October 24, 2012

Our Adventures in Cloth Diapering!

This is a long epic post, so if you don't have time to read all the details, you may want to just skip on down to "Part V," where I give a quick bullet-point summary about our experience with cloth diapering.  The "bottom" line is: I like 'em a whole lot.

I think every single mommy blog out there has a post about cloth diapers, so I don't intend to write anything new under the sun, but I wanted to share my personal experience using "cloth," and my perspective on cloth diapering in a way that hopefully makes sense to someone who may be exploring it for the very first time.

I'm not an expert, but I do have over 19 months of cloth diaper experience now.  I get questions all the time from folks about how it's going, so I've made an effort to get it all in writing here. I'll try to be in-depth, but to-the-point, and all for the sake of maybe helping someone out there who's in my boat or venturing out into the world of cloth diapering like I was just two years ago.

Part I: In the Beginning...
Our Reasons: 
Mostly our reasons included saving money (top priority), being a little nicer to the Earth (medium priority), and because they're really cute and colorful (low priority).
Our Initial Questions (and Doubts): 
What if it's more laundry than I can handle? 
What the heck do we do with the poo? 
Will we really save money?
Is it going to be inconvenient and frustrating? 
What will we do when we travel? 
Our Research: 
Oh the research!  What a nightmare!
Every time I began to research cloth diapering, I would run into websites with all kinds of alien codes and jargon.

I would read a babillion conflicting reviews from moms who said these are too tight, those fit just right, the elastic went bad, they had to replace snaps, velcro's great, velcro's horrible, these leaked, those didn't, except on Sunday nights when baby had a lot of watermelon and was teething, then you need wooly-ba-doodies to stuff into your AIO2's with a hemp-this and a terry-cloth-that and a prefold thing-a-majiggly.  Whaaaaaa???

I decided I needed a more hands-on approach.  I got the word out that we wanted to cloth diaper, I entered dozens of blog giveaways for all different brands of cloth diapers (didn't win any, but hey, it wasn't a bad idea), I registered for a variety of well-known brands, I bought a couple, and several were given to us from moms who didn't like theirs for one reason or another.

So.  We wound up with a big variety and waited til we got a real live baby so we could test drive them.  Each one was far more self-explanatory once I held them in my hands and could clearly see how they worked and were put together.  Just reading about stuffing things, inserts, all-in-ones, etc was making me glaze over and I couldn't really wrap my brains around it all.  It made a huge difference to just get a cloth diaper in my hands and see how it worked. 
Our Commitment: 
We were determined to try cloth diapering, but we didn't want to set ourselves up for "failure," so I only committed to give it a good hard try, and in the meantime, I made sure I had plenty of disposables for my newborn so I wouldn't be stuck doing laundry and getting in over my head way too fast.

Part II: Diving In...

Our Cloth "Booty:"  
Once little Ian arrived, we used disposables for about one week when we thought, "what the hey?  why not go ahead and give some of these cloth diapers a try?" 
Over the next month, we wound up trying "Fuzzibunz," "Sunbabies," "Bum Genius All-in-Ones," "Thirsties," "Flips," and a variety of plastic diaper covers with basic old-fashioned "pre-folds." (If this all sounds like alien code to you, don't worry - it's not important that you know what all of those are at the moment).  In between cloth diaper experiments, we were still using lots of disposables. 
Our Top Choices: 
After a few weeks of experimenting, the cloth diaper brands that rose to the top for us were Bum Genius and Flips.  
In short, our main reasons for choosing Bum Genius ("4.0" "all-in-ones") and Flips were because they weren't leaking (no blowouts), they were simple to use, and they are a one-size-fits-all, meaning they will adjust to fit your baby from birth to potty-training (which saves more $$!).   
You can see from the various photos in this post that Ian has been wearing Flips for a year & a half now.  They have fit perfectly at all stages and there's still room to grow!
Our Investment (and # of diapers): 
Of the two "winners," Flips were much more affordable, so we decided to invest in all Flips (instead of having a big mix of different kinds). We wanted to make diapering simple and consistent by sticking to one brand.  On that note, Flips are actually a sub-brand of Bum Genius, so their laundering process is the same, which means we could use both types of diapers and store/launder them the same way.  
We kept some of the other brands and gifted others to parents who were also experimenting. 
We now have 10 Flip Covers (the colorful outer "shells"), and 21 Flip Inserts (the pads that line the inside of the covers).  This gets us through two days of diapering just fine.  Flip covers are made to be wiped out with a wet-wipe and used at least twice before sending it to the pail.  We have twice the amount of inserts as we do covers because around 9 months or so, we started double-lining Ian's diapers to prevent leaks (more about that later - see Part IV).  We also have a few Bum Genius diapers that we use on laundry days if the Flips are all in the wash.

Part III: So Now We're Cloth Diapering Parents...
Our Initial Questions (and Doubts) Answered: 
What if it's more laundry than I can handle? 
Keeping up with the laundry typically isn't an issue for us.  I wash diapers every other day (sometimes every third day if I get behind), and I have enough diapers to cover me on laundry day if I'm slow about it - which is usually the case (see above under "Our Investment" for how many cloth diapers we have). 
What the heck do we do with the poo? 
Now to this question, in the early stages of research, I just couldn't find a straight answer.  So I'll go ahead and share what I've learned right here in a nutshell. 
Exclusively breastfed babies (no solids or formula in their diets whatsoever) have waste that is water-soluble, so as gross as it sounds, you can throw those sticky yellow-poo diapers right into the wash.  
When solids come into the picture, many websites talk about how you can just dump their #2 right into the toilet, simple as that.  However, I found that Ian's diapers were too sticky for that at first (in the early stages of introducing solids) so I got really frustrated that no one was talking about what to do with "sticky poo."  In short, this is where parents use a couple different methods.  Some use sprayers attached to the toilet, we personally just dunked them in the toilet to get the majority of it off, while others have a spatula or something that they designate for diapers to sort of scrape off the stubborn solids.  
  • As a side note: I have a friend who uses a disposable on her baby during the time/s of day when her little one usually goes "#2" so that she can just toss those diapers in the trash.  Babies get to be pretty predictable with their bowel movements, so I think it's a pretty great idea if you can time it right (especially during the aforementioned transitioning phase of introducing solids to your baby's digestive system).
And indeed, after a while, your solid-fed baby really will have waste that will, 99% of the time, simply fall right off the diaper and into the toilet - no mess, no stubborn stuff left behind.  When there's an occasional "sticky poo," we dunk or scrape (with toilet paper) and don't sweat it if there's a little residue left behind.
Will we really save money? 
Bottom line: Yes.  We're saving money.   
Because we've moved a couple times and travelled so much, it's hard for us to give specific figures, but here's one example... 
Pre-Ian, we were in a rental house, doing "x" amount of laundry each week.  Post-Ian, we were doing "x" amount of laundry, plus a couple loads of baby laundry, plus a couple loads of cloth diapers per week.  After a couple months of extra baby laundry and cloth diapering, I asked Tedd if he'd noticed a significant change in our energy bills (and believe me, he's the type who notices :), and the answer?  Nope.  There wasn't a noteworthy change in our energy bills with cloth diapering in the mix. 
If you care to know more detail about our financial benefit from cloth diapering, then the next section is full of numbers and figures just for you.  Otherwise - skip over :) 
According to BabyCenter's Cost Calculator, parents spend about $72/month in disposables for the first year (about $865/year).  However, when we buy disposables, we buy an economical brand, so lets be more conservative and figure parents spend closer to $50/month in disposables.  That's $600/year in disposable diapers.   
So in the first year, we've saved a few hundred bucks.  In the second year, even if we spend another $100 in disposables (which we use for traveling), and buy some cloth accessories (like detergent), we'll probably have saved over $1000 all together.  With two children in the third year, I imagine we'll save another $500 at least (assuming our 2-year-old still wears his cloth diapers for a few months, and assuming we invest in some extra cloth for the baby). So in other words... 
1st Year (One Child)  
Our Cost: approximately $325 (for some disposables, our cloth stash, & detergents)
Average Cost: approximately $600 
2nd Year (One Child) 
Our Cost $100 (detergents & some disposables)
Average Cost $600 
3rd Year (Two Children) 
Our Cost: $150 (detergents & some disposables for two children)
Average Cost: $900 (assuming the toddler doesn't stay in disposables all year)
Total Savings*: approximately $1500+ in three years 
*These are figures based on averaging several factors.  The "total savings" is a theoretical # (and could be significantly more, but I wanted to be conservative in my estimates).
For us, saving a couple thousand dollars over a few years is worth it.  Other cloth diapering websites give crazy figures for how much you'll save if you go with cloth, but I'm guessing they're exaggerating a bit.  You can google it to do some research on your own, but the bottom line is you're probably going to save money using cloth vs. disposable.  How much you save, however, depends on so many factors! 
Is it going to be inconvenient and frustrating?
Nah.  Once you get a system going and you get the hang of lining (or stuffing) diapers, it's really not much of an inconvenience.  Wiggly babies can make things tougher, but I think that's the case regardless of cloth/disposable (teaching your baby to hold still during diaper changes is just one of those parenting thangs).   
What will we do when we travel? 
do find it difficult to travel as much as we do and cloth diaper.  A visit to once place for two weeks is no problem (granted you have access to machines), but if you're bouncing from one place to the next every couple of days, it's really just better to travel with disposables. 
I keep disposables in my diaper bag, and if I'm going to be out of the house for more than 5 hours, I usually just go with a disposable from the get-go.  I'm not a fan of carrying dirty cloth diapers around with me while I'm running errands or away from home all day.  Weekend trips are usually easier with disposables as well because you don't have to haul stinky diapers back with you, etc.  This is a sort of hybrid system we use, but we're happy with it and feel that it's a good compromise.  Even considering how often we're traveling or away from home, we still get HUGE cloth diaper usage throughout the year.

Part IV: The Cons & Troubleshooting...

It's not easy to generalize cloth-diapering "cons" because there are so many different factors that can affect your cloth diapering experience.  For example, if you have hard/soft water, the types of detergents you use, the temps of your water, whether you line-dry or machine-dry, if dryer-sheet residue is being left behind in your dryer from your regular laundry, how you store your dirty diapers, the brands and fabric-types of cloth diapers you're using, etc.
For me, this has been the most disappointing side of cloth diapering.  When you run into a problem, there's a lot of conflicting information on the internet, and there are so so many factors involved in cloth diapering, it can be very difficult to deduce which factor is giving you problems (that is, if you run into problems at all). 
That being said, and for the record, our water-type isn't particularly hard or soft, and we use popular/mainstream cloth diaper fabrics/brands.  We've tested too many a number of different detergents, we don't use dryer sheets in our regular laundry, we store our diapers in a "dry pail," and we don't often line dry in the sun.
With those factors in mind, here have been our two biggest issues with cloth diapering:
After a few blissful months of cloth diapering our firstborn, we suddenly started experiencing leaky diapers.  Oh no!  How could our beloved cloth diapers be failing us?  Fortunately, this was a pretty solvable problem.   
Time to strip.  Google "stripping cloth diapers" and you'll find an array of techniques for getting build-up off of your diapers so that they maintain maximum absorbency.  It's a really smart idea to check with your diaper manufacturer first, though, to see what they say about "stripping" that particular brand.  Stripping definitely helped our diapers to return to their wonderfully absorbent state.  
We also learned that double-lining just gave us more peace of mind overall; we put two pads/inserts inside of the diaper cover instead of just one.  When we go with just one insert (pad) in the diaper, we're careful to change our toddler every 4-5 hours to avoid any over-saturating.  For overnights, double-stuffing is a must, in my opinion.  We bought BabyKicks hemp inserts (based on some research and their great reviews) and they work wonderfully - zero problems.   
So you could say really that the leak issue has been solved.  End of story - no big deal.
Now this topic makes me shiver.  Okay, not really, but the issue with ammonia smell on our diapers, and the extreme difficulty I've had nipping it in the bud, has made me want to give up cloth diapering all together at times.
I'm going into great detail of how I've arrived at a solution, for those who are going through the same process of elimination.  Otherwise, if this topic doesn't apply to you (or interest you), you may want to skip on down to the part titled "Eureka!!"
After about a year of cloth diapering, with very minimal set-backs, there was suddenly this horrible smell coming from the diaper pail.  It wasn't the typical stinky #2-in-the-pail-smell (which most parents must bear regardless of cloth or disposables), but it was like...like...straight up ammonia!  Well, as it turns out, that's just what it was!  If you're into chemistry, Google away, but the short of it is this: there's a chemical reaction going on and the end result is ammonia.  
Really, for us, there were two scenarios:  
Scenario A: the diaper smells like ammonia after sitting in the pail for 6-12 hours (and by diaper-laundering day, it's TOXIC!) 
Scenario B: (and this is the worst) the diaper smells like ammonia ON your baby - like as soon as he/she pees, you've got a chemical reaction happening against their delicate skin!
Scenario B was pretty much taken care of with a good ole cloth diaper stripping every so often, in addition to adding another hot-water wash to my diaper laundry routine (i.e. two cycles of hot water for every load of dirty diapers instead of just one hot water cycle).  I'll go into further detail about my wash routine later (or see "Part V"). 
Scenario A was a real toughie though.  I tried stripping the heck out of our diapers (bleach, Dawn, and several hot washes, etc) but it never seemed to solve the stank-in-the-pail scenario.  
Okay, so stripping wasn't the ultimate solution.  Must be my storage method or my laundry detergent, I thought.  I began to leave the lid to the diaper pail cracked open to allow more oxygen flow so that the fumes wouldn't build up inside the pail.  It helped quite a bit, but it wasn't the end-all solution.  The smell on laundry day was still unacceptably strong!
I decided to tackle detergents next.  We used All Free & Clear and some kind of Arm & Hammer (one with no perfume, dyes, etc) and neither of these really caused a problem for the first year until the ammonia issue came up, and that's when I realized that neither was top-rated for cloth diaper usage.  So I ditched those and started using Soap Nuts; those didn't do the trick either.  I tried a detergent specially made for ammonia issues called "Funk Rock."  It wasn't the miracle-worker I was hoping for either (though it definitely took care of Scenario B above, no problem). 
Finally, I bit the bullet and ordered "Country Save" on Amazon.com.  It's one of the most popular cloth diaper detergents out there.  I figured if it doesn't take care of the smell-in-the-pail drama, then detergent must not be the source of my problem.  It was war at this point.  I was so sick of having a toxic diaper pail.  I could hardly breathe when it came time to empty the diaper pail into the wash! 
I also purchased BioKleen "BacOut," an enzyme spray that breaks down odors and is safe for cloth diaper use.  It has some excellent reviews online for removing ammonia smells.  

I was armed and ready, and here's what my experiment looked like: 
Day 1: Strip all the cloth diapers real good and have them ready for use.
Day 2: Diapers are in use.  No immediate ammonia smells when the diapers are soiled (aka "Scenario B").  So far so good. 
Day 3: Diapers still in use.  The soiled diapers from Day 2 are already smelling like ammonia.  Phooey!  Tomorrow morning is wash day. 
Day 4: I do a typical wash routine, only this time using Country Save.  I begin using the clean cloth diapers again.   
Day 5: Diapers still in use.  The soiled diapers in the pail from yesterday? Smellin' like ammonia in the pail.  Nooo!! Double Phooey!!  Nonetheless, I need to finish this "phase two" of my experiment.   
Day 6: Laundry day.  I go ahead and do my typical wash routine using Country Save again.  I begin using the clean diapers on the baby. When it's time to change a diaper, I spray "Bac-Out" on each soiled diaper before it gets tossed in the pail.   
Day 7: Diapers in use and the diapers in the pail from yesterday??  (Moment of truth here)...well, they're not bad at all!  No ammonia!!*  Hooray!! 
*The real test came on Day 8 when I unloaded the diapers into the washing machine.  Typically, this is when I literally have to hold my breath and leave the room to gasp for air to avoid the intense ammonia fumes (not acceptable)!  However, when I unloaded the Bac-Out-treated diapers, I couldn't smell any fumes in the air!  Sweet!  I will say, however, that I got a little excited and stuck my nose right down into the bag to take a big whiff - bad idea!  There is still a strong trace of ammonia (my guess is that it's due to the Bac-Out not getting sprayed on every last bit of pee-pee surface), but it definitely keeps it under control enough so that your pail isn't stinking or fuming between laundry days.  Just don't stick your nose into the bag, K?

So, regardless of having stripped the diapers thoroughly, and then using one of the best cloth diaper detergents on the market, I ultimately needed an extra boost in my routine in order to truly solve the ammonia smell build-up in the pail.  I found Bac-Out* really does the trick to keep it under control. 
*Please note that while Bac-Out is safe for cloth diapers, it contains enzymes, which will void your diaper warranty with some diaper companies (see a list here).  I personally don't intend to try to return my diapers at any point (I feel like cloth diaper companies set a long list of rules to avoid having to honor their warranties - they're going to make sure any problem you have is your fault, IMHO), but if the warranty is important to you, check carefully before using Bac-Out.
Part V: In Summary...

  • We use Flips (and some Bum Genius 4.0's).  
  • We like both snaps and velcro.  Snaps are great for toddlers (to keep them from un-dressing) and they last longer.  Velcro tabs are faster.  We have both kinds.
  • In addition to a regular Flip or Bum Genius insert, we use BabyKicks "Joey Bunz" hemp inserts at night to prevent leaks (for a total of 2 inserts: one regular and one hemp underneath).
  • We save $$.
  • We use disposables for road-trips, most travelling, short weekend trips, or long days out of the house.  For vacations or trips (over a week long) with machine access, we use cloth diapers.  
  • We use about 1 or 2 dozen cloth diapers to every 1 disposable.  I call this our "hybrid system."
  • We wash with Country Save & treat each soiled diaper with a squirt of "Bac-Out Foaming Spray" (by BioKleen) before tossing in the pail.  This has solved our issues with intense ammonia smells.
  • We wash our diapers every 48-60 hours (i.e. every other day)
  • Our wash routine is as follows:
    • Pre-Wash in Cold Water (no detergent)
    • A Regular Cycle, Heavy Soil Setting, on Hot (with 1/3 scoop of Country Save detergent)
    • An additional Regular/Heavy-Soil/Hot Cycle (no detergent)
    • A Cold-Water Rinse (no detergent)
  • We haven't noticed a significant difference in our energy bills due to cloth diaper laundering.
  • We store our diapers in a "dry pail"  (small garbage pail with lid) lined with a plastic grocery sack.  To cut down on ammonia smells, we leave the pail cracked open to allow air to circulate.
  • We have about 10 Flip Covers and 20 Flip Inserts (aka: "pads," or "liners") for our son.  This gets us through 2-3 days of diapering between washes.  We also have a few Bum Genius diapers with inserts for laundry day (in case we run out of Flips), which we like just as much.  
  • For our second-born, we have purchased/registered-for/received more Bum Genius diapers because we think they're great!
I'm sure that I've covered more details than you could ever wish to know about how we cloth diaper, but if you have any questions, please ask away!  I hope you've found this information to be helpful!

P.S. I wasn't given any kind of incentive to post about these products; these are strictly my own opinions - blah blah blah
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