Baby in a cloth diaper

Any family can do cloth diapers

Diapers are a necessary expense when you have a baby, but some parents find themselves needing to choose between buying a package of diapers and buying food or paying the bills.

What many parents don’t realize is that using cloth diapers is a viable alternative, even if they don’t have a washer or dryer in their home.

Disposable diapers are expensive, and cloth diapers can seem even more out of reach — after all, there is a start-up cost involved, and they need to be washed. A recent CNN article discussed how families sometimes struggle to come up with money for diapers, but the author believed that cloth diapers simply aren’t an option for those who aren’t able to wash at home. However, every year thousands of families demonstrate just how doable it really is, and a leading cloth diaper advocate hopes that this information can be used to inspire moms and dads who may be struggling to buy another pack of disposable diapers.

Handwashing and Flats Challenge

Kim Rosas, owner of Dirty Diaper Laundry, organized the first Flats and Handwashing Challenge. She was inspired after reading a news article that outlined some unsafe and unsanitary practices some families put into place because they could not afford to buy more disposable diapers — moms trying to wash and “air dry” disposable diapers or scraping out solid waste and reusing them.

"Parents who sign up for this challenge are encouraged to use flat diapers exclusively and only wash them by hand for an entire week."

“As a cloth diaper advocate I’ve always believed there are some exceptions to the rule and that disposables have a place, yet I knew that in desperate situations the money savings of cloth diapers would be an immense help to these families,” she explained.

Parents who sign up for this challenge are encouraged to use flat diapers exclusively and only wash them by hand for an entire week. “Flats were the obvious choice — they are super cheap, available at major big box stores (as flour sack towels or burp cloths), and wash and dry easily,” Kim told us. “Before advocating this method I had to ‘put my money where my mouth was’ so I started doing it at home. I invited others to try it and, surprisingly, a lot of people signed up.”

You can wash your baby’s diapers by hand in the sink, but Kim suggests creating a camp-style washing machine on the cheap. Flats are ideal for this purpose as they are made up of one layer of material so they wash easily, rinse easily and dry quickly — even indoors.

Jessica, mom of two, handwashed diapers when her youngest was a small baby. They washed them in their bathtub and got their older child involved in the action too — and made it fun. “It was worth the savings for us, especially at that time,” she said. “We couldn't afford to diaper our 3-month-old with disposables anymore, and the Laundromat was too expensive for us at the time too.”

Helping push cloth to the mainstream

Kim, along with other cloth-using parents, was dismayed at how easily cloth diapers were dismissed by the CNN writer. She recognizes that the author comes from a disposable diaper bank background — she is a founder of the National Diaper Bank Network, an organization that helps local diaper banks stock up on and distribute disposable diapers to parents in need.

Stack of cloth diapers

Kim said that she wished diaper banks provided at least a little information on cloth diapers and how they can really help family budgets and keep babies warm and dry. “A package of disposables is a band aid, but a stash of cloth diapers is a cure for diaper need,” she explained.

Starting a cloth diaper stash from scratch can seem daunting, but if you buy the more inexpensive types (such as flat diapers or prefolds) and do it a little at a time, you can have a couple dozen diapers in no time. “It might not seem like a lot of money when you buy [disposable] diapers every week, but it can add up to $1,600 for one child in two years of using diapers, much more if they potty train later,” Kim explained. “Considering that minimum wage is around $8 (even less in many states) that adds up to 200 hours of work. That doesn’t even include the taxes taken from their pay!”

Cloth diapering is a viable option in most circumstances and even using cloth part-time can add up to a lot of savings. Consider letting your friends know about cloth diapers and point them towards resources such as this piece from Dirty Diaper Laundry, which shows parents how to cloth diaper on a budget. Moms shouldn’t have to choose between diapering their baby and putting food on the table — and with cloth, they don’t have to.

More on cloth diapers

Cloth diapers you're sure to love
Why moms choose to cloth diaper
Fall in love with cloth diapering


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Comments on "Cloth diapers are in reach of all families"

Tisha July 15, 2013 | 10:39 AM

I am a "social worker". Although my job is administrative now, I was on the "front lines" and I agree that, yes, most families could cloth diaper. A family who is truly living on the streets, no, but that is the exception, a rare case. Families in shelters have access to laundry facilities. I'm sorry, Mabel. I have to respectfully disagree.

Andrea May 31, 2013 | 12:13 AM

I agree that cloth is possible for parents who take a moment to try it out, and being an EC mentor who teaches infant potty training at (edited), I've seen lots of proof that diapering in cloth (as a back-up for EC, or exclusively if you don't do EC) reduces the overall number of months and years that you need to have your child in diapers at all…which definitely cuts down on overall expense. The American family will spend about $3,000 on each child to diaper them in disposables. Cloth can cost around $300-400 total (plus utility bills for washing them). And, with EC, you can spend around $75-150 total and not have much of a wash to do at all!

Evelyn May 21, 2013 | 1:55 PM

I cloth diapered all three of my now adult children. I did not have money for disposable diapers and I could wash a load of diapers for $1.25 as opposed to buying packaged diapers. I hung them up to dry. I rinsed them in the toilet, soaked them in an enzyme pre-wash in the diaper pail and my children rarely, if ever, had a diaper rash! It was a matter of economy for me and I was a single mother. At one point, I had about 4 dozen diapers and I had two of my children in diapers at the same time. After 25 years, I actually have over a dozen cloth diapers stored in the cedar chest. I cannot understand why anyone would purposely spend that much money when there is a more cost effective and ecologically friendly alternative! Even with the advancements in technology, the disposable diapers still end up in land fills. How "green" is that?

Jessica May 15, 2013 | 9:18 PM

Mabel, I am confused why you are so incredibly angry and also what field of work you exactly work in. It almost sounds like you are working with homeless people and that would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to cloth diaper. But there is a whole class of poor people in America who could very well cloth diaper. You sight them not having time to wash by hand, but most of the poor people I know are on government assistance and don't work, thus have plenty of time to wash diapers, if they please. There are cloth diapering parents out there that even safely wash without hot water. It can be done, though would't be preferred. I understand what you are trying to get at. You just seem very angry about it and also are talking about the poorest of the poor in this country when the vast majority of poor people could very well benefit from cloth diapering.

Desirea May 15, 2013 | 4:25 PM

Wow Mable, why are you so negative about this? Do you really not think there might be a need for education on cloth diapering? I am so greatful to the cloth diaper charity I used when I had two babies in diapers. It helped us so much! Cloth is a wonderful alternative! How do you think people got by before disposables? Shoot, my mom had a dozen flats she washed in the tub, and lived to tell about it. I am fortunate that I have always had a washer, but I would still use cloth if I didn't. I really don't know what your problem is, but you are making yourself sound like a crazy, jealous, psycho!

Melissa May 15, 2013 | 11:30 AM


Melissa May 15, 2013 | 11:11 AM

Mabel. Sounds like you would be better advised in a different field of work. Maybe try to help empower moms not beat them down, and until you really know someone not bash. Your a very bitter woman.

Mabel May 15, 2013 | 10:12 AM

Kim, you're saying something different now than the article and your various comments on that CNN blog (where you lamented how you've talked about this until you're "blue in the face") that "any" family *can* do cloth diapers. It's not the case and you perpetuate mis-information when you continually make the case that "any" family can do cloth diapers. You also unfairly characterize diaper banks as places that keep families dependent. The diaper bank I know responds to the critical needs at other nonprofits (community outreach centers that are in the poorest neighborhoods, domestic abuse shelters, homeless shelters, crisis nurseries, family services agencies), they're not just handing diapers out to anyone who comes along. Those of us on the front lines every single day dealing with those in deep poverty are dealing with the current realities and emergent needs to get these people through the day as we work to help them improve their station in life. When you sit on your keyboard and act exasperated that diaper banks, social workers and nonprofits are doing what needs to be done RIGHT NOW to help people in their limited, often fluid, life situation, you're being high-handed and judgmental, whether you want to recognize it or not. Keep blogging to your choir, enjoy your freedom and choice to cloth diaper your children, and leave the hard, actual face-to-face work of helping those in poverty to those of us actually doing it.

Monica May 15, 2013 | 7:22 AM

Dear Mabel -- there are plenty of articles about how impossible it is (or totally dismissive of the idea) for moms to cloth diaper when they don't have money and/or when they don't have machines in their home. This article was inspired by those -- to show moms and dads that cloth diapering can be possible even on a limited budget, and it can allow those parents some financial breathing room. My friend Jessica, who I also interviewed for this article, lived this situation and I have other friends who handwashed cloth diapers when they could no longer afford disposable. I think Kim does a wonderful job of helping spread the word that cloth is attainable and desirable for almost all parents and I was happy to interview her. Thank you for your comments.

Mabel May 15, 2013 | 7:16 AM

Well, let's see if you leave my original comment up this time: Kim Rosas is a 26-year-old stay-at-home mom of 2 who gets to make her living by BLOGGING. Her arrogance at assuming what "everyone" "should" be able to do - by her standards - is appalling. I live near a city where pockets of poverty are so deep and generational, she couldn't begin to identify with the day-to-day, even hour-to-hour challenges these families face. Where I live, a family has to be more than 40% BELOW the poverty line to receive any cash assistance, and then the amount they receive isn't even enough to pay rent. So they may have food stamps, but they can't buy soap, detergent, toilet paper, any kind of cleansing agents with food stamps. So while Kim likely has a full stash of eco-friendly detergents at her disposal, very poor families may not even have hand soap. Advocating that they handle poop-filled diapers without the proper cleansing agents to kill e-coli and bacteria is irresponsible. I watched her "get ready for the flat-washing challenge!" videos and was astounded. It took her AN HOUR to boil 12 cloth diapers (in her beautiful kitchen). So let's say for kicks the rundown building a poor mom is living in HAS power - or that she has a STOVE, not just a hotplate - do you think she has AN HOUR to kill just boiling diapers? THEN she moved on to the step of washing the diapers in the tub - all while you can hear her husband in the background taking care of the children while her big diamond-ringed hand rinses, then washes, then rinses them again. She speeds the video up at one point because it's taking so long. AND it assumes she has hot water. How often do you think the tenements in urban centers have truly "hot" water suitable for washing e-coli out of diapers? And what do they use for detergent when they have none and have no cash to buy some? As I watched her take who knows how long to wring out each diaper and find a place to hang it on the rod of her full-size, tiled bathtub, all I could think was, "wow, what a luxury to have all that time." Kim also shows a lack of understanding when she links to a petition that wants WIC to "add cloth diapers". WIC is a program under the US Department of AGRICULTURE. If it doesn't have something to do with food or nutrition, it will never be part of WIC because it's run by the AGRICULTURE department. Kim Rosas is out of touch with what poor families actually have to deal with day in and day out and her arrogance in her being "an expert" in what "anybody" "could" do is astounding. There are plenty of college-educated stay-at-home Moms in the suburbs who CHOOSE not to cloth diaper just because they don't wanna. Pick your fight with them, tell them how they "should" live. But don't put yet another blame, another burden on those already struggling the most, living in the worst conditions, and presume to lecture them on how YOU have all the answers.

Heather May 14, 2013 | 10:48 AM

Awesome article! Thanks for getting the word out. I love flats. That is all we use and I am signed up for the challenge. I want to be able to tell others it is an option and to have the skills for emergency situation. Thanks again. :-)

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