My Experience With Reusable Cotton Diapers

I’m Emily, Kudos’ lead engineer and mom of three beautiful humans aged three and under. And this is my cloth diapering experience. 

I could have titled this post “How I Cloth Diapered my One-Year-Old as I Potty Trained my Two-Year-Old While I Was 8 Months Pregnant” but that seemed more like a cry for help than an attention-grabbing headline.

Me with my two kiddos when I experimented with reusable cotton diapers. It’s hard to tell but I am seven months pregnant, too!

My cloth diapering experience started when my husband could not reorder our typical disposable diaper on Amazon. This was March 2020, the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. All things disposable were backordered - paper towels, wipes, and yes even diapers. We were hard at work bringing Kudos to life, but we had not established a steady supply of our disposable cotton diaper yet, so Kudos was not yet an option for me to turn to.

Being a good engineer-mom, I immediately ratcheted back our consumption of diapers by attempting nap-time potty training with my oldest, who was two at the time. (Full disclosure: We tried Elimination Communication with him and had good success, but we had no faith in him while sleeping so we continued nap and nighttime diapering even when he was “potty trained” during the day.) I also looked up alternatives to disposable diapers. What happened if I couldn’t get my hands on our normal diapers for months? It was a crazy time, so I decided to take a crazy step: look into cloth diapering.

Cloth diapers, or reusable cotton diapers, are the classic diapering solution. They are your grandma’s diapers. In contrast, a disposable diaper is the standard of the day, appearing on more than 95% of baby bottoms. And a disposable cotton diaper, now that is what Kudos is here for! 

My good friend Jen had cloth diapered all four of her babies, including a set of twins! If she could do it, I figured I could try. To me, the advantage of a reusable diaper was that I was opting out of the pandemic frenzy and opting into an eco-friendly practice of diapering my babies.

100% cotton diapers for sensitive baby skin and not having to worry about having enough diapers? I’m in! 

There were a ton of options to try when it comes to reusable cotton diapers, and it felt like information overload when I Googled “baby cotton diapers” online. (Note: if you want more info on different diaper styles, I recommend Dirty Diaper Laundry - they are a great resource if you need more details about where to start with reusable cotton diapers.)

 

The prints on cotton diaper covers are super cute, but I said “no thanks” to all the poo cleanup.

Initially I dipped my toes into the reusable diaper world with some 100% cotton prefolds and covers. This seemed like the most affordable diaper option, and I would be able to reuse them as newborn baby cotton diapers. It took me some time to figure out the best way to use the prefolds, so I practiced on a baby doll. I ended up using the “angel fold” with an elastic device called a Snappi, as that seemed to prevent leaking the best.

Prefolds and covers were indeed pretty affordable, but each diaper change with a reusable cotton diaper took me about twice as long as it did for disposable diapers.

Blame it on a squirmy toddler and the poo cleanup (more about that later) but there was a real difference in how long it took.

The angel fold using a prefold cotton diaper, as practiced on my daughter’s doll.

After a couple weeks with prefolds, my girl Jen generously (Jen-erously?) let me use her cloth diaper “stash” which consisted of a mix of the all-in-one (AIO) and pocket diaper styles. The AIO and pocket diapers were pretty easy to use and much faster than the prefold-and-cover method, but two downsides became immediately obvious. First, the poop. Then, the laundry.

So. Much. Poop. Everywhere.

On my baby. On the toilet seat when I tried to knock the poop into the toilet. In the sink when I tried to wash it off after unsuccessfully attempting the aforementioned toilet poop knock-off. On my hands. On my clothes. In the wet bag and finally in the gasket seal of my front loading washer.

The main reason cloth diapering poos were worse to clean up than disposable diapering poos was the desire to get poop (and accompanying bacteria) out of the diaper before putting them in the laundry wet bag or the washing machine. This meant attempting to wipe the poo off into the toilet using toilet paper, or dunking it into the toilet water. Neither of those methods worked well for me. If I had truly committed to reusable baby diapers, I would have spent money and time to install a sprayer/bidet on my toilet and learned to use something like this splash shield. In the meantime, my attempts at keeping poop out of my laundry resulted in poop getting on other surfaces.

Gross.

Laundry became a real drag with reusable diapers. I was dedicated to avoiding a stinky diaper hamper, so I started washing the reusable diaper laundry every other night even though I had enough diapers to last four days between washes. These extra loads of laundry can add up to a lot of extra water usage (see insert). 

 A study from the UK compared disposable diapers with reusable cotton baby “nappies.” I did some math using the study’s figures of 75 liters of water per wash and 7 liters of water per flush along with my pattern of about one poopy diaper requiring a toilet flush per day and 3.5 extra laundry loads per week. By those estimates, in my two month cloth diapering experience I used 2492 liters (658 gallons) additional water. If that pattern continued for the 2.5 years it takes on average to potty train, that would be 40,495 liters (10,698 gallons) of water per baby in cloth diapers. That’s a lot of water! To put this in perspective, that’s an average of 11 gallons of water needed per day, and in drought-prone states like California where there are water restrictions, the water use from cloth diapering could be a serious problem.

 

Even with frequent washing, the stink persisted in the cloth diapers. In addition to the increase in laundry frequency, I began having to experiment with detergents and cycles to get the diapers truly clean. 

My oldest son was proud of our new laundry room space. If only he knew how much effort his mom was putting into attempts at diaper laundry!

I didn’t realize how much science goes into doing laundry until I found myself washing loads of cotton diaper inserts and covers. Sometimes the diapers would get clean in the typical warm wash cycle, but sometimes there would be a tangible residue leftover. Sometimes the laundry room would stink like sewage, but other times it was fine. 

On top of having to clean up so much poop, I began to feel discouraged in my ability to operate my washing machine. Was I getting buildup on the cotton baby diapers? Was my washing machine effectively removing the detergent as well as the poop? Did I need a detergent just for cloth diapers, and how could I know what cycle is best for my diapers and washing machine?

And as I was cleaning up poop from every surface of the bathroom by day and experimenting in the laundry room by night, I was also approaching the end of my third pregnancy with a 1 year old and a 2 year old running around.

After a few weeks of reading about cloth diaper laundry in both book and blog form, listening to some diaper podcaster’s recommendations for cleaning poop and doing laundry (yes, there are podcasts for everything!), experimenting with a couple of different detergents, and discovering the “Clean Washer” cycle on my washing machine, I felt ready to reach the following conclusion.

When I tried reusable cloth diapers I felt good about reducing landfill waste, but the effort outweighed the benefits and it was just too tiring to do as a mom of three under three.

Sources:

Why Cloth Diapers Might Not Be the Greener Choice After All: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-cloth-diapers-might-not-be-the-greener-choice-after-all/2015/05/08/32b2d8dc-f43a-11e4-bcc4-e8141e5eb0c9_story.html

Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK: https://www.ch.ic.ac.uk/marshall/4I10/Nappies.pdf

---

Hello world, we’re Kudos! The first and only natural disposable diaper giving babies 100% clean, breathable, soft cotton to sit in all day. Not plastic. Join our mailing list below to learn more.

About the author

Mom of 3 and an engineer-by-trade. Emily is leading up diaper engineering at Kudos and pushing the industry to be more sustainable. Whether the topic is diapers, babies, or Mama Earth, she's on a mission to find and share the best info there is to offer. Engineer and mama by day. Blogger by night.

Question? Email us at hello@mykudos.com

Recommended articles

More from this series View all articles