Baby related thoughts: On cloth diapering

This is the seventh of a series of posts on pregnancy, labor, birth, and being a new parent. See intro and full list.

Early on in my pregnancy, I did some online research to try to figure out the most cost-efficient and environmentally friendly solution for diapering.

First, I examined my options.

  • Disposable diapers – Very common and convenient. Purchase different sizes as necessary and toss into the garbage when you’re done. The main problem is that they last forever (or at least, a very, very long time) in a landfill.
  • Cloth “prefold” diapers – Your typical cloth diaper (we have tons of these, used as burp cloths), usually involves purchasing a diaper cover for convenience. Diaper covers are usually made out of water-resistant material and come in many different brands and varieties; Bummis and Bumkins are two popular brands. Usually, you have to purchase different sizes of the covers as your baby grows larger; you may also need to purchase larger-sized prefold diapers if you started with “infant” sizes. The cloth diaper needs to be laundered after each use; diaper covers can usually be reused unless obviously soiled.
    • Diaper service – For apartment-dwellers who don’t have a washer/dryer in their unit but still want to use cloth diapers, you can consider using a diaper service. They cart away the dirty cloth diapers (you will most likely have to purchase the covers and launder those yourself) and drop off a new, clean load for a fee.
  • Pocket diapers – These diapers usually involve a diaper “shell” with a water-resistant outside and fleece or microfiber inside (which helps to prevent diaper rash because it wicks away the wetness), with an opening that allows you to stuff the shell with absorbent material – usually a thick microfiber-esque pad. When you launder them, you pull out the insert and then wash both the shell and the insert. Popular brands include Fuzzibunz, Kissaluvs, and bumGenius. Most pocket diapers come in different sizes so you have to buy larger ones as your baby grows, but bumGenius has a “one-size” pocket diaper.
  • All-in-one diapers – These are often made by the same companies as pocket diapers, but have the absorbent material sewn inside so that you wash the whole diaper instead of taking it apart, which means you save some time. You have to buy different sizes as your baby grows.
  • gDiapersgDiapers are a different animal, involving a outer cotton shell or wrapper and a flushable, compostable liner (“wet” liners can be composted, but “dirty” liners should be flushed or thrown away). You have to buy the liners, obviously, and will also have to buy larger shells as your baby outgrows them. If your sewer system doesn’t like flushable liners, you can feel okay about tossing the liners because they biodegrade very quickly.

The environmental cost of disposables is obvious. Diaper services most likely use a lot of bleach in the cleaning process, plus factor in the fuel cost for transporting the diapers, so they aren’t doing much for the environment, either, unless you can find a service that uses natural cleaning products. For home-laundered cloth diapering, the environmental cost comes mainly in the use of water and energy. gDiapers are probably the most environmentally friendly of the bunch in terms of day-to-day use, because the refills biodegrade nicely and the wrap doesn’t need to be washed very often. Most of the cloth diaper brands above are made in the US; I couldn’t figure out where some of the main brands of disposables were made (anyone want to find that out?).

In the end, I chose to go the home-laundered cloth diapering route because we had convenient access to energy-efficient laundry machines and because I didn’t like the idea of contributing unnecessarily to landfills. I don’t know what we would have done if we still lived in an apartment, however.

Diaperdecisions.com has handy charts that break down the actual total cost (and the cost-per-change) over your baby’s diapering lifetime. According to their numbers, which include estimates not only for the actual diapers but for energy and water costs, you’ll spend around $2500 on disposable diapers, about $1500 on the fancier pocket or all-in-one diapers, and only $381 on prefold cloth diapers and covers. Their chart doesn’t include costs for gDiapers or bumGenius “one-size” diapers, though. I did a cost breakdown on bumGenius one-size diapers using their numbers and came up with this:

12 pack bumGenius one-size diaper $203.40 x 3 (36 diapers) = $610.20
Energy costs: $36.00 – $122.40 depending on water heater
Total cost: $732.60 (using higher energy number)
Average changes (potty trained 2.5 years): 7,398
Cost per change (including washing): $0.10

As you can see, the bumGenius one-size diaper isn’t as cheap as cloth prefolds and covers, but it’s significantly cheaper than the all-in-ones or other pocket diaper brands by $900 or so.

In the end, we chose to go with bumGenius diapers instead of cloth prefolds, despite the higher cost. Here are the reasons we chose bumGenius diapers over all the other solutions.

  • bumGenius diapers have three rows of snaps on the front part of the diaper, allowing you to effectively shorten the size of the diaper. You only have to change the size as the baby grows, and you can use the diapers for babies up to 35 lbs. The all-in-one diapers, other pocket diaper brands, and cloth prefold/diaper covers require you to purchase different sizes. Since we don’t have much storage space, we liked the idea of just having one diaper shell to deal with for our baby’s diapering life instead of dealing with and storing different sizes.
  • bumGenius diapers come with two thicknesses of insert pads – the Cottonbabies brand “thick” pad, which includes snaps for resizing them to fit the bumGenius diaper, and a thinner “newborn” pad. Unless your baby is a very heavy wetter, there’s no need to purchase more inserts.
  • There are some other all-in-one diapers on the market, but they seem to involve rows of snaps. bumGenius diapers have snaps that you only touch twice in the baby’s lifetime to increase the size of the diaper, but the day-to-day closure method involves handy velcro tabs which make them as easy to put on or take off as disposables.
  • Cloth prefolds and disposables supposedly result in diaper rash more often than the microfiber or fleece inner liner of pocket and all-in-one diapers.
  • bumGenius diapers are made in the USA.

At the time that I purchased the diapers, bumGenius had just come out with their 2.0 version. (As of this writing, they’re on 3.0, which has some modest improvements, and they also have new organic diapers!) If I were to do anything differently, I would have scoured parenting forums to try to purchase gently-used diapers and save more money, but at the time I just wanted to order them and have them in-hand. Diaperswappers.com is one such community where people sell or swap diapers, although you’ll have to get used to their use of acronyms (BGAIO = bumGenius All-In-Ones, BG2.0 = bumGenius 2.0 diapers, etc.).

We used disposable diapers for the first month, which gave us enough time to get used to having a baby around, then started using bumGenius diapers. So far, I’ve been very happy with them. I purchased 24 diapers, which gives me enough to do laundry every other day or every third day. The diapers have been holding up well, although I expect that at some point in the distant future, the velcro tabs will need to be refurbished by a handy sewing friend. Diaper leaks have been very rare (most of them happened in the transition from using the newborn to large insert), and diaper rash has been non-existent.

Before embarking on the cloth diapering journey, I had no idea what was involved with laundering them. (Cotton Babies has a reader-friendly guide to cloth diaper basics, including how to wash cloth diapers.)

With exclusively breast-fed babies, it’s really easy initially because you can toss the diaper into the laundry even if it’s poopy, because it all washes out. Once you start solid foods, or if your baby is formula fed, you need to first scrape or rinse the poop off into the toilet. While it seems gross at first, “diaper dunking” is one way that many parents clean off the diaper – swishing the diaper in the toilet. For the more squeamish, sprayer hoses can be installed and attached to the toilet to squirt off the mess. For the even more squeamish, you can buy “diaper liners,” which are a sheet of thin, flushable material that goes inside the diaper. The poop stays on the liner and can easily be flushed down the toilet, and it helps keep the diaper a little cleaner, too. (This is not factored into the cost above, though! It costs about $0.06 or $0.07 more per change if you use diaper liners.)

Read the manufacturer instructions to find out if you should keep dirty diapers in a “dry” or “wet” pail before washing them. A “dry pail” is basically any container that you want to use to keep the diapers in until you have enough to do a load of laundry, while a “wet” pail is something that you can use to soak diapers in. bumGenius diapers should be stored in a dry pail. For us, this was initially a laundry basket. When things got stinky, we switched to a zip-up waterproof bag. I ordered custom fabric-outer-lining ones from happytushies.com, along with smaller travel-sized bags, but it looks like they only offer them through retailers, now.

So far, I’ve been able to wash the diapers with the baby’s other laundry without a problem. Bringing everything to the washing machine, I quickly pull out the inserts (albeit a bit gingerly, with two fingers) and toss them into the washer. bumGenius diapers allow you to fold down the velcro tabs so they don’t stick to other things, so I make sure those are in place before tossing the shell into the washer. Then, I wash the diapers twice – once on cold, once on warm/hot, with an extra rinse. The extra rinse is to get all the detergent out of the diapers, because detergent residue = odor. Check the manufacturer’s information to find out if there’s a specific detergent that’s recommended. On the recommendation of my friend Kristine, we’ve been using Allens Naturally Detergent. With high-efficiency washers, you have to be careful to use less detergent than with normal washers.

I put all of my bumGenius diapers in the dryer, although I’m hoping one of our weekend projects will be to install a laundry line solution outside. When I fold the laundry, I stuff the liners into the diapers so that they’re ready to go. At night, we’ll grab one of the newborn inserts and put them in for a double-stuffed diaper so that the diaper doesn’t leak.

You can also buy or make your own cloth wipes so that you’re not using disposable wipes. I’m using Seventh Generation disposable wipes for now, but am considering switching over to cloth.

I’m glad that we are able to cloth-diaper. I might make a very different choice if we didn’t have a washer and dryer in our house, or if I was working full-time away from home.

Anyone else have anything to add to the topic? If you cloth diaper, what brands do you use and what do you like (or don’t like) about them?

10 thoughts on “Baby related thoughts: On cloth diapering

  1. Great summary! We’ve cloth diapered for 2 kids, and at least half of our diapers were secondhand, and we were able to save quite a few to use for child #2. We settled into using Knickernappies, just because the fit/snap placement worked best. Josiah flew through the small and medium sizes, and he’s been in larges since he was about 9 months, so that has saved substantial money. We do use disposable diapers at night, as we haven’t been able to find any combination of stuffing that holds all the wetness from 11-13 hours.

  2. We used eco disposables for the first week and then moved to washable nappies. We are using One Life, which are birth to potty include a booster for overnight and have a number of outer wraps. I think they are great, but we may need to buy an alternative for night time when Beth is a bigger.

    I don’t have much in the way of pictures, but here are a couple of links

    Showing off our luxury purchase of a nursing chair http://www.darktea.co.uk/displayimage.php?album=135&pos=19

    Beth have an unplanned hair wash after getting sick in her hair http://www.darktea.co.uk/displayimage.php?album=135&pos=31

    Most people from my antenatal group are using washable nappies of one make or another.

  3. I came across this post a while back and bookmarked it, thinking it might come in handy someday. Now I’m pregnant and researching cloth diapering; I just rediscovered this in my bookmarks, and I want to say how grateful I am for the detail you put into it. It answers a lot of my basic questions that other people have glossed over, like what exactly wet and dry pails are. So thank you!

  4. I’m wondering how trim fitting the one size was for your baby? Was it very bulky under onesies and clothes? I’m considering AIOs but then the overall price for small, medium and large is much more. Do the bumgenius one size diapers compare to the aio version in terms of fit and trimness on skinny mini babies or should I stick to aios? Thanks!

    1. Hi L – I haven’t tried the AIO personally so I’m not sure how they compare. The one-size is definitely bulkier than disposables but I think it’s a little bit trimmer than traditional cloth diapers/covers. Our son is on the thin side, so the cloth diapers actually help to keep his pants on which are the right length but a little too loose around the waist!

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