Almost Free Diapers – How to diaper your baby when you can’t afford disposable diapers or cloth diapers

Over the weekend, a customer shared with us this news report from Manhattan’s NY1: High Cost Of Diapers Forces Some Parents Into Risky Practices. It breaks my heart because I personally know what it feels like to have to choose food OR diapers. When my husband and I started Cotton Babies, we were living on $30 a week for groceries plus a WIC check. That certainly wasn’t enough to buy a cloth diaper stash and it didn’t buy very many disposable diapers either. Thankfully, we were given three months of diaper service at one of my baby showers and then a friend gave me her stash of prefolds and diaper covers. Without those gifts though, we would have been looking for information about how to diaper your baby when you can’t afford disposables OR cloth diapers.

30 years ago, most babies were cloth diapered using flat diapers or prefold diapers. 100 years ago, most babies were cloth diapered using homemade diapers. Those diapers were simple squares constructed from cotton fabric. The diaper was covered with rubber pants or a wool sweater, if a cover was even used. Believe it or not, diaper covers were a source of parenting drama years ago because doctor’s were sure that they would cause diaper rash (we will talk about diaper rash another day… that’s a topic for a week of blog posts).

We have seen several media reports recently about low income families reusing disposable diapers. These families are forced to choose between diapers and food. In an effort to keep budget available for groceries, they are blow drying a disposable diaper dry and putting it back on their baby. We recently heard about a local family who almost lost their baby to an infection as a result of reusing disposable diapers.

Within the cloth diaper industry, it’s widely know that prefolds and covers are the most economical way to cloth diaper. But what if a family doesn’t even have $5 dollars to spend and they are out of diapers? Many people use diaper coupons to make their $5 go further. Our goal today is to TEACH you how to use things around your house to diaper your baby. Your great-grandmother probably did this. Your grandmother might remember… it’s time that *we* re-educate ourselves, our friends and our families that before modern disposable or cloth diapers, people found safe, healthy ways to cover and protect their little ones.

Life is unpredictable. Jobs, income, natural disasters like we’ve seen recently in Japan, anything could leave any of us in a position where we have to make adjustments in our normal diapering routine. Let me share with you some ways I’ve found to diaper your little one in a reusable way with things you already have around your house.
  • No Sew, Folded T-shirt Cloth Diaper This one takes no sewing, no cutting and just a diaper pin to secure it. This would be great for anyone to know, just in case. You never know when you’ll be short a diaper, and this works.
  • T-Shirt Tie Diaper No pin or snappi? This one just takes a pair of scissors and a few quick snips to create a tie-on cloth diaper.
  • Receiving Blanket Origami Fold Diaper No t-shirts? Out with just a diaper bag and a receiving blanket. This video shows you how to fold a cotton flannel receiving blanket into a diaper that can be secured with diaper pins or a snappi.
  • Start Cloth Diapering for $20 This tutorial and video shows you how to create a budget stash with a dozen prefolds, 4 fleece receiving blankets, a Snappi and an infant bodysuit. This could idea would be great for a family’s emergency kit.
  • Need a cover? Upcycle an old wool sweater into a diaper cover. There are lots of tutorials online, but I like the photos and directions on The Sewing Dork.
  • No sewing skills? Find a pair of little girl “bloomers” (the matching panties that come with most little girl dresses). Using a can of Atsko Permanent Water Guard, spray the outside and inside of the bloomers to create your own pull-on cover. Let it dry before using. This solution will not be completely waterproof, but it will certainly help .
  • Keep in mind: Many household linens, hand towels, kitchen towels, bath towels, washcloths, flannel or cotton sheets, etc. can be folded or cut into a prefold size or insert shape suitable for diapering. Have an old t-shirt, cotton flannel shirt hanging in the back of your closet? Take a look at the label. You’re looking for anything made from a natural fiber (cotton, hemp, bamboo, etc).
  • Overwhelmed with what to do with a square or a rectangle? You can cut just about any absorbent fabric into strips, fold it into enough layers and you’ll have an absorbent pad that will function as a diaper. If you go this route though, you’ll need to have a diaper cover to hold the pad on your baby. The directions for making a diaper cover out of a wool sweater above are great… in a pinch, you could even cut up an old tablecloth.If you’d prefer to buy a diaper cover, the least expensive diaper covers on the market, are these Dappi Nylon Pants. At Cotton Babies, we sell these in packages of 2 diaper covers for $5. At $3.95, a Snappi is another good purchase. It holds fabric, a cloth diaper, a towel… whatever… on your baby without the use of pins. Our free shipping on any order gets that package to your door hassle free.
  • Washing diapers: If you don’t have a washer and dryer, you can easily wash your diapers out in the sink with a little dish soap. If the diaper was poopy, rinse it out in the toilet before washing in the sink. Wash each night and hang the diapers to dry in the bathtub or over a railing. Depending on your climate, most diapers will be dry by morning. As long as you stay on top of it, this will only take a few minutes. Before you let someone talk you out of it… I did it. I washed my diapers in all of the following places: the sink, in the bathtub, in a shared washing machine in the basement of an apartment building, at my mother-in-law’s house, and at a laundromat. All of those places will work. You just need clean diapers.
Have you ever cloth diapered with household items?Do you have experience with the suggestions we made above? Share your tips and ideas with others… you never know who you’re going to help.

Jenn is the Founder and CEO of Cotton Babies. She holds an Executive MBA from Washington University. She was awarded Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in the Emerging Category for the Central Midwest Region in 2011. Among many other awards, she recently received a 2017 YWCA Leader of Distinction Award for Entrepreneurship. Jenn holds many patents on various inventions in a number of different countries and is listed as one of 50 Missourians You Should Know. She is particularly fascinated by languages, chickens, and children (she has four) when she’s not reading economics journals. Jenn offers mentorship to product developers at any stage in the journey from idea to shelf.

8 thoughts on “Almost Free Diapers – How to diaper your baby when you can’t afford disposable diapers or cloth diapers

  1. Great tips. I used an old pillowcase as a diaper the other day. Just folded it in quarters so it was a long rectangle, then laid that in a Flip diaper cover. It was because my diapers were locked in my car trunk, not because I don’t have enough diapers!

    Fortunately I am not and have never been in the position to choose between diapers and food, because family helped me find enough economical and second-hand cloth diapers to get started.

  2. Great idea’s! Don’t forget to inform these families of cloth diaper foundations who send about 12 free diapers/covers to families who qualify. I would probably qualify but I had a bunch (about 30) of free cotton recieving blankets that I made into prefolds…kinda wish I had left them as flats but flats really intimidated me so I did what I thought was best at the time. and it works. I did a lot of sewing my last couple of months in my pregnancy…and I’m so glad I did, there were a few times that if I had not had cloth we would have been eating ramen noodles at $0.18 a pack so baby would have diapers…not a good choice for hypoglycemia!

  3. Even though I was given a whole stash of the top quality, organic prefolds, I’ve found the best thing for us is t-shirts with microfiber towels. We got a bunch of large and x-large Ts at the local thrift store’s ‘bag sale,’ and cut off all the sleeves (they make great wipes). Then I use the origami fold with a microfiber towel (three for five bucks in the automotive section of walmart) in the fold. Recently I’ve started putting a wipe on first so when she’s stinky I don’t have to prewash the whole diaper, just throw the wipe in the toilet, shake it around a few times, hold it and flush – then throw it in my diaper pail to wait for laundry day. Being t-shirts they dry really fast- though i like to leave them on the line for a full day to let the sun kill any of the nasty stuff.

  4. I just wanted to say thank you for this helpful information! I was blessed with lots of disposable diapers at our baby shower and thought that purchasing cloth diapers would be a lot of money up front, which we never have. (And I was a little daunted by the thought of washing them…) But I have always been interested in cloth diapering and now that we are low on money AND diapers, I am going to go examine our stash of tshirts and receiving blankets and see what we can do. 🙂

  5. I used a flannel receiving blanket and a clean onsie on a caravan-style road trip (for a famiy emergency) when the diapers went a different direction than baby and I did! That was before my cloth diaper junky days, though!
    I love your company- the products, the company and most of all what you represent!!!
    Thank you for your work in the cloth diaper industry and the community!!!

  6. Update: we moved into an apartment with no washer/dryer hookup, so i had to learn to ‘foot-wash’ the diapers (i don’t like the thought of ‘hand washing,’ and with a limited budget I’d rather save our rubber gloves for certain food-handling needs). I throw them in the bathtub and fill it up, splash some vinegar in there (it’s really hard to hand strip diapers – the combination of the vinegar and the sunlight kill germs and the agitation gets the solids and pee out), and climb in and agitate with my feet. I mostly step on a diaper, swish it back and forth vigorously like a horse pawing at the ground, move on to the next one then drain the water. I’ll do two more straight water rinses – i could get away with one most times I do two just for consistency – drain, wring out, put on hangers and take out to the porch rail to dry. I do most of our laundry in the tub now, and I actually like doing diapers best because they come clean the easiest, believe it or not.

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