Cloth Diapers 101: What to buy, how to wash, and why wool is my favorite

Natural Parenting

Cloth Diapers 101: Consider this your official crash course!

From birth to potty learning, cloth diapers don’t have to be expensive, complicated, or any more unpleasant than changing disposable diapers (nappies, for the non-US readers).

Cloth diapers are incredibly cute, comfortable for baby, and believe it or not, cloth can be even more convenient than disposables.  You’ll never need to make a midnight run to the corner store again!

Why cloth diapers?

There are a multitude of reasons, from health and environmental concerns, to baby’s physical comfort and significant cost savings.

Baby’s Health and Wellbeing:

Disposable diapers have only been around since the 1950s, and there is still some concern over the safety of the chemicals used in them.

Sodium polyacrylate is what makes disposable diapers absorbent, and turns to gel when wet.  Search up “sodium polyacrylate”, and you will be rewarded with a laundry list of potential risks and concerns associated with its use.

Since it is so absorbent, sodium polyacrylate has been reported to actually pull blood toward the surface of the tender genital tissues, creating a constant “diaper rash” in some babies.

The thick gel also traps heat near the body, and that’s never comfortable, especially for little boys, whose genitals are biologically designed to be a few degrees cooler than the standard core body temperature.

Further, the paper-bleaching process creates dioxin, which is the most toxic cancer-causing compound known to science.

Dioxin is scary stuff, banned in most countries, but not the US.  Together, these two chemicals make disposables a toxic mess that we are putting right against the tender skin of our newborn babes.


There will always be those who debate the eco-savvy of using cloth diapers, claiming that cloth wastes more water and pollutes by the use of extra laundry detergents.

Consider, however, that it takes 500 years for the average disposable to biodegrade, and the already brimming landfills around the world.

There’s even contamination of groundwater from solid human waste inside disposable diapers that SHOULD have been flushed instead of thrown away

Yes, you’re supposed to knock solid waste from disposable AND cloth diapers into the toilet for flushing.

Cost savings:

Bought brand new, an entire stash of cloth diapers and accessories can cost as little as $300—however, this figure can vary widely.

When you consider that disposables cost an average of over $100 per month (wipes not included), you can easily recoup the upfront expense of a cloth diaper stash (which will theoretically be used for an average of 30 months from birth ’til potty learning) in a matter of only a few months.

Buying used or crafting your own diapers can drastically lower the total amount spent, while venturing into the crafty, creative world of custom + handmade cloth can cost more (but is also very fun!)

Diaper Styles:

There are many different types of cloth diapers available today, and the choices can be overwhelming.  Cloth has most definitely evolved from the pins and rubber pants of your great-grandma’s time!

Basically, all cloth diapers have two parts—something absorbent on the inside, and something moisture-resistant on the outside.

Diapers such as fitteds and prefolds need a cover to make them waterproof, while All-In-Ones (AIOs) can be used alone.

There are also accessories such as doublers, liners, and snappis.  Pins are not required!

  • Flats:  These diapers most closely resemble what great-grandma used to use. They are extremely versatile and inexpensive, but have to be folded and either snappi’d or pinned.  These need a cover of some sort to be waterproof.  They’re nice when your baby is still young and not too squirmy, and if you’re primarily concerned about cost (or don’t have reliable access to a dryer).

  • Prefolds:  These are the diaper that cloth diaper services most often use. Can be snappi’d or pinned, and need a cover. These take a bit longer to dry than flats but are much more convenient (no origami-folding involved!). They’re very cost-effective at roughly $2 per diaper, and will last through several kids (and even beyond as household cleaning rags!)

  • Fitteds:  These are very convenient, and are fastened with either snaps, or velcro/aplix.  These often have elastic around the legs, making them the most blowout-proof diaper you can buy, even better than disposables! These require a cover to be waterproof – for use under clothing or outside of the home.  Some brands include GoodMamas, SustainableBabyish, Swaddlebees, Thirsties, etc.

  • Pocket diapers:  These have an absorbent insert sandwiched in between a wicking or stay-dry inner layer and a waterproof outer layer.  They are often trim and the absorbency can be customized by adding more inner layers. Reliable brands include Thirsties and FuzziBunz.

  • All-In-Ones/Hybrids:  These are diapers which have the waterproof layer “built in”.  These are most similar in build to disposables, but take the longest to dry.  Examples include GroVia, bumGenius!, AlvaBaby, etc.

  • Covers:  These can be made of PUL (plastic), fleece, or wool, and there are so many choices.  Not all covers work well with all diapers, or fit well on all babies, so read reviews and ask around online before you purchase a lot of any one type.  Covers can have snaps or velcro/aplix, and gussets around the legs are typically a good feature to look for.   A few of my personal favorites include Thirsties Duos and knit wool.

A note about wool (my personal favorite - and baby’s too!):

Wool is an excellent material for cloth diapering.  It is breathable—remains cool in the heat, and retains warmth when it’s cold out.

Wool is naturally water-repellent (due to the lanolin content) and anti-microbial. While your great-grandpa’s military-issue wool blanket might be scratchy and rough, hand-knit woolies for diapers are soft as butter and deliciously gentle on baby’s skin.

Wool covers or longies can be hand-knit or crocheted, and lanolized periodically (yes, with lanolin - the same stuff lactation specialists recommend for sore nipples) to retain their moisture resistance. These are fantastic when used with fitted diapers, because they double as cute + comfy pants in cold weather, protect a crawling baby’s knees, and make getting dressed even more fun and simple.

Did I mention the comfort factor? Babies want to be mobile, and wearing clothing or diapers that restrict their movement is just not fun. Longies feel more like clothing than a diaper, and even young babies prefer to be more comfortable when they have the choice!

Wool cannot just be tossed into the washer and dryer, however. It must be hand-washed when soiled, or every 2 weeks. They sell special wool washes, but any mild soap (such as castile) will work just as well.

TIP:  If you live near a big city, it’s worth a visit to a natural baby store to actually see and feel all the diapers.  The lovely folks who work at these stores are usually super-knowledgeable about cloth and happy to help you find the perfect system for your baby.

Getting started with cloth diapers - What to buy?

How many diapers and/or covers you will need depends largely on the age of your baby and the type of diapers you choose.

A good starter stash for a newborn (and new-to-cloth parent!) is 2 to 3 dozen prefolds or fitteds, 6-8 covers, and two snappis (or two sets of pins, if you prefer).

This gives you enough extras for any washing hangups—but typically, you will want to wash every other day. Prefolds are a little less convenient than fitteds or AIOs, but they’re easy to use on younger babies who can’t attempt to crawl away from you mid-diaper-change!

I usually switched to using All-In-Ones or fitteds exclusively by the time my babies were mobile.

An older baby needs to be changed less often, but since they are more mobile, you might wish to branch out into other, more convenient diaper styles to minimize changing table wrestling matches!  As an absolute minimum, 18 prefold diapers and 4 covers will suffice.  I prefer to have at least 24 diapers, to cover washing delays or other unforeseeable circumstances.

A special diaper pail is nice, but not necessary. Any regular to small-sized trash can with a lid will work.  You can buy washable diaper pail liners as well.

Similarly, washable wetbags are really useful to tote home used diapers when on an outing.

You can also buy a special cloth diaper sprayer, which hooks up to your toilet tank and can be very useful in rinsing out diapers.  I have never personally had one, but some cloth mamas swear by them.

Remember - washing machines have improved considerably since the 1950’s.

There is absolutely no need to soak used diapers in a “wet pail” (and especially not with bleach - that’s old advice from grandma’s time!).  

With most modern diapers, prolonged soaking will actually ruin them.

Does it make sense to use cloth wipes, too?

It might sound like more work, but the fact is that cloth wipes are much more convenient if you’re already using cloth diapers.

Using cloth wipes with cloth diapers really makes sense - espcially when the alternative might be picking used disposable wipes out of your dirty pail or dryer load - yuck!

A nice way to use these is to buy a wipes warmer (like Prince Lionheart’s, which definitely works with cloth wipes).

Where to get cloth wipes?? Psst! The best ones are just baby washcloths! I especially like these cotton muslin ones.

Just pour an easy-to-make wipes solution over the washcloths in the warmer box, and you will have anti-microbial, nice-smelling, toxin-free cloth wipes, ready to use on your baby.  These will get used up quickly, and it’s so easy to just refill the box and make more.

Here’s how to make your own cloth wipes solution

In a large mason jar with a lid, mix…
- 1 Tbsp. baby shampoo or castile soap
- 1 tsp. natural oil such as apricot, olive, or jojoba (NOT baby oil!)
- 3 drops of lavender or tea tree essential oil (use a reputable source like dōTERRA)
- enough tap water to fill the jar

…then shake and pour into your wipes warmer, over your folded washcloths.

Washing—the scary part?  Not really.

Some diapers will have particular washing instructions, but often, you will be able to wash them with little extra fuss.

Solids need to be knocked into the toilet if at all possible.

Breastfed babies (or babies not yet eating solid food) will not likely have solid waste, so I promise your washing machine can handle it without issue!

A “full load” of diapers shouldn’t take up more than 2/3rd of the space in your washing machine.

They need plenty of water and space to move around in there! With enough diapers in your stash, you should be able to wash every other day or every third day, at most.

I don’t recommend waiting longer than 3 days between washes for ANY reason.

I have front-loading machines, which I have found to work just as well as top-loaders, so long as I use the correct amount of detergent and use the “extra rinse” setting.

Many people prefer to use a natural soap such as Charlie’s or Seventh Generation, but All Free and Clear, or any other commercial detergent that is not heavily laden with scents and softeners, will typically work fine.

In my experience, it’s just better to stick with all-natural fibers, and have less stress and worry about voiding warranties or washing in the wrong temperature and ruining your investment.  

After ten years of using cloth, I’ve personally found that keeping things SIMPLE is eaasier and cheaper!

Natural fibers are more durable and long-lasting – and you can take care of them with common sense and enjoy passing them down through several children.

My wash routine (yours may vary)

No cloth diapers 101 round-up would be complete without a detailed wash routine – even if you don’t end up following it!

  1. Set your machine to do a cold pre-wash, and then a hot wash on the longest setting.

  2. Don’t use too much soap, and DON’T EVER use fabric softener! This will make your diapers water-repellent over time – not a good plan.

  3. I do a second rinse cycle, and occasionally I include a cup of vinegar with a few drops of tea tree or lavender essential oil for its disinfecting and softening properties.  If you have a top loader, you can actually put this in a Downy ball at the beginning of the wash cycle – throw it in and forget it!

  4. I then separate any covers (the waterproof parts) before I run the diapers through the dryer. You can machine-dry your synthetic covers, but it shortens their lives and may cause them to leak after repeated dryings on high heat. I air-dry my covers whenever possible.  

  5. One dryer cycle may still leave your diapers damp-dry, even on the longest setting.  You can either do another cycle, or simply let them hang-dry to finish off.  I line-dry outside whenever I can.

For stains, an excellent product is called BioKleen Bac-Out. Alternatively, you can spritz lemon juice on stains when damp, right out of the washer, and then line-dry the diapers in the sun (this is very effective).

You can also decide that you don’t mind if your diapers have a few stains.

Finally, I highly encourage you to check out DiaperPin and DiaperSwappers – these two sites are excellent resources for all things cloth, complete with instructions, store recommendations, and extensive product reviews.

They’re the places online where I first learned about cloth, many years ago.

Check your local community as well!  Cloth diapers are becoming more common, and you never know what kind of clever stores or groups you’ll find.  

Cloth diapering doesn’t have to be complicated, scary, or expensive, after all.

So what did you think of this under-ten-minute Cloth Diapers 101 course?

Don’t be intimidated – just jump in and see what you think about cloth.  Your baby will thank you!


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