On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself on the patio drilling holes around the sides of a new toilet plunger to reduce resistance in my new camp-style washing machine–a 5-gallon Home Depot bucket with lid. I'd committed to washing flat diapers for my 20-month-old son for one week, by hand.
Kim Rosas of DirtyDiaperLaundry.com was inspired by a recent news story  about parents attempting to reuse disposable diapers to save money, and wondered why they weren't just using cloth, so she posed a challenge to her blog readers: For one week, participants of the challenge would hand wash and hang dry flat diapers, living as if no washer or dryer were available. Flats, a simple one-layer sheet of Birdseye cotton, wash easily and dry quickly. Over the diapers, any commercially available diaper cover would do, but participants were limited to just 5 in rotation for frugality, whether that be plastic pants from Target or a fancier cover from a cloth diaper supplier between $10 and $16 each–covers that, even with heavy machine washing, can diaper multiple kids from birth to potty training.
I emailed Kim and signed up with very little thought, but not without knowledge–I've been cloth diapering since 2006.
Cloth moms like big butts and we can't deny, collecting new ones in funky patterns and delicious colors every chance we get; we also know it's not for everyone. The purpose of the Flats Challenge was not to covert people who can't/won't cloth diaper, but to prove (see the challenge results ) that it's possible to diaper on the cheap (between $50 and $100 for enough diapers for full time use) if the worst happens and laundering facilities are unavailable.
As cloth has exploded in popularity, there's grown a judgment of elitism associated with this diapering method, as premium brands available mostly online beg nearly $20 apiece. Stacie Walker, owner of Louisville's Fannies Diaper Service, would love families to understand that "cloth diapering is neither 'hippie' nor 'elitist'. In fact, it's the most non-elitist parenting choice I've made, because disposables are just too expensive for our family budget." The sticker price of cloth creates an illusion that suggests cloth diapering is improbable for most families, requiring a large investment to get started. Admittedly, a diaper stash can cost upwards of $500, but families using disposables will spend between $1,000 to $2,000 MORE from birth to potty training–money that could pay utility bills or credit card debt.
Walker continued, "You can buy or make a decent stash of cloth diapers and wipes for a small fraction [of the price of disposables], and they will last through multiple children." When teaching her free diapering workshop on the 3rd Saturday of each month at Babyology (an informational class with zero sales), she reminds expectant parents that while cloth seems like a big investment, the diapers make good shower gifts. "Part time cloth diapering is a great option."
On why she created the Flats Challenge, Rosas said, "After I read the article citing multiple cases of families reusing and drying out disposables, I kept thinking, 'How can a family with no washer or dryer be encouraged to use cloth diapers?'" Many of the modern cloth diapers contain thick materials that would be next to impossible to wash by hand. Even cotton prefold diapers can take too long to hang dry indoors. Cotton flats' single layer clean easily and dry quickly. "I sent an email to 600+ members of my blogging network. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. I knew I had something then and started planning right away."
Rosas' expectations were conservative, believing 5-10 bloggers might join in the challenge, but 413 signed up to participate. Over 50 bloggers were writing about the experience daily, and thousands followed their progress.
While struggling families continue to toss hard-earned money at what's destined to be garbage, Rosas' Flats Challenge has become a call to action, as most hardworking families don't have idle hours to spend online researching good diaper options. "The people who need cloth diapers the most are the least likely to have access to information about them. We need real people on the ground showing people that cloth diapers aren't niche; they aren't for hippies or only for the rich. There is no mold for cloth diapers. Every baby needs a diaper. Why can't it be reusable?"
Sustainability may be in vogue, but cloth isn't just for the rich. "Growing up we were 'green' because we were poor," Rosas admitted. "Now it seems to be the opposite." In an ironic turn, thirty years after the birth of disposable diapers the richer have gone from consuming what they could afford to throw away to investing in reusables. Likewise, in the 1980s, the poor continued to cloth diaper, and in reaction to a sort of social demotion–or a brilliant marketing opus–parents grew to sacrifice the family budget for disposables to keep up with elevated social expectations.
"I see potential for a partnership with many assistance agencies around the country that will introduce cloth diapers as a way to help low income families make the most of their money while keeping their babies safe and dry," Rosas said.
"More than anything, I hope this challenge has put flats back on the table as not just an emergency, desperate option. I'm still using them 95% of the time because they have kept my son rash-free more than my modern diapers, and they've had no leaks. If I choose them over the 'fancy' diapers, there has to be something to that."
Recently, Walker has shifted the focus of Fannies to free diapering workshops and in-person sales by appointment, "because education and awareness-raising is really where my passion lies …but I haven't quite figured out how to reach the lower-income families who need cloth diapering the most."
Giving Diapers, Giving Hope of Gloucester, Massachusetts is a free non-profit cloth diaper lending service that provides diapering education and support for families in need of diaper materials anywhere in the contiguous United States. Its main focus is simply "…to alleviate diapering costs for low income families…" through donations of new and used cloth diapers, as well as disposables.
Walker and Rosas have another thing in common besides reusable diaper advocacy. Walker told me, "I can't sell what I wouldn't pay for myself, so I operate on a teach a wo/man to fish philosophy now." Rosas' mantra, "Buy a package of disposables, diaper a baby for a week. Buy a stash of cloth diapers, diaper a baby for a lifetime."
Having the courage to make do and reuse takes social support, education, a good stash of reusables and dash of hard work. Unlike just a few years ago, thanks in part to a depressed economy, support and knowledge of cloth options abound.
To learn more about the Flats Challenge, and view its instructional videos visit DirtyDiaperLaundry.com . If you're interested in cloth diapering supplies right here in Louisville visit FanniesDiaperService.com , or get information from Stacie Walker at the next free workshop at Babyology . Families in need of diaper assistance can contact Giving Diapers, Giving Hope  via email at email@example.com .
Photo: Rachel Hurd Anger
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