My suggestion is to find a cloth diaper service in your area (most large metropolitan areas have one, if not several; we used Tiny Tots), and sign up for their minimum service period, usually 1 month. A cloth diaper service will deliver clean diapers to your doorstep once a week and pick up the dirty ones. This usually works out to be slightly more expensive than disposables--a dollar or two more a week--but since there is a bit of an investment in buying your own cloth diapers, it makes sense to try them out with a service first.
In addition to signing up for a diaper service, you will need to buy 2 diaper covers, 1 package of snappi fasteners, and if you don't have one, some kind of large clean pail or trashcan with a lid.
Since a picture is probably most helpful, below is an illustration of the most common kind of diaper (called a "prefold") provided by a diaper service, and how to put it on a baby. You'll see that the diaper can simply be laid in the cover, or it can be clipped in place with a fastener. You are very unlikely to get any leaks, even with a huge poop, if you use a fastener.
|The ingredients: a "prefold" cloth diaper, upper left, a diaper cover, lower left, and a baby!|
|A diaper fastened in place with a Y-shaped snappi clip|
|A diaper simply laid in the cover, with the bottom half folded in thirds and tucked into the cover's "pocket".|
|The finished product: a fluffy bum|
1. When you first purchase your own set of cloth diapers (most people buy about 24-36 of them), you need to wash and dry them about 5 or 6 times in a row before use, to make them softer and more absorbent.
2. When the diaper needs to be changed, simply put the dirty cloth diaper in your diaper pail. If it was just a pee or a small poop, you can usually use the cover again; I wash the covers only about once a week. If poop gets on the cover, then you need to change the cover, too.
3. Wash dirty cloth diapers and covers in 3 steps: a cold rinse with no detergent, a hot wash with a small amount of additive and perfume-free detergent, like Tide Free or Dreft, and then into the dryer--or you can air dry if it's sunny! Most people wash their cloth diapers every 2 to 3 days. You do not need to do anything to the diapers before throwing them in the wash; the water from your washing machine ends up in the same place as the water from your toilet, anyway. Once your baby starts having more solid poops, you can just shake the solids into your toilet before placing the dirty diaper in your diaper pail.
Some people wash their diapers together with their regular laundry, simply adding the laundry to the diapers after the initial cold rinse. That's perfectly fine!
Using cloth diapers away from home is no big deal, either. You can stow dirty diapers in a reusable waterproof bag (that you just wash with the diapers once a week or so), or use plastic shopping bags in a pinch.
There many styles of cloth diapering other than the ones I've mentioned here, but I think this is the easiest way to get started. Go forth and be green!