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[Editor's note: Baby warning! If you don't have a baby, you probably won't be interested in this!]
In the months leading up to our daughter Lily’s birth, my wife and I did a bunch of research about all the stuff we’d need. It was overwhelming, seeing just how much stuff is involved in adding a new human to the mix. It was in fact so overwhelming that I quickly entered this mode of trying to minimize how much stuff we’d need, and after visualizing the hundreds of diapers – estimates averaged around 8-12 diapers per day – we’d have stocked up in Lily’s room, I started researching cloth diapers.
At first, I assumed the cloth vs disposable debate was simple: ultimately cheaper, a lot more work, and kinda gross. I looked into cloth diaper services, which seemed like a great option for us, since we both work full time, and, as first time parents, wanted to dedicate our time to other stuff.
Since we live in the Greatest City on Earth, it’s only natural that there’d be lots of options for diapering services. Basically, these services provide and drop off a bunch of diapers once a week, and pick up the dirty ones to clean.
Services I found ranged in price from about $30 per week to as much as $60, with the differences based on little add-ons like wipes, but primarily on whether you get “pre-folds” or “all-in-ones”. All of the services touted how green they are, with almost all of them including the word “green” in their name. Very few detailed how much effort you’d save by using their service, so I continued believing cloth diapers were a huge effort.
Cloth Diaper Types
One of the first posts I came across when trying to understand the difference between “pre-folds” and “all-in-ones” proved to be incredibly valuable: Baby Gear Lab’s “Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: How and what to choose?”.
In it, they detail the biggest differences between cloth and disposable, but more importantly, they illustrate just how many options there were within the cloth diaper universe:
All-in-Twos, apparently abbreviated as AI2, are the kind of cloth diapers common in the ’50s, and thus what most people think of when they think of cloth diapers. They include an outer waterproof cover, and an inner absorbent cloth insert.
More importantly for my quest, these were the “pre-folds” that all those diapering services offered, and looked like a real pain in the ass. I’m sure this isn’t exactly the case, but pre-folds look difficult to manage and kind of gross, with the primary (only?) benefit being its low price.
A different type of AI2 is called a “hybrid,” which Baby Gear Lab described as being about the same, but with a better fitting insert, which can sometimes protect the outer cover well enough that you needn’t wash it with each insert change. This means you need fewer diapers, which drastically reduces the overall lifetime cost.
All-in-Ones, abbreviated as AIO, are very similar to AI2s, except that the insert is connected to the outer cover. These are more convenient because you needn’t deal with multiple parts fitting together, but need to be washed with each change and, because they’re one big piece, often require longer drying times.
Baby Gear Lab didn’t hesitate to sway their audience away from AIOs, suggesting instead either hybrid AI2s or Pocket diapers.
These types are all starting to sound similar – Pocket diapers are just like hybrids, except the insert actually goes inside the outer cover, in a pocket. In other words, there’s a soft layer between the baby and the absorbent liner, and an outer waterproof cover, but the whole things is only two parts.
Because the liners go inside the cover’s pocket, this also means that you can stuff more liners in the pocket for times when you need more absorption, like at night, or if your baby just tends to pee a lot.
The downside of pocket diapers is that you need to change both parts with each change, which means you need more of them. Using the estimate I noted above of 8-12 diapers per day, you’d probably need about 36 diapers, which makes pockets the most expensive of the three types.
Remember, the point of my research was primarily to figure out what exactly cloth diapering services provided to justify spending up to $60 per week. And, aside from providing between $300 and $700 worth of diapers, the most significant services provided are pickup, dropoff, and cleaning. The pickup and dropoff are no benefit to me if I can launder myself, so how valuable is that last part?
From my research (and imagination), I broke the laundering process into:
- time needed
First and foremost, you’re dealing with poop. And if I understand the purpose of a newborn’s body correctly, lots of it.
Some people recommend getting a diaper sprayer, a device you hook up to your toilet to spray most of the poop off.
Other people recommended a wet pail, which is a nasty pool of filth into which you toss your baby’s poopy diapers.
But no way around it – cloth diapers put you much more in touch with the result of all that feeding than do disposable diapers, which you merely fold up and toss out.
The frequency with which you wash your cloth diapers boils down mostly to how many you have on hand, with a bit of variance based on how often your baby does the deed.
From almost everything I’d read, this meant about 8-12 diapers a day, and most diapers I looked at suggested washing them at least every three days. This means a stock of roughly 36 diapers, so you can have a few on hand while washing the rest.
Note that if you end up getting hybrids, this number can be 30-50% less, because you needn’t wash the outside cover each time.
All of the diapers I looked at recommended several cycles before first use, and most of them recommended a cold rinse followed by a hot wash for normal laundering. Nothing special here, except that washing these diapers separately from our normal laundry means an extra two cycles every couple days.
But the real kicker is with drying: Nearly all of the cloth diapers I looked at needed to be air dried.
Unfortunately, we live in a small condo, not some farm with a backyard with a nice breeze blowing through on a warm summer afternoon. So the idea of dedicating some 20% of our living area to a drying rack, every two or three days, bordered on unacceptable.
I found three diapers that could be machine dried, and all of them were pocket diapers:
After we gave it some good thought and discussion, machine drying became so important that we narrowed down our options to these three.
Our Choice / Plan
In the end, it was a no-brainer to not use a diaper service. They may be an excellent option for some people, but for us, the need to be around to receive deliveries was more of an inconvenience than simply having the washer/dryer on a couple more times a week.
Rather than going all-in on a single brand/model, we decided to get a couple different ones before Lily was born, wait for her umbilical cord to fall off (so we needn’t worry as much about size/fit), and then try each one a few times to see which she prefered and which worked best for us.
We also got a Wegreeco dry pail($14.99), which we hang from Lily’s changing station.
It’s now been about a month, and that plan was worked incredibly well.
We’ve bought another dry pail so we could have one available while washing the other.
It’s disappointing that the Fuzzibunz are only expected to fit for a year because they fit perfectly now, and are incredibly adjustable. I can see, though, that Lily will soon grow out of them, because the size from belly to butt can’t expand.
Because they fit so well, we’ve had no leaks with these, and wound up buying two more, even though we expect to only use them for about a year.
The Bumgenius diapers come mostly in solid colors, which look great. They fit Lily well, and leave plenty of room to grow. Even better, they come with two sizes of liners, so as Lily grows and her needs change, we have lots of options.
These leaked a tiny bit of pee when Lily would lay sideways while feeding. We thought it was a fault of the diaper design, but eventually found that our disposables (and the other cloths) did the same.
These wound up being our favorite choice, despite the minor leaks. They’re so far the best bang for the buck, and the flexibility means they’ll remain valuable for years to come.
We’ve since bought 10 more of these, making them our primary choice.
These were Baby Gear Lab’s top pick, so we expected to love them. Unfortunately, they leaked quite a bit, and Lily seems kind of uncomfortable wearing them. This is mostly due to the fact that there’s far more material, and folding it to fit a new born makes it very very thick.
We expect these will end up being a better fit in a few months, so we don’t regret buying them, but we did not buy more in our second round.
We still use disposables somewhat regularly. Lily’s grandparents are more comfortable tossing soiled diapers, so we keep some around for them, and they’re much easier to deal with when out and about. They’re also a bit easier in the middle of the night when frustration runs high and you just want your problems to go away.
Who knows how much we saved, but my guess is it’s a lot.
Baby Gear Lab’s favorite disposable diapers have an estimated lifetime cost of $2,160, which is astronomical compared to our total spend of about $500 plus electricity costs for washing. Even more, we opted to deprioritize cost, emphasizing convenience and comfort instead. So for parents living on the cheap, going cloth seems like a no-brainer.
(Note: we do pay for electricity in our condo, but water is included as part of monthly assessments.)
No doubt, we end up going through a lot more water, and using more electricity washing and drying, compared to disposables.
But the sheer amount of material going into landfills for 8-12 disposable diapers a day, being hauled away from our condo daily, taken out from Lily’s nursery to the garbage chute? I can’t even imagine.
I’ve read several analyses of the different environmental impacts of each, bur minimizing that waste alone makes me sleep better at night. (Plus, the diapers we’ve chosen score very highly on “green” materials.)
I’m very glad we’ve gone cloth. I won’t push anyone to make the same decisions, nor would I judge anyone for making theirs differently. But this has worked out exceptionally well for us, and I hope this has been helpful for any new parents trying to decide for themselves.
(Special thanks to my pals Jeremy and Amy, whose enthusiasm and advice for cloth diapers had no small influence on my decision!)