Cloth Diapers 101 for Beginners

No Crunch, No Fluff;
Just the Cloth Diaper Basics for Beginners

If you’re thinking about using cloth diapers on your newborn, baby, or toddler but don’t know where to start, or if you’ve gotten some cloth diapers, and need help figuring out what to do with them, you’re in the right place

In this beginner’s introduction to cloth diapers, the why, where, how, what, and who of cloth diapers to give you a solid foundation that will help you choose and use cloth diapers successfully from birth to potty if that’s what you choose to do. Feel free to use these links to jump around to the information you need:

  1. Why Choose Cloth Over Disposables
  2. Where to Start
  3. How to Choose the Diaper that’s Best for You
  4. Where to Buy Cloth Diapers
  5. How to Wash Cloth Diapers
  6. Who Can Help You
  7. FAQ’s

Why Choose Cloth Diapers over Disposables

Why Choosing Cloth Diapers Can be Difficult

Choosing cloth diapers is becoming more common, but it’s still a difficult choice. Most of us can’t call on our “village” for advice because our mothers didn’t cloth diaper, and even if our grandmothers cloth diapered they aren’t enthusiastic about it because they used olden-day cloth diapers that were loose, had to be covered in rubber pants, and soaked in weird blue liquid before washing (so gross).

So, on one hand, our mom’s and our consumer culture tells us that disposables are a convenient way to diaper, but on the other, we have a growing movement of new mom’s who are choosing cloth diapers anyway.

Here’s what the people choosing cloth diapers have figured out:

Why Cloth Might be the Right Choice for You

  • They save you money! With water, energy and soap factored in cloth diapers still save a ton of money, even if only used on one child (though they often can be used on multiple kids). Click here for more info about how much babies cost and how much cloth diapers can save you.
  • They respect your children’s future. There are many things you want to leave your children with; but a pile of dirty diapers that won’t break down in that child’s lifetime probably isn’t on that list. Not only are cloth diapers responsible when it comes to the environment, but they are also financially responsible in that they lengthen the life of your local landfill, saving you tax dollars as well.
  • They reduce your child’s exposure to harmful chemicals.
  • They completely eliminate the dreaded “blow-out.” Yes, cloth diapers can actually prevent the poop messes that come with the territory of disposables.
  • They save money.
  • They make your baby more comfortable (would you like wearing plastic and paper underwear?)
  • They can make potty training easier. Without all that “dry-core, stay-dry, pee-disappearing layer technology” of disposables, your toddler can feel when they wet, which can make it easier for them to figure out their body’s bathroom signals.
  • They can make you friends; because cloth diaper people love talking about using cloth diapers. Just drop by the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook groupOpens in a new tab. to see for yourself.
  • Oh, and did I mention you’ll save money!

So if you’re still reading, and all of that sounds good to you, let’s just jump right into how to find the right cloth diapers for you and your family.

Where to Start

Most often, the first question I get from newbies is actually a three-part question, which sounds a lot like, “I really don’t know where to start, can you please tell me what type to get, how to clean them properly, and how to use them?”

Phew! Ok, let’s pause a second and go one step at a time.

While the question is completely reasonable (I had the same one when I started out), and I can get to those answers for you, the problem is that it’s like asking me what kind of shoes are best.

It depends.

Are you using the shoes for running? For playing soccer? For dancing ballet? All of these shoes have completely different uses, and while I might be able to recommend a good brand of ballet slippers and tell you how to keep the ribbons untangled, I first need to figure out you’re a ballerina.

So, let’s start by figuring out if you want to run a marathon or perform Swan Lake. Are you with me?

What Type of Cloth Diaper Works for You?

Just like all shoes have a sole and some way to bind that sole to your foot, every diaper is made up of two parts:

  1. An outer shell (or cover). This outer shell is the waterproof part that keeps your couch, bed, hands and everything else from getting wet, and keeps the mess contained. This is also the layer with all the cute prints and colored snaps (though it may not have snaps and have a Velcro/hook and loop closure or no closure at all). It is most often made of waterproof PUL material, but you can also find covers made from wool and other water-resistant materials. 
  2. The inner padding. This is the part that absorbs the wetness, it’s the “guts” of the diaper. It may be made up of a million different combinations of microfiber, hemp, bamboo, cotton, fleece, etc. (every fabric type has some unique properties you can use for certain purposes, but don’t worry about that yet), but the point is that it’s the part that absorbs and holds the mess until you change baby. Inserts, prefolds, flats, fitted diapers, old t-shirts, flour sack towels, and really any other non-waterproof piece of cloth used as a diaper is used as this absorbent part of the diaper, which needs to be paired with an outer shell/cover.

That’s it.

It doesn’t matter what type, or style, or band it is, every cloth diaper you will ever put on your baby (OK, OK, with the exception of a swim diaper, but that’s a whole separate topic) will be made up of those two parts. The only thing that changes is how the diaper is constructed, meaning how much those two pieces are stitched or snapped together (or not), and the types of fabric used (Don’t worry about that right now).

While there aren’t as many different kinds of diapers as there are shoes, there are about six different kinds of diapers that mix up how they put those two parts together, and trust me, that’s plenty.  All of the six types have different pluses and minuses, and it’s these pluses and minuses that will help us pin down which kind(s) of diapers are best for you, so learning a bit about them is a good place to start.

Here’s a quick look at the different types of cloth diapers:

How the Six Different Types of Cloth Diapers Look:

all-in-one

All-in-One

All-in-one diapers get their name from the fact that all the pieces of the diaper—the waterproof shell, and the absorbent center—completely stitched together into one piece.

All-in-two Diaper

All-in-Two

This diaper comes in two pieces: the waterproof or water-resistant cover, and an absorbent insert that attaches to the cover.

Pocket Diaper

Pocket

The cover of this diaper is sewn to a soft “stay dry” layer of fabric. Together those two layers form a pocket to hold absorbent inserts.

fitted_thumb

Fitted

Though they may look the most like disposables, fitteds do not have a waterproof layer and are meant to be worn underneath a completely separate diaper cover.

Prefold Diaper

Prefold

Sectioned into three parts lengthwise, these rectangular diapers contain several layers of absorbent material sewn together, with additional layers in the middle. These are also folded and paired with a diaper cover.

flat diapers

Flat

Large squares of single-layer material, typically cotton, that can be folded several ways to fit and protect and must be paired with a stand-alone diaper cover.

There are also hybrid diapers, which are disposable diapers that are used with cloth diaper covers, but for the purposes of this beginner’s intro, we’ll keep it to all-cloth options.

I do have some information about hybrid diapers hereOpens in a new tab. though, just in case you’re interested.

What are the Features of Each of the Six Styles of Cloth Diapers?

Now that you know what the different types of cloth diapers look like, let’s compare them to show some key differences to give you some ideas on which might be perfect for you:

All-in-One Diapers

Price-Highest price per diaper.
-Completely soiled at every diaper change, therefore need many.
Adjustability-Difficult to add more absorbency.
-Because the diaper is one piece, can be difficult to adjust to fit all baby shapes and sizes correctly.
Ease of Use-Diaper on, diaper off; just like a disposable during diaper changes. (making them caregiver friendly)
-No stuffing, folding, or additional prep work before changing
Ease of Care-Can’t separate different layers so more difficult to clean and care for
-Take much longer to dry

If you’re considering all-in-ones, you can click here to read a full and in-depth post (with video) all about all-in-one diapersOpens in a new tab. to get the full picture.


All-in-Two Diapers

Price-High per-diaper cost.
Depending on the brand, covers might allow for wiping and reuse so you can purchase fewer covers.
Adjustability-Can add more inserts as needed.
-Usually can use the shell with other styles of diaper inserts as well.
Ease of Use-Inserts must be snapped in before use. Otherwise, diaper changes are like using disposables.
-Must unsnap inserts before washing, which can be unpleasant.
Ease of Care-Must unsnap inserts to clean properly
-Because cover can be separated from inserts, washing is easier, but inserts have plastic snaps which do require some care consideration when washing and drying

If you’re considering all-in-two’s, you can click here to read a full and in-depth post all about all-in-two diapers to get the full picture.


Pocket Diapers

Price-Mid-range to low price per diaper.
-Completely soiled every diaper change, so need many.
Adjustability-Can add more absorbency, but only up to a point as once pocket is full, adding more will interfere with fit and may cause leaks.
Ease of Use-Inserts must be stuffed inside the pocket before use, this is called “stuffing” your diapers.
-Once, pre-stuffed, changes are as easy as disposables.
Ease of Care-Some brands must be unstuffed before washing, which can be icky.

If you’re considering pocket diapers, you can click here to read more about how to stuff a pocket diaperOpens in a new tab. to learn more.


Fitted Diapers

Price– Higher price per diaper.**
–Must be used with a waterproof diaper cover, BUT that cover can most often be wiped and reused several times before being soiled and needing to be changed.
Adjustability-Can add more absorbency, but often don’t need to.
-Easy to adjust the fit using its snaps or Velcro.
Ease of Use** Best style of diapers for overnight, which justifies their cost. Many times, for heavy wetters a hemp fitted diaper will be all that will work at night (click here for more infoOpens in a new tab.).
-Easy to put on, but must be paired with a diaper cover, so diaper changes have two steps.
Ease of Care-Easy to wash, but additional elastics and possibly snaps to care for.

If you’re interested in fitted diapers, you can click here to read a full and in-depth post about fitteds, or you can click here to learn more about using fitted diapers at night.


Prefold Diapers

Price-Low price per diaper.
-Must be used with a waterproof diaper cover; BUT that cover can most often be wiped and reused several times before being soiled and needing to be changed.
Adjustability– Easily folded to fit any baby and situation and can be paired with any other inserts and boosters as needed.
Ease of Use-High initial learning curve as they must be folded (and possibly pinned in place) under a diaper cover.
Ease of Care– Extremely easy to wash, and can dry quickly when needed in a hurry.

If you’re intrested in prefold diapers, you can click here to read a full and in-depth post (with recommendations) all about prefolds to get the full picture.


Flat Diapers

Price-Very low price per diaper, especially is using Flour Sack Towels (FST’s).
-Must be used with a waterproof diaper cover; BUT that cover can most often be wiped and reused several times before being soiled and needing to be changed.
Adjustability– Easily folded to fit any baby and situation and can be paired with other inserts and boosters as needed.
Ease of Use-Highest learning curve; must be folded (and possibly pinned in place) under a diaper cover.
Ease of Care– Very easy to care for. “Washes like an old rag.”

How to Choose The Diaper Style That’s Perfect for You

So, what style of diaper is best for you? To figure that out, ask yourself some basic questions, and be honest. Your answers to the following questions should guide you:

  1. Who will be changing your baby?
    Is everyone who might be changing diapers regularly on-board with cloth?
    If they are, any style of diaper might work, but if not, getting some diapers that are easy at change time (like All-in-ones, or pocket diapers) may be best.
  2. Is budget your top concern?
    If so, going with a diaper system that’s cheaper overall (like prefolds, flats and covers) may be the key. (we’ll address how many you need later, or you can jump to this post if you’re stuck here).
  3. How often do you plan to wash?
    I recommend washing no more than every 3 days or so, because of mildew and bacteria growth on wet, dirty diapers waiting to be washed. With that said, life gets in the way of best practices all the time. If you don’t think washing every 3 days or less is practical for you, getting a diaper system that can be separated into pieces and/ or unfolded to, therefore, get more air while waiting for wash day (i.e. prefolds or flats with covers) may cut down on the potential problem of mildew and bacteria growth.
  4. Are you hand-washing?
    Not all of us have access to a big washing machine. If you’re handwashing or using a portable, non-electric washer, a diaper system that’s easier to clean (prefolds and flats) may be best.
  5. Do you want to cloth diaper as naturally as possible?
    If so, diaper systems that use all-natural fibers in most products may be the most affordable. Prefolds, flats and wool covers may be the ideal way to go here, ensuring a completely natural (no synthetic fibers) diaper.
  6. Is your baby a heavy wetter?
    If baby is already here, and you know they are a heavy wetter, All-in-ones and pockets may not be a good option as they limit the amount of absorbency that can be added to a diaper.

Should I Only Use One Style of Diaper?

I usually recommend trying at least two different styles of diapers out if you’ve never used cloth diapers before, not only to help you figure out your preferences, but also because babies are changing their shape constantly, and having a few options at the ready can help get that fit on any given day.

If you’re leaning toward all-in-ones, getting a few pocket diapers, or even all-in-twos may be a good option, as they are still pretty easy at change time, but will give you some fit flexibility and some different wash experiences.

If you’re leaning toward pocket diapers or all-in-two’s, getting just one diaper cover and a pack of prefolds will not only give you some variety in your diaper stash, but those prefolds can also be used in your pockets and all-in-twos as boosters, so they will give you some options all the way around.

If you’re opting for prefolds, flats and/or fitteds, getting a few of each just makes sense, and they all work very well together. Grabbing one all-in-one to see what all the fuss is, and for when Grandma comes over is also not a bad idea.

Don’t fear the mix-and-match, it may just be what keeps you on track when baby doesn’t fit well with your favorite option now.

What Are the Best (all-in-one, all-in-two, etc.,) Cloth Diapers?

Hopefully, all that info helped you choose a type or two of diapers to try. The next step is to look at brands.

Where Do I Buy Cloth Diapers?

Once you have a style and some brands picked out, it’s time for the fun part, shopping!

If you’re looking for a bargain, you can check out this post that I update regularly with cloth diaper coupons, specials and deals. If it’s close to Black Friday or Earth Day, definitely check that link out because those are the best days to save some serious cash on cloth diapers.

If you can’t find what you like on sale, you can find cloth diapers in a number of places. Target, Walmart and Amazon all sell cloth diapers, but you will have more choice and variety at the local cloth diaper stores. You can find the cloth diaper retailers closest to you here.

What about Used Cloth Diapers?

Aside from finding new cloth diapers at all the places I mentioned above, you can also save money (and your environmental impact, if that’s your thing) by buying used diapers.

And yes, they’re safe, because you sanitize them before using them ( I have full instructions on how to sanitize used cloth diapers here).

For information on where to find used cloth diapers, what to look out for when buying them, and how to value them, check out this guide to used cloth diapers for beginners.

Getting Your Diapers Ready for Baby

Whether your cloth diaper are new or used, you will have to clean and prepare them a bit before using them for the first time. There are a few reasons why this is necessary, which vary according to the type of diaper you’re using, but prepping (preparing your cloth diapers for their first use) is not as difficult as some make it out to be.

Instructions on how to prep new cloth diapers can be found here, and instructions on how to sanitize and prep used cloth diapers can be found here.

How to Wash Cloth Diapers

Once your diapers are prepped and ready to use, you’ll also want to figure out a wash routine that works for you and your unique situation.

I STRONGLY urge you not to fall for some of the “here do this” recommendations you can find online on websites like Fluff Love University and so on, where they just look at the detergent you’re using and hand you an amount to use with a generic wash routine they tell everyone to use.

There are a lot of factors that go into the perfect routine. What detergent you use including how often and how many diapers you’re washing, and how hard your water is. 

Line 4 of Tide may be great for one person with a 5 cubic foot washer and semi-hard water who washes every third day, but that same amount would be DISASTROUS for a person with a 3 cubic foot washer and soft water who washes every day. We’re talking smells, rashes, and possibly leaking.

I don’t want to scare you here, washing diapers can be very simple, but only if you take the time to figure out your situation, learn a bit about water hardness, and understand how everything works together. This is not common knowledge, just like diapering isn’t common knowledge anymore, but once you get it down you’re likelihood of having problems cloth diapering is minimal.

The Steps to Building a Perfect Wash Routine

Ok, so where do you start?

  1. Choose a detergent you feel comfortable with and that meets the detergent criteria set out here in this post.
  2. Think about how often you want to wash your cloth diapers, and be honest with yourself.
  3. Take a look at your washing machine and dig up either the cubic foot measurement or the weight limits for it.
  4. Test your water to see if it’s hard or soft as that will greatly impact your detergent levels. Read this post for more on why hard and soft water matterOpens in a new tab..

Once you have that information you’re ready to build the perfect routine for you and your situation.

The Basic Wash Routine

In very general terms, you start with a rinse/spin (soft water) or a small cycle with a minimal amount of detergent (hard water), then a hot and heavy-duty cycle with detergent, followed by another rinse if you have soft water.

How much detergent you use will depend on your washing machiene size, laundry load size and water hardness, which is why I say to start by gathering that information.I have free resources to help you calculate your detergent level here.

If You Need More Help

If you’re still feeling overwhelmed and just want all the wash and care information laid out step-by-step in detail and in one place, the Cloth Diaper Wash and Care Handbook may be exactly what you need.

The handbook is not only a guide to cloth diaper wash and care, but it’s also a simple workbook designed to help you effortlessly build the perfect wash routine for your unique situation and lifestyle. 

My goal with the book was to take the mystery, fear, and ridiculous rules out of cloth diaper washing.

In addition to covering wash routines, the Handbook also covers everything you’ll need to know about wash and care like storage, troubleshooting, prepping, and much more.

To see what’s covered and learn more, check out the Handbook information page here.


Who Can Help You One-on-One?

As I said at the very beginning of this post, figuring out this cloth diaper thing is not easy as most aren’t given a village of people who know how to cloth diaper to help us along the way… well, at least until now.

Cloth Diapers for Beginners has actually grown a village of moms, parents and caregivers just like you who were or are new to cloth and just trying to figure it all out and help each other along the way. Oh, and we’re awesome! You can join that village on Facebook, here. Opens in a new tab.


FAQ’s

Do you really save money using cloth diapers?

Yes! An average child that potty trains at age three will have used about 8,030 diapers. Using average US prices for disposable diapers those 8,030 diapers would cost $2,007.50. On the other hand, an adequate number of moderate-to-high priced reusable diapers to last that entire time would only cost about $432.

This means reusable diapers save about $1,575.50 USD per child; and most often those same diapers can be reused on the next child saving the full cost of diapering that second child.

Cha-ching!

How do cloth diapers work?

Cloth diapers work much the same as disposable diapers except that instead of being made from plastics and pulps they are made from different types of fabrics that when combined create a diaper to keep your baby (and your home) clean and dry.

Cloth diapers are put on baby much in the same way as disposables, but unlike disposable diapers, once a cloth diaper is soiled or wet, it’s cleaned of any solids and then washed and reused, over and over.

No waste, environmental or financial!

How do cloth diapers work with poop?

No, you won’t have to touch poop! When baby soils their cloth diaper it must be removed before putting it in the washing machine (unless baby is EBF, which is water-soluble).

There are many accessories available to make removing the poop from the diaper quick and easy, like diaper liners, diaper sprayers, etc. But even without those accessories, diapers can easily be cleaned off in the toilet with the “dunk and swoosh” method.

I have lots more information about how to get the poop off here in this post.

How many cloth diapers do I need?

The number of cloth diapers you will need depends on the following:

  • If you plan on diapering full-time or part-time. Part-time diapering requires fewer diapers than full-time.
  • How often you plan/hope to wash your diapers. Washing every day requires fewer diapers than if you plan to wash every two or three days.
  • How old baby is. Infants wet many more times per day than older babies.

If you’re not sure of anything yet, and there’s a sale, plan on 24-26 diapers, which is a nice average “cloth diaper stash.”

I have a full post to help you figure out EXACTLY how many diapers you need for your situation here.

Diaper buying addiction is real, but no one can plan for that!

Do you change a cloth diaper after every pee?

Generally, yes. Though some find it acceptable to let babies pee in disposable diapers many times before changing, cloth diapers should be changed after every significant wetting.

How often this happens varies by age and for each baby, but in general, a newborn will need to be changed every two hours or so and the time between wettings will stretch out over time, with toddlers needing to be changed about 6-8 times per day.

The less time your baby spends in a soiled diaper the better for their bottom, whether that be in disposable or cloth.

How long do cloth diapers last?

How long a cloth diaper will last does depend on:

  • The brand/quality of the diaper you’re starting with. Cheaper brands from China’s manufacturing district will last much less time than premium North American brands.
  • How often you wash it. Daily washing puts far more wear and tear on diapers than infrequent washing.
  • How it’s dried. Diapers dried in cool air generally last longer than those dried in hot heat or direct sunlight.
  • What you use to wash it with. Regular use of harsh products like bleach, peroxide stain fighters, etc, will shorten the life of diapers.

With that said, most good-quality cloth diapers will last you many years and through at least one or two babies with reasonable care.


Have More Questions?

The learning curve for cloth diapers may be short, but most of us are lacking information in a few areas, because, again, we’ve never done this before and don’t have a lot of family members to help us along the way.

Thankfully, while us cloth diaper lovers are still a little rare, our questions are often pretty predictable, and so this site has a HUGE list of FAQ questions and answers you can browse whenever you find yourself wondering about something.