Cloth Diapers 101 for Beginners

No Crunch, No Fluff;
Just the Cloth Diaper Basics You Need

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 beginners 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 Use Them
  4. What You'll Need
  5. Who Can Help You
  6. The Cloth Diapers for Beginners Checklist

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 mom's 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 we have our mom's and our consumer culture telling us that disposables are 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 save a ton of money, even if only used on one child (though they can of course be used on multiple kids).
  • They respect your children's future. There's 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, they are 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.
  • 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 those who find Cloth Diapers for Beginners at the beginning of their research into cloth diapering have for me is 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?"

The first few times I was asked this "simple" question, I got very sweaty and considered changing this site to something like, Playing with Pugs for Beginners (I could rock that... just saying).

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 them 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?

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 (we'll come back to that).

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 diaper is 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:

The Six Different Types of Cloth Diapers:

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.

Now that you know what the different types of cloth diapers look like, let's compare them to show some key differences:

all-in-one
All-in-One
All-in-two Diaper
All-in-Two
Pocket Diaper
Pocket
fitted_thumb
Fitted
Prefold Diaper
Prefold
flat diapers
Flat

Highest price per diaper. Completely soiled at every diaper change, therefore need many.

High cost per-diaper. Depending on brand, covers might allow for wiping and reuse so you can purchase less covers.

Mid-range to low price per diaper. Completely soiled every diaper change, so need many.

Mid-range to low price per diaper. Most often able to wipe and reuse cover, so don't need many covers.

Low price per diaper. Often able to wipe and reuse the cover, so don't need a ton of covers.

Very low price per diaper. Often able to wipe and reuse cover, so don't need many covers.

Diaper on, diaper off; just like a disposable during diaper changes.

Inserts must be snapped in before use, but otherwise diaper changes are like using disposables.

Inserts must be stuffed inside the pocket before use, but then changes are as easy as disposables.

Easy to put on, but must be paired with a diaper cover, so diaper changes have two steps.

Needs to be folded (& possibly pinned in place) before covering with a diaper cover.

Highest learning curve; must be folded (& possibly pinned in place) under a diaper cover.

Easy to wash, but can take a very long time to dry, even in the dryer.

Must unsnap inserts before washing, which can be unpleasant.

Some brands must be unstuffed before washing, which can be icky.

Easy to wash, but additional elastics and snaps / Velcro to care for.

Very easy to care for. "Washes like an old rag."

Easy to wash, and can dry quickly when needed in a hurry.

Because the diaper is one piece, can be difficult to adjust to fit all baby shapes and sizes correctly. Difficult to add more absorbency.

Versatile, meaning you can add more absorbency or change inserts as needed.

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.

Can add more absorbency, but often don't need to. Easy to adjust using its snaps or Velcro.

Easily folded to fit any baby and situation & can be paired with other inserts and boosters as needed.

Not as absorbent as other diapers. Can be folded to fit any baby and situation & easily paired and adjusted with other inserts.