Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Finally, I start the cloth diaper series....

...I've been meaning to write since I started this blog. But, I've held off. For something that should be as simple as what to put on baby's bum, there is a RIDICULOUS amount of information out there on cloth diapers. And how to wash them. And how to store them. And which kind is best.

My children are 4 1/2 and 2 1/2 years old. The older one potty trained completely right at three years old. My daughter is still in diapers. I began cloth diapering my oldest when he was 2 months old, and my daughter from birth.

Last year, nearly everyone I knew got pregnant and had a baby, and I got a lot of emails asking about cloth diapers. I spent a lot of time sharing what I had learned and repeating myself over, and over...and before another wave of babies comes through my circle of friends, I want to share this series on what I've learned about cloth diapering in the last almost-5 years, and I will try to make it as simple as possible. But before I get into the styles of cloth diapers, the differences between them, etc, I wanted to write a post on the differences between cloth vs. disposable, and what you can reasonably expect from cloth diapering, should you choose it.

I won't spend a ton of time on why people choose to cloth diaper, but rather just a short list of a few of the most common reasons:

  • Cost/the economy (on average the cost of disposables over the diapering period is between $2000- $3000...and you get none of that money back...just thrown in the trash, whereas cloth can be as cheap as a few hundred dollars over the diapering period, to as much as $1000 depending on the style and brand, but much of that money you get back by selling them after the child is done with them)
  • The environment
  • Health reasons (Dioxin, a chemical found in disposables is a known carcinogen)
  • They're so STINKIN CUTE!
Now on to what you can reasonably expect from cloth diapering. Some cloth diapering friends and I had a good laugh the other day, about how common it is for people who cloth diaper to "fudge the truth" a little bit about how easy and carefree cloth diapering is. The truth is, sometimes cloth is SO much easier than disposables. Other times, it can be a royal pain. I feel it is only fair to pull back the curtain and let potential future cloth diaperers know how things REALLY are cloth diapering a baby.

In the early days, when the baby is small, particularly if the baby is breastfed, cloth diapering really honestly is a breeze. First of all, the elastic in the diaper or cover is stronger than in disposables, so you have far fewer newborn poop blow-outs. Which means fewer clothing changes mid-day, and fewer of those awful bright yellow stains up the back of your favorite outfit for your baby (or stains on YOUR favorite shirt, from wearing your baby during said blow-out, as has happened to me). The diapers don't stink too badly (if baby is breastfed), and they are easy to clean. The poop is so runny you don't even need to rinse them first. (Honest!) It all just dissolves and leaves with the wash water. So when they're small, the diapers work better than disposables, they're cuter, they're cheaper in the long run, and I would argue they're even better to deal with post-diaper change than disposables, because you just throw them in the wash with no hand rinsing and you're done...they're not sitting in a Diaper Genie collecting funk and you don't have to take it outside to the trash. You also don't run out of diapers in the middle of the night, like has happened to me during short stints when I've used disposables. (Even if all your cloth diapers are all dirty, nearly anything can be made into a diaper in a pinch.)

When your sweet baby gets a little older though...things start to change. The honeymoon is over. You begin to wonder why the diapers are starting to stink so badly after he pees. You wonder what to do now with REALLY nasty poops with solid food in them that you clearly cannot put in your washer without it screaming in revolt. Suddenly you have to worry about either pre-dunking diapers in the toilet (isn't that the nightmare everyone has about cloth diapers and why so many choose not to?), or buying a diaper sprayer which costs more money and is only slightly less gross. And stripping diapers. And why do my diapers suddenly smell so bad even when they're washed? And why are they leaking all of the sudden? And why, after stripping them, am I having the same problem again a few weeks later? What's the best detergent? What's the best wash routine? It gets maddening!

And then one day you find yourself with a pail full of dirty cloth diapers that stink so bad of ammonia they could burn your nose hairs, and some of them have poop crusted on so bad from days of you avoiding rinsing them out, and it becomes very tempting to just throw the whole gosh-darned thing in the trash...all several hundred dollars worth of it...and go buy some Huggies. (Confession time: I've done this more than once, and so have a few of my friends.)

I have tried nearly every detergent, I've tried numerous wash routines, and I've used every kind of cloth diaper in an effort to avoid all the above listed problems with cloth diapering an older baby. And my detective cap has come out a few times wondering why this is such a huge problem now-days with cloth diapering an older baby, when ALL babies were cloth diapered throughout human history until the late 1970's. What gives?

And this is where I say we expect WAY too much out of cloth diapers. First, we expect them to be the washable version of a disposable. We expect them to hold a gallon of liquid without smelling and without leaking. Numerous studies have found that due to the super-absorbing chemicals in disposable diapers, people are changing their babies' diapers less and less often...we're a busy people after all and don't have time to change diapers every time they're wet. No matter how gross and unhealthy this is, we don't smell it with disposables because they contain chlorine that masks the smell.

So, in our effort to make the "washable disposable"...the diapers are made with elastic...and 8 to 10 layers of fabric sewn together...and synthetic fabrics like microfiber and Zorb that hold 7 times their weight in liquid, but don't rinse out as well in the wash. And because we're busy, they sit in a dry diaper pail for two to three days before we wash them. (okay...or SEVEN) During this time, the urea breaks down into ammonia, which is the nasty smell that burns your nose hairs. Add to it that most washers are now HE--using precious little water (I don't even think they get normal clothes clean, let alone diapers containing human waste), and detergents now have more and more additives, fragrances, softeners, and citrus oils....It's just a recipe for disaster no matter how you slice it.

Fifty years ago, cloth diapering was a different ball game than it is now. Diapers were made of 100% cotton, and most were flat diapers that were only one layer thick (the fold and pin kind). there were no HE washers, detergents had fewer additives, and cloth diapers were washed EVERY.DAY. They also changed diapers more often, and potty trained their children at a MUCH earlier age than we tend to do now. (And there is no evidence that the children were psychologically scarred because they were potty trained completely by two years old, either.) I suppose the fact that they were in cloth that didn't absorb as much, and that they changed more often, also led to a baby who was ready sooner to be potty trained. Why go on the potty when I've been trained for two or three years to go in my pants, and the diaper leaves me feeling dry even after I go?

The Solution?
Wool Soaker (cover) I made from a thrift store sweater
Well, I would suggest the most obvious solution is to use flat diapers with wool covers. Wool covers are the most bulletproof cover out there, they're ADORABLE, and they don't stink of ammonia when they're wet. I will address wool in more detail in another blog entry.

People get scared of flat diapers and pins because we've been trained to think they're difficult and antiquated. But really they're not at all difficult to use, they're trimmer than some other cloth diapers (fits better under jeans, etc), they're the cheapest option, and they fit from birth to potty training. I would also suggest washing more often. Like, daily. And don't use an HE washer. Diapers need WATER running through them to truly get clean. Flat diapers can get clean in an HE better than other diapers can because it's only one layer thick, but still, when it comes to diapers, the more water in the wash the better. We could all also use a little bit of SLOWING DOWN. Perhaps if we don't have time to change our babies' diapers  more often, we've got too much going on and should reprioritize.  Our pastor just did a sermon series on this very topic. Here's a funny video about being unhurried that my husband made for the series.

I know few people who cloth diaper are going to give up their HE washer and their all-in-one diapers. So, my advice for keeping the ammonia funk to a minimum is:

1) If you have an HE washer, there are a few things you can do to get more water flushing through your wash cycle with the cloth diapers only. If you have an HE top loader, you might have a setting that allows for more water. On my mom's, this is the "bulky" setting for pillows and such. It will fill the water to the top like a standard washer. If you have a front loader HE, you may have this same wash option, or you can pour extra hot water through the opening where detergent goes. You can also "trick" your washer into thinking there is more to wash than there is by adding a soaking wet towel to the wash load. The extra weight of the wet towel will make the washer "think" there is a larger wash load, and add more water accordingly.
2) Part-time EC (elimination communication, also known as infant potty learning). It is not a new concept and is still the default in most of Africa and China. I will post about it in more detail in a future post. Few people will EC full-time, but doing it occasionally isn't difficult, will cut down on the number of dirty diapers, and will make it easier to potty train your child completely down the road. Again, more detail on how to do this later. But if you're itching to learn more, you can google "Elimination Communication" and find lots  of good articles and books.
3) Change diapers more often.
4) Either rinse the diapers (including wet ones) immediately, use a wet pail to store them in, or wash them daily. The more time diapers have to just sit, the more time the urea has to break down into ammonia. And poopy diapers are MUCH easier to rinse out if you do it immediately after the diaper change.
5) Use a good detergent that rinses clean or make your own.
6) If you've part time EC'd your baby from birth and made an effort to potty train them sooner, this doesnt' become as much of an issue, but when they do get older and have big grown up man poops in their diaper...these really are awesome. Disposable, flushable diaper liners catch the poo, then you just throw it in the toilet. 

Cloth diapering doesn't need to be a nightmare. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. Maybe our expectations are just a little too high.

More later on types of cloth diapers, EC, detergents, and wash routines. Stay tuned!

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