How Can You Tell When To Change a Cloth Diaper?

Sometimes the seemingly obvious questions are the ones we need answered the most.  Even a question like “How can I tell when it is time to change a cloth diaper?” is one I have been asked many times but that I haven’t seen being answered by other websites.  For that reason I’ll be answering that here today.

Disposable diapers have an easy “tell” that let you know when your baby has wet.  In some cases they even have a stripe that changes color once the baby has peed which lets you know visually that the diaper is wet.  Even without that sign a disposable diaper is ready to be changed when it is “squishy.”  A simple pinch or light poke will give you a clear answer.  This is because the super trim disposable diapers use what is called “SAP” gel and this will expand to 500 times its weight when wet.  This is not the case with any type of cloth diaper.  Almost all parents are aware of the “pinch” test for disposables but when they begin using cloth diapers they are no longer sure how to test to see if the diaper is wet and needs to be changed.

Just as they are many varieties of cloth diapers there are also various ways to tell if a diaper is wet and needs to be changed.  As a general rule a baby shouldn’t be in a diaper longer than 2 to 4 hours, age depending.  Newborns and infants wet more frequently so changing every 2 hours is a good idea.  As babies turn to toddlers they also begin going less frequently so going 2-4 hours between wet diapers is common.

To test a cloth diaper for wetness I have used several techniques.  The first is simply poking or pinching the diaper, like a disposable.  With cloth diapers you are not looking for a squishy feeling.  Feel for weight, warmth through the material, and hardness.  Natural fibers like cotton, bamboo, and hemp will feel harder and more dense when wet but more pliable when dry.  They “bunch” together more when wet also and this can be felt by pinching the diaper in the wet zone.  Microfiber inserts will also feel heavier in the diaper, warm if recently wet, but will feel “squishier” than when they are dry.  This “squishy” feeling is not the same as a disposable but that is the only way I can describe it.

Prefolds and Fitteds with a waterproof cover can be checked for wetness also.  My method might not be your favorite but I just peek into the front and top of the diaper.  There I will be able to usually visibly see of the material is wet, or if not, I will peek in the leg and feel for wetness.  Peeking in the legs will also work for any other kind of cloth diaper.

Any non water-proof diaper is a no brainer if you aren’t using a cover.  Touch the outside to feel for wetness.  Some will even look darker where the wetness occurs so you can just see that the baby needs to be changed.  Not using a cover is good for parents hoping to change their baby right away (for those with sensitive skin who might get rashes easy) or for those practicing Elimination Communication.  I think every parent should try this at least on occasion if only to understand your baby’s pattern of wetting which will let you know how often they typically wet; this will give you a good idea of how often you should be changing your baby too.

Strangely enough, sometimes it is even harder to tell when to change a cloth diaper when your baby has pooped.  Disposable diapers give off a serious nasty odor once the poop hits the diaper.  Most cloth diapers, unless they have a detergent or mineral build-up (and in this case they need to be stripped), won’t have as strong of an odor.  Additionally, many cloth diapers have such effective elastic around the legs and waist that they keep odor from escaping.  I’ve been surprised a number of times when changing my baby, thinking they are only wet, and discovered a surprise poop!  You would think the smell would be a dead giveaway but that isn’t always the case.

To new cloth diapering parents I pass this nuggets of wisdom (get it, nugget?!) down to you:

Always check for the deuce before changing the diaper.  

Take a peek in the leg or back before opening up the diaper.  If the coast is clear you are ready for an easy change.  If not you’ll need to get the proper provisions (wipes, changing pad, etc) before going in.

Eventually you will get into a rhythm with cloth diapers and know when and how often to change your baby and you’ll have your own preferred method of checking for a wet diaper, perhaps even one not listed here.

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