A Beginner's Guide to Frugal Cloth Diapering

by Jacqueline Harris-Stone


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For $200-$400, a parent can purchase all the cloth diapers and accessories they need from birth to potty training, versus spending about $2000 for disposable diapers. Still, some cloth-diapering parents report spending almost as much as they would on disposables. Why? Sometimes they lack restraint, but often, they need knowledge. You buy cloth diapers early and infrequently, so it's too late to learn tricks to be frugal when your child is 18 months old. Here is what parents should know before their first diaper purchase.

  • Your mom bought cloth diapers for you at the nearest baby mega-store. You probably should not. Today, diapers in brick-and-mortar stores often are designed as burp cloths.

  • Try before you buy. Jilliansdrawers.com offer samplers containing different styles, and give store credit when you return them. Or, buy one used diaper from diaperswappers.com before investing in more. Diaperpin.com publishes detailed reviews, including how diapers fared long-term.

  • Diapers with a waterproof cover (all-in-ones, all-in-twos, pockets) are more likely to be accepted by daycares.

  • Make sure to calculate the total cost when evaluating a diapering system. Non-waterproof diapers (fitteds, prefolds, contours, and flats) require one cover every two to four diapers. Pocket diapers need inserts or, alternatively, infant prefolds. For night, you'll probably need doublers (absorbent material you lay in the diaper). A snappi (this generation's version of the diaper pin) makes fastening easy for prefolds, contours or flats.

  • Look into one-size diapers (abbreviated as OS) that fit a baby from soon after birth to potty training. Examples include Mother-ease fitteds, Wonderwraps covers, Gro-Baby all-in-twos, and Bum Genius 3.0 pockets.

  • Newborns are often too tiny for one-size or even small diapers for two to eight weeks, but they outgrow newborn diapers within three months. Some parents use disposables for the early days, some invest in a returnable newborn sampler package, and some buy newborn covers and prefolds. Most people find a prefold folded in three (trifolded) inside a cover contains newborn poop just fine and certainly works better than disposables. Start with an infant prefold from birth if you don't mind bulky diapers; otherwise buy newborn prefolds, which can be used for doublers later.

  • The elastic on used covers is often stretched or worn-out, so buy with discretion and only at a deeply discounted price. Newborn diapers work for several babies, but most other sizes wear out during a second child's use. Used fitteds are fine. A good cover will make up for even the worst elastic. Second-hand pocket diapers or all-in-ones/twos may have elastic or Velcro problems during their life with you. However, these can be repaired, and if you're handy with sewing, buying damaged diapers is a good frugal choice. Cottonbabies.com sometimes has repairable new diapers in their clearance section.

  • People are unlikely to buy cloth diapers for your baby shower. Raise the odds by specifying exactly what you want and where it can be bought.

  • Always accept free diapers. Make it known you plan to cloth diaper, and someone may give you their unsellable diapers. (Diapers are unsellable with cosmetic damage or holes, neither of which affects performance.) Also try Freecycle and the free-for-shipping listings on diaperswappers.com.

  • It's fairly easy to make your own diapers.

  • Reselling will help you recoup 50-70% of your costs. One mom I know even made a profit. Just don't expect to sell on eBay. You'll be banned for selling used children's underwear.

  • Skimp on accessories. Skip the diaper pails and liners for a garbage can and a laundry bag. Cut up a fleece baby blanket to make protective liners. Diapers generally wash well with cheap detergent, as long as it's not soap-based. (Check pinstripesandpolkadots.com for detergent reviews.) Or buy Charlie's Soap in bulk.

  • You never need to buy wipes for your baby, not even cloth ones. Instead, cut worn-out clothes into four to eight inch squares. (T-shirts, sweatshirts, socks and towels work well.) Serging stops the edges fraying, but if you don't serge, wipes still last about a year when washed with your diapers. Baby washcloths also work well.

  • Line drying protects elastic, and the sun takes out most stains, even meconium. Do, however, machine dry diapers made with PUL occasionally on high heat to maintain their waterproofing.

  • With all the cute patterns available, it's easy to buy when you don't need to. Keep it in perspective. As my mom keeps reminding me, "This is something they poop in." If you need motivation to keep your diapers to a minimum, put all the money you save with cloth into a college fund. Your child may well have a full semester of college paid for at age 18.

Diaper Types

Today's cloth diapers are as unlike those of the last generation as a typewriter and a computer. Instead of soaking and boiling, modern parents use washing machines. Instead of diaper pins, the diapers fasten by Velcro or snaps. For many parents, folding is a thing of the past. Here's a look of the seven basic types of diapers available to choose from.

All-in-one - Similar in looks and ease to a disposable, all-in-ones are popular for their convenience. It's great to have at least a few of these for babysitters.

All-in-two - Like an all-in one, but the absorbent material snaps out for faster drying time.

Pocket diaper - A waterproof outer layer and an inner layer of fleece are sewn together to form a pocket, which is stuffed with a removable absorbent insert. The absorbency can be customized to the baby, making these an especially popular choice for night diapers. When all parts are assembled, it's similar to an all-in one.

Fitted diaper - The absorbent cloth is fitted to the baby with elastic and snaps or Velcro. Unlike the previous diapers, it does not contain a waterproof outer layer.

Contour diaper - Like a fitted, this diaper is shaped like an hourglass to accommodate the baby's shape, but without elastic or snaps to fasten.

Prefold - A piece of cloth that has been folded and sewn, with double layers in the center for more absorbency. It may be folded and fastened around the baby, or held in place with a waterproof or water resistant cover. Many parents find prefolds and covers an economical and effective diaper choice. Indian and Chinese prefolds are the most absorbent; other types may not be absorbent enough to work well for your baby.

Flat Diaper - No longer commonly used, this is a flat square of cloth, usually birdseye cotton or terry, that requires intricate folding and pinning. This is what the previous generation used. They can be useful for camping trips, and some moms enjoy the challenge.

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