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Cloth Diapering 101
Updated on
September 11, 2023

Cloth Diapering 101

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Cloth Diapering 101

Cloth diapers today aren’t like they used to be. Your grandmother’s pins and rubber pants have been replaced by easy-to-use all-in-ones with tons of prints and styles.

But as great as it is to have so many eco-friendly options, navigating the choices can get a little confusing. If deciding between prefolds and pockets is more than a little overwhelming, we can help you figure out your options, plus how many cloth diapers you’ll need depending on what style you choose (keep in mind that newborns average eight to 10 diaper changes per day).

What are the Types of Cloth Diapers?

There are four major types of cloth diapers to choose from:

  • Prefolds/Flats and Covers
  • Fitted
  • Pockets
  • All-in-Ones

Which one is best for you depends on whether you’re looking for cost-effective, convenient or a blend of the two.

Prefold/Flat Cloth Diapers and Covers

How They Work

This diaper consists of two parts: an absorbent inner layer and a waterproof cover. The inner layer is usually either a “flat” or a “prefold”—flats are just one large, flat piece of cotton cloth, while prefolds come already sewn with a thicker, more absorbent area down the middle.

You’ll also need to decide what type of closure you want for the covers: hook-and-loop (just like Velcro: easy to adjust, but also easy for bigger babies to pull off themselves), front snaps (very secure and long-lasting, but less flexibility in size), or side snap (secure, trim look that’s great for chunky babies).

Why We Love Them

Even if you choose a high-quality option for your absorbent layer, prefolds are still the most affordable cloth diaper, mostly because you can reuse covers for multiple changes. You’ll change the absorbent layer every time your baby wets, but you can keep using the waterproof covers for a day or two unless they’re smelly or visibly dirty.

Want an even more cost effective solution? Create some DIY inner layers with material you already have—old T-shirts or hand towels will both work great as diapers in a pinch.

The Downside

This is the most complicated cloth diapering method to learn. To use flats as a diaper, you’ll need to learn a little diaper-folding origami. Prefolds are already stitched up, but you’ll still need to fold them a little to shape them into a functional diaper.

How Many You Need

If you’re planning to do laundry every two to three days, estimate that you’ll get by with:

  • 3-4 covers
  • 24-30 flats or prefolds for a newborn, including three to four more absorbent inserts for overnight
We Recommend

Fitted/Contour Cloth Diapers and Covers

How They Work

“Fitteds” are absorbent material shaped into a diaper, complete with closures (again, you can choose between hook-and-loop or snap). “Contours” are essentially fitteds that don’t have any type of closure. They’re a piece of absorbent material sewn into a contoured shape that fits into a cover. You can place the contour in the cover and then put the entire diaper onto your baby in one piece.

Why We Love Them

This system is just like prefolds, but without the complicated (and sometimes frustrating) folding. Fitteds and contours are simple options that are still great for saving money. And if you’re looking to limit baby’s blowouts, fitted diapers are going to be your most blowout-proof option, says Liz Turrigiano, diaper laundry science expert and co-founder of Esembly.

The Downside

“Like prefolds and flats, fitteds require 2 pieces: an inner for absorbency and a cover for waterproofing and containment,” Turrigiano says. So while these shaped diapers are convenient, they can be quite bulky. Be sure you consider this as you prepare your diaper bag and your baby’s wardrobe, especially during warm summer months.

How Many You Need

If you’re planning to do laundry every two to three days, estimate that you’ll get by with:

  • 3-4 covers
  • 24-30 inners for a newborn, including three to four more absorbent inserts for overnight
We Recommend

Pocket Cloth Diapers

How They Work

Pocket diapers also consist of two parts, but in a slightly different way: a diaper (that includes both an inner wicking layer and a waterproof outer layer with a pocket opening between them) and an absorbent insert. To use a pocket diaper, stuff the insert into the pocket and then put the diaper on your baby.

Why We Love Them

The pocket opening means you can easily adjust the absorbency of the diaper to fit your needs. Use a thin terry insert during the day for a trim look, and add a couple of hemp inserts for extra absorbency overnight. Pocket diapers are one of the most convenient types of cloth diapers, especially if you’re used to disposable diapers; after you’ve stuffed the insert, putting a pocket on is exactly like putting on a disposable, with no folding or special knowledge required.

The Downside

Unlike prefolds, pockets require you to wash the entire diaper (including the outer cover) at every change. This not only means more time spent washing, but you’ll also need to stock up on more diapers to use in between laundering.

How Many You Need

If you’re planning to do laundry every two to three days, estimate that you’ll get by with:

  • 24-30 pocket diapers (outer layer)
  • 24-30 inserts, including three to four more absorbent inserts for overnight
We Recommend

All-in-One Cloth Diapers

How They Work

Just as the name implies, all-in-ones include the entire diaper in a single piece. The waterproof layer, the absorbent layer, and the wicking layer are all sewn together, making all-in-ones the best cloth diaper style for beginners.

Why We Love Them

There’s no stuffing, no folding and no confusion—just put it on and take it off! This means that using an all-in-one is every bit as simple as using a disposable; the only difference is you throw it in the laundry pile (or wet bag) instead of in the trash.

The Downside

These are the most expensive options for cloth diapering. And because you have to wash the entire diaper after every change, you’ll need a lot on hand—and that can add up. And because all the parts are already put together, it can be difficult to adjust levels of absorbency. Any extra inserts you add to increase absorbency will just be hanging out loosely in the diaper rather than tucked in like in a pocket diaper.

How Many You Need

If you’re planning to do laundry every two to three days, estimate that you’ll get by with:

  • 24-30 diapers
  • Optional: 3-4 extra inserts for overnight
We Recommend

Disposable Liners for Cloth Diapers

Poopy diapers are messy, and there’s no way around that. Disposable liners can mitigate that mess by creating a layer between the poop and the diaper/insert so it doesn’t get stuck while allowing liquid to travel right on through to be soaked into the diaper. That way, instead of trying to scoop the poop out with toilet paper or a wipe (and risking smearing or mashing it further into the diaper’s fibers), you just lift the liner out of the diaper and toss the whole thing.

Keep in mind: You should only use disposable liners once your baby starts on solid foods (and therefore has more solid poops). If they’re still only drinking formula or breastmilk, their poops will still be water soluble and will likely just soak right through a liner. Also, many disposable liners are biodegradable, but they should still go in the trash rather than in the toilet.

Cloth Diaper Materials

Even though they’re called “cloth” diapers, there are quite a few different materials that they’re made out of (“cloth” is more of an umbrella term, you could say). So once you’ve decided what kind of cloth diaper you want to use, it’s also important to figure out which materials you want the diapers to be made of and what goes on your baby’s skin.

For the Inner Layer: The inner layer can be wicking or absorbent. If you want your baby to feel comfortable and mostly dry between changes, go for a wicking material like micro fleece. If you want your baby to feel the wetness (a big advantage as you get close to potty training age), you may want a material that feels wet, like cotton or bamboo. You can also opt for minky, a super-soft type of material that toddlers love. If allergies run in your family, you may want to look for all-natural, organic materials like organic cotton and hemp.

For the Outer Layer: There are three major choices for your diaper’s outer layer: PUL, fleece, and wool.

  • PUL or TPU (polyester with a waterproof laminate)
    • Best for trim coverage under clothes
    • Diapers made of PUL or TPU have a layer of polyester fabric and a layer of plastic that’s melted to the fabric. It’s very thin and breathable, and it can be made in a variety of colors and prints. It’s also super easy to take care of; just pop it in your washer and dryer like your regular laundry. If you’re concerned about chemical processes, there’s a difference between the two polyester options to keep in mind: “PUL is made with a solvent glue, whereas TPU is bonded together with heat and pressure, which doesn’t involve chemicals,” Turrigiano says.
  • Polyester fleece
    • Best for breathability
    • More breathable than PUL/TPU, so if your baby tends to get rashes, this might be your best option. Like PUL and TPU, it can be washed and dried in your machines along with the rest of your diaper laundry.
  • Wool
    • Best for overnight and breathability with all-natural fibers
    • A favorite choice for ultra-eco-friendly families. It’s naturally absorbent, and when treated with lanolin, it becomes incredibly waterproof. It’s also antibacterial and odor-resistant, so you can often reuse it longer than other types of covers. The only disadvantage is that it requires special care when cleaning: it’s best to wash by hand, re-lanolize regularly and lay flat to dry. It’s also more expensive than the other options, but you can find very affordable options on Etsy made from upcycled wool sweaters. And be mindful if your baby has an allergy to wool, as these diapers may cause a rash.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

There are cloth diaper cleaning services out there, like DiaperKind in New York City or Pannolino in San Diego. These services can get pretty expensive though, and they’re typically harder to find if you don’t live near a major city.

If a service isn’t a feasible option for you, washing cloth diapers yourself isn’t as tricky or complicated as it might seem at first glance. In fact, it’s not much more involved than washing your regular laundry. Below is a quick step-by-step guide to getting your cloth diapers clean, and for more information including the best products for cleaning cloth diapers, check out our full article on How to Wash Cloth Diapers.

  1. Remove the dirty cloth diaper. If your baby is only drinking breastmilk or formula, just toss the dirty diaper (both pee and/or poop) in your diaper pail, wet bag or washing machine with no need to pre-treat. If your baby is eating solid foods, wet diapers don’t need pre-treatment, but poops should be dumped in the toilet before the diaper goes into the bag or the wash.
  2. Wash a load of cloth diapers. You’ll run two cycles: first “Normal” with warm water, then “Heavy Duty” with hot water. Put detergent in both cycles, and make sure the detergent is free of fragrance, brighteners and fabric softener.
  3. Dry the cloth diapers. Dry according to the instructions on each diaper’s tag, as every brand and style is different.

Plan on washing diapers every two to three days. While you could go longer (and stock up on more diapers), you might see stains setting in after more than a couple days. And they’ll start to stink pretty bad too, even if your diaper pail has a strong filter in it.

Choosing What’s Right for You

Cloth diapering might seem confusing at first compared to disposables. But armed with the right knowledge, it can be a smooth and easy process. As you consider different types of diapers and materials, it’s important to think about your own lifestyle—your budget, your laundry and washing situation and your environmental concerns. Plan ahead so you can select products and practice diapering techniques before baby arrives, especially if your chosen diaper involves some folding. Before you know it, your sweet little one will be here and you’ll have your fair share of (not so sweet) diaper changes to keep up with!

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