How To Use Cloth Diapers: A Modern Mama's Ultimate Guide

Are you looking for ways to lower your carbon footprint with a baby on the way? Do you want to try cloth diapers but have no idea where to start?

More and more moms are considering cloth diapers as an eco-friendly and cost-effective alternative to disposable diapers for their kids, but many end up choosing not to do it simply because they have no idea where to start.

I get it! Believe me, in the beginning, I spent months researching cloth diapers and how to make them work.

Two kids and four years later, I want to share my knowledge with you. So here’s your ultimate guide to using cloth diapers, no pins or rubber pants required.


Why Use Cloth Diapers?

Before we dive into the ins and outs of modern cloth diapers, let’s take a moment to talk about why moms are choosing them.

1. Cost-effective

First off, it saves you a ton of money. Now don’t get me wrong, the upfront cost can be scary. Depending on what kind of cloth diapers you use, and if you buy used or new, cloth diapers can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 at the start. Even so, you’ll save money in the long run.

Consider this, if you use disposables for your baby and your baby is potty trained right at the age of two, you will spend roughly $1350 on costs related to diapering (source). That’s a $550 total savings for using cloth diapers and wipes.

The savings get even better if you have another baby. I only spent an additional $100 to cloth diaper my youngest. That included a few more cloth wipes and some girly diapers to add to my stash. So with her, I saved a total of $1250 when it came to diapering.

2. Eco-friendly

Using cloth diapers doesn’t only help your wallet, it helps the planet too — despite what people might say. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone told me I wasn’t really helping the planet since I had to wash those cloth diapers.

Did you know it takes an estimated 500 years for disposable diapers to decompose? Considering over 20 billion disposable diapers are put into our landfills every year, that poses a serious problem.

On top of that, disposable diapers account for the use of 200,000 trees a year in the United States, and 3.4 billion gallons of fuel.

I wash my cloth diapers 2-3 times a week. The amount of water usage estimated for cloth diapering one child from birth to potty training in an HE machine is about 10,000 gallons (source). Flushing your toilet 5 times a day for that time would use about 60,000 gallons.

You might wonder about the amount of water used to grow the cotton and bamboo used in many diapers. That’s a valid concern, and there are synthetic fibered diapers if you choose those instead.

Keep in mind that, while those diapers are better than disposables, they’ll also take hundreds of years to break down in a landfill.

Different Types Of Cloth Diapers

Every picture of my dad in diapers involves what looks like a towel and safety-pins. I cringe every time I think about the potential of accidentally sticking my baby with one of those.

The good news

Cloth diapering has come since back in the day. Traditional cloth diapers — also called flats — still exist, but there are updated makes and models to make the job easier than ever.

1. Flats

Flats are the oldest and most traditional kind of cloth diapers. Flats are basically what their name says, a large flat sheet of cloth that’s folded up to use as a cloth diaper.

If you’re on a budget, flats are the often the cheapest option, because you don’t actually have to purchase flat diapers to create a flat. Many things can be turned into a cloth diaper with this method, including receiving dish towels, receiving blankets, and flour sack towels.

If the item you find is not square you can fold one end to make it square before doing the actual diaper fold.

Flats might have been what your grandmother used, but technology has come a long way to make them less complicated and more appealing to the eye.

Safety pins are no longer necessary — you can use diaper fasteners to hold them diaper together. No more worrying about sticking your baby!

The rubber pants of 50 years ago have been replaced with covers in several different colors and prints.

On top of being an affordable option, there are other reasons you might choose flats over new diaper models.

  • Longevity:  Flats can be used from birth to potty training, because you can adapt the way you fold them based you baby’s size.
  • Easily doubled: You can easily flats up by laying two flats together to create more absorbency without making your baby’s diaper too bulky.
  • Simple maintenance: Flats are easy to wash to quick to dry.

There are downsides to using flats too:

  • Time consuming: Diaper changes take longer when using a flat. You have to take the time to fold the diaper before putting it on your baby.
  • Less portable: You also have to carry more supplies with you since flats require a cover to make them waterproof and a diaper fastener to hold them together. However, covers can be used for more than one diaper change, unless a leak happens or stool gets on it. This means you don’t have to carry as many covers as diapers.

2. Prefolds

Prefold diapers are similar to flats except that, as the name suggests, they’re pre-folded, meaning they’re smaller and thicker. You still have to fold them somewhat, but the process is not as complicated as folding flats can be.

As with flats, prefolds are a very affordable option. They also need to use diaper fasteners to keep them together and covers to make them waterproof, but they’re very low maintenance because they’re easy to wash and dry.

Like flats, some prefolds come in one-size options, but you can also choose to purchase sized prefolds that will add less bulk to your baby’s diaper. Many companies sell them in 3 sizes to move up as your baby grows.

Protection Tip

If you’re using pocket diapers, or even flats, prefolds can also be folded up to add extra absorbency for heavy nighttime wetters.

3. Pockets

Pockets get their name from the pocket sewn into them — simply place an absorbent insert into the pocket and you’re good to go. The outside layer of the pocket is made up of a PUL waterproof fabric, and the inside layer is made of cotton that’s easy on your baby’s skin.

Pocket diapers come in a wide array of colors and patterns. They’re easy to put on, with snaps holding them closed much of the time. You can find these diapers with velcro closures too, making them as easy to change as a disposable diaper.

Pockets do take a little longer to prep before and after washing, as you have to remember to take the inserts out and to put them back in before use.

Once you put a pocket diaper together you don’t have to worry about anything else but the diaper in your diaper bag — there are no fasteners or covers to worry about forgetting.

It’s key to remember with pockets that you have to use a completely new diaper with every change.

4. All-In-Ones

All-in-one diapers are the cloth diaper option most similar to disposable diapers. These diapers are just as the name says — they do the work of a diaper, diaper fastener, and cover in a single diaper.

You don’t need to do anything special when it comes to cleaning all-in-one diapers, but because everything is attached, you do have to use a whole new diaper with each diaper change.

5. All-In-Twos (AI2s)

All-in-two diapers are similar to pockets, except with these diapers, the insert simply snaps or lays down inside of the waterproof cover. Unlike a pocket diaper, the outer cover can be used again and again, the same as flats and prefolds.

Many AI2s also come with a disposable insert option. These are called hybrid diapers and are appealing to moms who don’t want to use fully disposable diapers, but need an easier option when out and about or on vacation.

Cloth Diaper Accessories

The actual diaper is only part of the equation when it comes to using cloth diapers for your baby.

Here are some accessories that may need or want to consider purchasing.

1. Covers

Covers are the outer layer that goes on top of flat or prefold diapers. Covers are normally made of PUL that’s waterproof and perfect for keeping your baby’s clothing dry.

Covers often come in two sizes, newborn and one-size, and use either snap or velcro to keep them closed.

2. Diaper fasteners

Diaper fasteners are a modern device used to attach the sides of a cloth diaper — no more safety pins. They are T-shaped, stretchy, and attach to the diaper with small plastic teeth in a way that’s similar to the way metal hooks attach an ace bandage (source).

One popular brand of diaper fastener is Snappi, which is so widespread, many moms use the term “Snappis” as a blanket term for all diaper fasteners.

3. Wet Bags

Wet bags, like diaper covers, are also made out of PUL. These bags come in all different sizes and are used to hold dirty diapers until it’s time to clean them.

Some come with hooks so you can hang them from a door, others have elastic around the top so they can fit in a trash can or diaper pail.

4. Cloth Wipes

If you’re using cloth diapers you might also consider cloth wipes. Disposable wet wipes are not biodegradable, because plastic is sewn into the lining to help them stay together when they’re wet.

I found using cloth wipes made more sense when paired with cloth diapers. It was simpler to throw the entire thing into the diaper pail than to throw the diaper in the pail and the wipes in the trash.

I also found cloth wipes were gentler on my baby’s bottom, because I could make my own wipe solution and wasn’t exposing them to any synthetic fragrances.

You can store cloth wipes two ways. Either store the wipes and solution separately, or place them in a storage container together. I store my cloth wipes in a basket and the solution in a spray bottle next to it.

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I also have a smaller spray bottle of solution in my diaper bag to carry with me on the go. Some just use water to wash their baby’s bottom.

However, if you want to make your own solution at home, I recommend the following recipe:

5. Cloth Wipe Solution

  • 2 cups water.
  • 1 tablespoon fractioned coconut oil.
  • 1 tablespoon Dr. Bronner’s unscented castile soap.

Simply mix all the ingredients together and place in a spray bottle! You’re good to go!

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Washing Cloth Diapers

One part of cloth diapering people seem to find off-putting is the process of cleaning them. In today’s world, it really isn’t that much work.

The two main keys are ensuring your water isn’t hard, and that you’re using a detergent compatible with cloth diapers.

If your water is hard you must add a water softener, such as borax, when washing your diapers. Without it, the minerals in hard water can cause buildup that leads to stink and repelling.

At the same time, you want to use a detergent that’s up to the work of cleaning the diapers. Many free and clears, for example, don’t have the cleaning power to do the job.

As for the actual washing process, it’s really only two parts, the pre-wash, and the main wash.

  • Pre-wash: A quick cycle done in cold water with half the detergent of a main wash. This cycle makes sure all the gunk is off of the diapers so that the main wash can do its job.
  • Main wash: Uses the full amount of detergent recommended and either hot or cold water in the strongest wash cycle your machine has. The goal of the main wash is to really deep clean your diapers.

Many do not like to machine-dry their diapers, especially ones with PUL fabric, as they think drying can cause the laminate part of the PUL to separate and ruin the diapers.

However, diaper manufacturers have worked hard to make modern cloth diapers durable enough to go in a dryer. They just recommend that you set the dryer on low heat instead of high (source).

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8 Common Cloth Diaper Mistakes

1. Committing to one style

You might be tempted to buy a full stash of one diaper before your baby is born. They’re so cute, and you just love the prints they offer. Plus you got a good deal on them, so why not?

Don’t do it — different diapers work for different babies. Chances are if you buy all of one stash, you’ll end up regretting it.

Buy a few different types of diapers to try out. When your baby is born, you can see what works best for you and them. You can sell the ones you don’t like secondhand for more diapers that actually work.

2. Not prepping your diapers

New cloth diapers don’t come ready to use. I repeat: new cloth diapers do not come ready to use! Before your diapers ever touch your baby’s bottom you must prep them.

This involves washing them — sometimes repeatedly for natural fiber diapers — to get out any chemicals and help the diaper to reach its maximum absorbency (source).

If you don’t prep your diapers they won’t absorb your baby’s urine thoroughly and you won’t be happy with the results.

3. Buying all new diapers

There are some things I would never personally buy second-hand for my baby — but cloth diapers isn’t one of them. Cloth diapers can already save you a lot of money compared to disposables, but buying good-quality used diapers can save you even more.

Look for deals on name-brand diapers with no tears or rips, and make sure to ask if the elastic is in good condition or not. EBay is a great place to look for secondhand diapers, and there are many Facebook pages dedicated to them as well.

4. Not stripping used diapers

Buying second-hand diapers can save you a ton of money, but make sure to take care of them before putting them on your baby. While you don’t have to prep used diapers, you should strip them with detergents like RLR or GroVia Mighty Bubbles.

Stripping them will remove any buildup or gunk that might have come from the washing machine of the old owners, and will reset your diapers so they’re ready for your baby’s bottom.

5. Ignoring fit

Paying attention to the fit of a diaper can make or break whether they work for your baby. If your cloth diaper doesn’t fit correctly, it may leak and leave you with a lot of stress (and dirty clothes).

Make sure the legs are snug and the waist is adjusted so none of the absorbent inner layer is outside of the diaper and coming into contact with your baby’s clothes (source).

6. Exposing baby to micofiber

Microfiber is great for absorbing moisture, and microfiber inserts are some of the cheapest options out there for cloth diapers. Unfortunately, it not only absorbs moisture from your baby’s diaper, but their skin as well. This can easily cause a rash.

To prevent this, make sure you always have a layer of cotton or another natural fabric between the microfiber insert and your baby’s bottom.

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7. Not having enough

Babies go to the bathroom a lot — you want enough diapers to last you several days, and some to use while the others are in the wash.

Sit back and think of how often you want to wash your diapers. If you want to wash them every 2 days, make sure you have a stash big enough to cover 3 days. If you only want to wash every 3 days, makes sure you have a stash big enough to cover 4.

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8. Using the wrong diaper cream

Not all diaper creams are made equal, trust me. You don’t want to use diaper creams that contain petroleum with your cloth diapers because they can cause buildup, leading them to repel.

The good news is there are many cloth diaper friendly cream out there! You can also use plain coconut oil, which is naturally antibacterial (source).


The “Bottom” Line

Cloth diapers are no longer the norm when it comes to how we diaper our babies, but they’re making a comeback with each passing year. Moms love that they’re adorable, affordable, and great for the environment.

With a little extra care and know-how, you too can embrace the new wave of cloth diapers.

Do you have experience using cloth diapers for your baby? We’d love to hear your tips and tricks in the comments below!

And if you have a friend who is considering using cloth diapers, please share this post with her!

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