Cloth diapers have come a long way since your mother or grandmother used them. If you’ve decided to use cloth diapers for financial or environmental reasons, you have seen that there are dozens of types of diapers, materials and fasteners available. If you ask 100 people what the best cloth diaper is, you’ll get about 80 different answers. Don’t invest in a full stash until you try them out and decide which diapers you (and your baby) like. I purchased several styles and brands of diapers before our baby was born, and have since added more of our favorites to complete our stash.
If you don’t know where to begin — or aren’t sure that cloth diapering really is for you — some companies offer a trial program in which you can “rent” different styles and brands to try for a period of time. Usually you’ll pay a deposit and/or rental fee, and will be refunded the deposit if you decide to return them, or will receive store credit toward the purchase of diapers of your choice. For example, Jillian’s Drawers offers a 21-day trial program for a $10 fee (you’ll pay $97.96 for the smallest diaper set, and you’ll get $87.96 refunded, regardless of staining, should you return the diapers).
Are you confused about the cloth diaper system? It has changed in the last few decades, but it’s still easy – and budget-conscious. Continue reading to learn about the various types of cloth-diaper systems, inserts, covers, and fasteners, as well as the negatives and positives for each option.
Prefolds with covers:
These were the main diaper option before disposables were available. Prefolds can be wrapped or folded around the baby, fastened with a plastic fastener called a Snappi (or diaper pins if you’re old-school), and covered with any waterproof cover. Prefolds can also be folded and laid in diaper covers instead of wrapped around the baby, or stuffed in pocket diapers.
Suggested stash count: 24 prefolds and 4-6 covers; 3-4 snappis
Pros: Prefolds are the cheapest option. Made of cotton, or a cotton/bamboo or cotton/hemp blend, they are natural and highly absorbent. The waterproof cover can be wiped and air-dried and used several times before laundering, unless it is soiled. You can customize the fit on baby depending on how you wrap or fold the diaper.
Cons: They’re harder to put on baby since you have a two-step process. They take longer to dry in laundry. The diapers are bulky and pants may not fit as well. Some brands are sold in sizes (vs. one size fits all), so you may need to buy two sizes before potty-training, or make sure to buy one-size prefolds. The entire prefold gets wet, so your hands will get wet when changing diaper, and the baby’s skin will be wet in the entire diaper region.
My opinion: I used prefolds a couple of times when my diaper stash was small. Since my son was tiny, I didn’t use a fastener, I just wrapped the prefold around him and fastened on the cover, or tri-folded the prefold and laid it inside the diaper cover. It worked fine both ways, but the diaper was really bulky and I couldn’t imagine trying to secure them around an older baby. Prefolds make the best burp clothes and work well for stuffing pocket diapers, so they are worth keeping around (make sure they are completely sanitized before using for burp cloths if they’ve been used as diapers). Econobum sells trial packs with a cover and 3 inserts, and Thirsties are popular with prefold users.
Fitted diapers with a cover:
These are similar to prefolds, but without the hassle of folding or wrapping the diaper. They are shaped and fasten like a disposable diaper (with velcro or snaps) and need to be used under a waterproof cover.
Suggested stash count: 20-24 fitted diapers and 4-6 covers
Pros: These are also made of cotton, bamboo, or a blend, so they are natural and highly absorbent. The waterproof cover can be wiped and air-dried and used several times before laundering, unless it is soiled. They’re easy to fasten with velcro or snaps. Most have elastic around the legs, so leaks are rare. Many people use these overnight to prevent leaks.
Cons: The two-step process (fastening the fitted portion and then fastening the cover) is more difficult with wiggly babies. The diaper feels wet against the skin, takes longer to dry in laundry and will be make pants tighter like the prefolds. If any part of the inner diaper is sticking out, baby’s clothes will get wet from wicking. The entire fitted diaper gets wet, so baby’s skin is wet as soon as the diaper is wet and there’s no way to change the diaper without your hands getting wet. Fitted diaperss are sized, so you will need 2-3 sizes as your child grows, which greatly increases the cost.
My opinion: I used a few Bumpkins fitteds and covers that my sister-in-law lent me and I loved how soft and leak-proof they were, but I hated that I had to fasten two diapers on him and how bulky they were. I used them on occasion and never asked anyone else to put them on my son, since they were more difficult. Once he outgrew the size 1’s, I wasn’t tempted to purchase more.
Inserts with covers or all-in-twos:
These systems are similar in that the insert lays inside the cover, or fastens inside the cover with a snap. There are a variety of insert choices, including inserts made from cotton, bamboo, hemp, terry, microfiber and other fabrics. We’ll talk about the covers a little later.
Suggested stash count: 24 inserts and 8-10 covers; it’s recommended that you have three inserts per cover.
Pros: You don’t have to touch any mess: You can just dump them in the in diaper pail or washer. The cover can be reused if it’s not soiled. You can customize the insert based on your baby’s needs. The covers air-dry very fast and inserts can be dried in a clothes dryer. They are less expensive because you don’t need to buy as many covers, and inserts can be inexpensive.
Cons: The insert can shift or cause wicking if left sticking out of diaper cover. They’re not great for overnight because they can be less absorbent, unless you use multiple inserts or specific “overnight” inserts. Day care centers may not use them as the whole diaper must be changed with every diaper change, so make sure you check before you invest in this system.
My opinion: This is our favorite style and we have several brands (Flip, Best Bottoms, Happy Flute). I love that we can reuse the covers until laundry day (unless they get messy), and they hang dry within hours. It are also easy to customize which inserts we want to use to get the protection level that we need in different circumstances (long car rides, naps, etc.), and most of the inserts and covers are interchangeable. Depending on the inserts you choose, these were also the thinnest diapers we used, so they fit better under snug clothes. Because the covers can be reused with clean inserts, I only have to do laundry every three days instead of every two days (I could stretch it to four to five days, but don’t want the stink to “set in” the dirty diapers and inserts). The laundry loads aren’t as over-filled because three diaper changes (3 inserts and 1 cover) takes up about the same amount of space as one pocket diaper or all-in-one diaper.
These have a “pocket” running from front to back of the diaper cover for absorbent inserts to be “stuffed” into. The inner and pocket are usually made from fleece, suede cloth, cotton or a bamboo blend. Some babies can be sensitive to the suede cloth used in some pocket diapers.
Suggested stash count: 18-24 pocket diapers and the same amount of inserts. You may want a few extra inserts so you can double-stuff the pocket diaper if needed or if an insert gets lost or damaged in some way.
Pros: Pocket diapers are easy to use because you can have them stuffed and ready, and just pull them out to use like you would a disposable. Easiest to customize for babies’ needs because they can be double-stuffed and/or stuffed with any type of material, since the insert doesn’t touch the baby’s skin directly. Many people swear by pocket diapers for overnight because they can add extra inserts. These dry fast since the inserts and diapers are separated for laundry.
Cons: Most pocket diapers need to be unstuffed before washing, so you’ll need to touch wet or messy diapers and inserts to separate them for laundry. Certain brands have front and back openings and claim that the insert will work its way out in the wash, so you don’t have to separate them (and they’re much easier to stuff). Some brands are a pain to stuff – it doesn’t sound like it would be that difficult or time-consuming, but it can be. Since the pocket gets wet, the entire diaper must be washed with each diaper change.
My opinion: Before purchasing, I told my husband that some people hate stuffing the pocket diapers and I wasn’t sure if we wanted them – his response was “how hard can it be?” We bought a few and he hates stuffing them. It’s harder with his bigger hands, and getting certain inserts to lay smooth in the pocket can be difficult. I’ve had more leaks with pocket diapers because the inner fabric runs right up to the seams of the cover, which can cause wicking, but this doesn’t always happen and it isn’t a “fatal” flaw. I’d suggest buying one or two to try out before committing to a bunch, possibly ones that have double-openings for ease of stuffing/removing. Worst-case scenario you’ll have those couple to use when you want to add extra inserts, like for long car rides or overnight. We have Alva’s, Kawaii. and Charlie Banana, and while they are all functional, pocket diapers are the ones we use when the stash is low. Bum Genius 4.0 are extremely popular, especially when double-stuffed for overnights.
All-in-ones, or AIOs:
These have an absorbent material sewn into a waterproof cover. The outer part is usually made from polyurethane laminate (PUL) and the inner can be any type of material (except for microfiber).
Suggested stash count: 18-24 diapers
Pros: These are the easiest diapers to use because they are one-piece, like a disposable. They can be stuffed with extra material if needed, but tend to be highly absorbent on their own. They are great for people who think cloth diapers will be too complicated. You take it off and throw the whole thing in the laundry. When it’s dry, it’s ready to use again.
Cons: They take a long time to dry if you are air-drying them, as is recommended for longevity. They are usually more expensive than other systems.
My opinion: I love the convenience of AIO’s, but they definitely are more expensive and take a long time to air-dry (often more than two days, compared to overnight for other options). We really like Bum Genius Elementals and Bum Genius Freetimes, but there are many options.
If you choose to use prefolds or inserts with covers, you’ll need to decide what type of cover material you want to use.
PUL: This the most popular type of waterproof cover material in part because they don’t have a plastic feel like old-school plastic diaper covers. These should be air-dried to help the PUL last longer, but they can be dried on a low setting in a pinch, or if longevity isn’t a concern. Thermoplastic urethane (TPU) is a similar type of material. Prices range from about $4 – $15 for these covers.
Minky: Minky diapers are soft on the outside (think minky blanket) and lined with a waterproof material on the inside (PUL).
Wool: Wool covers are natural, breathable and waterproof, thanks to lanolin. They are great for clearing up or preventing diaper rash since they are breathable, but some babies are sensitive to wool. They are expensive and are size-specific, but unless soiled, they can be worn for two weeks before washing as wool is naturally antibacterial, so you shouldn’t need very many. They do need to be hand-washed and lanolized on occasion, so there is more work and maintenance involved with laundry.
Fleece: Fleece covers are soft, breathable and water-resistant. They are cheap, but are size-specific and not stretchy, so you’ll need several sizes over the years, and they’re more likely to leak than PUL or wool.
Unless you choose All-in-One diapers, you’ll need to choose an insert material you want to use with your covers or pocket diapers. Some diapers come with a specific type of insert, but if you prefer a different type, you’ll have to buy them separately.
Cotton: Natural and absorbent, this material will be heavy and wet against the skin unless used in a pocket diaper. These are thicker than some other inserts, but highly effective and easy to clean. Most prefolds are cotton. I like to lay a piece of microfleece on top of our Flip organic cotton inserts to wick moisture away from my son’s skin.
Microfiber or microterry: These are cheap, absorbent, lightweight and have a stay-dry feel, but are thicker and don’t absorb as fast as other inserts, so leaks are more likely. Since they suck up liquid so well and aren’t natural, they have a tendency to eventually hold on to stink. Microfiber cannot be used directly against the skin as it is extremely drying and may cause a rash. Microfiber-only inserts are usually used inside pocket diapers, or on the inside of other inserts (covered in natural material or fleece). I don’t like the way microfiber feels against my hands to stuff into diapers, so I rarely use microfiber-only inserts. I do like Flip Stay-dry inserts which are microfiber on the bottom, but with a soft, stay-dry later against baby’s skin.
Bamboo: These vary depending on brand, but are usually three to five layers and some brands have cotton or microfiber the middle (like Alva 4 layer). Bamboo alone absorbs very fast and is thin and soft. They are great for doubling with another insert, but you may need to use two together if the brand is particularly thin and floppy (like Alva 3-layer). The Alva 4-layer (with microfiber inside) works well, but the three-layer are too thin for me to use alone or to stuff into pockets. However, people rave about Applecheeks bamboo inserts.
Hemp: Hemp is natural (usually blended with cotton for softness) and can absorb a ton. It’s a very thin insert and seems to hold the most wetness. Hemp also has natural anti-bacterial/anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. These are definitely my favorite type of insert, but they’re usually the most expensive. I love Thirsties Hemp inserts and Best Bottoms Hemp/Cotton inserts.
Charcoal Bamboo (CBI): These dark gray inserts have a charcoal bamboo outside and microfiber on the inside. They are very absorbent and have a stay-dry feeling, but they do take longer to absorb moisture.
Zorb: This blend of bamboo, cotton, viscose and microfiber is said to absorb moisture 20 times faster than other fabrics, and will hold more moisture. I haven’t used these, so I can’t comment, but reviews are positive.
Disposable Inserts: Want the ability to throw away the inner part of the diaper and wash only the shell, orgo back and forth between washable and disposable based on convenience? Flip, and G-Diaper offer disposable inserts, and these can probably be used in other covers as well. These inserts are more expensive so they may be best for traveling or running around town, but still produce less waste than whole disposable diapers.
There are just a few fastener options, and they each have their pros and cons.
Snappi: Used in lieu of safety pins to hold prefolds in place, these plastic fasteners have “teeth” on each side that grab the fabric and hold it tight. Velcro (also called Hook and Loop or Aplix for some brands): These are most similar to fasteners on disposables, so they are easier for those unfamiliar with cloth diapers to use. They are easy to adjust to get a great fit on baby, but you have to check that each tab in folded in when laundering or they can snag other items. Velcro wears out faster than snaps, so these may not last through multiple children. Older babies and toddlers can open these tabs and take off their diapers.
Snaps: These fasteners are very secure and hard for babies to undo. They’re sturdy, should last through multiple children and have a higher resale value. Snaps are harder to adjust to get the best fit, though after a few times, you figure out where you need to fasten them to fit your baby and you can just adjust that as your baby grows. Different brands have a different number and placement of snaps.
My opinion on fasteners: If you are going to buy newborn or “sized” diapers, go for Velcro fasteners on newborn and size 1 diapers to make them easier to adjust. Your baby will grow out of them before they can unfasten them, and before the Velcro wears out. If you’re buying one-size-fits-all diapers or larger “sized” diapers, choose snaps. They’ll fit your baby during the duration of diaper wearing, will last longer and be harder for baby to unfasten. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on Snappis because I haven’t used them.
These descriptions should help with your search for the perfect cloth diaper, or give you enough information to figure out which varieties to try. The brands mentioned are only a fraction of what’s available, but they are the ones I’m most familiar with and felt comfortable recommending. Let me know which type and brand of diaper you prefer in the comments.