How Long Will Cloth Diapers Last?

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More and more parents these days choose cloth diapers because they want to be wallet- and planet-friendly. Are you trying to decide whether cloth diapers are worth the investment? No doubt you want to know how long cloth diapers last. This investigation into cloth diapers’ lifespan will answer all of your questions.

The Quick Answer: 2-3 years

Even the most expensive or well-made cloth diapers will not last forever. Repeated washing and drying of cloth diapers makes them susceptible to the same wear and tear as your favorite t-shirt or pair of jeans. The fewer diapers you have, the more often you wash them, the faster they’ll “poop out.” If you have a changing table full of cloth diapers or are not using them 100% of the time, then they will last longer.

How Do Today’s Cloth Diapers Work?

If you are just starting to shop for cloth diapers, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer variety our there. The good news is that more advanced materials and fabrics make today’s nappies much better than the cloth tri-fold versions with diaper pins our mothers or grandmothers used. Most cloth diapers today are made from a waterproof outer covering and a liquid-absorbent inner layer.

Cloth diapers contain fewer chemicals or irritants known to cause allergic reactions or skin irritation. Disposable diapers are white because they are bleached with dioxin, an environmental toxin. They also use a chemical called sodium polyacrylate to bind fluids and avoid leakage. But what keeps your baby’s bum dry, does serious damage to our environment, especially when you consider the estimated 250-500 years it takes the average disposable diaper to break down in a landfill. Earth will thank you for considering cloth diapers in your diapering dilemma. The reality is that using cloth diapers will be a larger up-front investment, but one that will save you as much as $1000-$2000 per child for the length of the time they wear diapers (usually 2.5 to 3 years). You can help extend that lifespan and get your money’s worth by practicing a little cloth diaper TLC.

The Limiting Factors for Cloth Diapers

Just like your car’s battery or gaskets on your hard-working dishwasher, certain components are critical to longer cloth diaper lifespans. Other factors determining a cloth diaper’s lifespan are related to the user (your sweet child) and how you care for your diapers. Limiting factors include:

  • The elastic lining on the leg and waist seams
  • Velcro fasteners or plastic snaps
  • Diaper size, ability to adjust diaper fit, and how fast your child grows
  • Cleaning methods. The more machine washing and drying at high temperatures with harsh detergents or bleach you do, the faster you will have to say goodbye to your cloth diapers.

Signs You Should Toss Your Cloth Diapers

So say you are a cloth-diaper convert and you are wondering whether it is time to invest in an upgrade. Here are some tell-tale signs you should say adios to your cloth diaper:

  • Velcro fuzzing, curling, or trapping of lint so that fasteners no longer work.
  • Relaxed elastic around the leg seams so that diapers do not fit snuggly around your child’s bottom and legs.
  • Leaking out the sides because of relaxed elastic.
  • Holes in the diapers.
  • Delamination of the outer plastic waterproof layer of the diaper (looks like plastic peeling away from the fabric backing).

The internet is full of crafty people who can show you how you can replace snaps, Velcro tabs, or elastic on the cloth diapers if you aren’t quite ready to say goodbye. Check out the videos on YouTube. Keep reading for some other DIY tips for extending cloth diapers’ lifespan.

Easy Ways to Extend Your Cloth Diapers’ Lifespan

  • Clean out fuzz or lint collected in the velcro tabs so that they will “stick” again.
  • Airdry cloth diapers to protect the elastic and reduce wear and tear on the waterproof coating.
  • Limit your use of bleach which can break down elastic and weaken fabric fibers.
  • Choose cloth diaper-friendly diaper creams that won’t stain or form a barrier on the fabric surface, limiting its ability to absorb moisture.
  • Look for one of these cloth diaper-approved detergents to keep diapers smelling fresh and clean longer.

Earth and Cloth Diaper-Friendly Tips and Tricks

Beyond trying to be a good parent, it can feel even more overwhelming trying to be an eco-friendly mom. Choosing to use cloth diapers for at least some of the time can make a big difference to your wallet and the planet. There are a few tips for care and keeping of cloth diapers that will help make cloth diapering a little bit easier to tackle.

  1. Washing cloth diapers.

Washing your cloth diapers on a warm water cycle as opposed to hot, with less or no bleach, and air drying are all ways to limit the environmental impact of the average 1-3 extra loads of laundry per week you will have to do for cloth diapers. These earth-friendly measures will also help to extend your diapers’ lifespan. You can try a cold water soak prior to washing to get out tough stains. Don’t overfill your washer or the diapers won’t agitate freely. You do need enough diapers in the washer so that they can rub against one another for helpful cleaning friction.

  1. Buying the right amount of cloth diapers.

The number of cloth diapers you need depends upon your baby’s age when you decide to start using cloth diapers. If you are just starting on your diapering journey, a typical newborn goes through 8-12 diapers a day. As a general guide, 24-36 cloth diapers is a healthy place to start, sticking to the upper limit if you are buying for a newborn. Don’t buy all the same type of diapers- buy 1 or 2 diapers of various styles to see what you (and your babe) like best. Some cloth diaper companies even offer a 15-day trial-return option, so make sure to check return policies before purchasing.

  1. Stay calm and diaper on.

Cloth diapering does not have to be all or nothing. In fact, your cloth diapers will last you longer if you don’t use them day in and day out. You are doing your wallet and the earth a favorite with every disposable diaper you don’t use. But sometimes, they have their place (overnight, swim diapers, traveling). You can choose the right combination of disposable diapers and cloth diapers to help you keep your sanity as a new mom.

Knowing how long cloth diapers last is an important part of the decision about whether to choose cloth diapers. Cloth diapering does take more time and energy, but many families feel that the environmental and economic benefits outweigh the hassles. Remembering that you don’t have to commit to cloth diapering 100% may help relieve some of the pressure. Like the rest of parenting, sometimes trial-and-error is the only way to figure out what works best for you and your baby. These tips and tricks to help your cloth diapers last longer can help both your wallet and the Earth your child will someday inherit from you.

Amy Harris
Amy Harris is a certified nurse-midwife with a Master's Degree in Maternal and Child Health from Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Her passions are health literacy and women's reproductive health. A recent two-year sabbatical with her family in Spain was the impetus for becoming a freelance women's health writer. An exercise nut, she is happiest outdoors and on adventures abroad.

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