GroVia cloth diaper. Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Blais

Babies produce a lot of waste, both from their bodies, and in the trash because of it. Using cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers are a great way to reduce your family’s contribution to the waste stream, protect the health of your child and save money along the way.

However, reusable nappies come with a learning curve and may be intimidating for squeamish parents and family members.

Modern cloth diapering is a bit different from the practices of generations past. There are a number of styles and fits for parents to choose from that make the whole process a little less messy and intimidating.

In 2014, when Chelsea Blais was pregnant with her first son, she decided she wanted to give cloth diapers a shot to save money, reduce trash and avoid the chemicals often present in disposable diapers.

“Once you get past that learning curve, they’re easy to use and you save a ton of money,” Blais said.

After her experience, Blais served as a cloth diaper educator and advocate for a cloth diaper brand, GroVia. Blais has since stepped back from those responsibilities, but she is still passionate about cloth diapers.

Elizabeth Powers, associate professor of English at the University of Maine at Augusta, also decided to use cloth diapers when she was pregnant with her first child in order to decrease her household waste. Friends and family provided a “starter stash” at her baby shower.

“Our second was born three years later, so we still had all the supplies and kept it going,” Powers said.

Powers said that cloth diapering has had unexpected benefits for her extended family that she convinced to make the switch.

“In pandemic times, cloth diapering also reduces grocery runs,” Powers said. “My cousin, parenting a 4-month-old last March, was grateful to be able to lean on her cloth diaper supply when store purchases were hard to come by.”

Why use cloth diapers

Though environmental stewardship is high on the list of reasons why parents might venture into cloth diapers, Blais said that when she was a cloth diaper educator and advocate, the thing that convinced most people to join the movement was the cost savings.

Purchasing cloth diapers comes with an upfront cost, usually a couple hundred dollars to get a full set, though you may need more depending on how often you are able and willing to do laundry.

“In the beginning we recommend at least 20 to 25 diapers for a newborn and that’s if you want to wash every other day or every third day,” Blais said.

There are other supplies that you might need, including replacement inserts and wet bags, which are waterproof reusable bags that are used to hold used cloth diapers. Powers said to look into neighborhood and parenting networks, as well as Facebook groups dedicated to cloth diapering, for parents who might be willing to pass along supplies they no longer need for cheap or free.

Even if you purchase new supplies, though, Blais said that it pays off quickly, and you can use them for all your kids throughout the years.

“You can spend $20 a week with disposable diapers and with cloth diapers you invest a couple hundred dollars and they last through all your kids,” Blais said. “You can easily save thousands of dollars over the course of how many kids you have.”

Health is another factor for parents choosing to make the switch to cloth diapers. Bleaching disposable diapers leads to a byproduct called dioxin, a carcinogen that has been linked to damaging the liver, immune system and reproductive system. Disposable diapers can also contain chemicals like tributyl-tin that cause hormone disruptions to marine ecosystems, as well as volatile organic compounds that can cause skin irritation, kidney damage and impairments to the nervous system. Some disposable diapers can also contain “fragrances,” a catchall term for combinations of oft-toxic chemicals that companies are not required to disclose.

“That was a big issue for me,” Blais said. “You can buy disposable diapers that are better, but then you’re spending even more money.”

Also, cloth diapers often work better than their disposable counterparts.

“I never got blow outs,” Blais said. “It could be the fit of the diaper. It just really contains everything very well.”

The challenges of cloth diapers

Cloth diapering comes with its challenges, like finding the right diaper for your child.

“You have to get the right fit on the baby so you’re not getting a gap and leaking onto their pants,” Blais added. “It’s kind of trial and error and what you like. There’s different types and it depends on what you’re comfortable with. You can switch it as they grow. ”

There are a few different types of cloth diapers: pocket diapers, which come with a shell and a removable pad; all-in-one diapers, where all the elements are sewn together; flats, which are a single layer of fabric that can be folded in a variety of ways; pre-folds, which are similar to flats but sectioned off to make folding easier; and fitted diapers, which are shaped to fit your baby’s body.

“The wide range of types and brands of cloth diapers can be overwhelming,” Powers said. “I recommend parents start with a few different types and build as they see what works best.”

Then, there is getting your friends, family and childcare professionals on board.

“The biggest thing is getting your friends and family and even your daycare on board with it,” Blais said. “Educate the people around you about how to use them and how they’re beneficial. Reach out to a cloth diaper advocate in your area.”

Even with the best advocating, though, some daycares — and loved ones — may refuse. Blais said the squeamishness is easy to get over once you realize the reality of the situation.

“No matter what diaper you use, you’re going to have to deal with poop or pee multiple times a day,” she said.

There is also something of a learning curve to using cloth diapers. Joining cloth diapering and parenting Facebook groups and other forums are helpful.

“Those first couple of months as a new mom with my newborn baby, everything was new and overwhelming, and it was the same thing with cloth diapers,” Blais said. “Once you learn, as with everything else, it’s really second nature.”

Another challenge is laundry.

“There’s so much laundry,” Powers said. “We did diaper wash every other day, separate from towels and clothes. It would have been impossible to keep up with without a home washing machine.”

Blais said to keep it simple, and over time, you will figure out what washing style works best.

“I would do two cycles,” Blais said. “My first cycle would be just a regular cycle with warm or cold water generally and one cup of Tide. When that’s done, I’d do a heavy duty cycle with warm or hot water, and then you just put them all in the dryer.”

Blais said that she washed her cloth diapers separately from her other laundry, and kept them in a diaper pail or wet bag over the course of the week. That amount of laundry might be prohibitive, though, depending on where you live and the tools you have available.

“I remember talking about cloth diapering with friends who live in areas where water conservation is a pressing issue,” Powers said. “They were shocked and appalled at how frequently I ran the wash. I was privileged to have diapers as gifts from family and friends, privileged to have a working washing machine at home, and privileged enough to have enough flexible hours in the week to keep up with the laundry.”

Making cloth diapers work for you

If you are attracted to the benefits of cloth diapers but concerned about logistical elements, you can incorporate them into some parts of your diapering routine and use disposable diapers for others. Powers, for example, used cloth diapers at home, but kept disposable diapers for traveling and daycare.

“It doesn’t have to be a full-time, all-in thing,” Blais said. “It can be when it’s convenient for you.”

Blais added that cloth diapers are easier to manage on-the-go than you might think, though.

“Most if not all cloth diaper companies sell wet bags,” Blais said. “You can put it in your diaper bag and have an extra cloth diaper there. You just zip it up until you get home. It doesn’t leak, you don’t really smell it or anything.”

Powers said to just make sure your friends and family are educated about cloth diapers — especially if they are hoping to help out.

“I remember an acquaintance, aiming only to be helpful, rummaging through my diaper bag to try to find a pacifier for the fussy baby while my attention was directed elsewhere,” Powers said. “When I heard her yelp, I realized I should’ve warned her not to open the wet bag inside — the squishy surprise she felt was, of course, not the pacifier.”