When people approach me about cloth diapering, it goes in phases: 1- "So tell me about these cloth diapers, you crazy hippie." 2- "Yeah, but what about XYZ??" (Both of which I've covered here and here) 3- "Okay. I wanna maybe do it. Sooo....what do I do now? What's your favorite? What do you use?" 4- "I'm so excited! But what about all the other cloth diapering odds and ends??" 5- "How do I wash them?" etc.
We are on phase 3, everyone! I am so excited! But before I tell you how to get started, we have to go over diaper options. There are several different types of diapers. This is the part that can seem overwhelming to a lot of people. It was for me, so I don't blame you. Once you have an idea of what type of diaper might best suit your needs, lifestyle, budget, and general "situation", we can REALLY get started.
There are three main parts to a cloth diaper that we'll be discussing with each type:
1- The absorbent layer - what soaks up the pee
2- The waterproof layer - what keeps the wetness from spreading to clothes
3- Closure - how the diaper is secured
The first type of diaper we'll cover is the FLAT. It is just what it sounds like - a big, FLAT piece of cloth. It's usually cotton. This is what your grandma probably used. This is usually the type of diaper that scares cloth diaper newbies because you have to fold it up (and there are lots of ways to do this) and secure it either with diaper pins (while these are still used, they are not very common anymore) or a snappi. OR you can just fold them into a big rectangle and stuff them in a pocket diaper or lay them in a cover - I'll go over that later. These diapers are, themselves, the absorbent part of the diaper. They do not have a waterproof layer, so you'll need to use a cover with these. Again, I'll talk about covers in a bit.
Inexpensive, trim, easy to launder, quick dry time, long lifespan, great absorbency
Not the quickest/easiest option, learning curve, requires extra parts (cover)
The next type of diaper we'll talk about is the PREFOLD. Your grandmother may have also used these. Or your mom. These are those cloth diapers a lot of people use as burp cloths (though the Gerber ones you get at Target or WalMart probably wouldn't be your best option if you plan on actually using it as a diaper). If you're like my family, you may have had some of these lying around the house, used as dusting rags (remember in Part 1 when I talked about how cloth diapers can be repurposed?). These are basically flats that have been PREFOLDED and sewn into place, with a thick, absorbent, layered strip down the middle. They are smaller than flats, but thicker. PREFOLDS are also usually always cotton. Same as above, you can fold/wrap it around your baby and secure it with pins or snappis, or fold it into thirds (creating a rectangle) and stuff it into a pocket diaper or lay it in a cover. Again, as with flats, prefolds do not have a waterproof layer, so a cover of some sort is necessary.
Inexpensive, trim, easy to launder, decent dry time, almost infinite life span, great absorbency
Easier than flats, but can be more confusing than other cloth diaper options, requires extra parts (cover)
FITTED and CONTOUR diapers are the same basic idea as flats and prefolds, in that they are all one piece and the whole thing is the absorbent part of the diaper. The biggest difference is that there is no folding involved. FITTEDS and CONTOURS are cut and sewn into shape. And that shape is...a...diaper shape. They can be found in several different materials ranging from cotton to bamboo to hemp - usually natural fibers is what you'll find. The difference between these two is that FITTED diapers usually have elastic around the waist and leg holes and CONTOURS do not. FITTEDS may also have built in closure, usually snaps, while CONTOUR diapers do not. CONTOURS are basically a step up from flats/prefolds (in simplicity), and FITTEDS are another small step up. As with the above options, there is no waterproof layer, so you'll need a cover with these.
CONTOUR-Easy to use, easy to launder, great absorbency
FITTEDS-Easy to use, easy to launder, great absorbency, good nighttime diaper
CONTOUR-cost more than flats/prefolds, requires extra parts (cover)
FITTEDS-more expensive, longer drying time, bulkier than previous options, requires extra parts (cover)
Now on to COVERS. There are two basic types - a wrap-style COVER and a pull-on COVER. A wrap-style cover looks a lot like any other cloth diaper. They come in many different colors and designs. They will have either snap closure - just plastic snaps--easy peasy - or hook and loop ("velcro"). Or a combination of the two. They will be some sort of waterproof material (PUL, laminated cotton, fleece, or wool). The most common are PUL - which is polyurethane laminate - and wool. Some have a slick inside and some have a polyester knit (or similar) layer between baby's bum and the PUL. There is elastic around the leg holes and at the waist or back. Pull-on COVERS are your basic plastic pants. Some are nicer. Elastic around the waist and leg holes. Wool COVERS are similar to pull-ons, except they're made of wool. Covers are just that - there is no absorbent layer. There isn't an easy set of pros and cons with covers. You either use them or you don't, based on your chosen diaper system. They come sized and one-size, with various different closure options. The price range varies greatly depending on brand. One major pro for covers is that they can be re-used. You don't have to wash them after every diaper change. You can just allow it to dry (or wipe it out if there is a slick inner layer) and use it again. You can keep doing this until they become noticeably stinky or soiled. Usually at least 2 or 3 diaper changes. Also, you can use almost anything within the cover as your absorbent layer, so they make for a very versatile diapering system.
Next, we've got ALL-IN-ONE diapers, commonly referred to by their acronym, AIO. AIOs are, again, exactly what they sound like. The absorbent, waterproof, and closure parts are all in one happy little bundle. The ALL-IN-ONE. These are the most similar to disposables. All one piece, with elastic around the legs and waist/back and snap or hook and loop closure. They are easy to use. There is no folding or stuffing (we'll get to that), and no extra parts. AIOs feature all different absorbent and moisture-wicking materials, including cotton, hemp, bamboo, microfleece, microfiber, etc.
Super easy (may want to have a few on-hand for grandparents or other caregivers)
You need more of these since they must be washed with every use - which makes them a more expensive system, they can take a long time to dry, absorbency can suffer because manufacturers are trying to cut down on drying time, these tend to be bulkier than other options (depending on brand)
Similar to the all-in-one, we have ALL-IN-TWO diapers. Also more commonly referred to by their acronym, AI2. The main difference is that the absorbent part of the AI2 is removable. The absorbent "pods" (also referred to as soakers) usually snap in to the outer shell, or are held in place by a flap of fabric on the shell. They come in all different types of material. There is often a moisture wicking layer on these to pull "wetness" away from you baby's skin. Because of their nature, the outer layer (like covers) can be re-used for more than one diaper change before needing to be washed - you just snap in a new pod/soaker. Another feature that makes AI2s popular is that there are "hybrid" options. "Uhh..what??" Some manufacturers make flushable/biodegradable (earth-friendly) disposable pods that can be used in the shell. This comes in handy when you are traveling or if you are in a situation where laundry is a bit complicated or not doable. Hybrid systems can also be an easier transition into cloth diapering. They are kinder on the environment than disposables since the plastic is replaced by a cloth shell and there are far fewer chemicals (or none at all) found in these disposable pods.
Easy to use, easy to launder, very customizable, pretty affordable since the shell can be re-used, faster drying time than AIOs
Can be bulky depending on brand, requires some "putting together" before use (unlike AIO), can be pricey (brand, brand, brand!)
Finally, we have POCKET diapers. Like all-in-twos, POCKETS are a two-part system. The biggest difference with these is that your absorbent layer(s), or "inserts", are stuffed into a pocket that has been sewn into the shell. Inserts come in every absorbent material out there. The pocket is what touches baby's bum - a moisture wicking layer of material that keeps baby feeling dry (usually microfleece or microsuede). POCKET diapers are a step between all-in-ones and all-in-twos, and share similar pros and cons with both.
Easy to use, quick to dry, very customizable, old standby for nighttime diapering (because they can be double or triple stuffed)
Tend to be bulky, there is a little extra effort involved in laundering since a lot of them will need to be unstuffed at some point (many manufacturers claim that inserts will come out in the wash, but I end up having to unstuff them after they have been through the washer), requires some "putting together", can be an expensive option since they must be washed with every use
Another thing to keep in mind is that almost every type of diaper can come "one-size" or "sized". One-size (also referred to as the acronym "OS") usually has snaps in the front so you can snap it up to make it smaller, and you gradually move down a snap as your baby grows. Since you don't need to buy more as you go, these are called "one-size". Sized diapers are just what they sound like. They come in small, medium, large, etc. and you buy the next size up when your baby grows out of them.
ONE-SIZE - Can be used from newborn to potty training
SIZED - Tend to have a better fit, less bulky, passed on to younger siblings in better condition since they have been used and washed fewer times
ONE-SIZE - Wear out faster since you wash them more and use them longer, snapping up to smaller sizes creates a double layer which means more bulk
SIZED - More expensive since you have to buy more as baby grows out of them
So there you have it! Everyone prefers a different type of diaper. Choosing a system can depend on a lot of different factors. You'll need to ask yourself:
What is my laundry situation? (Do you have your own washer and dryer? Do you use a laundromat?)
What is my laundry situation? (Do you have your own washer and dryer? Do you use a laundromat?)
Who is going to be changing diapers?
How much space do I have to store diapers?
Is my baby a heavy wetter?
Which is most important? Cost? Ease of use? Durability?
Am I willing to really dive in and learn how to fold more "complicated" systems? Or would I rather deal with "easier" options?
After doing some homework, I was able to pretty well narrow it down to what I THOUGHT would be the best option for me. This was based on my budget, lifestyle, and just plain old personal preference. Some excellent advice I got, though, was not to write off any particular system without trying it first - but we'll get into that in the next post, so keep your eyes peeled!
Just joining us? Check out Cloth Diapering: Why I Do It and Cloth Diapering Part 2: Common Questions, Concerns, and Misconceptions