First thing's first: remember those towelling squares your (grand)parents used? This is different. Very different. I'll explain just how different as we go along, but for now, put all thoughts of towelling squares out of your mind, along with those plastic covers that were like cheap shower caps.
Second thing: I'm from Australia, so my terminology is different to the vast majority of U.S.-based noders. That's fine, you'll cope.
So: you, or someone you are close to is having a baby. Wonderful! Babies are a great joy, apparently. Many people have them on purpose! Babies come with lots of responsibility and way too many choices, all of which have attached guilt. Breast or bottle? Co-sleep or cry to sleep? Stay home or go back to work? Daycare or a nanny? Academic pressure or learning through play? Smacking or time out? Don't worry too much, because with any luck in a few years you will be the proud landlord of a teenager who thinks you are clueless and the worst person on the planet anyway.
This node is about one of the newer options available to parents and carers in their search for ever more guilt-inducing parental choices: the Modern Cloth Nappy, or MCN. What are they? Why would you use them? What's with all the acronyms? I can answer all these questions and more as a parent who has Been There, Felt Guilty and Survived.
Third thing: there will be excrement. It kinda goes with the territory. And if you aren't scared by that... well, as the great one said, you will be. You - will - be.
What Is This MCN Of Which You Speak?
Simply put, a modern cloth nappy is a reusable cloth butt covering made from super-absorbent fabric, shaped to fit a baby's bum like a modern disposable diaper. Unlike the old cotton towelling squares, MCNs are made with bamboo, hemp or microfibres that are significantly more absorbent than cotton (and in some cases more absorbent than disposable diapers). Like disposables, MCNs are shaped to fit and don't involve performing origami with a wiggly butt. They usually made of layers of absorbent fabric sewn together, with some elastic around the legs and waist to prevent leakage.
Most MCNs use either plastic press studs or velcro as fasteners, and may have built in or separate covers, usually made of laminated fabric.
Why Would I Use MCNs?
The disposable diaper is a truly amazing invention. Quick and easy to use, minimal contact with baby poo, extremly absorbent compared with what was available before. I still used disposable diapers while travelling, or if I was feeling lazy, or when there were babysitters likely to be changing nappies.
The downsides to disposable diapers are these: the environment, and the price.
The price is an easy one. The price per unit of disposable diapers, over the years a baby uses them, is a lot more than the cost per unit of MCNs, even when you factor in the cost of water, electricity and detergent to wash them. How important this is to you is very personal, because of course you offset the money saved in time and energy doing washing. I'll go into detail further on, but it was an easy choice for me.
The environment is something former generations were less concerned with. Disposable diapers usually contain some difficult-to-degrade materials, and almost all the disposable diapers ever used are sitting in landfills somewhere taking up space. Manufacturing the diapers also has a cost to the environment. Although progress is being made on the eco-friendly disposable front, the best products are still not that great, and they are even more expensive than regular disposable diapers. I'm not trying to give you a guilt trip; I used plenty of disposables myself. It's worth considering, though.
There are a few other reasons for using cloth nappies - like a baby with very sensitive skin.
But - Doesn't This Involve Washing Poo-Covered Nappies?
There is no getting away from it. Poo is involved. Lots of it. Whether you use MCNs or disposable diapers, there will be poo. Everywhere. Seriously. Babies can get it on the backs of their heads, on their feet, in their blankets - and that's before they figure out how to get their hands in their nappies, or take their nappies off, or start toilet training themselves without telling you.
So on the whole, dealing with MCNs turned out to be a very small part of the whole disgusting-baby-mess. My best friend through these years was a trigger hose attachment that screwed onto the inlet on my toilet, so that I could hose everything straight into the bowl and flush it away.
Here's how it works:
1. Change the nappy
If you are using disposable wipes, they need to go in the bin. If you use a wet cloth, take it and the nappy and hose all the solid matter (that means poo) into the toilet. Flush (do not skip this part).
2. Chuck your dirties into a bucket
A bucket with a lid is your second best friend through these years, even if you don't use cloth nappies. Disgusting smelly clothes, blankets, etc. all go in the bucket. There is no need to soak anything, just pop it all in and put the lid back on.
3. Wash everything in the bucket every second day
This is vital. If you can, wash daily. If you're having a rough week, every second day. But don't leave it any longer than that. This is the difference between 'oh, cloth nappies are quite easy really' and 'aaaaargh call the Ghostbusters! It's coming after me!'
As for washing, you tip the bucket into the washing machine, put in a very small amount of detergent, and wash away. Depending on your choice of nappies, you can put them in the dryer or one the clothes line.
4. Put your clean nappies away
Bahahahaha! No really, just chuck them in a pile next to the change table where you can reach them. You'll be right.
What About All These Acronyms?
MCNs are mostly the domain of small businesses, often Mummy-run enterprises in spare rooms and sewing circles. MCNs are mostly available online, and from people who are deeply enthusiastic about them. So it can seem a little scary at first. Most of the acronyms and funny words are about what the nappies are made from, and the particular shape and configuration of the nappy. Just like most other aspects of parenting, there is no right or wrong choice and it comes down to your personal preference and your specific baby.
This is a cloth nappy with a built in waterproof layer. These are the closest product to a disposable diaper, and the easiest for occasional carers to use. You simply slide the nappy under the baby, pull up the front, and fasten the sides with the velcro or press studs. Done!
aio or ai1 nappies are usually sized for a specific weight/age of baby, so you will probably need to buy them in 3-4 sizes over the years you use them. Because the waterproof layer is built in, they can be slower to dry than a separate nappy and cover. On the other hand, the built-in cover gives you more options to personalise the nappy, and these MCNs are the perfect option for crazy colours and patterns. I had one in black velour embroidered with a baby ninja for my little surprise. Totes Adorbs.
Separates or All-in-two
This is a cloth nappy made from absorbent fabric with no waterproofing. A separate cover must be added. These nappies can be bought in one-size-fits-most to cover your baby from newborn to toddler, so you only need one set of nappies. This can be useful when you have another child in nappies - one size fits both. Separates are often quicker drying and some types can withstand much tougher wash cycles than the all-in-ones. These nappies are generally not decorative.
Nappies without waterproofing will need a cover. These are usually laminated fabric, commonly polyurethane laminate, or PUL; some people also use microfibre or wool covers. MCN covers are shaped like a disposable, with either velcro or press stud fasteners. They can be coloured or decorated. Covers are generally suitable for a limited size range, so you need 3-4 sizes as your baby grows.
Because PUL covers are a single thin layer, they are usually quick to dry and can be used multiple times before washing. Microfibre covers are generally not quite as waterproof, but can be very easy care with washing and drying. Wool covers are not waterproof, but need to be lanolised regularly. Lanolin is the oil from sheep's wool that helps keep the wool water resistant. You lanolise woollen fabrics by adding a small amount of lanolin to a bucket of nappies in very hot water, and allowing it to soak in. Lanolin is sold as a heavy duty moisturiser for breastfeeding mothers and is usually in the baby aisle at the supermarket.
Some MCNs, usually all-in-one types, will have a pocket right down the middle of the nappy, allowing you to slide rectangles of absorbent fabric into place. The best MCNs have the pocket access at the front of the nappy, because you have to remove the extra padding when you wash, and a front-access pocket is less likely to end up covered in poo. The advantage of pocket nappies is that you can use just about anything for the extra layers, because the pocket holds it in place. It doesn't matter if the insert is scratchy, because the nappy still has a soft inner layer touching the baby's skin. Pocket nappies can also be quicker to dry, because most of the absorbency is in the insert. On the other hand, you can't reuse a pocket nappy: once it is wet or dirty, it needs to be washed.
Press studs, not buttons, actually. Most nappies, both the all-in-one and the separates, have extra press studs or velcro strips to attach extra layers of padding. The padding can be varying sizes and shapes, and attach inside the nappy. The best nappies have attachment points at the front and back, so you can arrange the padding as needed. The downside of button inserts is that they will be touching the baby's skin, so they need to be suitably soft. On the other hand, they are easier to adjust than a pocket nappy, and if you are lucky you can sometimes simply remove a soiled insert layer and reuse the nappy. Obviously this only happens sometimes, but believe me there will be days when your freshly changed baby just delivers one last little nugget onto an otherwise spotless nappy... and being able to remove one insert, and button the nappy back up, is the most exciting thing that happens to you. All day.
The main advantage of button inserts, though, is that they are easier to position right where you need them. A baby lying down will need more padding at the back of the nappy. A mobile little boy will need the padding at the front, while a girl will need it in the middle of the nappy. Nighttime nappies need all the padding you can give them - but does your toddler sleep on their back or their front?
How Absorbent Are They, Though? Really?
MCNs are made of a variety of fabrics, commonly bamboo or hemp, or a combination of these. Cotton and synthetics are sometimes used in the blends. Bamboo in particular is incredibly absorbent and remarkably soft. It holds huge amounts of liquid, and stands up well to repeated washing. The downside of bamboo is that because it is so absorbent, it can take a long time to dry, especially in the winter. Hemp is not as soft, and feels very much like linen or cotton. It is not quite as absorbent as bamboo, but dries a lot faster. It's usually a little cheaper, too.
Once, in the middle of a week of filthy weather and rotten flu, I ran out of both disposables and MCNs. I had to use on of the emergency towelling squares as a nappy. At that stage I was changing the nappy every 4 hours or so. The towelling square lasted less than fifteen minutes before it was soaked through. I rang my parents and apologised for having been a baby in the days before either disposables or bamboo fabrics were available. They agreed that towelling squares suck, and came over to finish my washing.
Our bamboo nappies, with inserts, were more absorbent than the disposables at every age/weight range. They were especially good overnight with a toilet training toddler.
Aren't They Complicated?
When I announced my intention of using MCNs (bamboo fabric separates with PUL covers, ftr) my father told me, politely but firmly, that he had done quite enough nappy washing when I was a baby, and that when he babysat he would use disposables. Fair enough, I said. One day several months later, he watched me change a nappy. I pulled off the wet one, chucked it in the bucket, and pulled a fresh one off the shelf. I buttoned it up, put a cover over it and fastened the velcro.
"Is that it?" he asked.
"Yep," I said, draping the used but still clean cover over the cot rails to air.
"But... oh, I can do that!" he said. "Send some of these over next time he visits. That's as easy as a disposable."
Well... it isn't quite as simple as that. You will need to assemble your preferred nappies by adding the pocket or button inserts, which is about five minutes work after each load of washing. Then there is a pile of nappies ready to go for whoever does the nappy change.
You will probably also need a waterproof bag to store used nappies in if you are out somewhere (the MCN suppliers usually sell these as well, made from the same PUL as the nappy covers). And MCNs work best when you keep on top of the washing, so it helps to get into the habit of putting a load through, say, every morning right after breakfast, or last thing before bed.
You will probably spend more time reading about nappies than actually looking after them.
How Do You Look After These Things?
It's pretty easy. MCNs like to be washed often and thoroughly, so I usually put an extra rinse on the cycle. You don't use fabric softener - it reduces absorbency - and you only use a small amount of washing powder. Most of them can be put in the dryer, although I liked to hang mine in the sun whenever possible for the extra bleaching effect. Eventually some of the nappies got stains, especially after our minininja discovered blueberries, but they were still very clean and usable.
I had about 30 one-size-fits-most bamboo nappies, 6 PUL covers in each size, and about 3 all-in-ones that I bought because they were so cute. Each of the nappies came with 2 bamboo inserts. When we had finished toilet training, I threw out 4 nappies and about a dozen inserts as they were stained and wearing a bit thin. The rest I sold or gave to friends.
Where Do I Get Them?
Your local area will be teeming with stitch-happy Mums making MCNs. You will find them all online, just search for 'modern cloth nappy' or 'modern cloth diaper' as appropriate. Check out parenting forums online or talk to other parents in your area to find out about the local options. Visit local baby and children's clothing markets, you might meet some of the makers and sellers there too. Many MCN businesses will offer trial packs with a few different types of nappy for you to try out.
Okay, that about wraps it up (and fastens it with super cute velcro tabs). One last little thing - remember those towelling squares? Regardless of whether you choose MCNs or disposable diapers, you will probably end up with a dozen or so old-fashioned towelling squares as gifts from more experienced parents. Don't throw them away! They can serve as emergency nappies, sure. But they are also shoulder-protecting burp cloths, towels, face washers, covers for suspected dirty surfaces (like public change rooms), sun shades, swaddle cloths, blankets, capes, floor mats, extra mattress protection, car seat protectors... As the prophet said, always know where your towel is. In this case, that should be one in the nappy bag, one at the change table, and a couple in the boot of the car.
Don't get too worried. At the end of the day, if your baby is cleaned, fed and cuddled, you're doing okay.