Buying Guide & Checklist:
So you’re considering using cloth diapers! Yay! In this guide we'll help you figure out which ones are right for you, and give you some quick tips to get you going on your cloth diapering journey.
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There is a dizzying array of cloth diapers out there! Below is an overview of the basic types, from all-in-ones to pockets to fitteds to prefolds.
All-in-one (AIO) / All-in-two (AI2) diapers
All-in-one (AIO) diapers consist of an absorbent inner soaker sewn directly into a waterproof cover. These are the cloth diapers most similar to a disposable: when it’s time for a diaper change, you just swap out the entire diaper. They're one of the most convenient options, but can take a long time to dry and are usually also the most expensive option ($15-25 per diaper).
All-in-two (AI2) diapers are similar to AIOs, but the insert or soaker is removable and snaps or lays into the shell. The benefit of having a removable insert is that (1) the shell can be reused for 2-3 uses (you just swap out the insert), and (2) on laundry day, the whole system dries much more quickly vs. an AIO. AI2s are also fairly expensive ($15-20 each), but you don't need as many since the shell can be reused a few times.
AI2 hybrids (such as the GDiaper and GroVia) offer a twist on the A12, allowing the use of either a reusable cloth or a disposable insert as the inner absorbent layer.
Pocket diapers consists of an outer shell (typically waterproof) and an inner layer sewn together, leaving a hole to form a "pocket" which is then "stuffed" with an absorbent insert. These are more affordable than the AIO/AI2s ($5-20 per diaper), but some consider them a pain to stuff and unstuff.
Prefolds and flats
Prefolds are flat, rectangular diapers constructed from multiple layers of of absorbent material that are sewn into three panels. They are typically thickest in the middle (where the greatest absorbency is needed); for example, "4-8-4" indicates a premium diaper with four layers on the left- and righthand sides of the diaper, and eight layers in the middle. Prefolds can be secured with a diaper pin or fastener, or a diaper cover. Prefolds come in white (bleached) and unbleached varieties (unbleached may require more washes to reach full absorbency, but are typically softer afterward), as well as "Chinese" and "Indian" flavors (Indian are softer and often quicker to prep, but may wear out more quickly). "Diaper Service Quality" indicates high-quality, workhorse prefolds that can withstand the wash routine typically used by diaper service companies. Cost is approximately $1-2 per prefold.
Flat diapers consist of single layer of fabric, most commonly stretchy, loosely knit birds-eye. The typical cut is 27 or 30 inches square. They are then folded multiple times and used in the same manner as a prefold. They can be secured by a diaper pin or fastener, or a diaper cover.
Fitteds and contours
Fitted diapers have elastic at the legs (and usually the waist as well), and secure with velcro or snaps on wrap-around wings. They consist of a diaper only, and so require a separate cover when a waterproof layer is desired.
Contour diapers are similar to fitteds, but do not have elastic at the legs or waist, and are not self-fastening (they are secured with pins, a fastener, or a diaper cover). They also require a diaper cover to be waterproof.
Standalone diaper covers are required for waterproofing when using any diaper that does not have a built-in waterproof layer (for example, prefolds, fitteds, and contours). These are essential for keeping baby's clothes dry, and protecting your crib bedding, car seat, etc. Diaper covers come in two general styles: pull-ons (which have no velcro or snaps, and are simply pulled on and off), and wraps (which have wings with snaps or velcro). Covers can be made from synthetic fabrics (such as nylon, PUL, or fleece) or natural fabrics (such as wool, whose lanolin content makes it naturally water-resistant).
Sized vs. one-size diapers
This is a separate dimension from diaper type, which has to do with diaper sizing rather than construction. (For example, there are both sized and one-size AIOs, fitteds, and covers.) Sized diapers are designed to fit babies within a narrow weight range; they offer the best fit but are outgrown fairly quickly. One-size diapers are designed to adapt to fit babies of different ages (for example, by featuring multiple snap settings which allow the diaper to be resized as baby grows) — many are marketed as fitting from birth to 30 or 35 pounds. These don't fit quite as well as their sized counterparts at any given age, but they are much more cost-effective, and do a decent job at many points in the weight range.
How many do I need?
This depends entirely on how many cloth diapers you are likely to go through per day, and how often you plan to do laundry. You need enough diapers to make it comfortably between laundry days, with a few to spare. Newborns typically go through 10-12 diapers per day; infants, 6-8 per day; toddlers 1-5 per day (even potty trained kids usually need an overnight diaper for another year or so). If you plan to use cloth diapers exclusively, and to do laundry every 2-3 days, then 18-36 diapers would be a good starting point for a newborn or younger baby (with the higher end of this range providing you with more wiggle room, and resulting in your diapers lasting longer).
What type of cloth diaper is right for me?
There are several options for different diapering systems. At the most basic level, you need a diaper (made of absorbent material), and a cover (to contain the wetness).
We will give you an overview your options are and the pros and cons of each — to help you narrow down the choices that will likely be the best fit for your family. However, what most people ultimately do is experiment with a few different options, and figure out their favorite system via trial-and-error. It's a good idea not to invest too heavily in any one system until you're sure it will work for you.
- AIOs are a great choice for those want the convenience of a one-piece diaper and want the solution most similar to disposables — and don't mind the higher cost and longer drying time. We recommend them for highly-convenience-oriented caregivers: they're great, for example, for winning over cloth-dubious dads and daycare providers. For anyone already committed to cloth, however, another system will be more cost-effective and less of a hassle to dry.
- AI2s are similar to AIOs, but are more economical and dry more quickly. We feel that the marginal amount of incremental work required to assemble them is well worth the benefits.
- Pockets are also a great choice for parents who want a diaper with a built-in cover that offers customizable absorbency that is relatively affordable — and don't mind the work required to assemble and disassemble them.
- Fitteds or contours are a great choice for parents who want the flexibility of having a standalone diaper (allowing them to swap between different types of covers, or even go cover-less on occasion), and prefer a shaped diaper that offers great fit and is easier to secure — and don't mind the hassle of dealing with an extra cover. These are also the best choice for parents who prefer all-natural diapering systems (i.e. using wool covers instead of PUL/waterproof synthetic covers).
- Prefolds or flats are a the best choice for parents looking for the most economical and versatile cloth diapering option, who are willing to deal with the more cumbersome assembly, less snug fit, and separate diaper cover.
Standalone diaper covers are required for any diaper that does not come with an integrated cover (e.g., fitteds, contours, prefolds, flats) to provide waterproofness. AIOs, AI2s, and pockets have integrated synthetic covers. Synthetic diaper covers are usually made with PUL (polyurethane laminate; any cotton or polyester fabric with a polyurethane lining chemically bonded to one side), or sometimes TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane; similar to PUL, but heat bonded instead of chemically bonded). TPU feels softer and more fabric-like, and may be quicker to biodegrade, but is also less durable than PUL. Wool covers provide an all-natural alternative to synthetic ones.
Newborns have unique needs with respect to cloth diapering. Not only are they tiny (and thus require particularly small diapers — one-size diapers often do not fit them well), but they go through a lot of diapers, and also have especially messy (not to mention constant) poop. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, his poop will be water-soluble (with the consistency of yogurt) and will wash out quite easily, however it still has the potential to wreak a lot of havoc on its way out. Diapers with elastic around the legs and waist (e.g., fitteds, AIO/AI2s, fitteds) tend to hold in blowouts much better than diapers without it (e.g. prefolds, contours).
Once your baby starts eating solids (around 4-6 months), his poop will get a lot stinkier. You probably want to start dumping (or spraying) any solid waste into the toilet and/or prerinsing your diapers before putting them into your diaper pail at this point. You can also consider using flushable diaper liners.
Once your baby becomes mobile (first crawling, then walking), you may need to shift your diaper routine yet again. For example, lay-in prefolds may not work as well due to shifting from all that movement.
Once your baby starts sleeping through the night, you'll need to figure out a heftier overnight diapering solution — for example, perhaps a thicker diaper with additional inserts/boosters, and a bulletproof cover.
Other buying considerations
- Convenience: If you're looking for quick and easy changes, or are looking for a solution that will keep Dad or your daycare provider happy, go for AIO/AI2s, or fitteds with PUL covers. Avoid pockets and prefolds (which can be a pain to assemble and disassemble) and wool covers (which require hand washing and occasional lanolization).
- Ease of cleaning: Prefolds tend to be the easiest to clean, because they lie flat and so have fewer nooks & crannies where stuff can hide in the wash. Fitteds/contours are next easiest to clean. Diapers with built-in covers (e.g. AIO/AI2s) are most difficult — they can be machine washed, but due to the PUL must be dried on low. They also take much longer to dry. Polyester tends to retain more stink than cotton. For covers, PUL covers are easier to clean and require less maintenance work than wool covers.
- Organic / all-natural fibers: Is it important to you to use diapers made of organic and/or all-natural materials — for example organic cotton or hemp (no polyester or microfleece) for the absorbent part, or wool (vs. PUL/synthetic) for the covers? Some parents who want only organic or all-natural materials come into contact with baby's skin are fine with a synthetic outer layer; others prefer natural materials throughout.
- Absorbency: If you have a toddler or heavy wetter, or for overnight, you'll need thicker/more absorbent diapers and/or diapers that allow customizable absorbency (achieved through adding additional soaker inserts). Cotton is a workhorse fabric and is plenty absorbent most of the time, but bamboo, hemp, and microfiber are even better if you need added absorbency.
- Stay-dry: Most absorbent material is wet to the touch when wet. Some diapers utilize a stay-dry inner layer (e.g. microfleece) to wick away moisture and keep your baby's bottom dry. Some parents swear by this to prevent rash, while other babies appear to be allergic to synthetic materials — you may have to experiment to see what works best for you.
- Waterproofness: How bulletproof do you need your cover to be? PUL is truly waterproof (it's plastic). Wool can be very water-resistant — particularly if it is thick, well lanolized, and used on top of a sufficiently absorbent material — but bottom line is we wouldn't trust an expensive oriental carpet under it.
- Fastening method: Diapers can be secured using snaps, hook & loop closure (e.g. Velcro or brand name "Aplix"), or a fastener such as a diaper pin or a Snappi. Snaps or hook & loop are generally regarded as most convenient, but it's really just personal preference.
- Elastic / gussets: Elastic around the legs (in a diaper) and leg gussets (in a diaper cover) are helpful features for preventing leaks.
- Breathability: If your baby has sensitive skin and/or is prone to rashes, his bottom will thank you for using breathable covers. Most synthetic diaper covers use PUL or TPU, which are generally not breathable (though some newer TPU is breathable). Nylon and Ultrex are somewhat breathable, but are not quite as waterproof, and therefore are used in only a select few diapering products (Nikky's breathable poly and cotton covers, gDiapers, Bummis Whisper pull-on pants, and Dappi nylon pants). Wool is the most breathable option. Some synthetic fleeces are also breathable.
- Trimness: Many cloth diapers can be bulky, and don't fit easily under some baby clothes. You can look specifically for a trimmer diaper and cover... buy roomier pants ... or just embrace the baby bubble butt.
- Cost: If you're on a super tight budget, prefolds are definitely the most cost-effective option. Otherwise, we recommend one of the other diapering systems, as they offer better fit and tend to be much more convenient.
- Multiple kids in diapers?: It might be smart to invest in one-size diapers, so you can share diapers across your kids.
Where to buy
Amazon has good selection and pricing on many mainstream cloth diapering products.
There are also many online specialty cloth diaper retailers, including the following: Kelly's Closet, Jillian's Drawers, Nicki's Diapers, Thanks Mama, and Green Mountain Diapers. Cotton Babies, the manufacturer of BumGenius and Flip, sells their own products as well as those from many other brands.
There are also tons of cute WAHM diapers and covers sold on Etsy.
Buying used allows you to score some great bargains — a great option if you want to try out a bunch of different types of diapers to experiment. It also often allows you to skip the cumbersome prep process! Diaperswappers is the premium resale community for cloth diapering. Many of the retailers above also feature used diapers.
It's also worth mentioning that several of the retailers above offer diaper rental programs — especially helpful for the short newborn stage.
Popular cloth diaper brands:
Popular waterproof cover brands:
Popular wool diaper cover brands:
- Imse Vimse
- Wild Coconut Wear
- Bumby Wool
Prepping your cloth diapers
Diapers will only reach their full absorbency after being pre-washed and dried a number of times; follow manufacturer instructions to prep them appropriately.
Cloth-safe diaper creams
Conventional diaper creams and ointments will cause your diapers to repel rather than absorb moisture. Instead use a cloth-safe cream to maintain the absorbency of your diapers.
Storing dirty diapers until wash day
Most folks these days use a dry pail system, meaning they simply store dirty diapers in a covered pail with no pre-soaking. You can use a diaper pail, or any covered trash can. Use a waterproof liner to keep your pail clean — you can get a reusable pail liner with PUL lining, or just use disposable garbage bags. To control odor, simply sprinkle some baking soda on top, or you can put a deodorant disc at the bottom of the pail.
Washing your cloth diapers
Wash frequently (every 1-2 days, max. 3) to minimize stains and odors. Use only cloth-safe laundry detergent to maintain the absorbency of your diapers. Ideal detergents contain no fragrance, dyes, enzymes, brighteners, fabric softeners, or other additives. See Diaper Jungle's helpful chart on cloth-safe detergents to see how your regular detergent compares to special cloth-safe brands. Detergents have a range of results on different babies and in different water conditions, so you may have to experiment to find what works best for you. Also avoid dryer sheets, which coat the fabric's surface and reduce absorbency.
- Cloth diapers and diaper covers: Get enough to last you between washings. See above.
- Doublers and inserts: "Doublers" or "boosters" are absorbent pads placed inside diapers (on top of the inner layer) to increase absorbency for heavy wetters or extended use. "Inserts" are similar, but are stuffed inside a diaper pocket rather than being placed on top.
- Diaper pail and liner: For cloth diapers, you can use any conventional diaper pail, or just a regular old garbage pail with a tight-fitting lid. You can line your pail with traditional disposable garbage bags, or get a reuseable pail liner (lined with PUL for waterproofness) that you can wash along with your diapers.
- Wet bag: For containing dirty diapers (or wet clothes) in your diaper bag on the go.
- Reusable cloth wipes: These take the place of conventional baby wipes, but are reusable rather than disposable. Can be used with water or solution, and can be washed right along with your diapers.
- Fasteners (as needed): Required for diapers without built-in snaps or velcro in order to secure them on your baby. Examples include diaper pins and Snappi stretchy T-shaped plastic fasteners.
- Cloth-safe detergents and stain removers: Unlike conventional laundry detergents, cloth-safe detergents won't clog up your diapers and reduce their absorbency. A cloth-safe stain remover or booster like Biokleen or Oxi-clean Baby may also be useful to get rid of tough stains.
- Cloth-safe diaper cream: Unlike conventional diaper creams, won't clog up your diapers and reduce their absorbency.
- Liners: These come in two flavors: 1) thin, typically single-use liners that facilitate cleanup of poopy diapers, and 2) reusable stay-dry liners (e.g. fleece) intended to baby's bottom dry. The single-use liners are usually flushable, and are a popular option after baby starts on solid foods.
- Diaper sprayer: A nice-to-have that helps you to spray poop into the toilet before you dump dirty diapers in your pail — reducing odor and stains later.
- Wipe warmer: Not exactly an essential, but some parents find them worthwhile for babies who would otherwise be startled by cold wipes. Some wipe warmers are designed for use with reusable cloth wipes.