Ages & Stages Grow Newborn & Infant Sustainability Toddler

The Beginner’s Guide to Cloth Diaper Types

Close up of soft cloth diaper with diaper pin.
Written by Jessika Firmage

| by Lauren Quackenbush

The decision to cloth diaper can be a big one. Whether you are switching from disposables, or planning to go the fluffy route from day one, you’re probably going to want as much info as possible. We hope this guide will help you find the style of diapers that will work best for you and your family.

Let’s start with three most basic products: Flats, prefolds, and covers.

Flats are large square sheets of fabric, often birds-eye cotton, that you must fold to fit your child before you can add it to a diaper or wrap it around your child with a fastener. This does add a step that some parents may find inconvenient, but flats are one of the most economical choices, as well as a quick washing and drying option.

Prefolds help you save a step by already being layered correctly, so no folding is needed (hence the name.) Prefolds can be trifolded (folded into thirds) to lay in a cover, or you can wrap your child in it and secure it with a fastener. The price you pay for the convenience of prefolds is that they can cost more than flats, and they take longer to dry. Also, unlike flats, prefolds come in sizes which means your child can outgrow them.

Whether you choose flats or prefolds, both types require a diaper cover. Covers come in many colors and patterns. They can have snap or hook- and-loop closures, or they can be slip on. Many are made of a waterproof PUL fabric, but some are also fleece or wool which can be prepped to create a waterproof barrier. Covers are usually much more affordable than other “complete” diapers, such as pockets or all-in-ones. Covers dry quickly, whether in the dryer or on the line (though many companies recommend machine drying to help “re-seal” the PUL lining), and they also have the great perk of being able to be reused so long as they haven’t been soiled directly. Simply remove the dirty diaper (whatever style you are using) and put in/on a new one with the same cover!

While flats and prefolds are today’s “old school” diapers, there is another type that is newer, but still must be used with a cover: Fitteds.

Fitted diapers are more convenient than even prefolds as they appear to be a totally complete diaper. Just put it on like you would any disposable (they usually feature snap or hook-and-loop closures). The only thing they are missing is a waterproof outer, which is where the need for a cover comes in. Fitteds are more newbie-friendly as they require zero folding; you are basically just putting on a regular diaper, and then putting on another (the cover) on top of it.

Similar to fitteds are contour diapers which have all the perks of fitteds, minus the built in closures. For contours, you would need fasteners. While fitteds and contours offer the most convenience of any cover-requiring diaper, they also come at a cost. Fitteds are often a good bit pricier than prefolds, especially when you have to buy them one at a time. Also, they can take a very long time to dry as all of their absorbent layers are in the middle of the diaper.

Alright, we’ve talked about diapers that require covers, but before we jump to one-step diapers, let’s talk about the middle ground: All-in-twos/Hybrids.

All-in-twos/hybrid diapers are diaper systems that consist of a waterproof shell or cover, and snap-in inserts. Usually, these inserts are available in different fabrics (i.e. cotton, bamboo, stay-dry synthetics, etc.), as well as in different sizes. Much like with flats/pre- folds/fitteds and covers, all-in-twos/ hybrids offer the convenience of reusing the shell so long as it isn’t soiled. However, these shells can get soiled more easily as the inserts do not cover the entire bottom as a wrapped flat/prefold or fitted diaper would, making it easier for a mess to ooze onto the shell lining. All-in-twos/hybrids can offer more convenience: All you have to do is snap in an insert; no worrying about how it fits or placement. As far as laundry goes, manufacturers differ on whether or not it is okay to machine dry your shell, so depending on all the materials involved, they can take a while to dry if you must use a line. However, the inserts can be machine washed and dried without issue. All-in-twos/hybrids can get pricey when you consider that some shells are sold individually, without any inserts included. It is often recommended that you have 3 inserts for each shell, and enough shells for at least one day’s use (I usually say a minimum of 3 shells), so the price can add up. However, all-in-twos/hybrids offer a versatility that other more complete diapers cannot.

Finally, it is time to discuss the most modern of diapers: Pockets and All-in-ones.

Pocket diapers appear to be fully complete diapers, and they would be except for one detail: Their absorbent core is removable. To prep pockets for use, you must stuff them with their inserts, otherwise your diaper will absorb next to nothing. The benefits of pockets include faster drying time as the insert is not attached to the diaper, as well as adjustable absorbency levels (simply change the insert you use or add an extra or doubler). Also, once stuffed, pockets are insanely easy to put on: you just put it on like any disposable. Pockets can become pricey, especially if you plan to use them exclusively. Even if you are washing diapers everyday, you would still need a minimum of about 10-15 to be sure you didn’t run out while laundry was going. You’d want even more for a younger baby. However, you are getting some of the highest convenience available in these diapers, so it is worth the price. While the inserts (like those in all-in-twos/hybrids) can be machine washed and dried, the diaper itself usually needs to be line dried, though like with all diapers this varies depending on the manufacturer.

Now, if pockets just aren’t convenient enough, there is our final option: All- in-ones.

All-in-one diapers are just what they sound like: The diaper is all one piece. No folding, no stuffing, no covers. Just put the diaper on and go. There are two common styles of all-in-ones. One style has the absorbent “insert” attached to the diaper, often by a seam at either the front or back of the diaper. This insert then lays in the middle of the diaper to absorb all the wetness. Having it attached only at one end allows the diaper to dry quicker, though they will sometimes hold dampness along the thick seams attaching the insert. Some companies’ all-in-ones actually feature a detachable insert that snaps into place, allow for the quickest drying, though it is, if you want to nitpick, not a true all- in-one. The second and by far most convenient style has all the absorbent fabrics stitched into place; it truly looks like a cloth version of a disposable diaper. This style is most common in newborn sized diapers (more on sizes below), as larger diapers require more fabric and, therefore, take longer to dry. The convenience of all-in-ones is hard to beat; just grab a diaper and go, no middle steps to take. However, their price level tends to match their convenience level. Also, all-in-ones can take a painfully long time to dry with all of their built in layers. These are often a good choice to have on hand for babysitters and others who may not be familiar with cloth diapers, but as a day-to-day option, it can get pricey.

So now that you have an idea of the different types, let’s talk briefly about sizes. Nearly all diaper styles come in the popular one-size option. These often give a weight range of about 8 to 35 pounds, give or take a few. This means that from a month or two of age (or possibly from birth) up until potty training, you won’t need to replace these diapers (at least not due to your child outgrowing them). Some “one-size” diapers actually come in two sizes, a smaller one usually ranging from roughly 8 to 18 pounds, and a larger one is usually for 18-20 pounds and up. To adjust one-size diapers, you usually simply use the rise snaps on the front panel of the diaper. However, some diapers contain adjustable elastic in the legs (similar to that found on bra straps).

Sized diapers can also be found. While they aren’t as economical (you will have to buy replacements as your child grows), some moms feel they offer a better fit for their babies. Also, these can allow you to get diapers in newborn sizes, which can be helpful if you plan to cloth diaper from day one. However, bear in mind that some larger newborns may not fit these small diapers for very long, if at all.

The key to cloth diapering is allowing yourself a bit of a trial and error period. Every baby is different, and that includes their bums! It can be overwhelming at times, but believe me when I say it is worth it to do something that is healthy for your baby, the environment, and your wallet.

About the author

Jessika Firmage