Cloth-diaper parents are a special breed. These are folks who, when faced with the overwhelming prospect of caring for a baby, kick it up a notch by choosing to hand-scrape poop out of cotton cloths and wash them multiple times a week. On the Internet, whole communities have sprung up around cloth diapers—parents talking about them, designing them, trading them, selling them, and more. Cloth devotees have a name for their obsession: fluff.
There are three main reasons cloth fans cite for ditching the Luvs. One is the environmental benefit: Disposable diapers are responsible for 3.7 million tons of solid waste just in the U.S. annually. The second is the baby’s butt: Disposables employ chemicals to aid in absorption, and long-term chemical exposure tends to make some parents a bit wary. Plus, cloth diapers cause less diaper rash than disposables. The third is the cost. From Diaper Lab, a baby boutique in Somerville, Mass.:
Most babies use between 5,000 and 6,500 diapers from birth to potty training, at a typical cost of between 20 and 40 cents per diaper. Total expense into the garbage: $1,000 to $2,500. Switch to cloth diapers and your total cost, including laundry, can be as low as $400, with even the most deluxe set of diapers costing only about $1,000.
Plus, frankly, cloth diapers are way prettier. From the humble cotton prefold to the rainbow-colored hybrid covers, from handmade wool soakers to artist-inspired collectible all-in-ones, they’re spectacles of butt-swaddling wonder. At least for this mom, the aesthetics are a plus. And it’s here, in this realm of strange beauty, where the fun and insanity of swapping those cloth diapers begins.
If you’re going to collect something bizarre, it’s better to collect something that’s bizarre and useful.
Cloth diapers, being a reusable product, cost a lot more than disposables up-front. One of the more basic cloth diapers, the prefold (a flat piece of absorbable fabric with a thicker section in the middle) will run you around $2 apiece, new. This doesn’t include the cost of the waterproof cover or the Snappi, a genius rubber tension tool that’s replaced the stabby diaper pin.
Photo via snappibaby.com
Moving up the scale, you have the all-in-ones, which combine the cotton inners with a permanent cover and snaps or Velcro. One well-known brand, bumGenius (or “BG”), charges around $20 per new diaper. Then there are the boutique diaper shops. One new fitted bamboo diaper in “Forest Friends” animal print from current hot brand sustainablebabyish (“SBish” to those in the know) can set you back $35.
Photo via loomb.myshopify.com
Photo via loomb.myshopify.com
That’s one diaper. For $35. Let that soak in for a moment—pun intended.
In a world where you can get 150 disposables for the same price, paying so much for one pee-pee–catcher may seem crazy. So if you want to use cloth diapers, but you don’t have cash to build a stash, what do you do? Buy second-hand, of course. Purchasing used baby butt-covers can slash expenses by 50 percent or more. And buying someone else’s used diapers isn’t just cost-effective; it’s a time-saver.
Brand-new cloth diapers aren’t ready to be used right out of the box. What? You thought spending $20 on a diaper meant you could use it as a diaper? Ha, you’re funny. No. Each new diaper needs to be prepped by washing and drying, preferably on a line, four to six times for optimal absorption. An EUC (excellent used condition) or VGUC (very good used condition) diaper is ready to go right out of the UPS box. And if you need used cloth diapers, there is only one place to turn: the Internet.
These prices are for a single diaper. A piece of cloth your child poops into.
There are Facebook cloth-diaper-swap groups (the page “Cloth Diaper Swap” boasts 36,964 members as of this writing), and multiple diaper-swapping-community websites, like diaperpin.com and diaperswapper.com—free to join but private before you do. These are the places to find not just a bargain but a whole community of other moms who really go nuts for fluff. These are women, and maybe a few men, who are frighteningly committed to cloth diapering and the lifestyle that goes along with it. Members post about hand-mending worn-out elastic diaper bands or sharing patterns for sewing their own diapers from scratch. If that’s not hardcore, I don’t know what is.
My favorite site, Diaper Swapper, has marketplace categories for fitteds, prefolds, and flats, pockets, all-in-ones/all-in-twos, hybrids, covers, and all things wool. It also features forums on Elimination Communication (basically, toilet training at birth) and babywearing (wearing your baby in a carrier as part of attachment parenting).
I chatted with a generous and slightly cagey moderator who reposted my requests for more intel from the scene. She shared a little about her life in the cloth-diaper world.
I asked what made her decide to use cloth diapers. She said a WAHM (work-at-home mom) diaper-maker she met at a parenting conference turned her on to the scene. “CD [cloth diapering] seemed like a natural extension of the other parenting choices I was making at that time: extended breast-feeding, family bed, attachment parenting, babywearing, etc.,” she said. “Did I mention that her diapers were so cute and fluffy?”
So why does cloth-diapering bring out the passion in parents? “The passion is already there,” she argued, “and cloth diapering just amplifies it.”
Parents who choose to cloth-diaper are deciding to do something most moms and dads would never consider. They know they might get grief or uncomfortable comments, but they choose to do it anyway. Whether their motivation is financial or a desire to be kinder to the planet, they will defend their choice vehemently.
It’s here, in this realm of strange beauty, where the fun and insanity of swapping those cloth diapers begins.
A lot of cloth-diaper moms expect ridicule from other moms or skeptical siblings who can’t understand why anyone would go cloth. And anything that makes them more vulnerable to snark or attack is something probably best avoided—especially the bad behavior of other cloth-diaper fans.
The moderator I spoke with insisted on remaining anonymous and refused to reveal behind-the-scenes information about Diaper Swapper. “Have you ever had to ban someone from swapping diapers?” I asked. “Can you share the details without naming names?”
“Yes, but bannings are like Fight Club. The first rule is you don’t talk about them. Seriously, banning can be difficult for those that are banned and for those that have to do the banning. We try not to pour salt on the wound by gossiping about it.”
Users can get banned from Diaper Swapper for typical violations, such as hateful or racist language, but a more common crime appears to be diaper scamming. I’ve seen enough annoyed posts about sellers collecting payment and then disappearing, or goods showing up in worse-than-advertised condition, to suspect that some people are exiled for being subpar online purveyors.
That’s typical for any swap site, but every once in a while, you’ll see something far disgusting—complaints about second-hand diapers showing up with, erm, stains, or smelling heavily of urine.
Photo via iloveclothdiapers.com
Amazingly enough, most diapers show up in great shape, lacking the discoloration and stench that you might expect from used butt cloth. This oversight may be enough to earn you an official rebuke. If not, it should be.
As a cloth-diaper enthusiast but ultimately a lazy person, I’ve always found snagging the really good deals on diaper-swap groups to be more about luck than anything else. I asked my moderator about the best way to get the good diaper deals, and she put me in my place: “You have only 10 posts. You have to be in it to win it.”
Let that soak in for a moment—pun intended.
She continued: “Active members find great deals. If you watch the site you will see that there [are] a certain stockings that are discussed. Then there will be discussions about what people were able to get at that stocking. Then you will see discussions about who wasn’t able to get what. You will see ISO (in search of) posts pop up for those diapers. Then you will see FSOT (for sale or trade) posts pop up with those diapers being sold.”
Photo via Diaper Swapper
Photo via Diaper Swapper
Don’t get me wrong: I admire people who put that much time into finding the diapers they want. But it’s hard enough figuring out which diapers work for me and my kid, let alone finding those elusive $10 BGs in excellent used condition.
The high-end market
The competition isn’t just over the lowest price on the most functional diapers. There’s another whole absorbent layer to cloth-diaper swapping, and that, believe it or not, is collecting.
Purchasing used baby butt-covers can slash expenses by 50 percent or more.
Cloth-diaper manufacturers know their customers well. A little too well. BumGenius is beloved, or notorious, for unleashing limited-edition prints that quickly sell out—only then to be found on diaper-swapping sites, their prices marked up a ludicrous amount. In October 2013, bumGenius released the limited-edition “Jules” print, inspired by work of novelist Jules Verne. This diaper is so rare now that it fetches sky-high prices. The average price for even a used one is around $80.
Screengrab via eBay
And that’s just the mainstream cloth diapers. When you dip into the world of boutique couture diapers, things can really get out of hand. Smaller brands like Ragababe produce such limited runs that one parent paid $340 for an “Original Tie Dye” all-in-one. A Diaper Swapper member reportedly spent $125 on a Honeyboy fleece all-in-one and lived to tell the tale. Goodmama organic bamboo velour diapers are out of favor now, but the elusive Tie Dye print once commanded $300 at auction.
Again, these prices are for a single diaper. A piece of cloth your child poops into.
For some cloth-diaper mamas, there’s something to this beyond saving the planet. If you’re going to collect something bizarre, it’s better to collect something that’s bizarre and useful. A stash of cloth diapers certainly holds more interest for me than a room full of unopened action figures. But I believe that the diaper obsession speaks to another issue that all parents, hippie-dippie or otherwise, struggle with: control.
No matter how much you plan or prep, no matter how many rules you make or nighttime routines you write out and stick on the fridge, your child is an independent creature who does whatever the hell he or she wants to do. Sleep or not sleep, cry or not cry, listen or not listen, hit the dog or ride the dog, write on the walls, pee in your face—it’s all in the hands of your wee progeny. All you can do is try to accept it, be the best parent you can be, and maybe work on a complete collection of “Easter” BG prints so you can line them up in a drawer and say, “Look, there’s some order. And I did it.”
As my Diaper Swapper moderator put it: “What I see more is an effort not to pursue the one in-demand diaper but to reach stash nirvana. That is where you find the perfect combination of diapers that exactly fit the needs of you and your child. Once reached, you are immune to the impulse diaper purchase or the allure of cute prints. You have transcended. It’s like a unicorn though—very elusive and probably not real.”
Like parenting itself, online cloth-diaper swapping is about the poopy journey, not the poopy destination.
Illustration by Max Fleishman