People who are interested in preparedness are naturally drawn to cloth diapering, because cloth diapers provide a degree of independence and resiliency that cannot be had with disposable diapers. Toilet paper shortages in the time of COVID have gotten a great deal of attention, but there have also been shortages of disposable diapers. Cloth diapers might even be the ideal prep: it is simple, affordable, and socially acceptable to choose to diaper your baby right now in the same way as you would have to diaper you baby post-TEOTWAWKI. The easier it is to practice a prep, the more likely you are to become good at it. Unfortunately, cloth diapers look like much more work than disposables, and the last thing a new parent wants is more work. This is doubly true for new parents with little childcare experience. It is extremely tempting to press the “easy button” of disposable diapers.
I know this very well. The first diaper that I ever put on a human being was the diaper that went on my daughter seconds after my wife delivered her. Until that moment, I had been terrified of the thought of diapering. This is no accident. A common way for movies and television shows characterize a man as an idiot is to show him struggling with diapers or creating some kind of diaper catastrophe, and movies and television shows feature a lot of idiotic men. This is uncalled-for and unrealistic.
In this article, I will not be presenting an exhaustive manual on cloth diapering. Nor will I be covering the same cloth diapering topics that have already been covered in SurvivalBlog. Those articles, while very worthwhile, touch on cloth diapering only briefly, or delve immediately into advanced topics. Rather, I will be providing an introduction to cloth diapering basics (with an eye to preparedness) that should be enough to get a new parent, especially a new father, started. I mention fathers specifically because the vast majority of cloth diapering books and articles are written by mothers. For whatever reason, mommies and daddies think about such topics differently. One is not superior to the other – they are simply different. I will also focus almost exclusively on cloth diapering babies from birth to about four months of age. This is the extent of my experience, but I think it will be valuable. Getting started with a new prep is always the hardest part, and, once started, it is much easier to build new knowledge atop a well-laid foundation
As a final note of introduction, Edward, the vintage Cabbage Patch doll, will be modeling for us.
Much like growing your own vegetables or handloading your own ammunition, the startup costs of cloth diapers are higher than disposables, but they pay for themselves in the long run.
Actually, the long run is not very long at all. Amazon lists an 84-count pack of Huggies Little Snugglers newborn diapers for $24.27, giving a cost of $0.28 per diaper. Amazon also lists a six-pack of OsoKozy newborn prefold cloth diapers for $8.87. You will also need diaper covers: Amazon lists Thirsties snap diaper covers for $12.50 each. A good starting point is three dozen cloth diapers and a half-dozen covers, for a total startup cost of $128.22. If your baby consumes ten diapers per day (a realistic estimate for a newborn), it would take just forty-six days to consume as much in disposables as that initial outlay for cloth diapers. The difference is, you can continue using those cloth diapers and covers (and you now have effectively free diapers) until your baby is ready for the next size up, at about four months of age. At this point, you can turn the diapers into shop rags, donate them and their covers, or (best of all) save them for your next child and have free diapers from day one.
You can also have free diapers from day one by getting them as shower gifts. Covers, being the most high-value item in the cloth-diapering arsenal, make great shower gifts. You want these more than you want a lot of baby products.
The first thing you will need to cloth diaper your baby is appropriate laundry facilities, whether on-grid or off. If you have your own quality laundry setup, you’re good to go. If you use a laundromat or the communal laundry of an apartment building, you may have a problem. Some of these facilities specifically ban the washing of cloth diapers, or ban the use of bleach, which will be necessary on occasion. The cost of running extra loads will also add up quickly. In this situation, a cloth diaper service may be your only option. Such services pick up your dirty diapers and exchange them for freshly washed ones. I have no experience with these services, but I have been told that they quickly eat into the cost savings of cloth diapers vs. disposables, and they are not available everywhere.
Barring laundry difficulties, there are three core items that you will need: the diapers themselves (1), diaper covers (2), and a closure device (3).
There are three types of cloth diapers: flats, prefolds, and fitteds. A flat is a large, single-layer sheet of fabric. These will be discussed in more detail in the section “Cloth Diapering when SHTF,” below.
Fitteds are cloth diapers in a shape that resembles a disposable, with elastic for a snug fit around the thighs and possibly build-in snaps for closure. These are handy for overnight use, as they have a tongue or pocket which provides an extra layer of absorbency. I don’t care for them: they are the most expensive option, we have had more trouble getting them snug around our daughter’s waist than we have had with prefolds, and they are not as useful for other purposes. Worst of all, they lock you into one shape of diaper. If your baby doesn’t do well with that particular shape, you’re stuck using disposables until you find a cloth diaper that works. There are many variations of fitteds, some of which don’t have snaps, and some that have pockets for extra-absorbent liners, and some that have built-in covers. I have absolutely no experience with these.
Most of our discussion will concern prefolds, which are flats that have been folded into a smaller rectangle and then stitched together to make a solid piece. Of the three types of cloth diapers, prefolds offer the best balance of affordability, versatility, and ease of use. Edward and I will be demonstrating with an OsoKozi Bettr Fit Unbleached Prefold, Diaper-Service Quality.
There are several options for keeping a cloth diaper closed once placed on your baby. The old-style diaper pins are still available, but there are new options that are much easier and safer. Edward and I will be demonstrating Snappis, rubberized plastic straps with small hooks that grip the diaper in three places, similar to ACE bandage clasps.
Once on and secured, a cloth diaper must have a cover. The diaper’s job is to absorb the mess, and the cover’s job is to keep the mess in the diaper. The most effective and user-friendly covers are made from polyurethane laminate, which is lightweight, breathable, and strongly water-resistant. We will be demonstrating with a Thirsties Snap Diaper Cover.
The four most popular ways to put a prefold on a baby are the bikini twist, the jellyroll, the newspaper fold, and the trifold. (Yes, you have to fold a prefold. The nomenclature isn’t great.)
The simplest of these for general use is the bikini twist. Place the prefold diaper flat under your baby with the stitched edges towards the feet and head (1). Grasp the bottom stitched edge, twist it 180 degrees (2), and fold upwards (3). Lay this section directly against your baby’s skin, then bring the corners of the top section over it, and secure it with the long section of the Snappi across the waist and the short section down to the groin (4). The diaper should be even along the top and ride below your baby’s navel (this is especially important if your newborn’s umbilical cord has not fallen off yet). If the top edge of the diaper is uneven, reposition the unfolded diaper. If there is excess material, fold enough of the top-stitched edge (the one behind your baby’s back) into the inside of the diaper so that the diaper is even all around when you put it on. Folding into the diaper is critical when dealing with extra material. If you have ever used a tarp as the ground cloth of a tent, you know that you fold excess tarp material underneath the working portion of the tarp, so as not to create a bathtub effect inside the tent. Here, you want to use that bathtub effect to keep the mess inside your baby’s diaper.
Please note that the orientation of the stitching, the position of the Snappi, the even top, and how to deal with excess material will be the same for all of the other cloth diapering techniques.
Another popular method for putting on a cloth diaper is the newspaper fold. Starting with the diaper under your baby (1), fold the left and right bottom edges one over the other, so that they are in even thirds (2), then fold the folded section up (3), unfurl as much as is necessary to get coverage (4), bring the back section forward as with the bikini twist, and secure.
The jellyroll is similar to the newspaper fold, but the left and right edges of the diaper are rolled up evenly until only the middle third of the bottom edge is left open. Then fold up, unfurl, and close as with the newspaper fold.
To make the trifold, simply fold the diaper in thirds long ways, place under your baby, and fold the bottom section up. A diaper folded in this way is never used by itself, rather, it is used to in combination with a newspaper fold or jellyroll to double-up for extra absorbency. You might say it replicates the functionality of the “tongue” of a fitted diaper. If you have extra material to deal with, it may be best to fold under the front, rather than the back: this will be a very thick wad of fabric, and your baby may find it uncomfortable to lie with it in the small of his back.
(If you think the trifold looks more like a folded newspaper than the newspaper fold, so do I. Again, the nomenclature isn’t great.)
It is best to experiment with each of these techniques and determine which works best for you and your baby. My wife prefers the jellyroll, which I do not have the patience for. I started out with the bikini twist but abandoned it in favor of the newspaper fold. In general, the bikini twist only works for girls.
No matter how you put on the diaper, putting on the cover is the same, and mostly self-explanatory. Place it on your baby and adjust the size by choosing the appropriate snaps. Make sure that the edges around the waist and the thighs cover the diaper completely, or it WILL leak!
Please note that in this section, Edward was oriented with his feet towards the camera so that you could see our workspace clearly. Many changing tables are oriented with the baby’s feet to one side, rather than straight towards you. This means that when (not if, when) your baby poops during a diaper change, you are not directly downrange. This also keeps you from being directly downrange of pee with girls; for boys peeing, all bets are off. Orienting the baby with feet to the side really cuts down on this.
Before a natural-fiber cloth diaper can enter service, it must be washed and dried three times with your choice of cloth diaper detergent in cold water. This is to remove any residuals oils that may inhibit the absorption of moisture, and to fluff up the fibers to increase absorbency. These loads should only contain the diapers that you are preparing for service.
Covers can be used until soaked with pee, soiled with poop, or stinky. You must wash diapers between each use. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, her normal stool will resemble slightly thick adult diarrhea with a seedy texture, and her diapers can be thrown into the pail without any additional steps. If your newborn is formula-fed, or your older child has started on solid food, you will see solid or semi-solid turds in his diapers. They should simply roll off (though they may require some encouragement) into the toilet, after which the diaper can be thrown into the pail.
Cloth diapers, covers, wipes, and diaper pail bags can be laundered together. It is best to start with a cold water, normal wash cycle without detergent. Then, without unloading, run them in a hot-water, heavy-duty wash cycle with detergent and an extra rinse cycle. You will need to use a detergent that is rated for use with cloth diapers. We use Rockin’ Green Platinum Dirty Diaper Detergent. Do not use fabric softener, and if your machine has a fabric softener setting, disable it. Use the maximum volume of water that your machine will allow. After washing, anything made of water-resistant synthetic (such as covers or bags) should be line-dried. Diapers can be line-dried, too, but they can also be machine dried. You want them absolutely dry, and high dryer temperatures will not hurt them. Do not use dryer sheets. You might also consider washing your clothes with diaper detergent. This would simplify the logistics of laying in a good supply of detergent, and it removes any risk of buildup that might reduce the absorbency of your diapers.
Snappis can be used until they break (probably hundreds, if not thousands of times) and just need to be spot-cleaned as needed.
Dealing with Diaper Rash
The vast majority of babies, no matter how diligent their parents are, will get diaper rash at some point. There are two types of diaper rash: one is simply irritated skin, and the other is a yeast infection. If your baby gets diaper rash (especially if it is known to be the yeast infection), you will need to immediately bleach all of your cloth diapers and covers with a half-cup of bleach in the wash load, in addition to your regular diaper detergent. Until this is done, use disposables or a ready reserve of cloth diapers. Your pediatrician will most likely prescribe one or two creams: Desitin to provide a moisture barrier for both types of rash, and Nystatin to treat the yeast infection. Both are safe and effective medicines, but they can hinder the ability of a cloth diaper to absorb moisture. You will need to either strip the diapers, or preferably use a liner specifically designed to contain creams. The liner simply sits directly against your baby’s skin, and the creams, inside the diaper.
Earth Mama also makes a diaper balm with calendula and St. John’s wort which does not require stripping diapers afterward. Oatmeal baths, with a half-cup of oatmeal in about three gallons of bathwater, are also very helpful. When our daughter got diaper rash, we treated it with the prescribed Desitin and Nystatin until it was fully resolved, using an OsoKozi diaper liner, as demonstrated by Edward, below. We knocked down the beginnings of a subsequent case with calendula balm and oatmeal baths, and have had felt no need to resort to the prescription creams again.
Assorted Notes on Living with Cloth Diapers
A baby in a disposable diaper will take up substantially less room in a car seat than the same baby in a cloth diaper. If you normally diaper your baby with cloth, but happen to have her in a disposable for a car trip, you will probably need to tighten the car seat’s straps. If you’ve seen the public service announcements about car seats and winter coats, it’s the same effect.
The laundry burden of cloth diapers is not nearly as bad as you might think. It doesn’t have to be sorted and the folding takes a tiny fraction of the time required to fold a load of shirts and socks. We wash diapers about every other day.
If you are doing cloth diapers, you can also do cloth wipes. These are simply cloth rectangles about 7×9,” which are moistened with water and staged for use. Moisten about what you will need daily, and they won’t get musty. We use Charlie’s Banana wipes, which we keep moistened in a zipper pouch in the changing table, and in a hard plastic case in the diaper bag.
To store dirty diapers awaiting the wash, you will need a diaper pail and two diaper pail bags: one bag in use, and one bag either on standby or in the wash. We use Dekor-brand pail and bags.
In the diaper bag, you will need a wet/dry bag, since you can’t simply throw away the dirty diapers when you’re out and about. We have one which has a small pocket for clean diapers, and a large pocket for dirty diapers.
Meconium, the tar-like first few stools that a newborn passes, will stain cloth diapers. You can use disposables or a diaper liner until the mature stool emerges, stain-treat the diapers afterward, or just not worry about the stains.
Clean prefolds make better burp rags than most purpose-made burp rags.
(To be concluded tomorrow in Part 2.)