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Cloth Diapers Made Simple

Cloth diapers come in a dizzying array of styles and options. Many parents are really confused when they start researching cloth diapers. They want to make the right choice - but there are so many details out there that it can be really overwhelming. Cloth diapers are really simple - the problem is that there is so much information it can make it seem really confusing.

Every day I see web sites that are promoting one diaper or another - and often they are filled with half-truths and personal opinion. After 13 years in this business, I can tell you that there is a lot of misinformation out there!

First, remember that there is NO one perfect solution for everyone. There is no elusive perfect diaper. If you choose quality diapers from any of these systems, chances are it will be a good choice for your family because these are all tried and true options. About 40 percent of customers choose prefold cloth diapers and covers. About 40 percent choose all in one diapers. The remaining 20 percent is a mixed of pockets and fitteds.

No matter which option you choose, you will save money over the cost of disposables. On the low-end, disposables will cost you about $2,000 per child. That is if they potty-train by 2 1/2 - and a lot of kids don't. I have seen estimates as high as $4,500 when you take into account the fact that most kids are potty-training closer to age 3 (3 1/2 for boys), sales tax, extra trips to the store, disposable wipes ($800 on average, just for these!), and emergency diaper buys at the grocery store (they cost more there than almost anywhere else).  And don't get me started on the cost of disposable training pants. They are close to 50 cents each!

Using cloth diapers is so much easier than most people imagine it will be. I have used cloth diapers on two of my three sons from birth until potty training! After changing thousands of diapers on my children and other people's children I still say cloth diapers are easy to use, convenient (you never run out) and they don't smell anywhere near as bad as a pail full of paper diapers (blech!). 

Cloth Diaper Comparison Chart 

Style and Convenience**




(*) Convenience
Prefold cloth diapers wash and dry easily. Prefolds are usually bought in two sizes, so you need to upgrade to a larger size around 6-9 months. Cloth diaper covers may be one size, two sizes or 4 sizes (newborn, small, medium, large). A tiny bit trickier to use, but very economical. Least convenient to use, but they dry faster than some all in ones. Fewest issues with odor buildup. Can be reused as cleaning cloths.
$200-$300 for 24 diapers and 6-24 covers
Prefolds are usually cotton, bamboo or hemp, so will biodegrade in compost. Wool covers are also biodegradable and renewable resource. PUL or fleece covers are polyester. They dry quickly.
Fitted Diapers and Covers
(**) Convenience
Fitted diapers are easy to use - they usually close with snaps or hook and loop (Velcro like tabs). No folding is required. May be one size, sized (newborn, small, medium, large) or two sizes. Require a cover for waterproofing. Many parents love fitted diapers with wool or fleece covers for their breathability. Some parents feel that a fitted diaper with a cover is like diapering twice. Fitted diapers tend to cost about the same as pocket diapers, but require an extra investment in covers. Overall cost depends on sizing and the covers you choose. Easy to clean and tend to dry faster than an all in one.
$400-800 for 24 fitted diapers and 4 covers - costs vary widely on these
Fitted diapers may be made from natural or synthetic materials. Some are 98% biodegradable (excluding fasteners and elastic). Others contain a high percentage of polyester and other synthetics. Synthetics tend to dry faster and may do a better job preventing diaper rash - such as with a stay-dry lining. Fitted diapers tend to dry faster than all in ones.

Pocket Diapers

(***) Convenience
Pocket diapers have an opening that you can stuff an absorbent insert into. This makes them dry quickly and wash well. They are also easily customizable for your baby's absorbency needs. Stay dry lining tends to help prevent diaper rash, especially overnight. 
$600-1200 for 24 diapers in 2, 3 or 4 sizes
Pocket diapers are usually made from synthetic materials. Synthetics wash easily, dry fast, and remain soft after line-drying. While they do use more resources to create, they likely use fewer resources over the life of the diaper.

There are many variations of all in one cloth diapers on the market - so overall cost and sizing vary. Available in one size and sized options. Most convenient, although some take a long time to dry. All in two diapers (AI2) have a removable insert and the covers are supposed to be reusable 2-3 times between washes. All in two options are also varied, some don't work well for heavy wetters since the covers are wet every time and need to be changed. Most expensive option in many cases, but super simple to use.
$300-1200. There is a lot of variation due to differing styles.
May have natural or synthetic fibers inside, usually have polyester outer. Some brands dry fast and others dry very slowly. Look for fast-drying styles for the least environmental impact.


* Cost varies widely depending on brand, materials, construction and other issues. Just as with buying clothing, cheaper is not always better. And, just as with clothing, a mid-priced diaper will cover your baby and keep them dry just as well as the most expensive diaper.

Cheap knock-off diapers simply won't last as long or have the quality of better-made brands. Also, if keeping jobs in the US is important to you - look for USA made diapers. There are many affordable cloth diapers made in the USA - often by work at home moms. No matter which cloth diaper option you choose, you will save money over the estimated $2,000-4,500 cost of disposables - per child.

Quality diapers will last through more than one child - and I have talked to moms who are using cloth diapers on a third child. If you buy 36 one size diapers at $22 each, and take good care of them so they last through 2 kids, that amounts to about 5 cents per use compared to 25-35 cents per use for disposables.

** Convenience is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Generally speaking, an all in one is the easiest option, prefolds are the hardest since they require folding and fastening on the baby, then adding a cover. However, many parents don't find prefolds at all difficult to use and others are frustrated by hard to clean all in one style diapers. Some parents really hate stuffing pocket diapers. So much depends on personal preference. A good compromise between cost and convenience is to use prefolds and covers, then have a handful of all in one or one size diapers on hand for the diaper bag or babysitters.

*** Environmental impact of cloth diapers is endlessly debated. The most complete study to date was partially funded by disposable manufacturers and it did not look at the complete lifecycle of either disposables or cloth diapers. Despite its many flaws, the study concluded that cloth diapers are marginally better for the environment. The British study also did not take into account that very few US machines are set at very high hot water temperatures - nor did it take into account that there are many cloth diapers available and that some wash and dry faster than others.  

One study I saw showed that synthetic clothing is more efficient than natural fibers since it lasts longer, washes cleaner and dries faster. I think the same applies to diapers. Any cloth diaper option that keeps 6,000 disposables out of the landfills is a winner in my book. As for the water usage, washing cloth diapers every other day uses about the same amount of water as an adult flushing the toilet throughout the day. Unless you plan to install composting toilets, your baby will use water for removing waste. Human activity impacts the environment, all we can do is opt for the best options we can find for reducing that impact.