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The Ultimate Guide to

Reusable Nappies

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

When I was pregnant and thinking about nappies or diapers, I felt overwhelmed by the information on reusables. So many types of reusable 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!

BABY! This is a reusable block, so whatever edits you make in it will apply everywhere it is used. If you want to remove this disclaimer from a post then be careful to delete the parent block (type ‘Reusable Block’ – icon is lego brick), and not to delete the group, image and/or the paragraph blocks (cos then they’ll be deleted from every instance of the reusable block).

Disclaimer: This post contains ethical affiliate links that I genuinely recommend. I may receive a small percentage of any purchases you make as a result of clicking those links. This comes at no extra cost to you and helps me to run this site. Read my full disclosure

Table of Contents

What are the advantages of reusable nappies?

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

  • They save you money
  • No nasty chemicals
  • Less nappy rash
  • No poo-namis!
  • Cloth nappies are super cute!
  • They create less waste

They save you money

Did you know you could save almost £1,500 on nappies by going reusable?! That’s based on the cost of supermarket nappies for 2.5 years of disposables (£1,875, minus £400 average cost of cloth nappy stash).

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 at least. They 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 they absorb differently to disposable (more on that later). As a result, the parents are more aware of when the nappy needs changing. 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!

Reusable nappies have proper elastic around the legs and back. That means even the most explosive poo rarely breaks through the barricades. I had only one poo-splosion in just over a year and a half of using cloth nappies!

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.

What are the disAdvantages of cloth nappies?

Cloth nappies do have some disadvantages that fans don’t often talk about. Disadvantages to reusable nappies include:

  • More effort, more laundry
  • They’re not as absorbent as disposables
  • They can be a hassle when you’re out
  • They’re bulkier on your baby

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 spend time sorting, folding, reassembling and putting away that extra laundry. This is why I’m not ashamed to say I ended up just doing cloth part-time. Before then 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 absorbency you’re using (see below for my cloth diaper absorbency chart). However I have yet to find a reusable combo that lasts up to 12 hours like a disposable.

Once Ursula magically started sleeping through the night, it became a real problem for me. The only reason she’d wake was due to a wet nappy so I switched to eco disposables. Finally we got a full night’s sleep.

They can be a hassle when you’re out 

They take up more space in your nappy bag and you have to carry around the dirties. If your child blesses you with a massive unflushable poo at the start of a day out, you may end up carrying it around all day.

They’re bulkier on your baby

For cloth nappy fans, the ‘cloth bum’ look is super adorable. Personally though, I’m not a huge fan of the big cloth bum look.

Lovely organic brands like Frugi 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.

It’s personal preference though whether you care more about the way your child’s nappy looks or the advantages of reusable nappies.

Are cloth nappies better for the environment?

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 in sustainability.

Recycling charity WRAP estimates that the UK alone throws away approximately 3 billion disposable nappies each year. That’s based on 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. Even so-called biodegradable nappies struggle to break down in a landfill environment. That’s because there is no oxygen or movement to help the decomposition process. 

A 2008 report by the Environment Agency showed that cloth nappies can have up to 40% lower global warming impact than disposables. But, importantly, 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 always two thirds full. This is as full as it can get while still cleaning the nappies properly
  • Using the same nappies for more than one child 
  • Switching to a green energy supplier to cut the carbon emissions from running your washing machine 

Are cloth diapers sanitary?

Cloth nappies are sanitary and hygienic if washed and cared for properly. If anything they are usually more hygienic than disposables. This is because they get changed more frequently so urine stays next to your baby’s bottom for less time. 

Are reusable nappies worth it?

A lot of cloth nappy users find that yes, reusables are definitely worth the extra effort and initial investment. The financial savings alone are big enough to motivate many.

They do have their flaws and are by no means the perfect solution. 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 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 appalling. 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 to help you try cloth without investing heavily. If you’re in the UK, Bell’s Bumz have started the first nationwide nappy incentive scheme, which is amazing. 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:

  • All In Ones (AIOs)
  • Pocket Nappies
  • All In Twos (AI2s)
  • Two-Parters
  • Flats & Prefolds

Every type of cloth nappy has 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 either inserts or boosters.

In terms of sizing, reusable nappies are either sized from newborn through to toddler sizes, or as Birth To Potty (BTP) size with adjustable poppers.

BTP nappies don’t usually come into use from birth though. They’re way too big for the average newborn. Depending on the size of your baby, they won’t be usable until several weeks or months later.

Sized nappies fit the baby more snugly. Once your baby grows out of them you would have to spend more money on the next size up though.

I’ll go into the different types of cloth diaper materials in the next section. 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

Pocket nappies

  • Comprises a waterproof outer shell with an opening at the back into which you stuff absorbent insert/s. 
  • Quick to dry
  • One of the cheapest cloth nappy systems available

All In Twos (AI2s)

Two-parters 

  • Comprises of a shaped absorbent nappy and separate outer wrap. 
  • Excellent absorbency. Great for overnight or long car drives. 
  • Take a long time to dry
  • On the more expensive side per nappy as you’re buying two parts separately. However the wraps can be used with other systems such as AI2s and prefolds. 

Flat and prefold nappies

  • A large piece of absorbent fabric clipped around the bottom using a plastic catch. A waterproof wrap then covers the fabric
  • An excellent option for fast-growing, fast-peeing newborns. Very inexpensive and quick to dry
  • Can be fiddly to fit but practice makes perfect
  • Pads continue to be useful beyond their use as nappies. Provide excellent spit-up material for young babies and a lifesaver when you get to potty training!

What are the different types of cloth nappy fabric?

Reusable nappies, nappy booster pads and inserts come in a variety of different materials. They all have pros and cons in terms of the most absorbent material vs the fastest drying. The different types of cloth nappy fabric are:

  • Charcoal – quick drying, slower absorbency and lower capacity
  • Microfibre – quick drying, faster absorbency and higher capacity
  • Cotton – slower drying, faster absorbency and higher capacity
  • Bamboo – slower drying, fast absorbency and very high capacity
  • Hemp – very quick drying, slow absorbency and highest capacity

There’s no right answer as to which is the best type for you to choose. However, I’ve created the cloth diaper absorbency chart below to help you see the differences between them.   

Please note that you should NEVER put microfibre nappy inserts against baby’s skin without a protective fleece liner. It will cause a very nasty rash. 

How to use nappy liners

Nappy liners are placed between the nappy and baby’s bottom.

They 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 drawing away moisture. 

Disposable liners create more waste and therefore reduce the positive environmental effects of using cloth nappies. Despite manufacturer claims, they must never be flushed down the toilet.

I personally made my reusable liners from a basic IKEA blanket cut up into rectangles. 

How many reusable nappies do I need a day?

How many cloth nappies you need depends on the age of your baby, whether you use cloth nappies full or part time and how often you want to wash them. For a quick formula, multiply the number of nappies you normally use per day by the number of days in between washes. Then add five extra.

Reusable nappies need to be changed more often than disposables so here’s how to work out exactly how many cloth diapers you need below:

Birth to six months old

10-12 nappies per day × number of days between washes (1, 2, or 3)

Then add 5 as the minimum number of nappies you’ll use while your others are in the wash. 

If my newborn averaged 11 nappies a day and I did laundry every three days, I would need 38 nappies.

You can see that this is why something like prefolds work well for newborns. 38 prefolds will cost you considerably less than 38 AIOs.

Six months upwards

6-8 nappies per day × number of days between washes (1, 2, or 3)

Add 3 as the minimum number of nappies you’ll use while your others are in the wash.

If my toddler was averaging 7 nappies a day and I washed every two days, I’d need 17 nappies. 

For how many nappies you need for part time, adjust the number of nappies per day and how many you’ll need while washing. 

How often to change cloth diapers?

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 these issues 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 need a bit more attention than disposables when fitting. They take a bit of getting used to but after a while it will become second nature. 

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. Again, The Nappy Lady is here to help with some instructional videos on how to fold and use cloth diapers:

How to wash cloth nappies

Cloth diaper wash routine

If you can’t afford a nappy laundry service, you’ll need to get into a good cloth nappy wash routine.

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

  • Take the nappy off, flush any poo down the toilet and store the 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, living under the bathroom sink. I bought it in a hardware shop for about £5.
  • After no more than two days, put them on a short wash at 40-60° with detergent. If you are doing the main wash on day three, pre wash daily and store somewhere.
  • For your main wash, fill the drum up to between to ¾ full. You need that extra space so that the nappies will agitate well. It’s fine to add baby clothes if you need to bulk it out. 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 two hours in length. This should NOT be an eco cycle as this will contain insufficient water to clean them properly.
  • Dry the nappies. Nappies should ideally be air-dried but can be tumble dried on a low heat if necessary. 

Always use a 60° wash in the following circumstances:

  • If baby is under 3 months
  • When two babies are using the same nappies
  • If baby has a history of rashes or other skin reactions
  • When your baby is unwell or has just had the rotovirus vaccination
  • If you live in a communal environment.
how to use cloth nappies

How to wash cloth nappies for the first time

NEW NAPPIES

New microfibre cloth nappies should be washed at least once before use to remove any chemicals from the manufacture process.

Nappies made from a natural fabric such as cotton, hemp or bamboo will need to be washed between 5-6 times before use . This is to make sure they reach full absorbency as well as strip out residue oils.

Always check the manufacturer’s instructions as some recommend more washes before use. 

SECOND HAND NAPPIES

If you’re buying nappies second hand, go a bit more hardcore in washing them for the first time. You don’t know how well these preloved reusable nappies have been washed in the past. You also don’t know what infections or viruses the previous baby may have had so sanitise them properly.

I recommend signing up to the Clean Cloth Nappies® website and using their science-backed methods. The membership is very cheap and they can help you with costs if you’re on a low income.

How do you wash cloth diapers with poop?

If your baby is exclusively breastfed, you’re in luck. They 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 liner made from a cut up fleece blanket. This 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 bidet spray. This is due to the possibility of water contamination. Consult a professional plumber rather than try o install one yourself (unless you happen to be a 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. However 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, go for a 60° when you wash cloth diapers with poop. For non-PUL elements such as inserts, you can wash them up to 95° of you need to sort out stinks and stains. 

What is the best detergent for cloth nappies?

The Clean Cloth Nappies® site (CCN) recommends Ariel original washing powder as the best detergent for cloth nappies.

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 prefer to use Bio D detergent alongside their nappy sanitiser. It’s true that this combination doesn’t clean as thoroughly as Ariel. However, the impact of the chemicals in regular detergent on our planet and my family’s health is more important to me personally.

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. You can tumble dry them on a low heat though, if necessary. Be aware that this may shorten the life of your nappies. Also, you should never tumble PUL fabric as it may melt. 

Washing cloth nappies with other clothes

As long as you prewash your reusable nappies as described above, washing them with other clothes is perfectly fine. I usually add Ursula’s clothes and any other small items such as tea towels and cloth wipes. 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, I assumed it was pretty clean!

But it turns out all washing machines should be cleaned once a month to keep them working well. If you use cloth nappies then part of your routine should be to clean your washing machine twice a month.

I do it once on the 1st of the month and again two weeks later. I use half a cup each of white vinegar and soda crystals in the drum and run the empty machine 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. Your ideal reusable nappies aren’t necessarily going to be the same as mine or ClothLovinMama1989 on Mumsnet. 

That said, I will share with you what worked for us and what I would do differently 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 , 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 three TotsBots and a couple of Baba+Boo pocket nappies. I think it’s very useful to have some quick and easy to use nappies like these.

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 was very happy with my pocket nappy stash for my toddler. The only thing I’d change is to have more hemp inserts so we could go longer between changes.

Best cloth nappies for night time

TotsBots Bamboozles and Bamboozle 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 though. They’re pretty bulky and she kept waking up trying to move onto her side. I then resorted to eco disposables, but given my time again I’d try Petit Lulu Maxi Nights for a slimmer fit. 


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
reusable nappies uk guide

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