All right, you’ve done it! You ordered those oh-so-adorable cloth diapers. The mailman has begun to think that you’re absolutely insane because of all the packages trickling in over the past few days—or maybe you did all your shopping in one place at one time to start. Whatever the case, you’ve got your first order of cloth diapers, and now you’re ready to get down to business.
Here’s the first thing to keep in mind when you open that first package: they’re going to look huge, especially if you’re used to disposables. You will take one look at this humongous diaper and wonder how on earth you’re ever going to get it to fit adequately on your tiny baby, especially if you’ve been using disposables and are aware of how trim they are. Surely, you’ll think, that’s a size large, not the one-size you think you ordered.
Then you start comparing…and you realize that they’re not all that big. You try one on your baby…and it actually fits better than you thought. Okay, maybe those diaper manufacturers know what they’re doing after all. It’s a little bulky (at least compared to a disposable diaper), and it takes some adjusting to figure out what size is going to fit on your little one, but it really is the right size.
That first one is still a shock—so be prepared for it. Newborn and smaller sized diapers aren’t quite as bad—they look more like they’re going to fit on your baby, at least—but they’re still very fluffy. Fluffy is normal. It means they’re absorbing with fabric, not with chemicals. They’re still two to three times the thickness of a disposable diaper, and that’s something that most cloth diaper manufacturers don’t prepare you for.
All right, you got it out of the package. Now what?
You’re going to have to prep your diapers. If you’ve ordered them brand shiny new, separate any bamboo and hemp from the rest of your fabrics. Those will have to be washed several times—separately—to get out all of the natural oils to reach maximum absorbency. I wash mine in with everything but diapers: towels, clothes, rags…whatever is handy. Just follow your regular diaper washing routine and use your diaper detergent. Dry in between washes—it’ll make them reach their full absorbency faster.
Pockets, covers, and all-in-ones, along with their inserts, can be washed once and placed on the bum. Prefolds should probably be washed at least three times (or six, if you have some extra time on your hands before they’re absolutely necessary) before they’re put in the rotation. They can be used after the first wash, but it takes several for them to reach their full absorbency. You’ll know they’re getting there when they start to quilt up and shrink a little.
If you’ve ordered used diapers, the process is a little bit more complicated. Used diapers from a store are probably already disinfected. Used diapers from a mom probably aren’t. If you’re lucky, she washed them one last time before sending them off to you.
With that first wash, put about ¼ cup of bleach in with the diapers. This will kill any yucky bacteria or yeast lingering about in the diaper and prevent your baby from being infected. Most moms are honest, and wouldn’t sell a diaper in this sort of condition; but you don’t want to find out that you got a bad one after your baby breaks out with a yeast rash that won’t quit.
Now, when you get to the last rinse cycle in your machine, open it up and check for bubbles. See lots? You only thought you were on your last rinse. Depending on how hard your water is compared to how hard the previous owner’s was, you may have to do a LOT of rinses to get all the soap out. Go ahead and do this. There are some mixtures of soap (the one that the last owner used versus the one that you use) that can cause rashes. You also don’t want to discover the hard way that your little one has an allergy to…whatever detergent they used. Detergent interactions can also cause repelling, so you want to get as much of theirs out as possible. Once there are no more bubbles, you can dry your diapers according to your preferred wash routine. Line drying is recommended for most covers/diapers containing PUL; using the dryer is fine for inserts, prefolds, and wipes.
Now what? Once your diapers are clean, you get to do the fun part: putting them on your baby. If you’ve started cloth diapering from the newborn stage, then you can be pretty sure that they’ll begin on the smallest setting on the snap-down rise in every diaper. If you’re cloth diapering an older baby, it may take some trial and error. Snap it so that the top of the diaper hits at or a little below the belly button. Try it on. Make sure you run a finger along the elastic at the legs to ensure a good fit—the elastic is less likely to leave red marks if it sits in the crease of baby’s thigh. Move baby’s leg around. Do you see a large, gaping hole below the leg? It’s probably too loose. Try tightening either the rise snaps or the snaps that hold the diaper onto the baby. No gap? Great! Leave it on for about two hours, or until it’s time to change.
When you take the diaper off, be sure to check for red marks. Red marks can be a sign that the diaper wasn’t positioned correctly, or they can be a sign of a bad fit. Some marks are normal (just like with a disposable diaper), but you don’t want baby to be uncomfortable! If there are large red marks or welts on your baby’s leg, try loosening up the rise snaps a little.
Remember: variety helps. Different brands of diapers work better for different babies. Babies, much like their parents, come in all shapes and sizes. Some babies need wide leg holes to account for pudgy thighs. Others need leg elastic that is very, very tight to account for skinny thighs. Check out some reviews, talk to other cloth diapering moms (Facebook is a great resource for this), and make some educated guesses based on your baby’s body type, then try a couple of different kinds of diapers and see what works best for you. You can always sell the diapers later if they don’t work. Also, baby’s shape will change many times as he or she grows. A diaper that was far too big one day may be too small the next—and a diaper that baby had absolutely outgrown may fit again when he or she starts walking or crawling and slims down.
Okay, the diaper is wet. What do I do with it? Different moms do different things with their dirty diapers. Hint: if you’re using pocket diapers that don’t have the double opening (which will allow the insert to agitate out in the wash), you’ll probably want to remove the insert as you take the diaper off. From there, some moms keep them in an open pail; others prefer a closed hanging bag. The easiest method is a large trash can from your local store with a pail liner inside. Depending on your tolerance for stink and your local weather conditions, you can decide for yourself whether or not this pail needs to be closed up. Most manufacturers recommend washing every two to three days to prevent stink problems in your diapers. When the time comes to wash, you open your washer, pull the pail liner out, and dump its contents into the washer.
But what about the dirty ones? Once your baby has passed the exclusively breastfed stage (breastfed poop can go straight in the bag—it’s water soluble), you’ll probably want to rinse off poopy diapers before they go in the pail. If you’re lucky, you will go from breast milk poop to fairly solid poop that will just plop right off in the toilet to be flushed away forever—but you may not be that lucky. Some babies have a sticky, tar-like poop that will not come off by gravity alone (unless your older child is twirling it around in their hands on the way to the toilet—then it will stick to the ceiling). Under these circumstances, you can either purchase a diaper sprayer to attach to your toilet tank, or you can dunk the diaper into the toilet itself, swish around a little bit, and shake off the dirty bits. It gets easier with repetition.
Now, however, you have a sopping wet diaper; and unless you have a massively large bathroom with room for a changing station, that means you have to trudge back down the hall to the baby’s room in order to get the diaper into the pail…dripping all the way.
Drip…drip…drip…little drips of poop water all the way down the hallway. Hope it’s not a carpeted hallway….
Or you can take the easy way out: put a smaller wet bag on the back of your bathroom door, and then you only have to take the few steps from the toilet to the door before dropping it in, zipping it up, and ignoring it until wash day. A good wet bag will keep the smell in, preventing your guests from realizing that they are washing their hands just feet away from a bag full of messy diapers; and in the meantime, you won’t have to worry about cleaning up the hall every time your baby poops.
Remember: this can be fun! You don’t have to swing to the “hobby” side of cloth diapering to enjoy the fun prints, or the adorable fluffy bum (just think: when baby learns to walk, he or she won’t have nearly as hard a landing if they fall over backwards!), or the savings when you don’t have to pick up another pack of diapers every time you go to the store. Take a deep breath, relax, and remember that it’s only as complicated as you make it—and once you get into a routine, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.