Types of cloth diapers and how they are put on
There are several styles of cloth diapers available these days. We own three different types, and since they are some of the most popular styles, those are the only ones I plan to discuss here.
Pre-fold diapers are basically as simple as they come. The open diaper is a thick rectangle which is made up of many layers of fabric sewn together to make three major sections ("folds"). The center section always has a higher ply than the outer ones. I'm pretty sure ours are 4-8-4. This concentrates the majority of the absorbency in the place it's most needed.
I didn't take pictures of the diapering process, but it's not too hard once you learn how. You lay the baby on the diaper, fold it up between his legs, and clip it at the sides. Back in the day, parents would have used diaper pins to do this. That sounds like it would be not only tedious, but pretty dangerous as well! These days, we have a wonderful invention called a Snappi. Those are the little T-shaped things in the picture. They are made of a stretchy rubber, and at the ends, they have little plastic teeth. They grip the diaper in the same way you clip an Ace Bandage with those little metal guys.
I was lucky enough to find a handsome young man who was willing to model this for you.
Notice how sloppy this is. It doesn't even matter. These diapers are GREAT at both catching solids, and absorbing liquid. But we're not done yet. If you were to put his clothes on right over the cloth, you'd have some major problems with urine wicking onto his clothing. No good. So you need to add a water-proof cover:
Voila! Now he can go about his baby-business, and it will all stay in the diaper where it belongs! This cover is just a boring white one, but they're also available in many fun colors and patterns. Covers come in two types: Velcro, or snap-fastened. We only buy the snap kind, since Velcro tends to degrade over time. We hope to have more babies, and to make these diapers last as long as possible! The extra snaps you see in the picture down towards the crotch area are another great feature - they allow the "height" of the cover to change as the baby grows. These one-size-fits-all diapers will hopefully keep fitting him until potty training.
Cost and care -
Pre-folds are the cheapest diapers. Each one is about $3. The covers cost about $12-15 each. You need approximately 1 cover for every 3 or 4 diapers. Covers get reused through several diapers, until they are pretty wet or get soiled. Most of our pre-folds came as part of a value pack from Econobum. It included 12 diapers and 3 covers for $50.The thickness of the diapers means they take the longest to dry after being washed.
Simple Pocket Diapers:
Pocket diapers are preferred by some people because they are a little easier to use. You don't have to worry about how to fold it up, or fuss with pins or Snappis. There is a waterproof diaper cover, and inside of it, you insert an absorbent pad. We use the brand Flip Diapers.
Here's the inside of the open cover. Notice we own some prettier colors for the Flips. The covers are nice because we can also used them over the pre-folds. But unlike our white covers, these have little flaps at the ends where a pad can slide under.
pre-folds, since there's less actual "diaper" inside. Flips are nice because they're really quick to put on. They work fine for pee-only diapers. But they have a major failing: they are not good for solids. Baby poo is very liquidy. It does not just stay on the insert where you want it. It leaks off the side, and sits in the cover, sloshing around. If you don't change it very soon, it will leak out the sides and onto his clothes. Even when you catch it quickly enough, you've still blown one cover which now needs to be washed. I put Flips on Sly only when I think he's not likely to go number two (i.e. he just went). I think they are decent diapers, but I probably would not buy them again. Tom, on the other hand, HATES them. When changing a messy Flip-caused accident, he's often been heard to rage, "Gahhhh! FLIPS SUCK SO MUCH!!"
Cost and care -
A starter pack of Flips comes with two covers and 6 inserts for $50. To buy them singularly, you can get one cover with one insert for about $17, or just an extra cover alone for about $14. The insert is small, so washing and drying is easy and quick.
"High-tech" Pocket Diapers:
These are the same concept as the simple pocket diapers - you insert an absorbent pad into the diaper. But these ones have a fully-lined pocket, so the cover actually has a fabric inner liner. We use the Bumgenius 4.0 One-size Diapers.
You can see in this picture that each diaper comes with two liners. One is a normal thick one, and the other is shorter and thinner, intended for newborns. When we "stuff" the diapers after they come out of the laundry, we put both liners in. This is called "doubling" the diaper, and makes them extra absorbent. We only use these diapers at nighttime, and they last for 12+ hours with no leaks. The fabric liner and elastic around the legs holds in poo, unlike the bare covers on the Flips.
When I read cloth diapers messageboards and posts online (which I do more than I care to admit), this diaper very frequently comes out as the top favorite among most cloth diapering families. They are nice because once they've been pre-stuffed with the liner, they are a cinch to put on, and take no more time to use than a disposable one would.
Cost and care -
These diapers are pricey! It costs about $20 per diaper. And the catch is, each one only gets one use before it needs to be washed. You cannot reuse the cover multiple times, as you can with the other types of diapers. This is why we only own two of them, and save them for heavy-duty nighttime use. To wash, you have to remove the liners first from the pocket.
The pre-folds and the Bumgenius diapers have proven most effective at doing their job. I'd say they are equally good as diapers. But since pre-folds cost much less to purchase, and get multiple uses out of each cover, they win our vote for best diaper for your money/time.
Where to purchase cloth diapers:
These days, you can get everything online. There are TONS of sources for cloth diapers on the internet. But if you're someone who likes to see things in person, or who is overwhelmed by all the different types, it's best to go to an actual store that sells them. In Pittsburgh, we're lucky enough to have one such store, The Happy Baby Company. They sell many different brands, and the husband/wife owners of the store are always happy to explain how each type works. Once you have an idea what types of diapers you like, they are a great store to order from, since all orders ship FREE!
Washing Cloth Diapers
This is the part that's most intimidating for people. With disposables, you wrap up the mess, throw it away, and stop thinking about it. Dealing with cloth diapers is really not too bad. There are many different methods people use for "storing" dirty diapers prior to washing, and for how they launder them. Here's what we do...
We store all clean diapers below the changing table.
When a diaper is dirty, we just toss it into a plastic shopping bag hanging over the side. Doesn't this smell? Well...yes, a little. When you walk into Sly's bedroom, you sometimes get a whiff of "diaper smell," to put it delicately. It doesn't really bother me. Some people buy water- and smell-proof bags or pails to use instead. And some people add their diapers to a wet pail so they get a pre-rinse before they are washed. Any of these methods are fine.
What about really poopy diapers? Those shouldn't go directly into the bag - ideally, the solids would get emptied into the toilet. With Sly right now, as I mentioned, the poos are very liquidy. This makes it difficult to do. We purchased something called a diaper sprayer. It is very much like the sprayers some people have on their kitchen sinks. It hooks up directly to the intake valve on the toilet so you can spray fresh water onto the diaper, and the poo all goes into the bowl. The idea behind this is pretty clever, and some people swear by this product. But I have to say, we have not found them as effective as we'd hoped. We usually end up making a bigger mess than we started with....haha. And I won't get too descriptive on that one.
(click for picture source)
After the wash, I hang the covers to dry and run the diapers themselves through the dryer. We use FOUR dryer balls to make it quicker and so they come out softer. Diapers can be line dried if you like.
Our diapers usually come out perfectly clean and fresh. They should smell like "nothing." A couple of them have very faint stains, probably due to sitting around too long between washes. This really doesn't bother me at all. I mean, for one, no one is going to see the diapers, since they're under the cover anyways. And two, he's just going to poop on them again! Why should it matter whether they're sparkling clean each time?
I hope this helps to clear up some of the mystery around cloth diapers. If anyone has more questions, just ask!
UPDATE: see also my addendum to this post, a word about cloth wipes, and ways to solve ammonia problems