How to Use Cloth Diapers

Make the switch to these eco-friendly wallet savers, and you may never look back.

Of all the experiences new parenthood throws our way, nappies are one that’s universal, much to our chagrin. Keeping baby’s bum covered isn’t optional, and disposable diapers can get a bit pricey — plus, they’re not great for the environment, especially at the rate that newborns cycle through them.1Meseldzija, J., Poznanovic, D., & Frank, R. (2013). Assessment of the differing environmental impacts between reusable and disposable diapers. Dufferin Research. Establishing the association between nonnutritive sucking behavior and malocclusions: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Plenty of parents today are instead reaching for reusable cloth diapers, with modern styles offering stylistic variety and comparable functionality without the high cost and eco-unfriendliness of disposable diapers.

How to Use Cloth Diapers: The Basics

A cloth diaper is simply a nappy that’s made out of a washable cloth material. They’re available in several different styles, and use either absorbent fabric or an absorbent insert to collect waste material. Because they can be washed at home, and are reusable, they’re typically considered to be more eco-friendly than their disposable counterparts. The material that cloth diapers are made from influences the level to which this is true, however; bamboo viscose and similar synthetic cloth for diapers tend to generate a lot of pollution in their manufacturing, where natural cotton alternatives may not.2Meseldzija, J., Poznanovic, D., & Frank, R. (2013). Assessment of the differing environmental impacts between reusable and disposable diapers. Dufferin Research.

The use of cloth diapers requires parents to keep an adequate supply on hand and learn the ins and outs of washing, stripping, drying, and caring for baby’s diapers. Here, we’ll cover all that and more.

Why Should I Use Cloth Diapers?

Whether you’re a new parent who’s never changed a diaper in their life, or a veteran expecting mama considering finally making the switch, here are the top two reasons to love cloth diapers.

  • They cut cost: It’s no secret that disposable diapers cost a pretty penny, and the need for them doesn’t simply disappear overnight — it’s an ongoing cost until potty training is done. Making the switch to cloth diapering has the potential to save parents about $400 over the cost of three years.3Buying Diapers

    It’s especially cost-efficient if you’re planning on having more children, as you’ll already have their nappies ready to go — only maintenance products will be needed.
  • They’re more environmentally friendly: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 4.15 million tons of diapers were dumped into landfills in 2017. 4Nondurable Goods: Product-Specific Data

    It’s not known exactly how long it takes for a disposable diaper to break down, but we do know that disposable diapers account for a significant amount of landfill waste compared to other trash, and that landfill conditions may deprive them of the sunlight and oxygen that facilitate decomposition. We also know that they can contain polyethylene, polypropylene, and other heavy chemicals. These ingredients are present within the inner liner of disposable diapers, and are not in contact with a baby’s skin. While there is no medical risk, these chemicals are not good for the environment.5Counts, J., Weisbrod, A., & Yin, S. (2017). Common diaper ingredient questions: Modern disposable diaper materials are safe and extensively tested. Clinical pediatrics, 56(5_suppl), 926-934.

Cloth Diaper Styles

There are several different styles of cloth diaper you can choose from. You may wish to try a few of these styles, or even review them all — what your baby is the most comfortable in and what fits and works most effectively can vary from family to family.

  • Flat: These are truly old-school cloth diapers. This is the updated name for the very same folded cloth diapers mom and grandma used, formed from big rectangular cloth panels which must be folded and fitted to fit baby. Flat diapers require both diaper fasteners and a waterproof cover.6Jacobson, B., Loeffler, G., & Blaesi, L. (2004). Diapering your baby. Consumer series. Family; no. 8.501.
  • Pre-fold: Much like flat diapers, pre-folds are large panels which must be folded, fitted, secured, and often covered to prevent leaks. Cloth diapering with prefolds rather than flats offers a bit of extra absorbent material in the center of the panel, which makes them a bit more helpful in keeping clothing dry.
    Fitted: These cloth diapers are shaped and put onto baby much like a disposable. They’re simply cloth diapers you don’t have to fold, and they often use snaps or Velcro to close, so diaper fasteners aren’t needed. A cover is needed with fitted diapers.
  • Pocket: Pocket diapers the shape and function of a fitted diaper with the insert-system functionality of an all-in-two, and saves parents the need for a diaper cover. It features elastic at the legs, fastens with Velcro or snaps, and uses two layers to keep moisture locked in. The inner layer has a pocket where an absorbent insert is placed, and the outer layer is waterproof.
  • All-in-one: Designed to be pulled on and off just like a pair of briefs, many parents find these to be among the most convenient cloth diapers, as no wrapping, folding, or pinning is required. All-in-one diapers make use of a soaker pad that’s sewn in, so parents must wash the entire diaper at once. A similar alternative called all-in-two diapers use separate soaker pads — this design is ideal for overnights and heavy wetters, since absorbency can be adjusted easily.
  • Hybrid: This refers to a version of the all-in-two diaper, a brief-styled pull-on which uses removable soaker pads. With a hybrid, parents can choose from disposable or reusable soaker pads.

Editor’s note: In clinical practice, many of my parents who choose cloth diapers for their baby use this type. They are easy to fasten, allow for quick diaper changes, and seem to be leak-proof.

Cloth Diaper Accessories

If you’re using cloth diapers instead of disposables, you’ll find the need for a few maintenance and upkeep accessories. The kind of diapers you choose will play a role in which of these accessories you’ll actually need, so read on.

Diaper covers

While some cloth diapers, like all-in-twos, hybrids, and pocket diapers, tend to have external layers that lock in moisture, styles like flats, pre-folds, and fitteds will require a waterproof cover to create that layer. A diaper cover is often styled like a pull-on brief or shorts, sitting comfortably over the diaper and under the clothes. These are often referred to as wool soakers, as the naturally water-repellant properties of softer wool like Merino make it an ideal fabric for a diaper cover.

Diaper fasteners

If your cloth diapering system doesn’t use Velcro or snaps to connect, you’ll need some diaper fasteners. Traditionally, large baby-safe diaper safety pins have been used for this, but they’re not the only option. Diaper fastener systems like Snappi skip over sharp safety pins in favor of a simple soft plastic belt that connects around the waist and uses a convenient front anchor tab to hold things in place.

Soaker pads

If you’re using all-in-two, hybrid, or pocket diapers, soaker pads will be a part of your system. All-in-two diapers tend to come with their own reusable soaker pads. Hybrid diapers let parents choose between reusable and disposable soaker pads. The model of pocket diaper you choose will depend on whether reusable or disposable soaker pads must be used.

Wet bags

A cloth diapering system is easy enough to use at home, but once you’re on the go, the matter of neatly and discreetly dealing with soiled nappies is something you must contend with. Wet bags are specifically designed to hold their dirty diapers until you’re home and they can be cleaned. They use an inner layer of absorbent material paired with an outer layer of fabric, so they’re waterproof and won’t release smell. Simply knock any solid waste into the potty and wrap up the nappy, place it in the wet bag, and put the wet back in your diaper bag or purse until you can get it home to the pail.

Reusable wipes

If eco-consciousness is among your reasons for considering cloth diapering, you may wish to consider the environmental impact of disposable wipes.7A Word on Wipes

Using reusable, washable, gentle cloth wipes (a wash cloth is fine) is far more sustainable, and it means less exposure to potentially harsh chemicals or fragrance. A reusable wipe or wash cloth can go right in the diaper pail for a wash once it’s been used.

Alternatively, if the baby has a large stool, cleaning the area by rinsing under warm water is effective and avoids the need for wipes. If using a wipe, always do so in a “front to back” direction to prevent bacteria from the stool from entering the urinary tract. This is a common cause of urinary tract infections.8Jacobson, B., Loeffler, G., & Blaesi, L. (2004). Diapering your baby. Consumer series. Family; no. 8.501.

Reusable wipe spray

In order to use reusable wipes effectively, a bit of moisture will be needed. A handy spray bottle is great to keep on hand for this. Just plain water is fine, though some parents choose to include very small amounts of soap, moisturizing coconut oil, or baby-safe essential oils for fragrance. If you skip the oils, your reusable wipe spray can also be used to soak down cloth diapers before they go into the pail, which helps washes to be more effective at removing stains and scents.

Diaper pail

Until it’s time to wash their dirty diapers, a diaper pail is where they’ll need to live. It keeps unpleasant scents and biohazards contained, and many have convenient foot pedal operation to keep contamination down. In order to avoid staining and lasting smells, it’s helpful to spray diapers down with a bottle of water and baking soda kept near the changing station after emptying any solid waste into the toilet.9DJacobson, B., Loeffler, G., & Blaesi, L. (2004). Diapering your baby. Consumer series. Family; no. 8.501.

When they go into the pail wet, they launder more effectively.

How Many Cloth Diapers Will be Needed?

If you’re looking into a cloth diaper system, you’re likely wondering exactly how many diapers you’ll require. Just as your child’s diaper use varies by age, the number of cloth diapers you’ll want to keep on hand will evolve as they grow.

A new baby is perhaps the worst culprits for diaper use, and may go through as many as 15 diapers in one day. That number may skew high, but never underestimate your infant’s power to surprise you. This is particularly true for breastfed infants who may pass small stools during feedings, every two to three hours. 36 diapers is a good amount to keep on hand for your newborn, as it’s almost always enough to get you through two full days, but usually more.

Once baby reaches their six month milestone, the frequency of their diaper use reduces a bit. They may go through as many as 10 diapers, but 6-8 is more likely. 24 diapers usually offers a 2-4 day window of use.

When your baby is between the ages of 1 and 2, their need for diaper changes will reduce even more. They shouldn’t need more than 7 diapers a day, and keeping 20 diapers on hand should do the trick.

How Often do Cloth Diapers Need to be Changed?

The best thing you can do for your baby — and their future potty training habits — is change them as soon as you’ve noticed they’re wet, whether they’re wearing a disposable or a cloth diaper. The frequency with which your baby needs to be changed will evolve with their age, with newborns needing the most frequent changes and toddlers going longer periods between soiling.

One difference between disposable and cloth diapers that can be both a blessing and a curse is that your child will find their soiled diaper uncomfortable more quickly. Disposables tend to be highly absorbent, and some babies may not even notice they’ve urinated until the diaper is heavily saturated. Constant moisture against baby’s skin is a diaper rash trigger, so it’s best to get a clean diaper on right away. Developing a sense of discomfort with sitting in a dirty diaper is also a positive when it comes time to potty train, as baby will be eager to avoid the sensation and instead use the big potty.

Washing Cloth Diapers

As you might imagine, cloth diapers aren’t something you’ll want to throw in with the regular laundry. They require their own cleaning protocol, but it’s pretty easy once you get the hang of it. The “washing” process begins directly after a diaper change, even if diapers won’t be washed for a few days.

  • Remove any solid waste by knocking it into the toilet.10Diapers: Disposable or Cloth?

    If you’re still exclusively breastfeeding, your baby’s “solid” waste is water-soluble, and does not technically need to be removed. In this situation, removal is at your discretion. Use a spray bottle of water to remove anything that lingers, and then soak the diaper down thoroughly before placing it in the pail. If they’ve just peed, the diaper doesn’t need to be soaked.
  • Be prepared to wash their diapers daily, or at minimum every other day. You do not want to leave their soaked-down and soiled diapers in the pail, as mildew can accumulate. Putting off washing diapers will only make more work for you if they need to be washed again and again, so find a moment to toss ’em in the washer. You won’t regret it.
  • Don’t wash more than 18 cloth diapers in your washing machine at a time in order to avoid crowding and achieve true cleanliness.
  • To begin washing, use a pre-rinse cycle on cold. Do not include detergent. This helps to loosen any existing stains, preparing the diapers to be washed.
  • After the pre-rinse, wash the diapers on either a hot or warm cycle using a cloth-friendly, baby-friendly detergent. You may wish to use a scoop of baking soda or an oxidizing detergent like OxiClean in order to eliminate protein stains. Half a cup of lemon juice is also an effective fabric whitener for those using plain flats and pre-folds.
  • Don’t use bleach or other cleaning acids, which can damage fabrics when used frequently. Fabric softener should also be skipped, as it leaves a coating on the diaper which repels rather than absorbs moisture Fabric softeners may also irritate your baby’s skin, and should be avoided when laundering clothing as well.11Jacobson, B., Loeffler, G., & Blaesi, L. (2004). Diapering your baby.Consumer series. Family; no. 8.501.

    When this happens, diapers must be stripped.
  • If you’re able, sun-drying your cloth diapers is ideal, as the sun offers a final boost in fighting any lingering bacteria. If that’s not possible, air-dry them regardless, because repeated trips through the dryer will damage fabric, destroy the integrity of elastic, affect waterproof linings, and can ruin fasteners like snaps and Velcro.

If you’re finding your baby’s diapers aren’t absorbing as they should, they may need to be stripped. When detergent, minerals, and residue from zinc creams works its way into fabric, absorbency is affected. In order to restore absorbency, wash diapers in very hot water using Borax or a few drops of Dawn dish cleaner(the blue bottle). Doing this about once monthly helps to keep diapers at peak function.

Tips for Finding a Well-fitting Cloth Diaper

For a cloth diaper with an optimal fit, you may wish to skip flats and pre-folds in favor of fitted, pocket, all-in-one, all-in-two, and hybrid cloth diapers. This is because they use a fastener system, which often allows you to establish a fit that’s flush without being too tight. A fit like this keeps your baby comfortable and helps to prevent leaks and blowouts, which are common issues with pre-folds and flats. Cloth diaper systems that don’t require diaper covers may also provide a more comfortable fit, as wearing wool soakers under clothes can be binding, and is uncomfortable for little ones on hot days.

Cloth Diapering Do’s and Don’ts


  • Prep diapers: Cloth diapers need to be prepped for maximum absorbency, which means they must be washed. Synthetic diapers need less preparation — one wash in hot water with an appropriate detergent for cloth diapers will prep them. Natural fibers like cotton will require 6-8 washes to be prepped.
  • Buy enough diapers: Remember that you’ll want 36 diapers until they’re 6 months old, 24 until they’re a year old, and 20 for the toddler years. It’s enough to keep them covered without you needing to do laundry every single day.
  • Choose different styles: The right style for your baby might not be the one that sounds best on paper, so try a few styles to see what’s effective and what they find comfortable. If your baby has redness or other signs of irritation around the thigh folds or in fastener areas, this is a sign that a diaper that fits differently would work better.
  • Consider used diapers(but strip them first): Like any other used item of clothing, used cloth diapers reduce the carbon footprint of their purchase, and they’re often just as good for your baby as brand new. Any time you buy or receive used cloth diapers, strip them prior to use.


  • Use creams that affect absorbency: Diaper creams which use zinc oxide absorb into cloth diapers and affect absorbency over time. Opt for creams which skip it.12Can Cloth Diapers Work for Your Family?
  • Ignore a bad fit: A cloth diaper that doesn’t fit well won’t do its job, and leaks and blowouts are inevitable. If you struggle with flats and pre-folds, consider an all-in-one or all-in-two to simplify the process.
  • Use microfiber fabrics: While microfiber is highly absorbent, it can also absorb the moisture in your child’s skin, leading to a rash. Opt for natural inserts instead.

Wrapping Up

There’s a learning curve to using cloth diapers properly, but it’s one that’s worth mastering. The potential savings over the course of years combined with a reduction to your carbon footprint is almost as enticing as skipping that late night trip to the supermarket for another pack of disposable nappies. Keep in mind that it’s a journey — experiment with styles and inserts until you find what’s right for you and your baby.

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