Pocket diapers and all-in-two (AI2) diapers require inserts to be put inside them to work. Inserts can also be used with prefolds and flat diapers to boost their absorbency. With cloth diaper inserts being so important to cloth diapering, the question of what cloth diaper insert is best comes up a lot.
So, what cloth diaper insert is best? Cloth diaper inserts are good or bad based on how much they can absorb and how fast they can absorb it, and so the short answer is that hemp inserts are the most absorbent but microfiber inserts absorb the fastest.
There’s a lot more to it than that though, and some of the best cloth diaper inserts aren’t hemp or microfiber. So let’s dive into how to choose and layer inserts to get a leak-proof cloth diaper every time.
TLDR Video Explaination
For an overview of the different insert options, you can watch this live video presentation I did on the subject below, or keep scrolling for the in-depth written version. If you’re a beginner and want all the info. I suggest reading through this post because I offer several more bits of information that can be helpful if you’re very new to cloth diapers.
If you’d like to see the slides closer, you can grab a PDF copy here:
Understanding the Absorption Options of Cloth Diaper Inserts
The most important thing to look at when choosing cloth diaper inserts is the fabric the insert is made from because that will tell you how well and how quickly it absorbs.
Of course, it will only tell you that if you know how the different diaper insert materials work, so let’s take a look at each insert material you’ll find when you’re looking to purchase diaper inserts and break down how it will perform:
- Cheap (made from plastics)
- Able to soak up liquid very quickly (like a sponge)
- Compression leaking
- Bad for the environment
- Irritating to baby’s skin
- Harder to wash
Microfiber inserts are cheap and plentiful. They come standard with many inexpensive pocket diapers, and are widely available on Amazon and direct from China online retailers like Wish, AliExpress, etc. Microfiber inserts are cheap to produce since they are made from synthetic, man-made fibers, and they do absorb liquid quickly because of how microfiber is made (for a visual explanation of why see the video above).
Unfortunately, for the same reason (their construction), they are also harder to successfully clean, and very prone to compression leaks, which are leaks that happen when the diaper is placed under pressure.
Microfiber is also on the bulky side and can’t be placed directly onto baby’s skin as it is so drying it can quickly lead to skin irritation and rashes.
Many cloth diaper parents stay away from microfiber for these reasons. If you’re not sure if microfiber inserts are you, you can get more information in this full post I created explaining all of its pros and cons in detail.
Charcoal Bamboo Inserts
- Can go next to skin
- Usually many layers
- Absorbs quickly
- Just microfiber wrapped in fleece
- Compression leaking
- Very bulky
- Bad for the environment
- Harder to wash
I include bamboo charcoal inserts in this list only because you will find them while shopping for inserts and think they are some special type of bamboo insert — they’re not. Charcoal bamboo inserts are actually most often made from microfiber wrapped in fleece, which means they can hold no more than a microfleece insert and are just as prone to compression leaks.
- Easy to wash
- Absorbs quickly
- Can be bulky (especially with heavy wetters)
- Often questionable for the environment
- Susceptible to wear-and-tear
Cotton is what I often refer to as the workhorse of the cloth diaper world. It is fairly fast-absorbing, natural, easy to wash, available in all sorts of cuts and styles, and very affordable.
Your great-grandma’s diapers were likely from cotton, and all of the “old-school” diapers like prefolds and flats are most often cotton as well. It’s just worked well for years.
- Absorbs a lot for its weight
- No “natural oils” (does not need to be washed multiple times before use like hemp inserts)
- On the expensive side
- Not really as “natural” as it’s marketed to be
- Often needs to be paired with other inserts (often sold in few layers)
Bamboo, true bamoo not charcoal bamboo, is incredibly absorbent and lightweight. Though you will pay a bit more for it than cotton, it can hold more pound for pound and so it’s a great option for anyone wanting to avoid the bulk.
Though true bamboo is marketed as a “natural material,” it doesn’t need to be prepped with washing as much as other materials like hemp. As the Federal Trade Commission explains here, “The soft textiles you see labeled ‘bamboo’ don’t contain any part of the bamboo plant. They are made from bamboo that has been processed into rayon using toxic chemicals.
“When bamboo is processed into rayon, no trace of the original plant is left… If a company claims its product is made with bamboo, it should have reliable scientific evidence to show it’s made with bamboo fiber.” (source)
- Can hold a lot of liquid for its weight
- Gets more absorbent over time
- Locks wetness in
- On the expensive side
- Must be washed several times to be fully absorbent
- Often needs to be paired with something that’s faster to absorb
If you have a heavy wetter, hemp is your friend because it can hold a ton of liquid. Hemp is a truly natural fiber, so it will need to be washed several times to remove the plant oils from the fabric. Hemp also continues to get more absorbent with every wash long after the natural oils are removed because of the way the fibers age.
As Hemp Traders explains here, “Because of the highly porous nature of the hemp fiber (i.e., magnified under a microscope it’s filled with lots of holes) hemp dries extremely quickly naturally (in the open air) or is easily tumble-dried.
“Each time hemp is washed it constantly reveals new surfaces, usually becoming softer with use. Given reasonable care it will render a lifetime of service.”
- Very absorbent
- Very fast absorbing
- Light and soft
- Easy to wash
- Hard to get
- Can be bulky
- No longer many read-made zorb diapers available
- Basically only for DIY diapers
Zorb is a cotton bamboo hemp blend that was specifically designed for use in cloth diapers. Though there are no longer any cloth diaper companies manufacturing diapers on a large scale in Zorb, it is still a popular choice for those making their own inserts.
To learn more about Zorb, what type is best for diapers, and where to find it, check out my interview with the creator of Zorb, Wazoodle fabrics, here.
How To Layer Inserts
If you have a few different types of diaper inserts, the next question you’ll have is how do you layer them? Which insert should go on top for maximum absorbency?
It turns out, there is a solid order structure you can use (though don’t take this as a make-it or break-it rule; the cloth diaper police won’t come for you if you happen to layer things in a different order while you were in a hurry).
To maximize absorbency, you want the fastest absorbing inserts on top of the inserts that can hold the most liquid. That order is as follows:
|Insert Type||Absorption Amount||Absorption Speed|
So as an example, let’s say you want to put a microfiber insert with cotton. The microfiber would be best placed on top (closer to the skin) of the cotton insert. But remember that microfiber can be irritating to baby’s skin, so it would need something between it and your little one, like the lining of a pocket diaper (meaning the inserts are stuffed inside a pocket diaper), or a fleece liner (keep reading to the section on terms below to find out what that is).
However, if you were pairing a cotton insert with say a hemp insert, the cotton insert should go on top as it absorbs quicker than hemp.
Get the Insert Layering Cheat Sheet
This can be a lot to remember, so I’ve made a little cheat sheet for you to keep handy at your changing spot. It lists the types of inserts in order of absorbency, so when you’re pairing inserts you can just layer them as you see on the sheet — fabrics on the top of the page, go on top of fabrics closer to the bottom.
Mastering Inserts – Having Enough Absorbency In the Diaper
If you want to ensure your diaper is leak-free, there’s still a bit more to know though, and probably the most important thing is that you must have enough absorbency to hold everything that baby lets go of.
If your kiddo wets 12 oz and your inserts can only hold 8 oz, you’ll have a leak. This is why as baby gets older, their bladder grows, and they wet less often, but in larger quantities, you’ll need more absorbency.
More absorbency can mean more inserts to layer, but it can also mean inserts with more layers of material built-in. Paying attention to how many layers your inserts each have can help. After all, 15 layers of microfiber will likely hold more than 3 layers of hemp, so don’t forget to account for layers when shopping for absorbent inserts.
How to know when you have enough absorbency can be tricky and relies on a lot of trial-and-error. With that said, there are a handful of specific situations where you’ll all of a sudden need more than usual:
- “Growth Spurts.” These happen when around 3 months, 8-9 months ,and again at 12-18 months of age. Again, as their bladder grows, their output grows so you’ll need more absorbency (more inserts and/or more layers). These are the predictable age ranges when you can expect that to happen and be ready.
- Night time. If you’re lucky enough to have an infant that’s sleeping in long stretches, you’ll want to avoid waking them at all costs, so making sure you have enough absorbency to last the night is crutal. I have more information on night time cloth diapering here.
- “Heavy Wetters.” Heavy wetters are a real thing. If you have a heavy wetter, you’ll likely know it because you’ll need a lot of absorbency all the time. If you suspect your kiddo is a heavy wetter, you may want to check out this post I have to help you find the right diaper set up for them during the day and at night.
Mastering Inserts – Having the Right Kind of Absorbency For the Situation
In addition to thinking about how much absorbency you have in your cloth diaper, meaning how much the inserts can hole; you will also want to consider the type of absorbency you’re using in some special situations.
Here are a few situations where you’ll need more capacity (think true bamboo and hemp):
- Heavy wetters
- Long trips where changing quickly isn’t possible
Here are some situations where you’ll probably want to make sure you have inserts that can soak up liquids quickly on the top of your insert stack (for example, a cotton or a microfiber insert ON TOP of higher capacity inserts):
- At night time for your side sleeper, or baby that sleeps in other unusual positions that limit the urine’s contact with the diaper
- “Flooders” are babies who wet very quikly and forcefully limiting the amount of time the liquid can sit on the surface of the diaper to absorb. You’ll know if your baby is a flooder if your inserts are good and absorbent, but you’re getting leaks before the inserts are able to get wet.
Situations where compression leaks are more common (and therefore you’ll want to ditch the microfiber altogether) due to reassure being put on the diaper area from straps or clothing:
- Car seats and strollers
- Highchairs and boosters
- Onesies and tighter clothes
Can Any Cloth Diaper Insert Fit into Your Cloth Diapers?
A concern you may have when shopping around for cloth diaper inserts is if you’ll need to get the same brand of inserts as your pocket diapers or cloth diaper covers to ensure they fit.
Luckily, most cloth diaper inserts will fit into most cloth diaper covers or pocket diapers. This isn’t to say there aren’t a few random exceptions — some hour-glass-shaped inserts may not work well with some cuts of pockets for example — but these are rare and usually limited to boutique-type brands that sell inserts that don’t look like typical inserts. In other words, you’ll be able to tell because they won’t look like 90% of the other inserts out there.
If the cloth diaper inserts you’re considering have these general shapes, you’re fine:
Getting the Terms Straight: What’s the Difference between Inserts, Liners Boosters, and Doublers?
When you’re shopping for cloth diaper inserts it’s important not to confuse them with liners, boosters and doublers because these terms are used for different cloth diaper accessories. Here’s the definition of each of those terms to help you out:
|Inserts||Inserts are the main absorbent layers that are stuffed into pocket diapers, snapped into all-in-two diapers, or laid in diaper covers. Inserts are made to hold a lot and can even be used alone in some diapers if the baby is young enough and a light wetter.|
|Liners||Cloth diaper liners are not absorbent at all and do not hold liquid. Liners are made from either a disposable layer of bamboo viscose mesh, or from a single layer of microfleece that can be washed and reused. A liner is laid on top of the diaper between it and the skin to protect the diaper from stains and diaper cream products. In the case of fleece liners, it can also add a “stay dry” feeling to the diaper. You can learn more about cloth diaper liners here.|
|Boosters||A booster is a diaper insert that must be paired with another liner (or multiple inserts). It is meant to “boost” the absorbency of your inserts. Boosters often have fewer layers than something labeled a “liner” but its still made of an absorbent natural material like cotton, hemp, or bamboo. Its purpose is to add absorbency to the diaper without adding a ton of bulk and it shouldn’t be used alone.|
|Doublers||Like a booster, doublers are just meant to increase the absorbency of a diaper by adding another layer on top of your inserts. Doublers are often very absorbent natural fiber boosters. They “double” the absorbency of your cloth diapers. Its purpose is to add absorbency to the diaper without adding a ton of bulk but it shouldn’t be used alone.|
For more definitions of cloth diapering lingo, check out our cloth diapering dictionary here.
What About Wool Soakers?
As if the lingo wasn’t confusing enough, there’s another term out there that can confuse you if you’re looking for inserts: soakers. A “soaker” is an older cloth diapering term and now is mostly used in reference to wool soakers.
Wool diapers are not absorbent thus we haven’t mentioned wool soakers in this article. Wool soakers are actually a type of cloth diaper cover. For more information on those, you can check out this article all about wool cloth diaper covers.