Cloth Diapering Basics

There are five basic types of cloth diapers to choose from. Which one is best for you depends on whether you’re looking for cost-effective, convenient, or a blend of the two.Described below are the 5 systems to choose from along with a more detailed description of the materials/fibers used. In addition, there are a few extra components that you’ll need to buy to assist in the practice of cloth diapering.

What you’ll need to get started:

25-35 Cloth Diapers (25 is the suggested minimum)
4-6 Diaper Covers (for use with either prefolds, flats, fitted, or inserts)
Reusable Pail Liner
Wet Bag
Diaper Cream – Cloth Diaper Safe (see bottom of page)
Detergent – Cloth Diaper Safe (see bottom of page)
Cloth Wipes
Diaper Sprayer
Flushable diaper liners

1. Prefolds or Flats with Covers

This two-part system is the updated version of the diapers your grandmother used. It consists of two parts: an absorbent inner layer and a waterproof cover. The inner layer is usually a cotton cloth, bamboo and hemp are also options. 

Prefolds are sewn with a thicker area down the middle, but you’ll still need to fold them a little to shape them into a functional diaper. 

Flats are simply large, flat pieces of cotton, so to use them as a diaper, you’ll need to learn a little diaper-folding origami. Think half paper airplane and half gift wrapping!

The prefold or flat is secured to baby with a snappi (a stretchy, three pronged, clip with small teeth that hold the 2 sides and front of the diaper together)

Once you’ve got the inner absorbent layer figured out, you’ll need to add a waterproof cover. Most covers are made of PUL — a breathable type of plastic cloth that’s thin and flexible. You can also choose fleece (thicker but more breathable) or wool (very breathable and absorbent, but requires special care in cleaning).

Prefolds are simple and durable, and economical because they can often last longer.

Finally, you’ll need to decide what type of closure you want for the covers: hook-and-loop (hook and loop is the same as velcro: easy to adjust, but also easy for bigger babies to pull of 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).

Even if you choose high-quality prefolds for your absorbent layer, this type of diaper is the least expensive, 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. That means you can get by with only a few covers (4-6 is usually plenty) along with a good collection of prefolds or flats (24 is the minimum number for a newborn).


2. Fitteds w/ Covers

This system is exactly like prefolds, but without the folding. Fitteds are absorbent material shaped into a diaper, complete with closures (again, you can choose between hook-and-loop or snap).

TIP: When combined with a wool cover, fitteds are great for heavy-wetters!

They’re made of cotton, bamboo, hemp, synthetic materials, or blends, and they come in prints and colors as well as plain white. As with prefolds, you’ll need about 24 fitteds with 4-6 covers.


3. Pocket Diapers

If you’re looking to combine ease of use with flexibility, it’s hard to improve on a pocket diaper. Pockets consist of two parts: 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, you stuff the insert into the pocket and then put the diaper on your baby.

TIP: Pockets are convenient for babysitters, because there's no folding required!

Unlike prefolds, pockets require you to wash the entire diaper (including the outer cover) at every change. However, the pocket opening means you can easily adjust the absorbency of the diaper to fit your needs: use a thin microfiber insert during the day for a trim look, and add a couple of hemp inserts for overnight.

Pockets are also convenient for babysitters: after you’ve stuffed the insert, putting a pocket on is exactly like putting on a disposable, with no folding or special knowledge required.

Most pockets have an outer PUL layer, but you can also get fleece or wool. The inner layer is usually microfleece, which wicks moisture away to keep your baby comfortable, but you can also choose bamboo, hemp, or cotton. Inserts are generally made of microfiber, a super-absorbent synthetic material, but cotton, hemp, and bamboo are also options.

Pockets come in dozens of prints and colors, and closure can be hook-and-loop, front snap, or side snap.

4. All-in-ones (AIO)

The convenience of AIOs is closest to disposables. 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.

There's no stuffing, no folding - just put it on and take it off!

This means that the actual use of an all-in-one is every bit as simple as using a disposable. The only difference is that you toss the dirties in a laundry pail instead of the trash.

As with other types, there are many options for materials and colors, and closures can be hook-and-loop, front snap, or side snap. 

5. All-in-twos (AI2)

An AI2 has a snap in or lay in soaker . The name All in Two arose from the ability to get two uses out of each diaper.  When your child pees, theoretically you can remove the soaker and replace it with another if the shell did not get wet. AI2s also have a much faster drying time because the soaker is external. Inserts come in various styles and sizes and can snap right into the cover.

Hybrid Diapers are a form of AI2 that allow for the use of either cloth or disposable absorbency options as the inner layer.


Basic Materials

Your choice of materials depends on function, form, and personal style.

1. 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, look for all-natural, organic materials like organic cotton and hemp.

Bamboo fiber is a very absorbent material that is said to naturally resist the growth of bacteria. It is derived, of course, from the bamboo plant, a super-fast growing species that can be farmed sustainably. Sounds like a great choice for cloth diapering, right? Well… Yes and no. Sustainable farming is certainly a major upside, but, unfortunately, the process required to convert bamboo pulp into the soft and absorbent fabric that is found in clothing and cloth diapers is complex and chemical-laden, so much so that it may do more environmental harm than the good that is achieved by the sustainable farming of bamboo crop. Because of the manufacturing process, bamboo fiber can never rightfully be labeled ‘organic.’

Cotton is quite simply the most-used plant fiber on the planet. It’s absorbent, has many uses, and is, hands-down, the most popular fabric for making cloth diapers. Because of its widespread popularity, cotton farming and production has been a major industry for a very long time, and the ‘industrial’ form of the cotton business is one of the biggest users of pesticides on earth. As in most business arenas, the name of the game for conventional cotton is yield: the higher, the better. For this reason, industrial growers rely on the heavy use of water (for irrigation), pesticides, and sometimes even GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to do what they call ‘improving’ their business… even though ALL of these practices have a negative impact on farmlands over time. Luckily, you have choices...

Organic Cotton is grown with lower overall impact—and without any pesticides. If you want to ensure that the cotton in your diapers or clothing is produced in the most responsible way, make sure to review or ask about your manufacturer’s organic certification process. Without a certification (like GOTS) in place, there is no guarantee that the cotton you are buying is actually organic.  Organic cotton is often more ‘fragile’ than its conventionally farmed or polyester counterparts, and it will almost always show wear after about 100 washes.

Hemp is another natural fiber that is said to resist bacteria growth. It is more hydroscopic (water-holding) than cotton, and it is usually grown in a low-impact manner, using less water and other resources than is used to farm cotton. While they have the ability to hold more water than cotton, hemp’s textile forms are quite thin and stiff, and they do not absorb water as quickly as cotton or polyester. To overcome this issue, most diaper brands that use hemp will combine hemp with another fiber, so you will usually see ‘hemp/cotton blend’ on the care tag.

Modal fabric has some similarities to bamboo, especially since it is made from wood pulp—in this case from beech trees instead of from the bamboo plant.  Modal has become more popular in recent years in a wide variety of apparel, probably because it has an awesome, silky feel and because it wears well and maintains its softness over time. It is also another highly absorbent fabric, holding up to 50% more water than a comparable amount of cotton. Over time, modal fabrics tend to be resistant to mineral build-up, making them a potential solution for cloth diaper users who must launder in hard water. Because of the manufacturing process that reconstitutes the wood fibers, modal is another fiber that can never be properly labeled ‘organic.’

Polyester is a well known man-made material that is produced using a variety of chemicals and petroleum materials. You will often see the word polyester used interchangeably with terms like ‘minky,’ ‘microfiber,’ ‘microterry,’ and occasionally something called ‘Zorb.’ The upsides to polyester in cloth diapering are that it can be used immediately (no prepping needed) and that it can put up with a lot of abuse—like being laundered multiple times per week! Most polyester fabrics start out as quite absorbent, and they have a reputation for durability, but they can wear out over time, losing their ability to absorb and hold as much water as they once could. Most absorbent polyesters cannot be worn directly against the baby’s skin because of the irritation they will cause, and their structures can make them more difficult than natural fibers to keep clean, often leading to sustained odors.

Fleece is a particular form of polyester, fleece comes in a variety of weights and can perform a host of functions. Thin fleeces are often used on the interior of a diaper as a ‘stay-dry’ layer (described below), while thick fleeces are sometimes used to make breathable diaper covers. Because fleeces can be simultaneously water-resistant and breathable, they can make for a very comfortable and flexible diaper cover. Fleece does vary in quality, however, and can sometimes create what is called ‘compression leaks’ (think of a wash cloth being wrung out when your baby sits on it) if used in a car seat or baby carrier for an extended period of time.

"Stay Dry Fabrics" As mentioned above, thin fleeces are often used to create a ‘stay-dry’ layer inside of diapers. This layer is designed to wick moisture away from a baby’s skin and into more absorbent materials underneath this layer. In cloth diapers, you will often see the term ‘stay-dry’ used interchangeably with specific textile names like ‘suedecloth’ and ‘microfleece'.

Wool is one of the most natural and breathable materials available for making diaper covers. Wool has made a huge comeback as a ‘performance fabric’ in recent years, and for great reasons! Wool naturally resists bacteria growth, and when it is lanolized, it will be incredibly water-resistant—like a sheep standing out in a rainstorm! Wool items do need special care during laundry time, like hand-washing to maintain its shape and lanolizing treatments to maintain its water-resistant properties, but families that have taken the leap into wool diapering often find the breathability and comfort of this textile to be worth the extra trouble. Sometimes a wool cover paired with a super-absorbent fitted diaper can make all the difference for a rash-prone baby—and this combination can be an awesome choice for cloth diapering at night.


2. Waterproof Outer layer

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

PUL, or polyurethane laminate, is made of a layer of cotton 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. However, because the manufacturing involves a chemical process, some families prefer to opt for more natural materials. Best for: trim coverage under clothes

Polyester fleece is more breathable than PUL, so if your baby tends to get rashes, it might be your best option. Like PUL, it can be washed and dried in your machines along with the rest of your diaper laundry. Best for: inexpensive breathability

Wool is 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-resistent, 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. Best for: overnight, breathability, all-natural fibers


Beginning Prep and Laundry Care

Recommended 5-6 hot washes Detergent is optional but recommended. Only about a teaspoon of detergent is needed for each prep wash.

For organic/unbleached cotton, hemp, or bamboo products: Prep-washing is important for the natural oils of cotton and hemp to be removed and for the materials to become fully absorbent. Wash separately from the rest of your stash until they are properly prepped. Failure to properly prep cotton and hemp products may lead to leaking.

DON’T prep synthetic cloth diapers together with diapers made with natural fibers.

Cloth diapers made from cotton, bamboo, and hemp will have a natural oil in the fibers that will wash away within the first few washes.  Organic, unbleached natural fibers (especially organic cotton) have even more oils.  These oils can wash onto your synthetic materials, especially the stay dry layers of pocket diapers made from microfleece and suedecloth, and leave a build-up that leads to repelling (when liquids don’t absorb).  All natural materials should be washed at least three times alone.  

Covers/Shells: Covers aren’t absorbent therefore you don’t need to “prep” them in the sense that they need washing to work effectively.  They will work right out of the package as intended.  You will still probably want to wash once but you can throw these into your dirty laundry


To launder cloth diapers regularly:

Keep it simple! This routine has proven to work well for most people, regardless of what type of machine or cloth diapers you use.

1 cool/cold water prewash 
1 hot water wash with detergent (add vinegar and/or baking soda for odor issues)
1 additional rinse cycle

Avoid using chlorine bleach on a regular basis. It will break down fibers such as cotton, hemp and bamboo and noticeably shorten the life of your diapers. In addition, it may irritate your baby's skin.  Some manufacturers, like bumGenius recommend using 1/4 cup bleach with your regular wash once a month. Keep in mind that bleach is a harsh chemical and we don’t recommended using it on anything that will touch a baby’s skin. If using bleach, increase the number of rinses in your wash cycle.

DON’T use fabric softeners, which coat fabric and reduce absorbency. This includes 'baby' detergents such as Dreft. These will clog a diaper and effect absorbency of a diaper after only one use.

Some cloth diaper friendly detergents available: There are regular laundry detergents that can also be used for your cloth diapers.  Each manufacturer has a different list of approved detergents.  Some commonly used detergents include: Charlie’s Soap, bumGenius, Country Save, Planet, Ecos, Ecover, and Allen’s Naturally. Follow the directions on the packaging for your machine and load size.

Drying your diapers:

Sunning: There’s nothing better than harnessing the power of the sun! Sunning your diapers can help remove stains, brighten and even sanitize your diapers. You don't have to have a clothesline to do this. You can use a drying rack outside or patio furniture. While still wet, take your diapers outside to a sunny area. Place them cotton or suede cloth side up (the inside part that is closest to your baby's bottom when worn) and let them dry in the sun. Also, this method is completely free as far as energy cost and use!

DON’T leave them in full sun during hot temperatures for too long. This could cause damage to some elements of the diaper, similar to drying on high heat in a dryer. Check your diapers regularly and when they are dry, bring them in.

Drying them indoors: When drying them indoors, just make sure they aren’t in a damp location, ie, damp basement, shower stall, etc. If you already use a dehumidifier in a room in your home, dry the diapers near the same room as the unit. Doing this will cut down the drying time by about half.

Build-Up/Residue/Odor Issues:

Hard Water?
Hard water has a lot of minerals in it, namely calcium and magnesium. These minerals, if not properly rinsed away, can lead to a mineral build-up in your diapers which may cause offensive odors! Hard water makes it difficult for many detergents to work properly. Using a separate water softener, such as Calgon Water Softener is often recommended and is considered safe for use on all types of cloth diapers. Calgon can also be used for stripping diapers, especially for areas with especially hard water. Just wash clean diapers 3-4 times with hot water and Calgon (no detergent). As always, be sure to rinse thoroughly!

Stripping Diapers
If your diapers are leaking/repelling frequently or if they smell horrible the moment they become wet or soiled then it’s time for a good stripping! Stripping diapers will remove mineral buildup, correct improper wash methods, and remove any additives or residues that have been used while diapering your baby. Note: There are many different ways and reasons to strip your diapers; below are a few of the most effective methods for you.

To properly strip diapers:
Option 1: Do several (4-6) hot water washes (no detergent) to get rid of most residues.

Option 2: For extreme hard water build up or when stripping older diapers, you may need to use RLR Laundry Treatment or GroVia Mighty Bubbles.  Follow the directions on the package. 

Option 3: For sanitizing your diapers after a yeast infection or for secondhand diapers, it is generally considered safe to add 1/4 cup of bleach to your wash cycle. Please refer to manufacturer's directions regarding the use of bleach. 

Option 4: For removing diaper creams, fabric softeners, or other stubborn stains/oils you can gently rub the problem areas with a dish soap (like Blue Dawn) and rinse prior to washing. Please do not add dish soap to your washing machine.


Examples of common diaper creams with ingredients that are safe/unsafe for cloth

Desitin Rapid Relief – petrolatum, mineral oil (likely not cloth-safe)
California Baby Diaper Rash Cream – water, vegetable glycerin, lanolin (cloth-safe) Aveeno Baby Diaper Rash Cream – beeswax, glycerin, mineral oil (likely cloth-safe) Boudreaux’s Butt Paste – castor oil, mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin (likely not cloth-safe)
Badger Organic Zinc Oxide Diaper Cream – sunflower oil, beeswax (likely cloth safe) GroVia Magic Stick “Z” – grapeseed oil, beeswax, shea oil, jojoba oil (likely cloth safe)


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