When I first started researching cloth diapers I read all of the “Cloth Diaper 101” posts that I could find and they all left me just as confused as when I started. The problem was, that every single thing pertaining to cloth diapers comes in varieties. You make one decision and move onto the next component and then there are several other options. It is never ending and overwhelming. I felt like no one took the time to explain the most basic attributes, so that is what I set out to do here!
A standard cloth diaper consists of two components: the cover and the cloth.
COVER: typically made of PUL (Poly-Urethane Laminate) is a water-resistant fabric users for the outermost layer of the diaper. It is fabric that is laminated on the one side to prevent leaks. You can use wool covers too! Wool is completely natural, allows air flow, and is highly water resistant. Wool covers must be used in the “cover and cloth” setup, explained below.
Side note: Any style of PUL cover can come with either snaps or Velcro as a means of securing it. Velcro is more user-friendly, but it has a shorter lifespan than snaps and is easier for baby to undo when s/he gets older.
CLOTH: absorbent material that makes up the inside of the diaper. Also called: inserts or soakers. Sometimes you’ll see the term doublers, this refers to a second/back-up insert.
There are several popular ways to diaper. Which way works best for you will come down to budget and what aligns best with your lifestyle. If one style doesn’t stand out, then I would recommend getting one or two of each type and giving them a test run.
All-in-ones are most similar to disposable diapers in that everything is contained in a single diaper. The cloth inserts are sewn onto the separator fabric (usually fleece) so the baby’s bottom isn’t in direct contact with the wet cloth. Sometimes there is also pocket opening so that you can stuff another insert underneath the sewn-on cloth to increase absorbency.
Pros: Less items to deal with. Easiest for newbies and guests to change. The fleece layer will wick moisture away from the skin. No need to prepare/fold diapers after wash. Separator layer keeps poo off of the cloth inserts (unless it’s a wet one).
Cons: Have to change the whole diaper. More expensive. Need to have enough diapers to last a few days, so up to 20 or more. Takes longer to dry since the insert is inside the diaper. Have to turn the diaper inside out to gain direct access to the microfiber insert (for cleaning).
A pocket diaper also has a separator layer of fabric. The pocket diaper does not have any inserts sewn into it so you have to manually “stuff” the inserts inside the fleece layer (and un-stuff when they are soiled). This gives you the freedom to adjust the level of absorbency.
Pros: The fleece layer will wick moisture away from the skin. Can control which inserts are used. Separator layer keeps poo off of the cloth inserts (unless it’s a wet one). Can clean the inserts separately from the covers.
Cons: Have to prepare or stuff diapers prior to use. Must un-stuff diapers prior to wash (can be a hassle when poop is involved). Have to change the whole diaper when soiled. Middle ground as far as expense.
Cover & Cloth
This is the most deconstructed and closely resembles the “traditional” form of cloth diapering because it is simply a piece of cloth that is held onto the baby with a PUL or wool diaper cover.
Pros: Least expensive. Can reuse the cover until it is soiled. Easy to adjust the level of absorbency as you go (“baby just drank a bunch of water, make sure to add another layer” or “we’re going to be out for a bit, better put a thicker insert on”). Disassembly is easy since nothing is strapped together. Can clean the inserts separately from the covers.
Cons: Skin is in direct contact with cloth and poop gets directly onto the cloth insert (though there are disposable liners that you can put on top of the cloth to remedy both of these cons). More assembly as you go, therefore can be more difficult for a guest to change.
You can skip the cover altogether if you want as well. You can fold prefolds or flats to be used as the diaper itself and just use pins or a fastener to secure the cloth together onto the baby. This is the most traditional/old school way of diapering. This method is really good for airing out baby’s bits, such as when s/he has a rash. The only downfall is that there is no liquid-resistant cover as a buffer so when the cloth is wet, anything that baby sits on will become wet.
Cloth (types & forms)
Even the cloth can come in different varieties, which is what can make cloth diapers so confusing. The actual cloth component of cloth diapers can be made of different materials that effect when and how to use it, as well as varying layers of this fabrics, and can come in different shapes.
- Cotton: a natural material, does not have a high absorbency but is fast absorbing. Due to the lack of absorbency, this type of insert is hard to find alone. It is usually incorporated in blended inserts (such as a cotton-bamboo blend).
- Microfiber: a synthetic material that is fast absorbing. It has high absorbency considering how small or thin it comes but it doesn’t always hold the liquid well, it is prone to pressure leaks. It is not typical to use it directly on babe’s skin because it is prone to build-up from ammonia or the minerals in the washing water that will burn babe’s skin.
- Bamboo: the bamboo fibers and spun into rayon. High absorbency, slow at absorbing. Must be paired with a fast absorbing material. It is advertised as being antimicrobial (though a good washing routine should also be able to get the bacteria out). Needs extra drying time to fully dry.
- Charcoal Bamboo: just like it sounds, this material is made from rayon bamboo with charcoal nano-particles added. It is advertised as being antimicrobial (though a good washing routine should also be able to get the bacteria out). Charcoal bamboo is not considered to be sustainable or eco-friendly. Baking soda breaks down the charcoal bamboo.
- Hemp: made from natural hemp fiber. The best absorbency in terms of being able to hold the most liquid. However, it is slow to absorb. Because of it’s slow absorbency, it needs to be paired with a fast absorbing material. Needs extra drying time to fully dry.
Inserts are available in a few different styles and can vary in quantity of layers. Inserts most commonly come in the style of:
- Pad: just like it sounds: pad shape (oblong, rectangular). Offered in varying lengths and number of layers. Some types of fabrics only come in pad form (such as microfiber).
- Flat: a large square/rectangle piece of cloth that is multiple layers thick. You can fold the fabric as desired to increase the thickness. For example, if you have a flat with 4 layers and then fold it in half, it will be twice as thick or 8 layers thick.
- Prefold: a flat that is pre-folded (and sewn) so that the middle section is the thickest. A type of prefold is a “4x8x4,” meaning that it was a flat that was folded into thirds so that the three sections have that many layers: first section has 4 layers, second (middle) section has 8 layers, and third section has 4 layers. You can still fold a prefold as desired to further increase thickness and absorbency.
- Fitted: the cloth is sewn into a diaper shape so that no fastener is needed, you just slip it on like underwear! You can cover a fitted with either a PUL or wool cover or not at all.
I think that covers it (pun!) for the most commonly found diaper styles and cloth types (please know that there are a couple of other diaper types but they aren’t as commonly used). Of course there is SO MUCH more to know about cloth diapers before you start your journey. I will put together another post about some other things pertaining to cloth diapers, such as storage of soiled diapers and washing. I’m thinking that a “Cloth Diaper FAQ” might be in order as well, so please leave a comment with your questions below!