Cloth Diapering Cheat Sheet

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Who has time to cram for finals? If you’re looking for a quick crib sheet on cloth diapering basics, we’ve compiled the most essential information here.

Types of diapers

All in ones (AIOs) are the most similar to disposables. AIOs have a waterproof exterior and an absorbent interior. They’re super easy to use — just wrap it around baby and snap or secure the aplix. Popular AIO brands: bumgenius Freetimes or Elementals, Grovia AIOs, Happy Flute AIOs, Blueberry Simplex, Smart Bottoms, Thirsties AIOs.

All in two/hybrid (AI2s) systems come in two pieces — a cover and a snap-in, lay-in, or disposable insert.  The covers can be wiped and reused throughout the day with fresh inserts. Popular AI2 brands: bumGenius Flip, Grovia, Best Bottom, gDiapers, Lil Helper, Funky Fluff.

Pocket diapers come in two parts — a water resistant shell, and an insert that fits into a pocket opening in the shell. Most pocket diapers come with microfiber inserts, but you can customize the absorbency by using hemp, bamboo, or charcoal bamboo inserts, or stuffing with prefolds or flats. When a pocket diaper gets wet or dirty, the entire diaper, shell and insert, needs to be changed. Popular pocket brands: bumGenius 4.0s, Alva, Kawaii, SunBaby, Rumparooz.

Fiited diapers are made of absorbent material all the way around, unlike AIOs, AI2s, and pocket diapers, which have absorbency only in the wet zone, or crotch. For this reason, fitted diapers are a great and highly absorbent choice for overnights. Most fitted diapers require a cover to be fully waterproof. Some “hybrid fitted” diapers have a hidden layer of fleece and may be usable without a cover, especially for daytime use. Popular fitted brands: Green Mountain diapers workhorse fitteds, Kissaluvs, goodmama, Pooters, Tots Bots Bamboozle, Sustainablebabyish.

Flats are large single pieces of fabric, typically cotton, bamboo, or hemp. They can be folded around baby and secured with pins, snappis or boingo clips, pad folded and laid in a cover or stuffed in a pocket.  Flour sack towels are inexpensive dish towels that can be easily used as flats. Though they seem like an old-school option, they’re very versatile and easy to use. Flats need a cover to be waterproof. Popular brands of flats: OsoCozy, Green Mountain Diapers, Hemp Babies, Nicki’s, Imagine.

Prefolds are rectangles of thick fabric sewn together with more layers through the middle of the diaper.  Smaller and thicker than flats, they can also be folded around baby and held together with pins, snappis or boingo clips, padfolded and laid into covers, or stuffed into pockets. Prefolds need a cover to be waterproof. Popular brands of prefolds: OsoCozy, Green Mountain Diapers, Econobum, Nicki’s, Bummis, Thirsties.

Covers can be made from wool, or fleece, or most commonly, a waterproof fabric called PUL. They’re used over prefolds, fitteds, or flats to make them waterproof. Many PUL covers are “tuckable”, with flaps to hold an insert or padfolded flat or prefold inside. Fleece and wool covers are made into covers or short or long pants. Fleece can be machine washed and dried, while wool needs to be hand washed and lanolized. Both wool and fleece are great for overnight. Some popular brands of covers are Blueberry, Thirsties, Rumparooz, Econobum, Alva, Assunta, and Bummis.

For more information on types of diapers, check out our overview of types of cloth diapers and our searchable cloth diaper brand index.

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How many cloth diapers do I need?

That depends on a few variables, like the age of your baby, how heavy a wetter your baby is, and how frequently you want to do laundry. We usually suggest the following size stashes:

Newborn : Minimum 12 – 15 changes to do laundry every day; 24 – 36 to do laundry every other day.

3 Months and older: Minimum 10 – 12 changes to do laundry every day; 20 – 30 to do laundry every other day.

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How to prep new diapers

To prep new diaper covers, pocket shells, microfiber inserts, or AIOs made with microfiber, just wash once to get the factory off them, and they’re good to go.

Natural fiber diapers made from cotton or hemp can also be used after one wash. However, they’ll gain absorbency over several washes. The easiest way to prep is to throw them into whatever laundry you happen to be doing for three or so washes. Different fibers can all be prepped together, and washing with other dirty diapers is fine. They don’t need to be dried between each prep wash, although one round through the dryer may be helpful.

Bamboo is technically a synthetic fiber; however, many bamboo fabrics are blended with cotton and will gain absorbency from prepping.

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How to prep used diapers

You should always sanitize used diapers to remove yeast or other bacteria. The easiest way is to do a bleach soak, though there are other ways to sanitize without bleach. Bleach soaking is generally all that is needed for used diapers.

Some people like to strip used diapers before bleaching. Stripping is very effective at removing mineral deposits from untreated hard water; however, it can be hard on fabrics. For covers and pockets, you can do only the bleach soak, then both strip and bleach any absorbent materials.

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Diaper creams

On cotton or hemp diapers, you can generally use any type of diaper cream without issue, including products like Vaseline and Desitin. They may cause minor staining that will wash out. However, on synthetic fiber diapers, petroleum based products can cause bad staining and even worse, can cause diapers to repel moisture rather than absorb.

If your diapers are stained or repelling due to petroleum based cream, apply some dish soap to the diaper and scrub gently. Rinse well before washing, as dish soap should never go into a washing machine.

If you need to use a petroleum based cream on synthetic fabric diapers, you can line the diaper with a piece of cloth such as a cut up tee shirt, or a viva paper towel. Disposable liners can also work, but may allow some cream through.

Some popular brands of cloth safe diaper cream include the green tube of Boudreux Natural Butt Paste, Angel Baby, CJ’s BUTTer, California Baby, Burt’s Bees Multipurpose Ointment, Grandma El’s, Arbonne, and many more. Many people like to use unrefined coconut oil in place of rash cream.

Many diaper creams contain zinc or beeswax. These may cause minor staining, but it will generally wash out. Creams with zinc and beeswax are considered cloth diaper safe.

If you’re curious, check out our cloth diaper cream index.

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What to do with dirty diapers

Most people like to store dirty diapers in an open pail or open bag. Some good options include a plastic trash can with a pail liner, an unlined open laundry basket that you periodically wipe with disinfectant, or a hanging PUL-lined wetbag. Open storage will have less of an odor than closed storage. We don’t recommend soaking diapers in a wet pail because it breeds bacteria, wears out diapers, and is a drowning hazard.

Dirty diapers from exclusively breastfed babies can be thrown into the wash without removing poop. It is preferable to remove the poop from dirty diapers from formula fed babies, as it can clog machines; however, many people don’t spray diapers from formula fed babies and have no issues. Once your baby starts eating solids, you will need to spray, dunk, scrape, or line dirty diapers.  Many people swear by their diaper sprayer, which is a hand-held sprayer attached to the toilet.

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How to wash cloth diapers

The most important thing to remember is that cloth diapers are just really, really dirty laundry, and the basic concepts of laundry still apply. You don’t need special detergent, you don’t need a complicated routine. Just do a prewash, do a main wash, dry. Here are the steps to washing cloth diapers:

1. Remove solids: Unless your baby is exclusively breastfed, get the poop off the diaper by spraying, dunking, scraping, or lining the diaper.

2. Pick out a good detergent: Use our detergent index to pick a detergent that works for you. Most people can use their regular laundry detergent, with a few exceptions. Fabric softener can cause repelling, so avoid products like Tide with a Touch of Downey. Certain coconut-based fabric softeners found in some versions of liquid All or Ecos can also be a problem. If you have a high-efficiency machine, make sure you’re using an HE-safe detergent (look for the HE symbol on the box). Mainstream detergents like Tide, Gain, Arm & Hammer, Foca, etc tend to be most effective, but some eco-friendly detergents like 7th Generation (especially 7th Generation Ultra Power Plus), Amway, Boulder, Sun, etc. can also be great choices for green households. Another option is free and clear, unscented detergents. Most detergents marketed as being “cloth safe” are both weak and expensive and we generally don’t recommend them.

3. Pick out a water softener if necessary: Minerals from hard water make detergents less effective, and minerals can deposit onto cloth fibers. If your water hardness is above 120 parts per million (PPM) and you’re using mainstream detergent, we suggest adding 1/2 cup of borax or a cap of Calgon to the main wash. Tide powder is effective in water with hardness up to about 180 PPM. With free and clear or plant based detergents, we suggest adding a softener if your water hardness is 60 PPM or more. In extremely hard water (250 PPM or more) we suggest adding a softener to the prewash and main wash. To find our your water hardness, you can check with your water utility provider, or get your water tested for free in many aquarium stores. Hardware stores also generally carry tests.

4. Do a prewash and a main wash

A prewash is important because it removes the worst of the the soil from diapers — that way, the water in the main wash isn’t so dirty. The main wash is where the heavy cleaning takes place. Unless your water is very soft, most people don’t need to do extra rinses.

If you have a non-HE top-loading washing machine: First, select your cycle size. Agitation is an important part of cleaning, so the diapers need to have enough water that they’re able to move freely, but not so much water that they’re swimming rather than agitating against each other. To clean diapers in a non-HE machine, first do a prewash with a small amount of detergent. Options for prewash cycles can include a rinse and spin, a prewash, or the shortest/lightest wash cycle. Most people do the prewash on cold, though some prefer warm. Next, do the main wash with a full measure of detergent and water softener if necessary. The main wash should be the longest, heaviest wash cycle. Hot washes are generally most effective, although a cold main wash is an option for people using mainstream detergent. We do have more information on washing in non-HE machines, and check out the washing machine index for wash routines for specific machines.

If you have a high efficiency washing machine: First, do a prewash with a small amount of detergent. Options for prewash cycles can include a quick wash, a rinse and spin, or the shortest/lightest wash cycle. Most people do the prewash on cold, though some prefer warm. After the prewash, open up the door and fluff up the laundry, making sure nothing is stuck to the sides. HE front loaders tend to be most efficient when they’re close to full, while HE top loaders tend to be most efficient when half-full, so at this point it can be helpful to bulk up the load by adding additional laundry. Next, do the main wash with a full measure of detergent and water softener if necessary. The main wash should be the longest, heaviest wash cycle. Hot washes are generally most effective, although a cold main wash is an option for people using mainstream detergent. We also have more information on washing in HE machines, and check out the washing machine index for wash routines for specific machines. Note that certain machines, such as the Whirlpool Carbrio, Maytag Bravos, Maytag Centennial and Kenmore Oasis, require specialized routines

5. Dry: You can machine dry or line dry as you like. Line drying saves on energy costs and can reduce wear and tear on diapers in the long term. Machine drying is more convenient and leaves natural fiber diapers much softer. Some people like to air dry covers and machine dry inserts and AIOs.

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Smells: Diapers that aren’t completely cleaned can develop problems such as ammonia. If your diapers develop an odor, check out our page on solving stinky diaper problems. These problems are generally solved by either bleach soaking, or stripping then bleach soaking. Bad smells are often an indication that something in your wash routine needs tweaking.

Rashes: Rashes that accompany stinky diapers are often due to ammonia or bacteria from improperly cleaned diapers. Follow the instructions above for solving stinky diaper problems. Rashes can also be due to yeast, which should be diagnosed by a doctor. If your baby has a yeast infection, we generally suggest a bleach protocol for your diapers. Rashes can also be caused by a number of other issues both common and uncommon, such as teething, acidic foods, detergent or fabric sensitivity. We also have a page offering more information on rashes in cloth diapered babies.

Leaking: Leaking is most often due to one of two issues — lack of absorbency or improper fit. Other causes of leaking include compression leaks in microfiber; repelling; or damaged PUL. You can find out more about troubleshooting leaky diapers at this link.

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