This is not the most well written post! However, I'd like to record my experience with cloth diapers before going back to work... because, once I go back to work, I probably won't have time for long rambling posts like this ;) Here goes
My overall opinion
I really like cloth diapers. They're soft. They're free of nasty chemicals. They're undeniably good for the environment. They save us money. Cloth diapers are not for everyone, but I feel good about our choice to go with them.
We started Jack in cloth after his first week home from the hospital. He was tiny and the diapers barely fit, but they worked somewhat well. Unfortunately, he developed a diaper rash that refused to go away until we put him in disposables. I think his skin was very sensitive, being that young, and, also, we both had a case of thrush. We needed to keep his bum super dry, so he was in disposables for a few weeks.
At week six, we started cloth diapers again. Here is my experience...
Cloth diaper systems have two basic components: an absorbent part (the diaper), and a waterproof part (the cover). Here are a few types of diapers:
Prefolds with covers. An inner square of cloth (usually cotton) is folded into a diaper shape around the baby and secured with pins or a "snappy" (the snappy has teeth that grab onto the diaper). A waterproof cover is secured on top. Alternately, the prefold is simply folded into thirds and placed inside of the diaper cover -- this works great for pee, but not so much for poop. They're super cheap, wash easily, and are useful for a variety of other tasks (rags, burp cloths, etc). One cover lasts 3-4 diaper changings before it needs to be washed. Downsides? Cotton does not wick moisture away from the baby's skin, so these diapers must be changed frequently.
Fitted diapers. This is a diaper that has been stitched into shape, so no snappy is necessary. Downsides? Expensive and still needs a cover.
All in ones. A fitted diaper with a cover stitched onto the outside. These work just like regular diapers. Downsides? Because you can't remove the absorbent part from the waterproof cover, it takes a long time to dry.
Pocket diapers. These are one of the most popular kinds of diapers. They consist of a waterproof cover with a layer of fabric inside (usually fleece or a synthetic) that serves to wick away moisture. A super absorbent pad (usually fleece, synthetic, hemp, or cotton) is then stuffed into the diaper. Pocket diapers are really nice because you can stuff them with however much absorbency you want. Downsides? Have to de-stuff the diaper for washing and re-stuff before putting it on the baby.
Hybrid diapers. These are diaper covers with flushable, biodegradable inserts. The flushable insert is attractive (no need to launder the inside part!). Downsides? Expensive. Have to break up the insert in the toilet with a stick to avoid clogging the pipes. Uses similar super-absorbent materials as commercial diapers. Still have to wash the covers (at which point, why not just wash the inserts as well...)
Wipes. I. Love. Cloth. Wipes. So much so that even if you gave me tubs and tubs of free disposable wipes with the assurance that there were no chemicals and that no energy was used to make them and that they'd magically disappear once I was done... I'd still beg for my cloth wipes back. They work so much better. I'll post about wipes later.
Care and cleaning. Cloth diapering is particularly easy while Jack is exclusively nursing because... breastmilk poop... well, it's not much of anything. We just wash the diapers once with a bit of detergent and vinegar and they're clean. We hang them outside on the clothesline to dry, and the sun bleaches away any stains. When Jack starts solid foods, we'll need to dunk the diapers in the toilet before washing and might have to do a double wash -- not fun, but I think it'll be fine.
Here's how much effort cloth diapering adds to our life:
Fastening the diaper: same amount of time as a disposable
Taking the diaper off: need to de-stuff the pockets and store everything in a waterproof bag
Restocking the diapers: need to wash every 2-3 days (10 minutes), hang up outside to dry (15 minutes), re-stuff and stock the diaper drawer (15 minutes). Sometimes we throw everything in the dryer instead of line drying.
Early on, I decided that I wanted to cloth diaper, but I wasn't sure which "system" to go with. (This is a superb example of how having too many options is not a good thing). We started with prefolds and a variety of covers:
3 Snappies (for securing the diapers): $10
3 Kissaluvs (fitted, no folding necessary) from Amazon: $40
24 newborn cotton prefolds from Green Mountain Diapers: $42
12 random cotton prefolds from Amazon: $20
6 hemp cotton prefolds from Amazon: $20
2 thirsties waterproof covers (velcro): $22
1 thirsties duo cover (snaps): $12
1 bummies whisper wrap cover (snaps): $10
1 litewrap (velcro): $8
So, I spent $174 for Newborn diapers. Unfortunately, this was a bit of a waste. With the diaper rash and his growing so quickly, he only fit into the newborn prefolds from weeks 6-10 (and this boy has a tiny little waist -- I think they usually grow out of the newborn size sooner). Plus, the hemp prefolds suck (they absorb well but they are a pain to fasten), and the Kissaluvs were complete waste of money (adorable, but not useful).
There is a learning curve to figuring out how to secure a prefold onto a newborn, but now I can change him into a prefold with a cover just as fast as I can get him into a disposable diaper. I expected prefolds to be a hassle, but they weren't really -- they just needed to be changed more frequently than other diapers.
Here's what Jack looked like in a green mountain newborn prefold with an xsmall thirsties cover when he was 2 weeks old:
And here he is at 12 weeks (same diaper, same cover):
The xsmall thirsties is for 12 lbs; he's 13+ and still has plenty of velcro left (though the rise is getting too shallow)
I can still stuff him into a newborn prefold, but realistically, he grew out of this whole system at 10 weeks. We've spent about $80 in disposable diapers to cover the interim period.
We started Jack in FuzziBunz at 6 weeks old:
6 small FuzziBunz: $100 (these were actually a gift from our registry)
The FBs are fantastic. They have snaps and work just like regular diapers (no folding/snappies involved). They are very absorbent, and you can add extra pads to draw away more moisture. I'm try to be observant and change Jack as soon as I know he's pooped, so we haven't had any problems with blowouts. Greg loves them. Really, they're a cinch. The only drawback is that they take up a lot of space in our diaper drawer.
When Jack grew out of the prefolds, we faced a decision: do we invest in more cloth diapers or do we go with disposables? The FBs are clearly my preference when it comes to diapering. The prefolds must be changed every 1-2 hours, which is not any problem when I'm at home, but we couldn't put our daycare provider through that. FBs are just easy and can go 3 hours between changes. Plus, they are super cute!
FBs come in two varieties: "perfect fit" ($15, sized, small, medium, or large) and "one size" ($20, all the way up to 35lb). Realistically, you need about 18-20 diapers to do laundry every two days. Most children can have a set of smalls and a set of mediums, and that's all they need until potty training.
I scoured the internet for good deals. Here's what I purchased:
18 medium + 5 large FBs from Craigslist: $220 ($9.50 per FB, used)
7 small FBs from Craigslist: $77 ($11 per FB, used)
7 "one size" + 1 small + 1 medium FBs from BippyDiapers.com: $120 ($13 per FB, new)
The total came to $420. Since the "one size" will fit as smalls, mediums, and larges, here is my current stash: 20 smalls, 26 mediums, 13 larges. This is a ton of diapers; depending on how our daycare chooses to go through diapers, we'll be washing every 2-3 days.
We didn't even try to cloth diaper at night... I've heard from so many folks that it is a huge challenge, and, frankly, I don't see the point. I'd rather try to use less disposable products in other areas of my life. I would say we average 2 disposable diapers a day. At $0.30 each, that's $219 per year, or ~$660 in three years.
Dollars and Cents
Our cloth diaper stash cost $600 and we anticipate spending ~$700 on disposables to diaper Jack through year 3. Our front-loading efficient washer costs about $0.40 a load, so we are probably spending an extra $75 a year to wash these diapers.
If we were using all disposables, I would estimate about 8 diapers a day for the first year ($870) and 6 diapers a day for years 2-3 ($2000), or about $2900 to diaper Jack through year 3. If we went for a cheaper, commercial brand of disposable diapers, we could probably diaper him through year 3 for about $1500.
Here's the really important part. FBs last forever and have superb resale value (generally 50% of their original price... it took me a lot of searching to find such good deals on the used ones). Plus, should there be a baby #2, we have all of the diapers we'll ever need.
If I were to do it again...
I would buy 24 newborn prefolds with 3-4 thirsties duo (snaps) covers ($100). We use the prefolds for absolutely everything around here (burp cloths, rags, super-absorbent nursing pads at night, etc). I'd make my life (and storage issues) easier and just get a huge stock of new "one size" FBs: 24*$20 = $480.
My advice, if you're interested in cloth diapers
I thought I could start cloth diapers from the get-go... we would have saved money and effort if I had eased into things. I would suggest that you buy 12 prefolds and 2 thirsties covers. Buy a fuzzibunz or other "easy" diaper. See what you like. From that small investment (~$60), you will have a good sense of whether you want to cloth diaper or not.