Anyone looking into the world of cloth diapers for the first time can feel overwhelmed. There are so many different websites with so many different types of diapers available—it’s easy to experience information overload. But cloth diapering is simple once you find the system that works for you.

There are some variations, but overall, there are four basic types of cloth diapering systems. All systems include some sort of absorbent cloth next to the skin, as well as a waterproof outer layer.

1. Pre-folds + covers

This is the primary system I use. A pre-fold diaper is a piece of cloth that’s been folded up and sewn to stay that way—hence the name. A prefold diaper looks like this:

burp cloths cloth diapers

These are not the same as the cheap brands you buy as basic burp cloths; they’re far more absorbent and much higher quality. You fasten them together with diaper pins or a Snappi, which is a stretchy plastic fastener with grippers like an Ace bandage. It looks like this:


This is the absorbent part, but you still need a waterproof cover. You can air out the covers between changes, swapping them back and forth, and re-use them until wash day (unless they get poop on them—then, into the diaper pail they go).

Advantages of prefolds

• This is the cheapest way to do cloth diapers—that’s why it’s our primary system.

• The prefolds are the easiest kind of cloth diaper to get really clean.

• The waterproof cover is separate from the cloth, so you can take better care of it, and they’ll last longer. The waterproof covers shouldn’t go in the dryer, or they won’t last as long.

Disadvantages of prefolds

The only disadvantage I find is that it’s less convenient than some of the other systems because there are more pieces (the diaper, the cover, plus a Snappi or pins). Because of this, other people like babysitters, grandparents, and child-care workers get nervous.

2. Fitteds + covers

A fitted diaper is like a prefold, except that it requires no folding and no pins—it’s already in the shape of a diaper (like a disposable), and fastens either with velcro or snaps. Here’s an example of a fitted diaper:


I’ve also used this system, and I really like it. Grandparents and babysitters tend to be more comfortable with fitteds than pre-folds. You still need to use a waterproof cover on these fitted diapers, just like with the pre-folds.

Wool covers are another solid choice—wool is very breathable, so it’s great for night-time (or anytime, really) and doesn’t need to be washed very often; just aired out, unless poop gets on them.

Wool covers are expensive, though, so we only have two, and only use them at night. Here’s an example of a wool cover:

wool cover

Advantages of fitteds + covers

1. This is still a pretty cheap way to do cloth diapers.

2. Fitteds are easier than prefolds because they’re already diaper-shaped, and you don’t have to deal with pins or Snappis.

3. The waterproof outer layer is still separate from the cloth, which means it will dry faster and last longer.

Disadvantages of fitteds + covers

1. Fitteds are still not as convenient and easy as some of the other systems.

2. Fitteds are not as cheap as prefolds.

3. Pocket diapers

Pocket diapers are a little hard to explain. With a pocket diaper, there’s an outer waterproof layer sewn to a cloth layer that goes against the skin, with an opening in the back between the two. Here’s an example of a pocket diaper:

pocket diaper

You put an absorbent insert into that opening, then remove the insert for washing, and put both the insert and diaper into the wash together. Most brands come with their own inserts, or you can use pre-folds or purchase additional inserts. The whole diaper fastens with either velcro or snaps. We use these at night, too, and they’re very absorbent.

Advantages of pocket diapers

• This system is easy and convenient—you can have a bunch of diapers with inserts already inside at the changing table, ready to go. Babysitters will love it.

• You can separate the inserts out from the rest of the diaper for washing and drying, so you get the inserts really clean. Then you can dry the inserts in the dryer, and you can line-dry the rest of the diaper, making it last longer.

Disadvantages of pocket diapers

• They’re a bit more expensive than the first two options.

• It’s a bit harder to get the diaper itself really clean. I’ve found that anytime the cloth against the skin is sewn to the waterproof outer layer, it’s a little harder to really clean them well.

• Pocket diapers rarely use natural fibers in the layer that’s against the skin—it’s usually a sort of polyester microfiber designed to wick moisture away from the skin.

4. All-in-ones

An all-in-one diaper is what it sounds like: the waterproof layer, the absorbent layer, and the layer against the skin are all sewn together in one diaper. It’s diaper-shaped, and it fastens with velcro or snaps. It’s super easy; it’s essentially a reusable disposable. Here’s an example of an all-in-one diaper:


Advantages of all-in-ones

• This is by far the easiest and most convenient system of them all—the grandparents will barely know the difference.

Disadvantages of all-in-ones

• All-in-ones are the most expensive of the systems. There may be a lot of up-front sticker shock, but you will still save money in the long run over disposables, even if you only use all-in-ones and nothing else. You can re-use them for the next baby and save even more.

• These are the hardest kind of cloth diaper to get completely clean.

• They may not last as long as other systems if you put them in the dryer.

This covers all the major cloth diapering systems. There are a few variations, but for the most part, this is what you need to know to decide which system will work best for you.

There’s a few other things to consider.

Cloth wipes

You’ll need about two to three dozen. I keep a spray bottle with water at the changing table, and either just use spray that onto the bare bottom, or sometimes I use this spray, too, if I need a little extra clean-up help.

For really messy diapers, I still use disposable wipes – I just find it easier.

Washing the diapers

If it’s a pee diaper, you can just throw it into the diaper pail. With the poopy ones, you need to wash the poop down the toilet unless they’re not eating solids yet (then it can still go straight into the wash). You can dunk them up and down into the toilet, or you can use a sprayer attached to the toilet to spray it off.

I spray them with BioKleen Bac-Out; the enzymes start the cleaning process right away and leave no stains behind. Then we have a separate smaller diaper pail in the bathroom, where we put those diapers until wash time.

You need to wash about every three days, or you risk the growth of bacteria. You also shouldn’t use detergents that leave residue behind. Charlie’s Soap is my favorite, but there are a lot of good options. Here’s a good rundown on how to wash them.

No matter which system you choose, you’re making a great choice for the environment and for your budget. And one last thing—they’re so darn cute… Nothing cuter than a baby crawling around with a little cloth diaper on.

p.s. – The 411 of cloth diapering 101, cloth diapering doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, and 3 compelling reasons to try them.

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