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Note: This article was first written in March 2011 by Michelle, owner of the cloth diaper store Green Diaper Demos. While the store has since closed down, she is still an excellent cloth diapering resource if you ever see her online in a Facebook group or discussion section! Additional content was added/updated in May 2015.
So you have entered the world of cloth diapering. Welcome!! There are many styles out there and there is no right or wrong here, everyone has their favorite and all are well supported in the cloth diapering community. Let’s go over the basic types of diapers, though. We will start from the simplest sewing wise to the most complex.
(Please note that this is not meant to be a comprehensive list of EVERY sub-type of diaper out there, but it covers the most common ones that someone beginning with cloth diapers should be aware of!)
Flats are a single layer of fabric (usually cotton, though hemp and bamboo are becoming more common) that you fold in various ways around baby to make the diaper. This is the original “one size” diaper. You can use pins* or a Snappi* (a bungee cord type fastener that have teeth like an Ace bandage) to hold the diaper together.
Pros: Flats are super cheap and a natural fabric and you can reuse covers with them.
Cons: All the folding can be time consuming for some and they require a cover to be waterproof and do not have a layer that wicks away moisture from baby’s bottom (generally called “stay dry”). These tend to be not very daycare friendly. Also, when dumping poo in the toilet, sometimes you can get a super long soaking wet diaper from it unfolding.
Examples: Cloth-eez flat birdseye diapers, Diaper Rite flat diapers*, Sustainablebabyish bamboo terry flats*
Prefolds are a step up from flats. They are also rectangular (usually cotton but there are also hemp and bamboo) and are a couple layers thick but in the middle third, they are several layers thick (this is why they are called “prefolds” because they are like a partially folded flat). However, they do still require some folding to go from a rectangle to a diaper around a baby. With wrap-style covers nowadays though, many parents simply fold the prefold into thirds (called “trifolding”) and lay it in the cover instead of wrapping around baby and securing with pins or a Snappi.
Pros: Prefolds are also super cheap and are a natural fabric and you can reuse covers with them.
Cons: These tend not to be very daycare friendly and the multiple pieces can be cumbersome for some. They can also be extra “fluffy” in the butt and also do not have a stay dry layer.
Examples: Diaper Rite prefolds*, Thirsties Duo hemp prefolds*, GroVia bamboo prefolds*
Fitteds are shaped like a diaper, contain leg elastic, and usually have their own closures (though some are meant to be fastened with pins or a Snappi). A cover is still required to make this waterproof but with the two together, this combo is bulletproof when it comes to runny poo!
Pros: Already in the shape of a diaper so no folding required. It is unlikely that messes will escape both the fitted diaper and the cover and produces a leak-free diapering system. Covers can be used across multiple diaper changes. They are also generally one of the more absorbent diapering options available, making them popular for naps and overnight use.
Cons: Still a multi-piece diapering system and is thus more complicated than other methods out there. This method can also be pretty spendy for an entire stash of fitteds in each size.
Examples: Kissaluvs newborn fitted diaper*, Sustainablebabyish Overnight Bamboo Fleece (OBF) fitted*, Bummis Dimple Diaper OS fitted*
Covers are what keep your flats/prefolds/fitteds from getting your baby’s clothes wet. Covers can be made of various fabrics from polyurethane laminate (PUL) to wool. They can be pull-on, side-snapping, or a wrap-style.
Pros: You can use covers over multiple types of diapers or inserts, and those with wipeable interiors can usually be used multiple times before needing to be washed (making it an economical diapering choice). Diaper covers are also great to use over disposable diapers as backup protection for blow-outs, and can be a great way to introduce people to cloth diapers by letting them use a cloth diaper component along with their usual disposable options.
Cons: Still a multi-piece diapering system and is thus more complicated than other methods out there (particularly for caregivers or those not used to cloth diapers).
Examples: Bummis Pull-On diaper cover*, Flip OS diaper cover*, Sustainablebabyish Knit Wool cover*
Pocket Diapers are made up of a waterproof outer layer sewn directly to an inner lining (which is generally, but not always, made of a stay-dry material to wick wetness away from baby’s bottom) with a removable absorbent core that gets stuffed in-between the two layers (in the “pocket” of space, hence the name). Pocket diapers may have the opening in the middle of the diaper, in the front, in the back, or in both the back and front.
Pros: This method is one of the most practical methods of modern cloth diapering. These are great for grandparents, daycare, and babysitters as the diaper goes on just like a disposable but with hooks, Velcro, or snaps. Drying is also quick since the absorbent part of the diaper is separated during laundry. You can also customized how absorbent you want the diaper (like for overnight) by adding additional absorbent inserts.
Cons: My husband says the only thing he dislikes about these diapers is that you have to pull the insert out prior to placing the used diaper in the pail or wet bag. There are exceptions though as some pocket diapers are made such that the insert falls out on its own in the washer machine. Also, the repeated stuffing of the absorbent core (also called insert or soaker) into the pocket diaper annoys many mamas and you only get one use out of entire diaper before it needs to be washed again.
Examples: bumGenius 4.0 pocket diaper*, Thirsties OS pocket diaper*, Funky Fluff Bamboo 2.0 pocket diaper*
All In Twos (AI2s)
A waterproof material for the outside forms a cover over an insert. Some have a snap to keep the insert in place. When the diaper is soiled the insert is removed and replaced with a new one, so that you can use the same cover multiple times.
Pros: This method a more economical diapering choice than pocket diapers or AIOs or other single use items because you can purchase a limited number of shells and simply replace the insert in it until the shell is also soiled. Drying is quick since the absorbent part of the diaper is a separate piece. AI2s also take up less space in diaper bags and diaper pails, making them great for traveling or outings, or for those diapering multiple children at once.
Cons: For newborns with explosive runny poos, you need to have extra covers on hand since the covers will get soiled more often.
Examples: Buttons Diapers*, GroVia Hybrid system*, Best Bottom*
All In Ones (AIOs)
Similar to the pocket diaper except the absorbent inner is sewn in. There are no separate pieces to this diaper, all are sewn together. (Some AIOs have the absorbent piece snap in, but it would not be considered an AI2 because the cover part is not designed to sustain more than one use between washings).
Pros: The ultimate in convenient easy cloth diapering. Simply put on baby and then when used, put in a pail or wet bag. No inserts to stuff, no folding, no bunching etc. These are great for grandparents, daycare, babysitters, or anyone new or nervous about cloth diapering.
Cons: These are usually pretty pricey and take a long time to dry and you only get one use one use out of the diaper before it needs to be washed again. Some inserts are not sewn completely down (to allow for faster drying time and the ability to customize where the absorbency lies) but may be confusing to assemble.
Examples: Tots Bots Easy Fit V4*, Thirsties OS AIO*, Imagine Stay-Dry AIO*
I hope this helped go over the basics out there. As you can see there are several styles that meet different needs.
The first question you have to ask yourself is what your preferences for cloth are. Is it budget (flats/prefolds)? Is it convenience (AIOs)? Or maybe your needs are somewhere in-between (pockets/AI2s)?
You also don’t have to choose an entire stash of one style of diaper. Many parents find it helpful to have a variety of different diaper brands and styles for different situations (naps, babysitters, overnight, etc.) and it is all up to you how you want to do it. One way to do this is with a Trial Program where you try out several different styles and brands of diapers and return what didn’t work for you for very little risk.
No matter what you choose, remember to HAVE FUN WITH IT! You’ll be dealing with poop no matter what now (it comes with being a parent!) so you might as well make the process a little more enjoyable