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Aug 14 / Caro

An Idiot’s Guide to Cloth Nappies

My name is Caroline, and I’m a cloth nappy addict.

I’m still not really sure exactly how I came to the decision to use cloth nappies. My sister-in-law used them for her first child back in 2009, and that is certainly when I first became aware of modern cloth nappies and what they entailed. I think that I like a bit of a challenge. I like to be a bit different. I was attracted to the idea of the potential cost savings, and the idea that it would be much harder to ever run out nappies because I hadn’t made it to the shops. I really liked the idea of reducing the volume of stuff in landfill. I’m not an environmental nut by any stretch of the imagination, but just the sheer space occupied by a few thousand used nappies horrified me a bit. Then I started looking at the nappies available, and fell in love more than a bit with their soft fluffiness. Before I knew it, I was building a cloth nappy stash of my very own, and we haven’t really looked back since Thomas was a few weeks old.

Cloth Bum Baby

I haven’t written about cloth nappies here, however, since our very early experiments with a newborn Thomas. But I do talk about it a lot in real life, on parenting forums and recently even on Twitter. There seems to be an increasing interest in the use of cloth nappies, but there are plenty of people whose first reaction is still “I could never do that”. Which makes me wonder exactly what they think is the most difficult part of using cloth nappies.

I won’t lie and say they are a total walk in the park. Like everything in parenting, there is effort involved. There are aspects which present more hard work than disposables, but there are some big benefits to using cloth as well. I can see, and remember, that looking in to cloth nappies for the first time can be quite overwhelming, as there is a huge variety of choice in types and styles, and some confusing terminology. So I wanted to put together a bit of an “Idiots Guide”, to answer the questions I seem to get asked most often.

To kick off with the big one:

Are they easy to use?

The short answer is “yes”. Many of today’s generation of parents wore cloth nappies themselves, but back in the 70s and 80s they consisted of terry squares which had to be folded, fitted with nappy pins and covered with stiff, scratchy plastic pants. And that is what people think of when they hear about washable nappies. Of course, you can still use nappies like this – and it’s probably the cheapest possible way of using nappies – but cloth nappies have also evolved. There are new more absorbent materials, which cut down on the bulk, better water-proof materials which are softer and more breathable, and nappies which go on just like disposables and fasten with velcro (aplix) or poppers, so no more nappy pins.

A typical nappy change involves first removing the old nappy, cleaning up the baby and then putting on a new nappy just as you do with a disposable. If the nappy is just wet, it goes straight in to a waterproof “wet bag” and later in to the washing machine. Wet bags fasten securely and there is no issue with smells. No fiddling with plastic nappy sacks, or needing to take the nappy straight to a bin. Dirty nappies are slightly more problematic, as the poo needs to be flushed down the loo, with the exception of newborn poo which can go straight in the machine. In this case I take the whole nappy to the bathroom, then lift out the liner and tip the poo away. You can also get flushable liners, in wish case you just pop the whole liner down the loo.

What about going out and about?

I take a smaller wet bag with me when we go out, and the nappy just goes in there. If I’m changing Thomas in a changing area that also has a toilet (e.g in a disabled toilet with a pull down changing table) I’ll tip the poo off there. Otherwise I take it home. It’s all contained in the bag and easy to deal with at home. Some people use cloth only at home and disposables when out and about. This is perfectly do-able, but I would dislike the hassle of having to change a nappy just because we were going out. If we’re only going out for a short trip and I don’t expect a nappy to need changing, and I’m only taking a small bag, I will sometimes just pop a disposable and a wet bag in the bag, so I can change if necessary. The biggest problem when out and about is that cloth nappies definitely take up more space in the changing bag.

And what about washing?

I wash my nappies overnight, usually every second or third day. How often you wash depends on how many nappies you have and how many your child gets through in a day, but as with everything it’s likely to be more frequent the younger they are. As I use wet bags, I just open them up and tip the nappies in to the machine. You can also store used nappies in a nappy bucket (although soaking is a thing of the past) which you can line with a mesh bag for easy transfer to the machine. I personally run a cold pre-wash cycle (rinses off any poo and helps reduce staining) and then do full wash cycle (40 degrees if no poo, 50 or 60 if poo is involved) followed by an extra rinse.

You need to avoid fabric softener, as it interferes with the absorbency of nappies, and also harsh stain removers or sanitisers. I do occasionally use Napisan, but repeated use can damage the waterproofing in some nappies. I use traditional washing powder, rather than gel or tablets, as it’s easier to control the amount used. You need to avoid too much detergent as it can clog up in the nappies making them stiff and interfering with absorbency. This is also the reason for the extra rinse at the end of the wash cycle. Because I wash overnight, I really don’t notice the 2-3 extra loads I’m doing per week.

Ideally I hang my nappies out in sunshine, as this is the best way to remove any stains (works on poo stains on clothing too), but this being the UK I do also resort to some tumble drying. I often finsih my bamboo nappies in the dryer as it really softens them up. Lots of people also have success with the Lakeland Dry-Soon Airer  (which has been on my wish list for several birthday’s and Christmas’s!)

But what about poo in my washing machine?

Have you never had a nappy leak poo on to vests or sleepsuits? Not yet potty trained an older child whose had at least the odd accident? The idea of washing machines is that stuff goes in dirty and comes out clean. The bulk of the poo goes down the toilet (which is, lets be honest, where poo really belongs, rather than festering in your wheelie bin) and I have NEVER had an issue with anything coming out of my washing machine dirty.

And what about touching poo?

If you’ve never touched your child’s poo, you’re either extremely lucky, or you’ve never actually changed a nappy. Poo is part of the territory when you are a parent. I occasionally touch poo when putting it down the toilet (no more so than cleaning out a potty, I’m guessing) but I always wash my hands after nappy changes anyway. I have friends who use disposables who in the early days had a leak out of the nappy every time their child produced a poo. And Thomas’s nursery have commented on how he has never had a poo leak from a nappy, but they happen reasonably commonly with the younger children in disposables. Avoiding touching poo as you extricate your child from a poo-covered vest is much harder than avoiding touching the poo contained in a cloth nappy.

How to get started

My advice would be not to rush out and buy a full set of one type of nappy, especially before your baby has even been born. There are lots of different types of nappy and it’s hard to know what will suit you and your baby without trying them out. It’s worth looking out for “trial kits” such as this one from Fill Your Pants   or this one from Tots Bots. Better yet see if any friends use cloth and may be able to lend you some to try out. Finally consider buying preloved. Everything comes out in the wash, so I have no problem doing this. I usually give them a couple of washes before I use them. It’s a fantastic to try different nappy types – especially the more expensive brands – without shelling out a huge amount of money.

Knowing what types of nappy to try can seem mind boggling at first, so here is my brief introduction to cloth nappies for newbies.

Types of nappy

All in one

  • All-in-one nappies: As the name suggests are all in one piece. They consist of a waterproof outer shell with several layers of absorbent material. These are the simplest type to use, as you put them on and take them off just like a disposable, but wash them in between. The drawbacks are that they often take a long time to dry and can be difficult to add extra absorbency to. Some all-in-ones, however, have sections that pull out to speed up drying and can also be boosted. (Pictured is a Tots Bots EasyFit)

Snap-in-one

  • A variation on all-in-on is the snap-in-one nappy, where the absorbent parts are snapped in to the outer with poppers, which again speeds up drying and sometimes allows more absorbent boosters to be added. (Pictured is a Close Pop-In)

pocket nappies

  • Pocket nappies: With these the waterproof outer is sewn to an inner layer (usually some kind of fleece) to create a pocket. The pocket is then stuffed with absorbent material. The biggest advantage of these nappies is that they come apart for washing and drying, so dry faster, and you also have flexibility in how you stuff the pocket, so you can adjust the absorbency and bulk to suit your baby. (Pictured are Blueberry One Size)

Two part nappies and nappy wraps

  • Two parters: as the name suggests, come in two parts – a separate waterproof outer, usually known as a wrap, and an inner absorbent material. You can get shaped nappies which go on like a disposable and you simply add the wrap over the top. There are also flat and pre-folded nappies, which are more similar to old fashioned terries and must be folded in to shape before being put on the baby and the wrap placed over the top. They can seem more fiddly than all in one or pocket nappies, but give the best flexibility and tend to work well overnight. (Pictured are a Lollipop Bamboo size 2 and Blueberry Coveralls. This is our night nappy combo of choice that we’ve been using for over a year.)

Materials

The main waterproof fabric in use is a polyurethane laminate – usually a cotton fabric laminated with poly urethane. It’s a light, durable and breathable fabric that washes extremely well. The main alternative waterproof fabric is wool, which is a very environmentally friendly choice and is extremely breathable, so good for sensitive skin. Wool does need to be lanolinised frequently to maintain it’s waterproof abilities.

The main absorbent materials used in nappies are a man-made polyester based fabric known as microfibre, cotton, bamboo and hemp. Cotton and microfibre both absorb very quickly and also dry very quickly, but don’t always hold a lot of fluid and as a consequence tend to be bulky. Bamboo and hemp will both hold a lot, but absorb more slowly and dry more slowly. They are both also cheap, sustainable and environmentally friendly to grow and harvest.

An ideal combination for nappies is often a layer of microfibre to provide quick absorbency, with a layer of bamboo or hemp to provide more overall absorbency and make the nappy last long between changes. Adding extra layers in to nappies is known as boosting and is most easily achieved with pocket nappies or two-parters.

Liners are a non-absorbent part of the nappy used to protect little one’s bum from moisture and protect the rest of the nappy from poo. You can buy disposable and flushable liners, which make disposing of poo very easy, but I find these paper liners tend to bunch up and especially get stuck to little boys’ bits. In addition paper liners don’t act a s a stay-dry layer. My favourite liners are fleece, which lets wetness through quickly, but helps keep baby’s bum dry and is lovely and soft. You can buy fleece liners, or make your own by cutting up a cheap fleece blanket. They can be made very thin, so as not to add bulk to the nappy.

Sizing

Nappies are either “sized” or “birth-to-potty”. Sized nappies come in a variety (usually only 2-3) sizes aimed to fit newborns, older babies and toddlers. The sizes are usually defined by weight.The drawback of sized nappies is you need to buy a full set each time your baby outgrows the others, so it can get more expensive. If you have children close together in age, this can work well, however. It is also usually possible to get the best fit, especially in the small sizes. Birth-to-potty nappies have poppers on the front that enable them to be shortened or lengthened to fit a range of sizes – often from around 10lb (so not truly birth for many) up to 35lb+ The downside is the extra bulk this adds when they are poppered down to newborn size.

And finally…

If things still seem confusing, I can reassure you that once you have a few nappies and a baby in front of you, it all becomes a lot clearer. Overall, I’d recommend cloth nappies to anyone. Yes, there is some work involved, but I think the lack of leaks and the potential money savings alone can balance that out. It’s hard to put properly in to words why I love cloth nappies so much, but 21 months in, it’s just what we do, and I have no intention of changing that anytime soon.

If you’re considering trying cloth, or just starting out, then I hope this has been helpful, but I’m always happy to answer cltoh nappy related questions, so feel free to leave a comment. And go for it!

(N.B This post is not sponsored in any way. These are all my own nappies, which I just happen to love!)

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4 Comments

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  1. Laurenne @ This Mummy / Aug 14 2013

    Really helpful post, thank you for this! I am so excited to buy more 🙂 L x

    • Caro / Aug 14 2013

      Thanks hon, I’m glad you found it useful! Just be careful as the funky designs are very seductive and difficult to stop buying!

  2. Carla Cram / Nov 9 2014

    Hello, thanks for this post, it is helpful. I want to buy preloved but I’m not sure how many of each size I should buy for a newborn. Not due til May 2015, but it seems hard to get a definitive answer. Money is tight so I don’t want to waste it by buying too much of the wrong thing…

    • Caro / Nov 11 2014

      Thank you.

      It’s a difficult question to answer (and the nappy days are now well behind us, so I’m a bit hazy!) I think it is much easier to get a feel for what works and what you need once you have a baby in front of you. If you really don’t want to waste money I’d say get a few different types in the smallest size and a couple of “Birth-to-potty” as well. For a newborn you’re likely to need 10 per day, (so a minimum of 20 needed if you wash once per day and have access to a dryer) but if you get just a few and are willing to mix with some disposables to start with, you can work out what you like and then buy more. Remember too that anything you buy and don’t get on with, you can sell on yourself (although you probably won’t want to be bothering with selling inthe early weeks of new parenthood!)

      Good luck! I don’t really miss nappies, but I did love cloth!

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