Ultimate Guide to Cloth Nappies
Apr 25, 2020
Baby cloth nappies? Reusable nappies? Fabric nappies? You might hear these names and more used to describe them and it can seem confusing. Don’t worry though, cloth nappies aren’t as complicated as they may sound and the benefits to the environment, your baby and your bank balance can be huge.
If you’re thinking of making the switch to reusable cloth nappies or just want a little more information on how they work, we’ve got you covered. From which nappies to choose to how to use cloth nappies, let’s dive in!
Image: Baby Beehinds
Why Should I Use Cloth Nappies?
If you’re still not sure what all the hype is about, check out these awesome benefits of using cloth nappies vs disposable options.
The cost of nappies really adds up over time but there are many ways that cloth eco nappies can reduce the cost of expanding your family! But how exactly do cloth nappies save money?
- Reusable nappies can be used for multiple children over the course of many years. If you plan on having more little angels, cloth is a really smart investment.
- When you think long term, cloth nappies are not as expensive as disposables. You’ll spend a few hundred dollars on reusable nappies initially then there is another few hundred to consider in washing costs. Compare that to an average of $2500 for disposables in just one child’s lifetime though, and it’s a huge saving!
- You can even buy second hand cloth nappies to save more on your initial spend. Keep your nappies in good condition and take great care of them and you could even sell them on when you’re done.
About 3.75 million disposable nappies are used across Australia and New Zealand every single day! More than 92% of those end up in landfill and it takes between 200 and 500 years for a disposable nappy to decompose. Just let all that sink in for a minute!
There’s a lot of debate over whether disposables or cloth are the most eco friendly and sustainable nappies. Here at Hello Charlie, we like to look at the “cradle to grave” impact of a product.
Generally, it’s been found that reusable nappies are more eco friendly over their entire life, but there are a lot of factors that affect this.
- Washing temperature - Washing nappies on a hot wash uses more energy and is less environmentally friendly. Washing on a cold wash is a much more eco-friendly option - see the section below on washing your cloth nappies for more information.
- How you dry - Using a tumble dryer, uses power and is less environmentally friendly. Drying cloth nappies on the line in direct sunlight is a more eco friendly option and the sunlight will naturally bleach stains. If the weather isn’t great, drying on a clothes horse inside is good too.
- Chemicals used in washing - Limiting toxic chemicals used in washing detergents and other products isn’t just a great idea for baby’s sensitive skin, it will also benefit the environment.
- Microfibres - If you use a plastic/polyester based nappy, every time you launder them plastic microfibres could be released into the waterways and oceans. See below for which fabrics are the best to choose.
Disposable nappies have the biggest environmental impact during manufacture and disposal. Reusables have the biggest environmental impact during use. For example, disposables made from more sustainable materials or buying nappies made in Australia will decrease their environmental impact.
Here are some ways to lower the impact of cloth nappies.
- Detergents - Choose a more natural detergent option where possible.
- Washing and drying - Hand washing and line drying are the most eco friendly way to wash, rather than using a machine and tumble dryer.
- Nappy Fabric - Avoid materials such as microfiber, which leave fibres in the environment and contain plastics that don’t break down.
- Accessories - Things like flushable liners might seem convenient but they add to landfill and can be a big problem for our waterways.
- Reuse, reuse, reuse - Look after your reusable nappies properly and they can be used over and over again for multiple siblings. When you’re done having babies, it’s perfectly hygienic to pass well looked after nappies onto friends or family.
Styles, Sizes, and Types of Cloth Nappies
There are so many different styles and types of cloth nappies on the market. It can seem like a lot to get your head around. Let’s break down the different types and all the differences.
What are Traditional Cloth Nappies?
It’s easy to forget that not too long ago, disposable nappies just didn’t exist. Reusable nappies were the only option and some of these traditional cloth nappies are still used today.
- Flat Nappies - You might also hear these called terry cloth nappies, nappy squares, terry towelling nappies, or flannelette nappies. These are usually the same thing though and basically a large square of single layered fabric. They need to be folded and be used with a cover over the top to help prevent leaks.
- Prefold Nappies - These are one step up from flats and are a rectangular piece of fabric that’s already folded into three. The middle section is usually the most absorbent. They’re easier to fold around a wriggly baby and also need a cover.
Both these styles of nappy are one size fits all and will easily grow with your baby.
What are Modern Cloth Nappies?
Modern cloth nappies or mcn nappies, as they’re sometimes called, come in even more options. It’s important to know the differences so you can choose a type that’s best for your lifestyle.
- Fitted cloth nappies - Also called ‘shaped nappies’ are ready made to fit baby and don’t require any folding on your part. They come with snap or velcro closures, are ready to use straight out the dryer, and need an added cover as they’re not waterproof.
- Contour nappies - These are just like fitted nappies but they don’t come with snap or velcro closures and need an extra separate closure, like pins. They are also ready to use from the line or dryer and need an extra waterproof cover.
- Pocket nappies - Probably the most common modern cloth option, these are quick and easy to use. They’re shaped to fit baby and come with a waterproof lining so there’s no need for an extra cover. The “pocket” is a hole inside the nappy where you stuff a separate absorbent insert.
- Sleeve nappies - Almost exactly the same as pocket nappies except these have two openings to slide the insert in (one at each end). This means you don’t have to pull the insert out when soiled and wash it separately as it will agitate out in the washing machine.
- All in two nappies - Very similar to pocket nappies again but the only difference is the insert is snapped into the nappy, rather than stuffing it in.
- All in one cloth nappies - No covers, inserts, or extra steps. These nappies come all in one piece just like disposables. Simply use them and then wash and dry in one piece when soiled. They can take a lot longer to dry due to the extra thickness.
Modern cloth nappies are available as either osfm nappies (one size fits most) or sized as small, medium and large.
Other Cloth Nappy Types
- Hybrid nappies - Halfway between a cloth nappy and a disposable are hybrid options. They usually come with a washable and reusable outer cover but can be used with a disposable insert.
- Cloth swim nappies - Just like regular cloth nappies swim nappies are designed to be worn and reused over and over. They’re not designed to be worn for extended periods and don’t have an absorbent pad. Instead, the tight fit and inner mesh layer are what keep the poo inside the nappy.
- Pull up cloth nappies - Exactly as you may be imagining, these are basically pull up nappies but made from cloth. These are modern cloth nappies and usually come as an all in one style or pocket/sleeve style with separate inserts.
How to Decide What Cloth Nappies to Use
This decision doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as it sounds! Let’s break it down to make things easier. Here are all the points you need to consider when looking for the best cloth nappies:
- Style - Modern nappies will be quicker thanks to snap buttons and many come with waterproof outer covers. Traditional nappies require some extra learning to fold, a little extra time to put on and need an additional cover.
- Design - Many modern options have bright and quirky designs on the outer covers.
- Price - There is a big variation in cost. If you just want cheap cloth nappies, traditional styles cost less money than modern ones. The most expensive modern options are all in ones with pocket nappies usually being mid price range.
- Fabric - Some fabrics make for more eco friendly nappies than others (more on this in the next section). Cloth nappies are most commonly made from cotton or bamboo fibres.
- Absorbency - Lower absorbency means more frequent changes and vice versa. Cloth nappies have lower absorbency than disposables already but choosing the right material and style can make a big difference.
- Certified Organic - Organic cloth nappies might be a little pricier but they’re great option for babies with sensitive skin and are better for the environment.
- Eco Friendly - Each style has a different impact on the environment in terms of the “cradle to grave” effect. Traditional cloth nappies take a lot less construction and there are no plastic snaps or pieces.
- Longevity - Will you use them for multiple children over a long period of time? Are you starting from newborn (more on that later) or is your little one already halfway through their nappy journey? Modern nappies tend to be more robust and one size styles can easily grow with your baby.
- Drying Time - Thinner material, like that in traditional style nappies, or nappies that come in multiple pieces are much quicker to dry. This is important if you don’t want to buy a huge stash and need to wash and dry quickly.
Choose the top three things that are most important to you and let those be your main guide when you buy cloth nappies. Finding the best reusable nappies is a very personal decision though.
I personally preferred the modern pocket nappies. I couldn't get to grips with folding traditional nappies and the all in ones would take too long to dry for me. I hear from plenty of people who love the traditional cloth nappies though and say that it doesn't take too long to get the hang of it.
What Are Cloth Nappies Made Of?
There are many different fabrics you might find in cloth nappies but we’ll try to break everything down as simply as possible.
Waterproof Outer Layer
This layer is obviously a necessity for most and is usually made from PUL (polyurethane laminate) and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). Whilst these are indeed a type of synthetic plastic, they are an inert substance and low tox but they will not biodegrade over time.
Even with this outer layer, cloth nappies are still usually more sustainable and eco friendly than disposable alternatives.
It’s also possible to get wool covers, which is a much more eco friendly option as well as being stretchy, breathable, and lightweight. These come with the added complication of needing to lanolise the wool after each wash to keep it waterproof though. You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons to decide which is best for your lifestyle.
This is the only layer in traditional cloth nappies. Modern reusable nappies can have just one absorbency layer built in or use a removable insert and also have a “stay dry” layer that sits against baby’s skin.
The stay dry layer is designed to let urine through to be absorbed by the insert so baby doesn’t feel the damp as much. The insert and stay dry layer are often made of two different materials.
- Cotton - Cotton nappies are the most common type of cloth nappies. It’s natural, non-allergenic, breathable, highly absorbent, and can hold 24 to 27 times its own weight in water. Even better is certified organic cotton which isn’t grown with any hazardous chemicals or pesticides and is better for sensitive newborn skin. The very best option is to look for Oeko-Tex certified organic cotton. This certifies that there are no harmful chemicals used in the processing and dying of the cotton. Oeko-Tex certified organic cotton is definitely the best and most low tox fabric option.
- Bamboo - Another highly absorbent option and natural but the viscose rayon process actually transforms it into a semi synthetic material. It can still be a great option though as bamboo nappies are hypoallergenic, soft, breathable and have antimicrobial properties. There is some confusion on whether bamboo fabric really is eco friendly. In simple terms, it’s only environmentally friendly when it’s produced in a “closed loop” environment, which contains the amount of chemicals and water used. Take a look at our article on whether bamboo fabric is really eco friendly for some further information.
- Flannel - Not as common, except for some traditional cloth nappies. It’s natural and made from 100% cotton but also the least absorbent fabric option.
- Terry - Sometimes used in traditional flat nappies. It’s usually natural and made from cotton (although sometimes bamboo, linen, silk or synthetic fibres) and has good absorbency.
- Hemp - A natural fibre that’s combined with others such as cotton to make it feel smoother. Hemp nappies are highly absorbent, lightweight, gentle on baby’s skin and breathable. It’s also highly sustainable to grow and manufacture.
- Wool - Natural and absorbent, wool is also water resistant and has antimicrobial properties. It is however highly insulating so not suitable if you live in a very warm climate.
- Velour - This is actually cotton or bamboo combined with polyester, making it a semi synthetic material and it’s super absorbent.
- Soy velour - This is a natural material that is made from soybean protein and is actually even more absorbent than cotton.
- Sherpa - This is usually a semi synthetic material that’s highly absorbent, most options used in cloth nappies have a high cotton content and minimal polyester.
- Fleece - Absorbency varies as it can contain natural fibres or synthetic materials. When used as a nappy cover, polyester fleece or polyfleece (synthetic) provides an effective, water resistant outer layer.
- Polyester - Minky, microfibre or zorb are all synthetic materials made with chemicals or petroleum. Nappy manufacturers usually replace the term ‘polyester’ with ‘minky’, ‘microfibre’, and occasionally ‘zorb’. These materials are quite absorbent, but it does wear out over time. These plastic fabrics can cause issues with microfibres getting into waterways and whilst polyester itself is low tox, polyester fabric is often treated with formaldehyde.
- Modal - A semi synthetic material made from the wood pulp of beech trees. It can be used alone or in combination with other fabrics such as cotton. Manufacturers claim it is 50% more water absorbent per unit volume than cotton.
- ‘Stay-dry’ fabrics - For example, microfleece, suede cloth and athletic fabrics. These are synthetic and not designed to absorb moisture. They are the layer that sits against a baby’s skin to give a dryer feel.
Best Fabric for Cloth Nappies - What Should You Consider?
As you can see, the options seem endless but there are only three main things you need to consider when choosing the best fabric.
- Eco considerations - If eco considerations are at the top of your list, think about the lifetime impact of the material you choose. Some of the most sustainable fabric options are hemp, organic cotton and bamboo (as long as it’s produced in a closed loop environment).
- Absorbency - Cloth nappies need changing more frequently than disposables. The more absorbent the material, the less often baby will need to be changed though. The most absorbent materials to look for are cotton, bamboo, hemp, velour, and sherpa.
- Drying Time - If you don’t have access to or don’t want to use a tumble dryer for environmental or cost reasons, give some serious thought to drying time. Traditional cloth nappies generally dry fastest as they are thinner. Modern cloth options with a removable insert will dry much faster than thick all in one style nappies.
How Many Cloth Nappies Do I Need?
Here’s another question we get asked all the time and once again, it’s a personal decision. Here are the main factors to think about when trying to come up with a number though.
- Full time or part time? - We think cloth nappies are great but, for some people, full time cloth isn’t a suitable option and that’s totally fine as well. Plenty of people decide to part time cloth nappy and use disposables to bridge the gap. For example, my family do a lot of long road trips and camping and I found that disposables were much easier when travelling.
- Type of nappy - Not all reusable nappies have the same absorbency. Consider the style - modern nappies are usually more absorbent than traditional, and the fabric they’re made from - see the section above for the most absorbent material.
- Age of baby - Newborn babies need far more nappy changes than slightly older babies. My first baby pooped about 10 times a day for the first few weeks! Unless you want to be washing nappies twice a day, you’ll need more nappies for younger babies.
- How often will you wash? - Ideally, you don’t want to be washing nappies every single day. I used to wash every other day, although I know some people only wash every third day. The more nappies you have to hand, the less frequently you’ll need to wash them. Just be sure to have a few extra in case you get a bit behind on washing.
When my firstborn was 3 months old, we began cloth nappying with modern pocket nappies. I had 15 nappies and had to wash them every other day. Usually, that was enough but on some occasions, I had to supplement with a disposable or two until they were dry. I always dried on the line as I had no tumble dryer.
To give you a starting point, for full time cloth nappying, nappy retailers usually advise you to start with the below numbers:
- Flat or pre folds - About 20 to 30 nappies from birth. This style aren’t usually as absorbent but they normally dry much faster than modern options.
- Modern cloth nappies - 15 to 30 nappies dependant on baby’s age, washing frequency and lifestyle. I’d definitely go for the higher estimate if you are starting from newborn.
Cloth Nappy Accessories
There are tons of accessories out there designed to make your cloth nappy journey easier. Some of them are a bit of a gimmick and really not necessary. These are the accessories we think could be genuinely useful.
- Laundry powder - Using the right laundry detergent is vital to extend the life of your cloth nappies. You’ll want something that’s safe for baby’s sensitive skin, kind to the environment, and be sure to never use fabric softener as they will reduce the absorbency of your nappies.
- Bucket or bin for nappies - There are a couple of different ways to approach washing your nappies (see the section below). Whichever you choose, you’ll need a large bucket with a lid to store them in until you’re ready to wash.
- Cloth nappy inserts - Depending on the style of nappy you choose, separate reusable nappy inserts could be needed. For example with pocket or sleeve style modern nappies.
- Cloth Nappy liners - Designed to sit between baby’s skin and the nappy to catch poo, so it’s easier to dispose of. These come as either reusable nappy liners or disposable nappy liners but all add extra environmental impact either with the extra washing or extra waste, even if you choose biodegradable nappy liners. Flushable nappy liners could also cause problems with waterways and should be avoided.
- Night nappies or booster pads - You might need separate night nappies if you have chosen low absorbency options like traditional cloth. If you choose a style that uses separate inserts, you can usually add an extra one overnight to extend the time between changes.
- Cloth nappy covers - You’ll need waterproof covers if the type of nappy you choose doesn’t have them built-in already i.e for traditional nappies.
- Nappy sprayer/hose - These aren’t very common in Australia but you can get a little sprayer or hose that fits to your toilet cistern to spray poo off the nappy. I found that a quick shake is usually enough though. If there’s something really stubborn, a toilet flush will usually dislodge it.
- Nappy fasteners - Nappy snaps, nappy clips or even just safety pins are needed for any style of nappy without velcro or snap fasteners already built-in.
- Waterproof bag (for outings) - A wet bag for cloth nappies is a must when you’re out and about. If you’re travelling with modern cloth nappies, make sure it’s a sizeable bag - those nappy liners get pretty large when soaked through.
- Suitable nappy cream - Not all types of nappy cream are good for cloth nappies. Some can reduce absorbency, so make sure you buy a suitable one. Take a look at our article for some tips.
- Drying rack or clip hanger - If you don’t have a tumble dryer or what to be as environmentally friendly as possible, air drying is the way to go. Make sure you have a drying rack, clip hanger or clothes horse for days when you can’t dry on the line outside.
When to Start Using Cloth Nappies
There are two trains of thought here and it’s really up to you when you start. The important thing is to do what’s right for you.
Beginning with reusable nappies straight from birth is a great way to set yourself up for eco parenting from the very beginning. You’ll also feel much more confident with cloth nappying by the time baby is older and you’re getting out and about a bit more.
It’s great to start early, but, at Hello Charlie we like to recommend that you give yourself a month to six weeks to get on top of actually having a baby first. The newborn stage is hard, especially with your first. There’s no reason to feel bad if you can’t manage cloth nappies for newborns, on top of all the other things you have going on!
How to Wash Cloth Nappies
So, onto the single biggest thing people ask - how do you clean cloth nappies?! This seems to be a point of fascination with a lot of people. Washing cloth nappies doesn’t have to be difficult or much ickier than changing a disposable.
Be sure to check the manufacturer's instructions before washing and it’s a good idea to wash the nappies before the first use. There are two main methods for washing reusable nappies.
Let’s Talk About Poo!
For a lot of people, the biggest worry is how to deal with the poo. They worry about touching it or dirty nappies stinking the house out until they’re washed. The thing is, when you’re changing a disposable you have just as much chance of coming into contact with poo. It’s one of the many joys of parenting - poo….everywhere!
In fact, when you change a disposable nappy you should be emptying the poo into a toilet anyway, just like you do with washable nappies. Human faeces should never end up in landfill as it’s a biohazard risk to waste disposal workers.
Unfortunately, most people don’t actually realise this and disposable nappies filled with poo end up in landfill, which is a potential public health hazard.
Whether you’re using cloth nappies or single-use, always dispose of the poo in the same way.
- Dump - Put the waste directly into the toilet, if it’s stuck a gentle shake usually does the trick.
- Rinse - Give the nappy a quick rinse to get rid of any leftover bits.
- Flush - Human waste should be flushed into the sewage system where it belongs.
This method is exactly what it sounds like - soaking nappies until you’re ready to wash them. This method is recommended for traditional nappies but not for most MCNs.
After disposing of the poo, follow these steps for washing.
- Half fill a bucket with cold water and pop in a little laundry detergent.
- Throw wet or rinsed nappies straight into the bucket and leave to soak.
- When you’re ready to wash, drain the water and dump the nappies in the washing machine.
- Wash on a normal rinse and spin cycle.
- You can wash on a cold setting because you’ve already soaked stains out.
- The bucket gets very heavy and it’s not great for your back.
- Most modern cloth nappy brands advise against wetpailing.
- Poo water can get pretty stinky when it’s sat around for a while.
Drypailing cloth nappies is similar to wetpailing except without the soaking. You’ll still need a big enough bucket with a lid to hold a day or two of nappies. After dumping the poo and rinsing any stubborn bits down the toilet follow these steps.
- Throw the nappies and inserts into the bucket without anything else and secure the lid.
- When you’re ready to wash throw everything in the washing machine.
- Use a soak cycle for badly soiled nappies or just a normal cycle if they’re not too bad.
If you’re worried about smells, a couple of drops of essential oil, like lavender or tea tree, on a face washer placed in the bucket will help.
- Surprisingly, this method usually isn’t very smelly.
- Suitable for most types of modern cloth nappies.
- The bucket is much lighter and easier to handle.
- Stains aren’t removed as easily as with wetpailing and you might need a hot wash or extra soak cycle for badly soiled nappies.
What Detergent for Cloth Nappies?
Your baby will be wearing nappies almost 24 hours a day. That’s a lot of time to have something sat right next to their delicate skin. Choosing the right laundry detergent isn’t just essential to get things clean, but also for making sure nothing nasty comes into contact with that sensitive skin.
If you’re wondering what to soak cloth nappies in, there’s no need for fancy extras or stain removers. Usually, the same detergent you use to wash is as good as anything.
Whichever laundry powder or liquid you choose, make sure to use the recommended amount given by your specific brand of cloth nappy. Too little and they won’t clean easily, too much and you could damage the material and reduce absorbency.
Strip Washing Cloth Nappies
If your cloth nappies seem to have lost absorbency and you’re getting a lot of leakage, first check if it’s a sizing issue and the nappies are fitted correctly. If this isn’t the problem, there could be an oil residue build up on the nappies or liners which has reduced absorbency.
This can happen when you use an oil based nappy cream so make sure you read about which nappy creams to use with cloth nappies. Try a couple of warm washes first, with a small amount of extra detergent to see if this fixes the problem. If not, strip washing modern cloth nappies and traditional nappies is done in exactly the same way.
- Wet the nappy or area you think has the problem.
- Add about a teaspoon of moisturisr free dishwashing liquid to the area and smear it around. Rub the fabric against itself to make it nice and soapy.
- Leave it to sit like this for 10 to 15 minutes so the degreaser can penetrate properly.
- Give it a quick rinse under the tap.
- Throw it in the washing machine on a normal wash with no detergent.
- Dry as normal.
More Care and Washing Tips
Here are just a couple more things that people usually have questions about.
How to stop modern cloth nappies from leaking
Simple - don’t use fabric softener and use the correct nappy rash cream! Both of these things are really important as they can massively affect the absorbency of your nappies.
Can You Put Modern Cloth Nappies in the dryer?
Yes, many people choose to tumble dry their modern cloth nappies. It’s not the most environmentally or cost friendly method though. If possible, dry your cloth nappies on the line in direct sunlight which will naturally bleach stains. If the weather isn’t great, a clothes horse or clip hanger indoors is fine.
Where to Buy the Best Cloth Nappies, Australia
If you’re wondering where to buy cloth nappies online, Australia has plenty of options but we suggest you take a look at Hello Charlie for some of the best reusable nappies.
Baby Beehinds have a range of modern cloth nappies that includes all in ones, all in twos, swim nappies and reusable training pants. This is a beautiful Australian brand with lots of lovely prints and colours.
Pea Pods is another Australian brand that do all in one nappies and swim nappies, also in great prints and colours.
Grovia is a US brand who also have a great range including all in one nappies, hybrid nappies and reusable training pants.
And if you're a traditionalist, and want to try flat terry squares, check out these beautiful organic ones from Nature's Child.