© Heather AVV, aka "Babs".
October 1st, 2004

Why Cloth?


When most of us think of cloth diapering we picture a messy piles of square cotton fabric that smells, stains and needs to be washed out by hand. These diapers would hang on the line outside, need to be carefully folded and pinned, leak like crazy, and come with obnoxious pull-up plastic pants. This is probably the idea your mom has when you mention cloth diapering. Anyone over the age of 20 who was cloth diapered probably had this treatment, and it's no lie that they could be a pain in the butt.
However, diapers today are not your mother's cloth diapers. Modern cloth diapers are as easy to use as disposable, cheaper, durable, environmentally safe, healthier, and cuter. That last one may be a matter of opinion, but consider: ads and commercials featuring babies which aren't selling disposable diaper products will most often feature the child in a cloth diaper. Why? Because it's a cuter image.

This essay will cover common concerns including cost and care, plus an FAQ. You can skip ahead to the parts that matter to you by clicking the quick links from this table of contents:

1/ Why is cloth diapering cheaper?
2/ Why are cloth diapers environmentally safe?
3/ Why are cloth diapers healthier for my baby?

FAQ & Common Concerns:
1/ Isn't cloth diapering a lot of work?
2/ What about when I go out?
3/ Won't cloth diapers leak and stain clothes?
4/ But I don't want to fold and pin!
5/ What do I need to get started?
6/ Where can I buy cloth diapers?
    6.a/ Buying second hand, is that really safe?
7/ How do I wash cloth diapers?


Why is cloth diapering cheaper?
There are a lot of choices when it comes to disposable diapers.  Often the cheaper brands leak, or break easily and most people prefer to buy somewhere in the middle. A baby who is changed regularly will go through 7-8 per day (more as a newborn, less as a toddler). The diapers get more expensive as the child gets older and fits into bigger sizes, after 2.5 years of diapering the average cost is around $.35 per diaper. This ends up being around $2,275 spent on something that gets tossed in the garbage. Most parents who use disposable diapers leave their babies in them for longer periods of time, so based on average of 5-6 changes per day the cost is more like $1,757. Add in disposable wipes and you push the total up another hundred or so. Let's not even get into products like the Diaper Genie, Swim Diapers, or specialized training pants.
No matter how you look at it, that's a lot of money. And that cost doubles every time you have another child.

Cloth diapers come in a few varieties. Flat or prefold diapers are the cheapest, fitteds and contours in the middle, and AIO's ("All-in-ones") the most expensive. A typical stash of cloth diapers which includes all of the above diapers, liners, soakers, covers and wipes can cost anywhere from $100 to $400 depending on where and what you buy. (My personal stash cost us around $230 Canadian in total). These diapers will last you all of your child's 2.5 years and are re-used for the next child, and the next . . . if you take good care of your diapers they can make it through several children without showing their age. Some people have successfully used diapers through four or more children and they still looked nice enough to sell at near their retail value.
But what about laundering costs? 
It's not as much as you'd think.  A typical wash of diapers includes baking soda, white vinegar, some detergent and a few cycles. If you choose the 'wet pail' method you'll use more water then someone who uses the 'dry pail' method. This calculation is based on 271 loads of diapers over the 2.5 year period.

  • 200ml of vinegar @ $.15/load) $40.65;
  • water and sewer (for 4 toilet flushes, 16 gal; 1 normal wash cycle, 45 gal; rinsing and filling pail, 7 gal. Total of 68 gal. @$.0067 = $.46/load) $124.66;
  • natural gas to heat water (20 cu.ft. of natural gas @$.0015 = $.03/load)
  • $8.13; power to run dryer (5.76 kw/hr. for 1 hr., 5.76 kwh @$.07 = $.40/load) $108.40;
  • power to run washer (.76 kwh @$.07 = $.05/load) $13.55;
  • depreciation on washer and dryer ($.16 for washer + $.09 for dryer = $.25/load.1) $67.75 = $436 ($1.60/load.)
Total money spent on cloth : $100-$400 worth of diapers [average of $250] + $436 spent on washing = $686, reused for each consecutive child Total money spent on disposables : $1,757-$2,275 with average of $2,016, doubled with each consecutive child.

Links: Diaper Pin's Cloth diaper savings calculator


Why are cloth diapers environmentally safe?
Read your package of disposable diapers carefully and you'll see something that you might have missed before: solid waste is not supposed to go in the garbage. Even with disposable diapers you are supposed to shake fecal matter into the toilet. Very few people do this, or even realize you are supposed to, but that warning is there for a very important reason. When solid waste goes into the landfill it doesn't just sink into the ground and disappear. It stays inside the disposable diaper, which needs sunlight and oxygen to gradually decompose, something that those huge piles of sausage wrapped diapers don't get. It can take as long as 500 years for a disposable diaper to break down, and with diapers being the third most common consumer item in landfills today, that's a lot of garbage. Our ground water becomes contaminated from rain water running over the landfill, this gets into our oceans, streams and rivers and causes a lot of problems.  About 5 million tons of untreated body excrement, which may carry over 100 intestinal viruses, is brought to landfills because of disposable diapers. Some of these live viruses found in disposable diapers include polio and hepatitis. Those piles that take hundreds of years to decompose also attract insects and animals that can carry and transmit diseases. Even 'biodegradable' disposable diapers take years to break down, and rarely get the light and air they need to aid this process.
It takes 3.4 billion gallons of oil and over 250 thousand trees a year to make disposable diapers that end up in our landfills.

But do cloth diapers decompose just as easily?  Yes and no. One must consider that the amount of cloth diapers that would end up in our landfill versus the amount of disposable diapers paints a very clear picture on which is the bigger risk as far as waste goes. Cloth diapers are mostly made from cotton, terry and fleece (which is already a recycled substance). These materials biodegrade much more easily then the ones used in one-use diapers, but do take time. Around six months in good conditions, and as long as 50 years in others. Rarely do people throw away their cloth diapers after using them. They are reused for other children, given to friends and family members, prefolds get used as burp cloths, rags and contoured diapers can even make reusable menstrual pads.
What about the water pollution? It is true that cloth diapers take more water to use, however the amount of water per load is the equivalent of about four toilet flushes; about the same amount of water used if the child was potty trained. This contaminated water goes through the same sewer system as the other water waste produced in your household, and is sent to treatment plants. This quote is in regards to the water waste argument, and makes a very good point :

"Ask nearly any disposable diaper advocate the environmental question and they will most likely say that while they are loading up the landfills in our world, cloth diaper users are wasting the planet’s water. Certainly 20,000 gallons of water seems like a lot to wash some diapers. But let’s put that into perspective.

If we spent 640 gallons on our diapers per month, that’s .86 units of water (at 748 gallons/unit). In my household of 2 adults and 2 children, we use anywhere from 10-25 units a month, depending on the time of year. If we averaged 15 units of water a month, our .86 units of water would constitute about 6% of our typical monthly water usage. In the summer, we use more water to keep our lawn green than we do to wash our diapers.

That’s just the numbers. I think it’s interesting that disposable diaper lovers (including the companies that make them) can make quite a fuss about the water used to wash cloth diapers. Nobody seems to get up in arms about the amount of water used to wash and sanitize bottles if parents feed their babies formula – or pumped breastmilk for that matter. In the event that a baby’s parents find the time for a 5 minute shower each day, they will each use over 27,000 gallons of water to keep themselves clean for that 2 1/2 year period of diapering their baby – that’s almost 60,000 gallons for two adults. But 20,000 gallons to wash their baby’s diapers is supposed to be an environmental problem?

If disposable diaper users really think it’s a better choice to pollute landfills with long-lasting, bacteria-laden trash, rather than use water to wash and flush our children’s waste, then shouldn’t all of us adults quit taking showers, wear disposable diapers – and probably disposable clothing altogether - and quit flushing our waste down the toilet? That hardly makes sense. We have wise, environmentally safe and inexpensive ways to treat our sewage water (remember, it only costs about $17.00 for the TOTAL water of laundering one child’s diapers for 2 1/2 years!). Further, water is a naturally renewing resource – remember the “water cycle” diagrams we all came to know and love in our 5th grade science courses?"

Links: The Diaper Drama - Environment
The environmental impact of diapers [includes information on the environmental impact of materials used to create cloth diapers, bleached cotton, etc]


Why are cloth diapers healthier for my baby?
Disposable diapers contain a super absorbent chemical inside their plastic casing called sodium polyacrylate, which pulls fluid away from the baby's skin and holds it inside the diaper. This chemical causes allergic reactions, was removed from tampons after being linked to toxic shock syndrome, is lethal to to some animals on inhalation, and lab testing [when injected] has shown it to cause hemorrhage, cardiovascular failure and death.
Dioxin, a byproduct of the bleaching process, is the most toxic of cancer-linked chemicals according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Even in barely detectable amounts it has been known to cause liver disease, immune system suppression and genetic damage in lab animals. It can also cause birth defects. No level of dioxin has been established as safe for human exposure. Every American has a measurable amount in their body, and its half-life is seven years. Over thirty pounds of it are released every year.
The FDA regularly receives complaints from illness or injury associated with the usage of disposable diapers, this includes babies pulling the diapers apart and ingesting pieces, skin being torn from the tabs, plastic melting into the skin, dizziness, rashes, headaches and many other problems.

"In 1987, the Sunday Democrat and Chronicle published news about the new Pampers Ultra. The new gel they used caused severe skin irritations, oozing blood from perineum and scrotal tissues, fever, vomiting, and staph infections in babies. Employees in Pampers factories suffered from tiredness, female organ problems, slow-healing wounds and weight loss. According to the Journal of Pediatrics, 54% of one-month old babies using disposable diapers had rashes, 16% had severe rashes. A survey of Procter & Gamble’s own studies show that the incidence of diaper rash increases from 7.1 percent to 61 percent with the increased use of throwaway diapers, great for manufacturers of diaper rash medicines. Widespread diaper rash is a fairly new phenomenon that surfaced along with disposable diapers. Reasons for more rashes include allergies to chemicals, lack of air, higher temperatures because plastic retains body heat, and babies are probably changed less often because they feel dry when wet."
This chemical remains in the diapers today.

In 2000 a German study linked male infertility to the use of disposable diapers. The scrotum hangs away from the body to keep it cool - high temperatures reduce sperm count and motility. This study found that during diapering years the scrotal temperature was significantly higher, and in some the natural cooling system was completely abolished.

Even the dyes in disposable diapers have been linked to health problems similar and just as serious as the ones mentioned above.

As far as the sanitation issue, studies have shown that disposable and cloth diapers are equally sanitary. As far as spreading germs what matters is not what the diaper is made of but how it and the baby are handled. Hand-washing being the most influential factor.


Isn't cloth diapering a lot of work?
Cloth diapering is no more work then disposable. When baby needs to be changed you grab a diaper (with cloth, you'd probably grab a cover too), take off the dirty diaper, wipe and put it in the pail (shaking off any solid waste into the toilet. Breastfed baby poop, before solid foods are introduced, will dissolve completely in water and does not need to be shaken off). Put the new diaper on and off baby goes. Twice a week you either drag the garbage to the curb, or pick up the pail and dump the contents in the washing machine.
Fitted diapers do not need to be pinned and are fastened with either velcro (Aplix, touch tape, etc) or snaps. These usually require a cover which can be made of waterproof or water resistant fabrics like PUL, nylon or vinyl or absorbent fabrics like wool, hemp or fleece. Covers either fasten on the sides, front, or pull-on like underwear.
All-in-one diapers have a waterproof outer layer and do not require a cover. The downside to using AIO's is that they are usually more expensive then buying fitteds. Normally people purchase four or five to use as 'nighttime' diapers.

What about when I go out?
Most parents pack extra pants when they go out with baby because with any diaper leakage is a concern. Some parents prefer to use AIO's when they go out to minimize the risk of moisture wicking onto clothes, and any dirty diapers and wipes are stashed in a plastic bag and dumped in the pail once you get home. Because disposable diapers do not breathe, the smell is stronger. Dirty cloth diapers stashed securely in a bag do not stink terribly (neither do they smell like roses!) and should not be a hassle. When cloth diapers smell badly it indicates a problem with the way you wash them, not the diaper itself. (Personally I find that a regular fitted diaper with a cover works just as well and do not have problems with leakage when we go out with a fresh diaper on.)

Won't cloth diapers leak and stain clothes?
Leakage occurs in any diaper that does not fit or is not fastened properly. If you have problems with a cloth diaper leaking you should check the legs and back elastic to ensure a snug fit and either move up a size or down one if need be. Brand new diapers made from natural cotton often need to be 'treated' as cotton produces an oil that repels moisture. This can be done one of two ways: you can wash on hot cycle about half a dozen times, or you can boil them for 10 minutes with a few drops of tea tree (and perhaps a drop or two of lavender as well). Cotton, especially cotton prefolds, will 'fluff up' after this and become softer and more absorbent This is a good idea for any new diaper, as some fabrics will repel water thanks to an additive. Most WAHM diapers will have been washed before being sold and it's unlikely you'll need to take this step with them.

See also: Why are my cloth diapers leaking?!?

But I don't want to fold and pin!
Some people prefer to use prefolds or flat diapers, which do need to be folded. But they don't necessarily need to be pin ned . . . diaper wraps can be purchased so all that needs to be done is to fold the diaper into thirds and place it inside the wrap, then fasten the sides (velcro). The wrap fits snugly around baby's waist and legs and holds the prefold in place.
Also available is a stretchy, non-toxic and biodegradable device called a Snappi which effectively fastens a prefold without sharp edges.
If this is not your style, you have a few other choices.

Contoured Diapers:
These diapers are like prefolds, but skip the folding step. They are shaped like fitted diapers, but are simple in design. They have no elastic, velcro, or snaps. They require a waterproof cover.

Fitted Diapers:
Have elastic legs and back (front as well if they are side-snapping). They are fastened with hook & loop or snaps and are similar in design to regular disposable diapers. They are highly adjustable and will fit a variety of baby body shapes within the weight bracket, some are even designed to fit from birth until potty training with the help of a bit of folding. Fitted diapers come in almost any print or colour and are the most popular type of cloth diaper to buy. They usually require a cover.

Pocket Diapers:
Are just like a fitted diaper, but without the thick absorbent layer in the middle. Instead they are hollow with an opening in the back which is stuffed with a 'insert' or prefold diaper. Before the diaper is put in the pail, the soaker is usually removed. This makes washing and drying very easy and fast. The added advantage of having a pocket diaper is how customizable the absorbency level is. For little wetters, you need only use a cotton or flannel soaker, for overnights you can switch to something heavy duty like hemp, terry or wool. Pocket diapers are usually AIO's; waterproof on the outside with a fleece interior layer which does not absorb but dries quickly and wicks moisture away from baby's skin.

All-in-one (AIO):
Have all the advantages of a fitted diaper but with a waterproof outer layer so no cover is required. AIOs are a favorite of daycares, dads and baby sitters and require no extra steps or handling then a regular disposable.

What do I need to get started?
You'll need about 18 - 24 diapers (a little more for the newborn period, as they wet more often), an equal or greater number of wipes, and 4-6 covers for every size. Liners, doublers and AIOs are optional but always nice to have. If you're going with prefolds you'd probably want at least two dozen (closer to three), plus five or six covers. If you're going with fitteds or AIOs you can probably get away with two dozen or less. You can also buy one-size diapers instead of getting all those in three different sizes.
You'll need a diaper pail and optionally a 'wet bag' which is a waterproof bag for storing your diapers when traveling or if you're using dry-pail method and don't want to wash your pail every time. Just throw the wet bag right into the wash with your diapers.

Where can I buy cloth diapers?
All over the internet are places to buy cloth diapers. Most people prefer to buy WAHM (Work at home mom) because not only are the diapers kid-tested for quality and durability, but you're helping to support another family. Some good sites to get started are Cloth Diapers N' More, BareWare (Canadian-based), Born to Love (closed, but still has great resources) and Diaper Pin.
If you don't have the cash to buy brand new you can call the companies and look for seconds (diapers with cosmetic errors like knotted stitching that cannot be sold for retail value), find places that trade or sell second-hand diapers (like Orange Starfish), there are also many places online to find diaper swaps or trades. Ebay is an inexhaustible resource for both new and used cloth diapers at good prices.

Buying second hand, is that really safe?
Yes! After you wash a diaper once, it's used - that doesn't mean you'd throw it away. Diapers that have been well cared-for will have no rips, stains or tears and the fasteners and elastics will still be in good condition. A good quality used diaper will not look worn. Sanitation is not an issue, but if you are concerned you can wash them several times on hot, or boil them with some tea tree oil to kill any germs.

How do I wash cloth diapers?
Washing methods vary from person to person and depends a lot on the time you want to take.
There are two basic methods: wet pail and dry pail. Wet pail is when you have a diaper pail that is full of water with some tea tree oil and baking soda added. Each time you change a dirty diaper, you stick it in the pail until it's full and then dump the whole thing in the wash. Having them soak is like pre-treating stains, and since you won't ever go longer then 3-5 days before a wash there's no risk of mildew.
Dry pail is pretty self explainatory, but often requires an extra cycle or two on the wash.

You will need: Baking soda, white vinegar, and some safe detergent. Do not use soap, bleach, borax or fabric softener on your diapers. Soap causes build-up which makes your diapers smelly, discolored and less absorbent Beach and borax will break down the fibres in your diapers and reduce absorbency and their life span. Fabric softener creates a waterproof layer which will cause moisture to bead off.
Safe detergents are free of whitening enzymes and phosphates. Some good choices are Tide or Sportwash. Any hypoallergenic and/or cheap detergent is likely to be good as well.

This is the method we use:

Step #1:  Fill up the machine with cold water and half a cup of baking soda, agitate for a moment or two and then let it sit for a few hours or overnight. Drain the water and start your regular wash method. Baking soda removes the urine smell and is very effective in keeping whites and colours bright. If you don't want to do an overnight soak method or do not own a machine that is capable of soaking, you can simply do a short cold wash cycle with the baking soda.
Step #2: Fill the machine with hot water and only a few tablespoons worth of detergent. Make sure it has no dyes, scents, fabric softener, phosphates or other additives - this is much easier to find nowadays than you'd think! Optionally you can add a half scoop of oxyclean or another cloth diaper-specific agent, but baking soda can also do a good job to whiten.
Step #3: Rinse with cold water and 1/2 a cup of white vinegar. This restores the PH balance, helps reduce build-up and works as a fabric softener [Why use vinegar?]
Step #4 (optional): Rinse again with cold water. This makes sure any residue or vinegar is completely out of the diapers, but is not necessary for most washing machines.

Using Baking Soda and Vinegar in the wash cycles is optional, but most people like to do it at least every once in a while to help keep their diapers looking/smelling/feeling good. When using baking soda, include vinegar in the rinse to make sure the PH balance is equalized otherwise you might end up with diaper rash. [Baking Soda, Washing Soda and PH Balance]

For a compact and simple wash routine simply wash on hot with your detergent and rinse on cold on the highest water setting. If you wish to add baking soda and vinegar to a compact cycle but are afraid you'll miss the rinse, get a Downy ball, the kind used for fabric softener. Put your vinegar in it at the start of your wash and it'll open automatically when the rinse starts. No fuss!

Dry in the dryer, or on a line. It was once thought that PUL covers should be hang-dried, and AIOs will have a longer life if hang dried, but we now know the opposite is true: both will last longer and experience less wicking if dried on high heat. Any wool covers need to be hand-washed with a special type of detergent, but can go as long as two weeks (or until soiled) before needing a treatment as they are very absorbent and naturally antimicrobial. [How to care for wool]
To sterilize your diapers you can boil them for ten minutes, wash on hot with some tea tree oil (10-12 drops in a full washing machine is enough!), dry in the dryer or in direct sunlight.


Cloth diapers are not as much work as you'd think they are - in fact they're barely any work at all! Cloth diapers are a safe, cheap, easy and healthy alternative to disposables (and are even Dad-proof).
The only friendly warning any veteran cloth diapering mom would be heard to give is how easily you will become addicted. With all those cute prints, colours, shapes, sizes, names and of course models . . . it's too easy to become a collector.


©2004, Heather AVV, aka "Babs". Please do not redistribute without my permission.
Email me : '
summerstorms at telus dot net' with questions, comments, or corrections.