up one of the myriad nonprofit organizations that give free cloth diapers to low-income families.

Since cloth diapers can be used on multiple children, the savings compound over time. And if you take good care of them, the resale value is close to, and in some cases over, 100%.

To save money, Kelley bought some of her cloth diaper stock from diaper co-ops and resale sites like eBay, Mercari and Craigslist. She and her husband used disposable diapers for the first week of their daughter’s life, and though they “planned to use them even longer, because we anticipated being much more overwhelmed,” the transition to cloth ended up being a breeze, she says.

“It is truly not as scary as it sounds,” Kelley tells me. “You just have a couple extra loads of laundry each week.”

How to clean cloth diapers

Every parent I spoke to agreed that the most complicated part about learning how to use cloth diapers is figuring out how to wash them.

Depending on the material your diapers are made of, you might have to “prep,” or pre-wash them — sometimes multiple times — before using them for the first time.

You’ll also need to do some research on how your laundry machine will handle the slightly unorthodox task at hand (specifications for top-loading and front-loading machines vary), as well as what kind of laundry detergent to use. Experienced cloth diapering parents usually recommend a detergent with the least amount of ingredients possible. Tide’s “Ultra Power Original” detergent powder (not liquid) is a cult favorite on diapering message boards. Some cloth diapers companies, like Esemby Baby, sell their own detergent.

Pro tip: You’ll probably want to get a couple of “wet bags” to tote around your used cloth diapers when you’re out of the house, too.

“Wet bags are a crucial part of a successful clothing journey,” Miller says.

As far as drying goes, most people recommend hanging your diapers on a laundry line or drying rack whenever possible, since the heat in machine dryers will wear down any elastic and hike your energy use — which doesn’t exactly jive with many parents’ “green” intentions.

Now comes the most polarizing detail of every cloth diapering discussion: What To Do With All That Poo.

The good news is, breastfed babies have water-soluble waste, so you just throw their cloth diapers into a pile, and then into the laundry, and be done with them. But that’s not the case if you formula feed, or if your baby is old enough to eat solid food, or the thought of chucking number twos into your washing machine is just … a bridge too far.

For some parents, the solution is biodegradable, flushable liners. Others just dunk each diaper into the toilet before it hits the laundry pile. You can also buy a hose that attaches to your toilet and power washes each diaper to hell and back before tossing it in the wash. If you go this route, Jennifer Kelley in Albany, Oregon, advises investing in a hose that comes with a spray shield, or buying one separately, to protect your bathroom (and body) from splatter. (“Spraying diapers without a shield is a pain, messy, and made me seriously consider whether I wanted to keep doing it,” she says.)

Still with me? It’s worth mentioning that every mom I spoke to was unanimous on another point: This isn’t as gross as it sounds.

Todini summed it up nicely.

“Let’s face it, babyhood involves a lot of poop,” she says. “What’s dealing with cleaning the diaper over a toilet in the grand scheme of things?”

Cloth diapers vs. disposable

There’s still a lot of debate about the health benefits of cloth diapering — like whether it leads to less diaper rashes, and quicker potty training, as advocates say it does. There’s even some naysayers who question if all that extra laundry makes the practice as eco-friendly as it seems. (Much of that skepticism, though, was sown by disposable diaper companies, according to the nonprofit group Green America.)

There are also lots of parents who tried cloth diapers and gave up a few months in. Dealing with cloth can be time-consuming, after all, and a lot more trouble than it’s worth if the fit isn’t quite right, or your washing machine happens to be on the fritz.

Still, there’s no doubt that if you stick with it, cloth diapering can save you money, and the moms I spoke with have the receipts to prove it.

Boudreaux says her family spent about $220 on cloth diapers, which they used exclusively on their oldest son for the two-some years before he was potty trained. They used those same diapers on their second son before he started going to a daycare this spring that doesn’t allow cloth diapers — and over the course of three months, Boudreaux says, she and her husband have already spent $200 on disposables, even though they still use cloth diapers at night and on weekends.

Todini, for her part, did a cloth vs. disposable cost comparison for long-term diapering while she was pregnant, and says that cloth was the clear winner from the get-go. Her family spent $60 total on cloth diapers and inserts she says, plus an extra $15 to $20 a month on laundry detergent, water and electricity.

Cloth diapering isn’t for everyone, Miller tells me, but it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing.

“Disposables … provided us some time and flexibility when we needed it,” Miller says. “ I like to think of the sustainable analogy of using cloth towels over paper towels, or cloth napkins over paper napkins. We would simply do what we could when we could and try our best to keep things out of landfills.”

Sometimes, she adds, “the benefits of ease and disposability” made disposables the better choice when her family was on vacation, or her baby was in daycare. But like every mom I spoke with, she found cloth diapers to be pretty easy too.

“I will always advocate for cloth over disposables,” she says. “It's extremely affordable and not as difficult as a lot of people seem to make it.”

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