Do you need to prep them? How do you prep them? Do you need to strip them? How do you strip them? Do you just start....USING them? Do you dive in full force? Do you start just at home and continue to use disposables while out and about? What about overnight?
Prepping and Washing
The easy part of that question is the prep and washing!
If they're new, follow the instructions the maker gives. In general, you can divide your diapers as follows:
Synthetic fabrics (These are usually stay-dry - most pockets and AIOs. Microfiber, microfleece, and suedecloth are all synthetics): Wash once. That's it! They don't need any prep; you're just washing to get any nasties from the manufacturing process out.
Natural fabrics (These are not stay-dry and include most fitteds and many AI2 inserts. Cotton and hemp are all natural fibers): Wash 5-6 times. Why so many? Natural fabrics, particularly cotton and hemp, have oils in them that must be washed out before they become absorbent. They may be ready to use after three or so washes, but they'll be most absorbent after five to six. You don't need to dry between every wash; I usually wash three times, dry, wash three more times, and dry again. And while you don't want to do these washes with other diapers (you don't want to transfer the oils to other diapers), you can wash them with other clothes. If your cotton or hemp is in the form of an insert or prefold without snaps or elastic, you can boil them for 20 or so minutes to avoid so many washes. Once boiled, just wash with detergent once and dry. (I've boiled inserts with snaps before and it's been fine, but they could easily melt so I don't recommend it.)
A note about bamboo:
Bamboo is usually categorized in the "natural fabrics" section, but in reality the process to make bamboo fabrics usually turns it into rayon and strips the oils out. Bamboo usually does not need to be prepped the same way as cotton and hemp.
If your diapers are used, you probably just have to wash them once and you're good to go. However, inspect the diapers beforehand, and you're hesitant about them for any reason you may want to strip them. You may also find you need to strip them after you've used them if they are repelling. You can visit the FAQs for information about stripping diapers.
You've probably heard it before. Line drying diapers is best. And it is. The dryer is hard on cloths. It makes them wear out faster (this goes for ANY clothes, not just diapers!). And it's especially hard on PUL (the plasticky waterproof fabric in a lot of diapers), aplix/velcro, and elastic. So if you can, line dry your diapers. Not only will it help them last longer, it will also get rid of any stains! (It's magic!) You don't have to have a backyard or even a house to do this - you can do it on a balcony or patio, and you can even do it inside. Yes, it will take a bit longer inside without the airflow and wind that the great outdoors provides, but it will dry!
That said, drying on a line isn't always possible. Maybe you don't have somewhere to do it. Maybe you're in a hurry. Maybe you're lazy. (I admit to all of those at one point or another!) Drying in a dryer is okay. The world will not stop turning if you have to use a dryer. The key is to use the lowest possible setting. When I use the dryer (and I do quite a bit), I dry on extra low for 1 hour and 39 minutes. Why that time? It's the longest timed setting I have on my dryer. In that time, my diapers generally get pretty dry. I might have a couple fitteds or AIOs that aren't quite there, and if that's the case, I leave them hanging on the side of her crib for a couple hours. Is drying on low or even (gasp) medium or even (double gasp) regular okay? Sure. Every once in a while, if you're in a huge hurry or have a reason you need to get your diapers dry quickly, it's not going to ruin the diapers. They will, however, last longer if you do that as little as possible. One hint to help minimize dryer damage? Don't stretch the elastic on the diapers until they've cooled. Another hint: use wool dryer balls to help them dry faster (I like this shop on Etsy)!
If you do line dry, you might find that your natural-fiber diapers start to get crunchy or rough. There are several ways to combat this. You can pop them in the dryer for 15 minutes or so to soften them up (some people think they are softer if you dry them in the dryer for 15 minutes and THEN line dry them the rest of the way; some people think they are softer if you line dry and THEN put them in the dryer - experiment!). The faster they dry, the rougher they will be, so if you aren't sunning them and need direct sun, try putting them in the shade. You can also do an ecover soak or add ecover to your regular laundry routine. ecover is a cloth-diaper-safe laundry softener that uses all natural ingredients to soften clothes and diapers. You can do it as often as needed for fitteds and inserts; however, it will wear the PUL and TPU over time. For those types of diapers, try putting a ecover/water mix in a spray bottle, spraying the inner of the diapers, and letting it sit for a bit. Afterward, run a rinse cycle on the diapers. You can also "float" those types of diapers on top of the surface of an ecover soak, letting the soakers become immersed in the ecover/water mixture and keeping the PUL out of the water, floating on top.
Making the Leap
Okay! So you've got your diapers washed and prepped and ready to go. They're just sitting in a big pile, staring at you. This is the part where you just DO IT. Take off the disposable your kid has on and put on a cloth diaper! You can do it! Seriously, stop reading this and go do it. I'm waiting!
Really, what's the worst that could possibly happen? You get a leak? If you've been using disposables, you've probably dealt with leaks before! Remember: some cloth diapering is trial and error. Just like all disposables don't work the same for all families (have you seen the Huggies versus Pampers wars?), not all cloth diapers work the same. I'll be honest: some diapers might leak for you. It could be the wash routine. It could be the fit of the diaper. It could be user error (did you forget to put an insert in the pocket diaper?? Been there!) But be heartened! Once you have it figured out, they will leak MUCH LESS, and blow-outs will usually become a thing of the past.
Whether you use disposables overnight, while out and about, at daycare, etc., is up to you. My personal belief is it's far easier to just dive all in at once, but there are a lot of hard-core cloth diapering families that still use disposables when they are out shopping or for overnight. That is OKAY. Do what works for you!
Here are some hints for using cloth diapers in various situations:
Cloth diapering while out and about (link coming soon)
Cloth diapering while on vacation (link coming soon)
Cloth diapering at daycare
Cloth diapering overnight (link coming soon)
The biggest hurdle though? Just getting one on the butt! So really, there's no time like the present...throw a cloth diaper on that kid!