Types of Cloth Diapers: Finding the Right Fluff for Your Family

April 18, 2012 Guest Blogger 3 comments

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You’ve decided to use cloth diapers. So, you set out on the internet to determine what’s the best type of cloth diaper – and you are promptly inundated with confusing acronyms, elaborate laundry rituals, and new meanings for words like “stripping” and “stash.” It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and just buy a box of Pampers already.

It’s really not as complicated as the (helpful, but potentially overwhelming) cloth diaper web sites can make it seem. As someone who has been using cloth diapers since the day my baby was born, I assure you cloth diapering is simple and fun! Here’s a primer on the different types of cloth diapers.

Flats

These are the diapers our grandparents used. A flat diaper is what its name suggests – a large, flat piece of cloth. Flats are the most inexpensive of all cloth diapers. There are countless ways to fold a flat diaper, so you can customize the fit and absorbency for your baby. They have the steepest learning curve of all cloth diapers; on the other hand, if you use flats regularly, your diaper origami skills will surely make your friends think you are a Supermom.

Flat diapers are usually made of cotton or hemp. They require a diaper cover to be waterproof. A dozen flats will set you back about $20-$25, depending on the brand. An ample cloth diaper stash will consist of three dozen diapers (you can get by with fewer). $60 + the cost of covers and accessories, to diaper your baby from birth until potty training? Not bad at all.

Prefolds

Fitz wearing a prefold at 6 weeks old
Fitz wearing a prefold at 6 weeks old

Prefolds are flats that have been upgraded: they’ve been folded over and sewn so that they are thicker (and hence more absorbent) in the middle and thinner on the sides. This makes prefolds easier to use than flats. They still have a bit of a learning curve, but no origami is required. There are many illustrations and videos that will show different ways of folding a prefold around your baby and securing it with pins or a Snappi. You can also simply fold the diaper in thirds and lay it in a cover.

Prefolds are inexpensive and very sturdy; they will hold up through many years – and many babies. They are easy to care for and dry quickly (although they take a little longer than flats). They also double as excellent burp cloths or cleaning rags. Prefolds can cost anywhere from $20-$40 per dozen, depending on the brand, size, and material. One highly economical way to go is the Econobum kit, which consists of a dozen large prefolds, three covers, and a wet bag, for $49.95.

A note of warning regarding flats and prefolds: avoid the Gerber brand “cloth diapers” sold at Target, Walmart, etc. These are poor quality and should be used as burp cloths only!

Fitteds

Fitz wearing a fitted cloth diaper on the day he was born
Fitz wearing a fitted cloth diaper on the day he was born

Now we’re getting to something that looks more like what people think of when they visualize a diaper. Fitted cloth diapers are easy to use – they go on like a disposable, closing with hook-and-loop (aka Velcro) or snaps. They usually have elastic around the leg openings and the waist, to make for a snug fit and help contain messes. Most fitteds are made of natural fibers such as cotton, hemp, or bamboo. Like flats and prefolds, they require a cover to be waterproof. Some people let their babies go coverless in a fitted at home.

Fitteds are more expensive than prefolds but still very affordable; they range anywhere from $8-$25 per diaper, or less for package deals. The variety of styles and materials is nearly limitless. They are absorbent, and do a bang-up job of containing runny newborn poop! I can count on one hand the number of blow-outs we’ve had in cloth, and none of them have happened in fitteds.

Pockets

Like fitteds, pocket diapers go on like a disposable. They don’t require a cover, because the waterproof material (usually PUL) is sewn onto the outside. Pocket diapers have an opening, or pocket – hence the name – into which an absorbent insert is stuffed. The inner part of the diaper is lined with fleece, suede cloth, or a similar material that wicks moisture away from the skin and into the absorbent insert, usually made of microfiber. Most pocket diapers are designed so that the insert will agitate free in the wash – no touching required before throwing the diaper in the pail. The biggest benefit of pocket diapers is that the absorbency can be customized, making them great for overnight (just add extra inserts). Pocket diapers cost $15-$25 per diaper, and many retailers offer discounts for buying 3, 6, 12, or more at a time.

All-in-ones (AIOs)

Fitz wearing an all-in-one cloth diaper at 5 months old
Fitz wearing an all-in-one cloth diaper at 5 months old

All-in-ones are the easiest type of cloth diaper to use. Nothing to stuff, no cover needed – on and off exactly like a disposable. They’re also the most expensive, costing anywhere from $15-$30 per diaper. Again, most retailers offer package deals – and as with all types of cloth diapers, you can save money by buying them secondhand on sites like Ebay or DiaperSwappers. Even if you have a full stash of all-in-ones, you’ll still save significant money in the long-run versus using disposables. You’ll see even more cost savings with one-size all-in-ones, which have an adjustable rise; you can use the same diapers from birth through potty training, and if you have multiple children in diapers (for example, a toddler and a newborn), you don’t need different diapers for each child. All-in-ones are great to have around for babysitters, grandparents, daycare, and anyone else who might be apprehensive about using cloth diapers. One downside is that because they are all one piece, all-in-ones take a long time to dry, whether in the dryer or out in the sun.

Cloth diaper accessories

Covers

Fitz wearing a fitted and cover at 2 days old
Fitz wearing a fitted and cover at 2 days old

Flats, prefolds, and fitteds will need to be paired with a diaper cover. Most covers are made out of PUL and wrap around the diaper easily (unlike the plastic pants of yore). If you prefer natural materials, wool is an option (it’s naturally waterproof; otherwise, sheep would become waterlogged whenever it rains!). You don’t need to use a new cover at each diaper change; as long as the cover doesn’t have poop on it, it can be reused throughout the day. Most people have 4-6 covers in their stash, but you could get by with as few as 2 or 3, doing laundry every other day.

Pail and liner

You’ll need somewhere to put the used diapers until it’s time to do laundry! Most people use a cheap 13-gallon (kitchen size) trashcan and a pail liner. When the pail is full, simply throw the liner in with the rest of the diaper laundry. It’s a good idea to have two liners so that one can be in use while the other is being washed. There are many pail liners available. I prefer the Kissaluvs Antibacterial Pail Liner – it is large and sturdy, and has a special coating that reduces odors.

Wet bags

Wet bags are a must for cloth diapering on the go – although, honestly, all parents of infants need wet bags! (A wet bag can hold a cute outfit coated with spit-up just as easily as a soiled cloth diaper!) When you change a cloth diaper while out and about, put it in the wet bag; when it’s time to do laundry, throw the wet bag in as well. Wet bags come in a variety of sizes and fashionable colors and prints; my favorite brand is Planet Wise.

A case study: What we did

All this is great, you’re thinking, but it doesn’t answer your original question: What’s the best kind of cloth diaper? The fact is, there isn’t one standard answer to that question. Your answer will depend on your situation – your budget, childcare arrangements, personal preferences, and of course, your baby! (What works for a baby with a long torso and skinny legs won’t necessarily work for a shorter, chunkier baby, for example.) Even though you may think you know ahead of time what you’ll like and what you’ll loathe, be prepared to be surprised! Many online diaper retailers offer trial packages where you can order several different types of diapers so you can find what works best for you, then return the ones you don’t like for a refund or store credit; I highly recommend taking advantage of one of these packages.

With all this in mind, I can tell you what has worked for us.

For the first 12 weeks, we did a newborn diaper rental package from Itsy Bitsy Bums. This consisted of 25 Kissaluvs size 0 fitted diapers and 4 Thirsties Duo covers. When the diapers were returned at the end of the rental period, most of our money was refunded. We chose the “preloved” rental option (gently used diapers instead of brand new) because it was more affordable and there was no need to prep the diapers. We also had some prefolds on hand in case we got behind on laundry. My husband was partial to the prefolds while I preferred the fitteds.

After the rental package was returned, we started using bumGenius Elementals, most of which I purchased secondhand on Ebay. We also purchased Kissaluvs size M/L, but they didn’t start to fit well for a few more months. These days, we use mostly fitteds and covers at home; Fitz’s childcare provider has most of our all-in-ones. We have a few fleece-lined all-in-ones for long car rides or other situations where we may not be able to change diapers as often as usual. Until recently, our bulletproof overnight diaper consisted of two large prefolds + a fleece liner; now we use pocket diapers at night.

Where to buy your cloth diapers

There are many online-only stores that sell cloth diapers, so you can take your pick and go from there. However, I wanted to highlight a few Atlanta-based retailers. If you have any questions, I’m sure any one of these would be happy to help you!

Diaper services in metro Atlanta

There is much more I could say about cloth diapers, but this post is supposed to provide an alternative to the information overload that’s found on many other sites! If you have any questions about the different types of cloth diapers, or anything else related to cloth diapering, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer. Happy cloth diapering!

**This post contains affiliate links. When you click on them and purchase a product through Amazon.com, you help support our cause. Thank you! Atlanta Birth Center is not affiliated with nor endorses any specific brand.

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  • Sarah Darby

    Thanks so much for including Diaper Parties! I’d be more than happy to show anyone the great diapers we carry in person! Being able to see and handle the diapers before you buy is a valuable tool.

    Sarah Darby,
    Sarah.darby@diaperparties.com

  • Jenna

    Great, simple explanations! When new mommies ask me about CD I will have to send them here! Thanks!

  • Stacey Lewis

    FYI ~ Your link to Loads of Joy diaper service takes you to an “adult” (aka porn) website, not a diaper service.