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The Ultimate Guide to

Reusable Nappies

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/ by Gudrun Getz M.A. / September 25, 2019

When I was pregnant and starting to think about nappies or diapers (I use both words throughout this post for SEO purposes), I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information and reusable nappies advice to process: so many types of cloth nappies, different cloth diaper material and jargon like ‘wicking’ and ‘booster’. 

What I needed was a one-stop guide to reusable nappies to help me make sense of it all, so that’s what I’ve tried to create for you here. I hope it helps you – if it does, please share it with other cloth-nappy-curious mamas!

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Table of Contents

Why use cloth nappies: Cloth nappies vs disposable

In many ways, cloth nappies are so much better than disposables. Some of the advantages of reusable nappies include:

They save you money

Based on an average of two and a half years of nappy use before potty training, you could save almost £1,500 on nappies (average cost of supermarket nappies for 2.5 years = £1,875, minus average cost of cloth nappy stash = £400). Also, in the UK we have real nappy council incentive schemes to help you start your cloth journey.

No nasty chemicals

…unlike disposables which use plastic, bleach and sodium polyacrylate, and other toxic substances associated with health risks. Even if you decide against cloth, I urge you to switch to eco-disposables that use natural, sustainable substances such as wood pulp and bamboo and are kinder to your baby’s bits and bobs.

Less nappy rash

This is probably because the parents are more aware of when the nappy needs changing as they absorb differently to disposable (more on that later). It’s important that you know how to wash cloth nappies properly to get the full benefits of a rash-free botty.

No poo-namis!

Because reusable nappies have proper elastic around the legs and back, even the most explosive poo rarely breaks through the barricades. So far I’ve had only one poo-splosion in just over a year of using cloth nappies and I blame that on a large portion of kiwi (kiwis are now banned until Ursula can deal with the consequences herself…!) 

Cloth nappies are super cute!

Gone are the days of the massive triangle of terry toweling and an oversized safety pin. Modern cloth nappies now come in a huge range of designs that are genuinely something to get excited about. 

They create less waste

…and with a proper cloth diaper wash routine are better for the environment.

Are there any reasons why cloth diapers are bad?

Real talk: I’m NOT one of those fanatical cloth bum mums who thinks reusables are perfect and that everyone can or should use them – there ARE some disadvantages to cloth diapers! 

More effort, more laundry

Many cloth nappy advocates will tell you, “Oh it’s not THAT much extra laundry – just bung them in with what you’re already washing”. Well, yes, you can bung them in with other laundry (more on a good cloth diaper wash routine below), but it’s a fact that full-time cloth bumming increases your laundry load. You’ll also have to spec time sorting and folding all those nappies, filling them with inserts if you use pockets (see below for the different types of cloth nappies) and putting liners into them. This is why I’m not ashamed to say I only do cloth part-time. When I did it full-time I felt like I was doing endless laundry and my mental wellbeing suffered hugely as a result.

They’re not as absorbent as disposables

It depends on the type of reusable nappies and type of cloth diaper absorbency you’re using (see below for my cloth diaper absorbency chart) but I have yet to find a reusable combo that lasts up to 12 hours like a disposable. Now Ursula has magically started sleeping through the night, that’s a real problem for me as she wakes up wet in the night with cloth. 

They can be a pain when you’re out 

They take up more space in your nappy bag and you have to carry around the dirties, so if your child blesses you with a massive, super messy/sticky, unflushable poo at the start of a day out you may end up having to carry it around with you all day until you can get home and scrape it off. You can seal it up in a good quality wet bag of course but let’s face it, it’s much simpler to throw it away.

They’re bulkier on your babe

For cloth nappy fans, the ‘cloth bum’ look is super adorable and, given that you can buy clothes that are cut for cloth, it’s no big deal. Personally (*looks around for cloth bum fanatics and speaks in a hushed tone*) I’m not a huge fan of the big cloth botty look. Lovely brands like ethical, organic company Toby Tiger intentionally design their clothes with cloth nappies in mind, but I found that if Ursula was in regular leggings then reusable nappies would stretch the fabric and look bumpy. I usually buy second hand but, for those high-quality clothes that I do buy new from somewhere like Boden, I feel it’s a real shame to stretch out and ruin the line of the clothing. It’s personal preference of course whether the aesthetics of your child’s nappy is something you really care about in the face of the advantages of reusable nappies, but I’m just saying it’s a thing.

Are cloth nappies better for the environment?

Recycling charity WRAP estimates that the UK alone throws away approximately 3 billion disposable nappies each year, with each child using between 4,000-6,000 from birth to potty training. 

Each of those nappies will theoretically take between 200-500 year to decompose, and even so-called biodegradable nappies struggle to break down in a landfill environment with no oxygen or movement to help the decomposition process. 

In the BBC documentary The Secret Life of Landfill, presenters dug up a perfectly in-tact newspaper from the 1980s and read it like they’d bought it that morning. If newspaper can’t break down in a landfill, you can bet that even the most bamboo-laden environmentally friendly nappies will struggle. 

So from a landfill point of view, yes, cloth nappies are definitely better for the environment. But environmental impact doesn’t stop at landfill – production, resources, carbon emissions and water usage all play a part here too.

Some critics and sceptics of cloth nappies question whether the increased laundry involved in maintaining reusables means that their carbon footprint and use of water outweighs the environmental damage caused by disposables.

A 2008 report by the Environment Agency showed that cloth nappies can have up to 40% lower global warming impact than disposables, but only when used responsibly. This means:

  • Never washing over 60 degrees 
  • Line drying wherever possible and tumble drying as little as possible
  • Making sure your load is two thirds full (this is as much as you can fill it with nappies in order for them to agitate fully and clean well) 
  • Using the same nappies for more than one child 
  • Switching to a green energy supplier such as Bulb to cut the carbon emissions from running your washing machine 

Are cloth diapers sanitary?

Cloth nappies are perfectly sanitary and hygienic if washed properly (see below). If anything they are usually more hygienic than disposables as they get changed more frequently so urine stays next to your baby’s bottom for less time. 

Are reusable nappies worth it?

Overall I would say yes, reusables are definitely worth the extra effort and initial investment. The financial savings alone are big enough to motivate me to keep using them and the thought of sending 4,000 nappies to landfill in Ursula’s nappy-using lifetime fills me with horror. They do have their flaws and are by no means the perfect solution, and I also don’t think you should feel guilty about sticking with disposables or only clothing part-time. We all have to use some kind of nappy (unless you’re going super-hippy-mum and doing elimination communication in which case all power to you) and there’s only so much each of us can do to save the planet.

how to use cloth nappies

That said, 3 billion nappies being sent to landfill every year is pretty appalling and if every parent in the country just used one reusable a day we’d cut that figure hugely. There are nappy libraries and real nappy council incentive schemes designed to help you try cloth without investing loads of money first, so give it a go – you’ve got nothing to lose and we all have a whole lot to gain. 

How to use reusable nappies

What are the different types of cloth diapers?

There are different types of cloth nappies that work in different ways and serve different purposes. Every cloth nappy will have an absorbent part and a waterproof part. You can add separate absorbent inserts to in order to increase your cloth diaper absorbency – these are known as both inserts and boosters.

In terms of sizing, reusable nappies are either sized or come as so-called Birth To Potty (BTP) with a series of adjustable poppers. It’s worth noting that BTP nappies don’t usually come into use from birth – they’re way too bulky for the average newborn and, depending on the size of your baby, won’t be usable until several weeks or months later (16 weeks in Ursula’s 25th percentile case). Sized nappies (which are one of your options for newborns) fit the baby more snugly and are a great choice for those who aren’t into the big cloth bum look. For a while I had some sized Bambooties and gNappies, both of which I loved using for this reason. Of course once your baby grows out of them you have to spend more money on another stash which is why I ended up just adding to my BTP collection instead.

I’ll go into the different types of cloth diaper materials in the next section, but first here are the basic different types of cloth nappies and some of the pros and cons of each:

All In Ones (AIOs) 

  • Come all in one piece with absorbency attached to a waterproof outer shell known as a wrap. 
  • Most similar to the disposable nappy and therefore often the easiest for people to start off with. A popular choice for use by relatives and child-minders as they’re very difficult to put on incorrectly. 
  • Take longer to dry than other nappy systems as all the absorbency comes attached in one piece
  • Often more expensive than other systems. For this reason I only have three AIOs in my nappy stash (the TotsBots Easyfit Star). If I could afford an entire stash full of TotsBots though I probably would as they’re so easy to use and the prints are SUPER cute 😍

Pocket nappies

  • Comprises a waterproof outer shell with an opening at the back into which you stuff absorbent insert/s. 
  • Quick to dry due to the two-part nature of the system. The PUL outer shell dries super fast and the inserts are small enough that they can dry in a day or less, even indoors. 
  • One of the cheapest cloth nappy systems, which is one reason they make up the majority of my stash. We use Alva Baby and they work really well for us, although the microfibre insert that comes with them isn’t the most absorbent so I boost them with a bamboo Little Lambs booster.

All In Twos (AI2s)

  • Somewhere in between a pocket and an AIO, with a separate waterproof outer wrap and absorbent inserts that pop into the gusset. Close Pop Ins and TotsBots Peenut Pads are among the most popular brands of this type of nappy. 
  • Fairly quick drying time as the pads tend to comprise of two relatively thin layers.
  • Low level of investment as the inserts are generally inexpensive and you can reuse the wraps for more than one nappy change.
  • A very flexible system that can easily be boosted without adding a lot of bulk.
  • Both the pads and wraps can be used in other systems such as pockets and two-parters if you don’t get on with them so it’s a worthwhile trial purchase. Personally I didn’t get on with AI2s as I found them really finicky to fit without getting leaks, but I know a lot of people swear by them so they’re worth a try. 

Two-parters 

  • Comprises of a shaped absorbent nappy and separate outer wrap. 
  • Excellent absorbency so these are great for overnight or long car drives. 
  • Take a long time to dry – with the exception of super hot days you’re probably looking at a full day’s drying time on the line outside and more like 1.5-2 days drying inside. 
  • On the more expensive side per nappy as you’re buying two parts separately,  but the wraps can be used with other systems such as AI2s and prefolds. 
  • I happily used the TotsBots Bamboozle with extra Peenut pads (a combination I called the TurboNappy) as her overnight system up until she started walking. She then became more active in her sleep and the bulkiness of the nappy woke her up when she tried to roll over. Up until then I found it an excellent system and highly recommend having at least one set in your stash.  

Flat and prefold nappies

  • Possibly the most familiar version of reusable nappies, this is slightly updated version of Terry cloth nappy but without the hazardous safety pins. A large piece of absorbent fabric is clipped around the bottom using a plastic catch and then a waterproof wrap covers the whole thing. 
  • An excellent option for fast-growing, fast-peeing newborns as they’re super cheap, quick to dry and take up relatively little space among all the mountains of newborn equipment you’ll inevitably have. 
  • The main disadvantage is the fiddliness but flat/prefold fans assure me that they’re a breeze once you get used to them (they’re the only system I haven’t tried). 
  • Pads continue to be useful beyond their use as nappies too as they provide excellent spit-up material for refluxy babies and protection when you have a naked baby on your lap! 

The different types of cloth nappy fabric

Reusable nappies, nappy booster pads and inserts come in a variety of different materials that have pros and cons in terms of the most absorbent material vs the fastest drying. 

There’s no right answer as to which is the best type for you to choose but take a look at my cloth diaper absorbency chart to help you see the differences between them.   

One thing you should remember is that you should NEVER put microfibre nappy inserts against baby’s skin without a protective fleece liner as it will cause a nasty rash. 

How to use nappy liners

Nappy liners are placed between the nappy and baby’s bottom and serve two functions: firstly they collect poop, making it easier to dispose of down the loo. This is true of both disposable and reusable liners. Reusable liners (usually made of fleece) also help to keep baby’s bottom dryer by “wicking” away moisture. 

Disposable liners create more waste and therefore reduce the positive environmental effects of using cloth nappies. Also, though many claim to be flushable, they must never be flushed down the toilet, so you have to find some other way of disposing of them. 

After not getting on pre-made fleece liners, and feeling the pinch of the cost of disposables, I now use reusables that I made from a basic IKEA blanket and then cut up into rectangles. 

They work fantastically well as I could make them nice and big to provide maximum wicking impact, and the smoothness of the fleece seems to facilitate poo dropping off the liner and into the loo nice and easily. It was also a super cheap way to get plenty of liners in my stash and never have to worry about running out. 

How many reusable nappies do I need?

How many cloth nappies you need depends on the age of your baby, whether you’re planning to do full or part time cloth and how often you want to wash them. I’ll go into the cloth diaper wash routine shortly but you can work out how many cloth diapers do you need from the formula below:

Birth to six months old

10-12 (nappies per day) × number of days between washes (1, 2, or 3) + 5 (minimum number of nappies you’ll use while your others are in the wash). 

So if my newborn averaged 11 nappies a day and, like a sensible postpartum mum I only wanted to do laundry every three days, I would need 38 nappies. You can see that this is a reason why something like prefolds work well for newborns as you’ll save a great deal more money than you would using, say, sized newborn AIOs. 

Six months upwards

6-8 (nappies per day) × number of days between washes (1, 2, or 3) + 3 (minimum number of nappies you’ll use while your others are in the wash).

So if my toddler was averaging 7 nappies a day and I had a cloth diaper routine of washing every two days, I’d need only 17 nappies. 

To work out how many nappies you need for part time cloth diapering, simply adjust the number of nappies per day and the number you think you’ll need while washing the others. 

How often to change cloth diapers?

My personal experience of reusable nappies is that they’re not as absorbent as disposables unless you boost the absolute crap out of them and make them super bulky. Depending on your baby’s age and wetness you may need to change them as often as every 2 hours. You’re actually supposed to change them every 2-3 hours for hygiene purposes anyway.

Do cloth diapers leak?

As with disposables, leaking nappies occur when they’re either full or fitted incorrectly. They may also have been overstuffed with boosters or be under tight clothing, both of which will place pressure on the nappy causing a compression leak. The problem of leaking cloth diapers can usually be solved by adjusting the fit, absorbency levels or clothing. 

How to put on a cloth diaper correctly

Cloth nappies require a bit more attention than disposables in the fitting. They can take a bit of getting used to but once you know what you’re doing it will become second nature to put on a cloth diaper correctly. 

Below are some videos from The Nappy Lady on how to fit different kinds of cloth nappy.

How to fold flat cloth diapers and use prefold cloth diapers

I’m not experienced with this nappy system myself but again The Nappy Lady is here to help with some instructional videos on how to fold cloth diapers and how to use prefold cloth diapers:

How to wash cloth nappies

Cloth diaper wash routine

If you’re not going for the option of a nappy laundry service, you’ll need to get into a good cloth diaper wash routine.

I’ll go into the full details of how to wash cloth nappies below but if you’re looking for a quick and simple guide, a classic cloth diaper routine goes like this:

  • Take the nappy off the baby, dispose of any poop down the toilet (see below) and store the soiled nappy in a bucket with a lid. Don’t fall for the expensive nappy brand buckets – your local market trader, hardware or pound-plus shop will probably have one at a fraction of the price! This is ours to the left. I bought it in a hardware shop for under £5 – we keep it in the bathroom.
  • When it’s time to do a load, put them on a short wash to rinse through – this should be a simple rinse, not a pre-wash, and you should NOT use detergent (this is to avoid gradual detergent build-up on your nappies). You should also make sure to set it at 40 degrees to prevent ammonia build up.
  • Washing cloth nappies with other clothes is fine, so add any other items to wash (small items such as baby clothes, tea towels etc are best) and fill the drum up to between ½ to ¾ full. You need that extra space so that the nappies will agitate well. Use between ½ to ¾ of the recommended detergent dose and no more, again to avoid build-up. Never add fabric softener to a wash containing nappies.
  • Run a 40-60° cycle of at least 2-hours in length. This should NOT be an eco cycle as this will contain insufficient water to clean them properly. Always use a 60° wash in the following circumstances:
  • If baby is under 3 months
  • If two babies are using the same nappies
  • If baby has a history of rashes or other skin reactions
  • If your baby is unwell or has just had the rotovirus vaccination
  • If you live in a communal environment.

Nappies should ideally be air-dried but can be tumble dried on a low heat if necessary. 

how to use cloth nappies

How to wash cloth nappies for the first time

Cloth nappies made from primarily synthetic fabrics such as microfibre should be washed once before use to remove any chemicals from the manufacture and packing process. If your nappies are made from a natural fabric such as cotton, hemp or bamboo, they will need to be washed on average between 5-6 times to reach full absorbency and to strip out residue oils. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions though as some recommend even more washes before use. 

How do you wash cloth diapers with poop?

If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you’re in luck – they happen to have water-soluble poop so you can stick their soiled nappies straight in the washing machine and wash as normal. Once babies start to eat solids, you need to get as much poop off the nappy as possible before they go in the machine. Possible ways to go about this include:

  • Using a fleece liner made from a cut up IKEA blanket, which allows everything but the runniest, stickiest poo (#sorrynotsorry, this is my life) to just plop off (pun intended)
  • Using a dedicated poo knife or mini spatula to scrape it off. Obviously keep this in a safe place in the bathroom and weeeellllll away from the kitchen…! 😷
  • Hold reusable nappy liners in the toilet and flush the loo, which should spray most of the poo off. I use a silicone oven mitt to hold the liner and scrape off any last stubborn bits.
  • Have a bidet sprayer installed into your toilet and spray the poop off. Bidet or ablutionary showers are popular across Europe, the US and predominantly Muslim countries but less so in the UK. It’s important to know that the laws surrounding water flow in the UK are different to the continent. Your house insurance or rental agreement may be compromised by an incorrectly fitted shower due to the possibility of water contamination. I therefore recommend consulting a professional plumber and not attempting to install one yourself (unless you happen to be that professional plumber obviously!) 

What setting do you use to wash cloth diapers?

Use a setting that will run for at least two hours and is NOT and eco or water saving setting. This might seem counterintuitive since we’re partly using cloth nappies to be more environmentally friendly, but eco settings don’t distribute sufficient water to properly clean them. I personally add an extra rinse to my cycle as well to help prevent detergent build-up.  

What temperature do you wash cloth nappies in?

Most types of cloth nappies recommend a 40-60° wash as the best temperature to wash cloth diapers in. If you choose non-bio washing powder it is advisable to go for a 60° when you wash cloth diapers with poop. 

What is the best detergent for cloth nappies?

Unless your nappy manufacturer states otherwise, the best detergent for cloth nappies is non-bio – this is not so much to do with skin sensitivity as it is protecting the fabric. You should only use powder (NOT liquid) and put it straight into the drum rather than the drawer. Again, this is all to help combat detergent build up. 

As an ethical consumer I personally recommend Bio D as both the best detergent for cloth diapers and the best non bio washing powder for babies. As well as doing a brilliant job of cleaning your reusable nappies, it’s vegan, cruelty free, biodegradable, ethically produced and comes recommended by Allergy UK so it’s a great hypoallergenic detergent for babies with sensitive skin. 

The only detergent NOT recommended for nappy use that I am aware of is Ecover as it has been found to make nappies susceptible to detergent build up and shortens the life of the nappy. 

How often do you wash cloth diapers?

Your cloth diaper wash routine should allow for soiled nappies to be washed a minimum of every three days. 

How to dry cloth diapers

Air drying is the best way to dry cloth nappies but you can tumble dry them on a low heat if necessary. Be aware that this may shorten the life of your nappies and that you should never tumble PUL fabric as it may melt. 

Washing cloth nappies with other clothes

As long as you do a separate rinse of your reusable nappies first as described above, washing cloth nappies with other clothes is perfectly fine. I usually add my daughter’s clothes and any other small items such as tea towels. The only downside is that you can’t add fabric softener to the wash. 

How often to clean your washing machine

If you’re anything like me, you might wonder why you need to clean your washing machine given that it spends the majority of its time full of water and soap, but all washing machines should be cleaned once a month to keep them working well. If you use cloth nappies then part of your cloth diaper wash routine should be to clean your washing machine with vinegar and soda crystals twice a month: once on the 1st of the month (easy to remember) and again two weeks later. I use half a cup each of white vinegar and DP soda crystals in the drum and run the washing machine (empty) on a 3 hour 90° cycle 

What are the best reusable nappies?

I always say that there is no best reusable nappy – there are reusable nappies that are best for you and your baby. All babies and toddlers are different, as are you, and so your ideal reusable nappies aren’t necessarily going to be the same as mine or ClothLovinMama1989 on Mumsnet. 

I highly recommend either borrowing a kit from your local nappy library or, if you don’t have one nearby, using your real nappy council incentive scheme money to buy a few different reusable nappies to try out before you invest your own money. I wish I’d done this, as many of the cloth nappies I bought for Ursula when I was still pregnant turned out not to be suitable and I ended up selling them on at a loss. 

All that said, I will share with you what worked for us and what I would do differently (if there’s ever a) next time:

Best reusable nappies for newborns

I loved the TotsBots TeenyFit STAR for Ursula’s first reusable nappies – they’re easy to put on and difficult to get wrong (which is exactly what you want as a bleery-eyed new parent), plus the prints are too cute for words. They are a pricey option, however, and like all AIOs they take a while to dry. 

If I were building my newborn cloth nappy stash from scratch I’d get us maybe three TotsBots and three Bambooty Easy Dry (an excellent sizedAIO that doesn’t take forever to dry). I think it’s very useful to have some quick and easy to use nappies like these for when others are doing changes, or for taking out and about when you don’t want to have to fiddle about in changing rooms. The rest of the stash I’d fill up with prefolds and wraps for use at home, since these are economical way to build enough of a stash for newborn use. 

Best reusable nappies for toddlers

I’m very happy with my Alva Baby stash and the only thing I’d change is to have more hemp inserts so we can go longer between changes. Ursula has very much decided she does NOT have time for a nappy change every two hours and will literally get up and walk off if I don’t move fast enough!

Best cloth nappies for night time

TotsBots Bamboozles and Peenut Pads combined with their Peenut Wrap are an excellent night time cloth nappy. For us they were unsustainable once Ursula became more active in the night as they’re pretty bulky and she kept waking up trying to move around, but I was very happy with what I called the TurboNappy combo up to then. I also hear great things about the Petit Lulu Maxi Nights. 

So there you go, that’s pretty much everything you need to know about how to use modern cloth nappies. I hope this guide proves useful for you – happy cloth botty-ing!

love, Gudrun

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