The average child will go through 6,000 diapers. Yes, you read that right, 6000!
There is a huge debate as to whether cloth is better than disposables so we did some research to try to nail down the pros and cons of both. First, let me say that cloth diapers are not what I remember them to be. They didn't fit well, the likelihood that you might stab your child while trying to pin them on was high and they were not very convenient when you were outside of the house. That being said, the new cloth diapers are a huge improvement on the past so lets get started with the comparison.
Pros: They come in cotton, terry or flannel and in a variety of colors and prints. They now come in sizes and have velco, snap or button closures which eliminates the pins and waterproof bands makes them more similar to their disposable counterparts. There is no question that they are more natural because they don't contain the absorbency chemicals that disposables have. Reportedly, babies have fewer rashes with cloth perhaps because of a combination of being changed more and the aforementioned chemicals. More convenient in the sense that you always have them on hand, no late night runs to the store to get additional diapers. Definitely more green than disposables because less waste goes into landfills. Less expensive, depending on whether you wash them yourself or use a service, they are still slightly cheaper. They can also be used for future babies.
Cons: Cloth diapers are less absorbent, so you will be changing your baby more. You will be doing two to three more loads of laundry per week just for the diapers. If you work, this could be a big negative because you probably already have enough laundry to do. They are definitely less convenient for travel or running errands because you need to carry the dirty diaper back home with you instead of throwing it away. There are hybrid diapers that have a disposable liner that is flushable or compostable which would make it easier to get rid of the messy stuff and just bring the diaper home. One last note, some caregivers would prefer or will not deal with cloth diapers so that is definitely a consideration.
Pros: Lots of choices of colors and designs. More convenient, especially while you are out and about, just throw the diaper away and move on. Definitely does not add additional laundry to your schedule. They are slightly less likely to leak, but the difference is marginal. They are highly absorbent so you can go a bit longer without changing the diaper but be aware that the longer that diaper stays on your baby while soiled the more likely your baby will get diaper rash.
Cons: Some babies may be allergic, but the instance of that is pretty low. Not green at all, disposable diapers add 3.4 million tons of waste into landfills. Most "green" diapers are green from the standpoint that they do not have chemicals or are made from reclaimed materials. There are only a few brands that can be composted and that only works if you have access to composting.
When I started researching this I was convinced that I would come out for disposables because my memories of cloth were not great. When I had babies beginning in 1985, I tried cloth diapers. I worked full time so I used a laundry service, which mitigated the issue of more laundry. The problem with them back then was pinning the diaper and the fact that they didn't really fit so the minute they got wet they were sagging off. I liked the idea that they were more natural but couldn't deal with stabbing my baby, so I changed to disposable.
If I were having babies today, I would definitely try cloth diapers. You can always do it in stages to see if it is going to work for you. Additionally, there may be times in your childs life that lend themselves more to one or the other. For example, it might be better when your child is older to use the disposables or vice versa. Since you are purchasing diapers by size, no matter what, you don't need to be locked into one or the other for eternity. The cost savings if you do your own laundry is significant. Disposable diapers will cost somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000 for two years, cloth, if you launder, will cost $800-$1,000 for two years and $2,500-2,800 if you use a service. There is always the option of using disposables when you travel or while you are out of the house if you don't like the idea of bringing the diaper back home with you. The additional benefit of not adding all of this waste into landfills is a huge bonus.