The Dirt on Cloth Diapers

By LIZ F. KAY/ecoRI News contributor

Let’s be honest: poop happens.

All parents of infants have a close encounter of the fecal kind at some point — a diaper blowout that will stain a crib sheet if you’re lucky, or your clothes if you aren’t.

This is true whether you decide to use disposable diapers or if, like my family, you choose reusable ones. Many people want to know whether we use our home washing machine to clean them, and I’ll satisfy your curiosity: we do.

But the bottom line (pun intended) is that all parents eventually wash a load with poop at some point, unless they’re tossing all poop-stained causalities directly in the trash. That might be a solution for footed pajamas, but a car seat is pricier to replace. However, since I already wash diapers, I also already have a system in place to handle any unfortunate items that come in contact with excrement as well.

My husband and I decided to try cloth diapers for our daughter for several reasons. We were concerned about sending human waste to a landfill. We both have sensitive skin and worried she might react to the chemicals in disposables. Disposables are also expensive, and so are cloth diapers, but the latter usually pay for themselves over time.

More and more families are giving cloth a try. At Bellani Maternity in Warwick, R.I., manager Rachel Hallene teaches cloth diapering workshops to about 10 couples every other month, turning many into evangelists who spread the word to others.

“Each of those people are then saying, ‘I’m doing this. You can do this, too,’” Hallene said. “It seems like once you start doing it, you start talking to other people about it. It’s not just the crunchy moms who are cloth diapering. We have people from every walk of life who are coming in for different reasons.”

She switched to cloth after her oldest son, now 5, had chronic diaper rashes that caused chemical burns and required prescription-strength burn cream. Hallene researched cloth diapers on her own and her son never had another rash after they switched.

The cost savings are clear. By some estimates, you can save up to $2,000 if you use cloth diapers from birth to toilet training. Another bonus: children usually toilet-train earlier while using cloth. Hallene said her two oldest, both boys, were toilet-trained before 2, she said.

Reusable diaper design has advanced quite a bit from the style babies wore in cartoons and in New Year’s decorations. Google cloth diapers and you’ll come up with a wide variety of options.

You can still wrap your baby in a “prefold,” the simplest and cheapest route. But you don’t need a diaper pin — there are better fasteners, as well as waterproof covers made of breathable fabrics, instead of the plastic or rubber pants earlier generations used.

There also are “all-in-one” diapers that function just like disposables, but are the most expensive and can take longer to dry. Pocket diapers couple waterproof covers with absorbent inserts, so each part dries separately — but you have the additional step of reassembling them before using.

We did a lot of research online and took a cloth-diapering workshop at Bellani Maternity. But we weren’t convinced it was the right choice for us until we talked to a friend, the parent of twin boys, who gave us a pep talk. If they could do it, we figured we could too. And when we were investigating day-care options, our top choice accepted cloth diapers, too.

To start out, we signed up for the cloth-diaper trial at Bellani Maternity. For $100, we got 10 different gently used cloth diapers, as well as a wet bag to store soiled diapers and a few samples of detergent. We used the disposables from the hospital for the earliest days, but after our daughter’s digestive system regulated in the first few weeks, we started using the trial. It was tough to keep track of what insert went with which cover, and I confess I found myself sticking with the all-in-ones.

When the trial was due back, we weren’t sold on any of them other than the all-in-ones. I did more research online and bought some samples. Ultimately, to maximize convenience and cost-effectiveness — and minimize our contact with soiled diapers — we chose one brand of pocket diaper because its inserts agitated out on their own in the washing machine. With 15 diapers, we do the wash every other day or so.

Our wipes are reusable too, but not as fancy — we just wet squares cut from my husband’s old undershirts, along with some soft baby washcloths, and wash them along with the diapers.

Speaking of laundry, let’s get back to poop. This is our most frequently asked question. Breastfed babies have water-soluble bowel movements, so for the first few months we would put the diapers in a wet bag until laundry day. Formula-fed babies and kids old enough to eat table foods have more solid waste. At that point, you can use a diaper sprayer — picture the one next to the faucet in your kitchen sink, only this time attached to a toilet tank — or put flushable liners inside diapers to catch any solid waste. We use flushable paper liners and wash and reuse them if they are just wet.

When the bag is full, we dump the entire contents in the machine, add the wet bag and rinse in cold water. Next, we wash in hot water with detergent.

The green police would shake their fingers at us, pointing out that we use a lot of water and energy on all these extra loads of laundry — and we’re already doing at least two extra loads a week with just baby items. It would lower our energy expenditure if we line-dried our diapers, but it would also require us to buy many more diapers so we would have some to use while waiting for others to dry.

We wanted to save money by using cloth diapers, but the initial outlay was expensive. The diapers we chose cost $15 each, not to mention the wet bag. Also, we are lucky to live in housing that includes a convenient washing machine and dryer. There are ways to cut costs, by joining a diaper co-op, or buying used diapers on Craigslist or sites like Or, you could sew your own, using patterns and materials from your local fabric store.

Now it’s confession time: we cloth-diaper, but not 100 percent of the time. You could supplement with disposables when needed. Our baby didn’t have the bad reaction to the disposables that we feared, so we use them while traveling or if we failed to complete the laundry in time. Still, a box that usually lasts a month in a typical household lasts three in ours.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Hallene said. “It can be very flexible.”

Overall, we’re satisfied with our decision. But it might not be the right choice for every family, especially if you pay per laundry load. I’m glad it worked out for us, though — in the hierarchy of household tasks, laundry is definitely better than taking out the trash.