Stuff Happens: Cloth Diapering 101 (And A Few 102s)

Cloth diapers
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In recent years there have been debates abut whether cloth diapering is truly better for the environment, especially when you take into account the amount of hot water, electricity and detergent that goes into their care. This environmentalist still stands firmly for cloth however, and here’s why.

Cloth diaper twins

Image courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones.

According to Green America, one of the greatest concerns surrounding disposable diapers is in regards to their creation, not their disposal. Have you ever noticed the oddly gel-like feeling of a full disposable diaper? What you’re feeling is sodium polyacrylate crystals. Sodium polyacrylate is capable of holding up to 300 times its weight in water, which seems like it would be a good thing except for the fact that absolutely no studies have been conducted to establish whether sodium polyacrylate is dangerous to children when absorbed through the skin. Given that it is also used in tampon manufacturing and some believe it is a factor in Toxic Shock Syndrome, it is a definite cause for concern.

Even worse is dioxin. Green America characterizes dioxin as “a highly toxic carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, [found] in disposable diapers. Dioxin is a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process, and the Archives of Disease in Childhood reports that trace amounts of dioxin are present on disposables.”

And as a final one-two punch, one study found that lab mice exposed to various brands of disposable diapers experienced asthma-like symptoms, as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. Cloth diapers did not cause any respiratory symptoms.

So, hey, maybe washing poop isn’t so bad after all!

If you have decided you want to try cloth diapering, it can seem really overwhelming at first. Here is a quick and dirty primer to getting started with cloth.

  • Choosing your diapers: Perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t as simple as just going out and buying cloth diapers., you have to decide what kind of cloth diapers you want. And let me tell you, it’s a whole different world out there in cloth-diaper-land, with a new language to learn, too. There are pre-folds and all-in-one’s, multi-stage and hybrids, Snappis, and Bummis.   If this is gibberish to you (as it was to me), reading BabyCentre’s handy guide can help you make sense of it all, and choose the right cloth diaper for your family.
  • Washing: Always refer to manufacturer instructions. Most will recommend using a hot water wash for best results, but some also suggest avoiding the dryer, or prohibit the use of certain products like bleach. Oddly enough if you have a front-load or high efficiency washing machine, it might actually do a worse job washing diapers than the old-school top loaders. This is because high efficiency (HE) machines typically use sensors to weigh the load and establish the least amount of water necessary to complete the wash cycle (hence the name). Diapers are so light however, that they might not pull enough water to rinse well enough. Experts recommend getting around this by adding one or two damp towels to the load, or doing one large load of diapers instead of several smaller ones.
  • Stripping: (Not that kind.) Occasionally you may need to strip your diapers if you notice them becoming less absorbent or retaining an odor even after washing. Stripping refers to the process of removing buildup from diapers, and there are numerous laundry products sold for this specific purpose, readily available at most retailers that carry cloth diapers. I’ve found that an effective and Eco-friendly option is to simply boil the diaper inserts in small batches for a few minutes, then launder as usual. (It might also be worth picking up a large saucepan from a thrift store specifically for this purpose if your dishwasher doesn’t have a sanitize option.)
  • Cloth diapers being line dried

    Image courtesy of Megan Myers.

    Sunning: The best thing for deodorizing and removing stains from diapers is to sit them in the sun for a few hours – nothing gets them whiter! Super simple, and you save energy by skipping the dryer.

  • Cloth wipes: If you cloth diaper, you may also want to look into using cloth wipes. These can be homemade or bought, and can be used with a homemade wipe solution. Just toss soiled wipes them in with your diaper laundry and you’re set!
  • Other supplies: In addition to the normal things like a change pad, cloth diapering also requires a wet-bag or two. These are waterproof zippered bags used to hold dirty diapers (and wipes) when you do diaper changes on the go. You may also need something to store dirty diapers in at home, until it’s laundry time. My wet bags did double-duty as diaper pails, I had two and I would just switch them out as needed, but using a lidded garbage pail made of a non-porous material like stainless-steel can also work.
  • Unexpected surprises: I think it’s easier to stay with cloth if you start with cloth right from the beginning – if you don’t dip your toe into the “throw it out and you’re done” world of disposable diapers, you’ll never know what you’re missing! Also, prepare yourself to go up a few sizes in your little one’s pants and onesies to accommodate that fluffy diaper butt.

If you are a veteran cloth diaperer, lend a hand to all those new parents out there and share your best tips and tricks in the comments section below!

Feature image courtesy of MissMessie

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.