Cloth Diapers for Beginners - The Ultimate Guide to Cloth Diapers
We have created this beginner’s guide to cloth diapers to help you feel confident choosing and using cloth diapers.
The first section of the guide covers the different styles of cloth diapers, materials used, and the pros and cons of each. The second section covers using cloth diapers, including wash routines and storing dirty diapers.
Along the way, we will also answer the most frequently asked questions, such as:
- How many diapers do I need?
- What do you do with the poop?
But, before we begin:
There is no right way to use cloth diapers.
Every family and every baby has different needs, and what’s right for one family may not work for another. For example, you might want to cloth diapers from day one, choose to use disposables for the newborn period or use cloth diapers during the day and disposables at night.
You may have to do a little experimentation to find what’s right for you, so consider this a guide and not a rule book.
Have patience; you’ll get there in the end.
How to Choose Cloth Diapers
To start, we’ll go over the different cloth diaper styles available and the range of covers, inserts, fastenings, and materials you’ll see. There’s a list of the pros and cons of each style and advice on how to choose the best cloth diapers for you.
Then, we'll run through how many cloth diapers you’ll need and finish up this section by looking at cloth diaper accessories, which ones you need, what’s are nice to have, and what you can safely do without.
Different Styles of Cloth Diaper
There are six basic styles of cloth diapers.
Three of the major cloth diaper styles have a waterproof backing, so they do not need an additional cover. These diapers are:
- All in ones
- All in twos
- Pocket diapers
- Fitted diapers
Cloth Diapers That Don't Need Covers
These three styles of cloth diapers do not need an additional cover to go on the outside. They have a waterproof layer built-in.
All In One Diapers
Also known as AIOs and Ai1s
All-in-one diapers have a waterproof outer layer and a fabric inner layer. The two layers are sewn together. Some all-in-ones come in a one-size, adjustable style, while others are, like disposables, sized according to the weight of your baby.
- Easy to put on and take off, similar to a disposable, making them easier for friends, family, or daycare.
- There’s no need to assemble the diaper or to keep track of multiple pieces.
- This is the most expensive style of cloth diaper.
- It is difficult to add extra absorbency for overnight or if your child is a heavy wetter.
- All-in-ones take much, much longer to dry than other styles of diapers.
- Some users find they do not last a long as other styles.
All-In-Two / Hybrid Diapers
Also known as AITs, Ai2s, or (in some cases) All-in-2 hybrids.
All-in-two diapers consist of two pieces; a waterproof cover and a cloth insert that you clip onto the cover with stud fasteners. You can attach inserts to the shells before you need them and store them ready prepared. If you do, they can be as easy to put on as all-in-ones.
Some brands have covers that you can wipe clean after a simple wet diaper, which means you can have fewer covers than inserts, saving you a little money.
Also, some brands of all-in-twos have disposable inserts available. This allows you to use them when you cannot do washing, for example, on a road trip or while otherwise traveling. All-in-two covers with disposable inserts are known as hybrids.
However, not all brands can be wiped clean or have disposable inserts available, so check before buying if this is important to you.
- Higher in cost than pocket diapers, but less expensive than all-in-ones.
- Some brands allow you to add extra inserts for greater absorbency.
- Disposable inserts are available.
- With some brands, you can get away with fewer covers than inserts.
- Not all styles of cover and insert are compatible. You must check before you buy whether or not you can mix and match a particular cover with a different brand insert.
- You must unsnap the inserts from the covers before washing them. This can sometimes be gross.
- Plastic snaps on the inserts require extra care during washing and drying, or they can become damaged.
- If a snap breaks, you have to be handy to replace it; otherwise, the insert becomes useless.
Also known as pockets.
Pocket diapers have a waterproof outer layer and a stay-dry fabric inner layer. There is an opening, or pocket, between the inner and outer layers. Inserts go into the pocket and lay flat.
There is no need to attach them with any kind of fastener, and you can adjust the type and number of inserts according to your absorbency needs. For example, you might use one insert in daytime diapers and double up with two inserts for nighttime diapers.
Some users also wrap the inserts in additional layers, such as a flat lay diaper, for extra absorbency.
- You can stuff the inserts into the diaper ahead of time, making a pocket diaper easy to put on as a disposable.
- Because you remove the insert before washing, the diapers are easier than all-in-ones to clean thoroughly and dry more quickly.
- If you have a heavy wetter, you can add extra inserts for greater absorbency. You can also add additional inserts for overnight.
- Because so many manufacturers make pocket diapers, there is an incredible range of prints, patterns, and designs from which to choose.
- You can find inserts made of bamboo, cotton, microfleece, and other materials.
- Pocket diapers need to have the inserts put in before use. Most people do this when the diapers come out of the dryer or off of the line, so they’re ready when you need them.
- You have to remove the inserts before washing, which is a brief, but additional step.
- If you use extra inserts and do not lay them flat, the diaper can bunch when your baby is crawling or toddling.
Cloth Diapers That Need Covers
Also known as fitteds.
Fitted diapers are the same shape as disposables, but they are made of several layers of cloth. Some fitted diapers have hook and loop fabric or built-in snap fastenings. Others require pins or other fasteners to hold them together.
All styles of fitted diapers require a cover.
- More affordable than all-in-ones and All-in-twos, but, depending on the brands, comparable in price to some pockets.
- Fitted diapers do not require any pre-folding as flat lays and pre-folds do.
- Elastic on the diaper plus elastic on the cover reduces the chances of leaks.
- Fitted diapers are usually sized, so you will have to buy multiple sets as your child grows.
- These diapers are more expensive than pre-folds and flats.
- You will have to buy separate covers.
- They can take longer to dry than flat, pre-fold, and pocket diapers.
- Because they are a two-step diaper, it can take a little longer for each diaper change. This is not a big deal but can be a pain if you have a wriggler.
- Caregivers and daycares may find them more difficult than all-in-one, all-in-two, and pocket diapers.
Pre-folds are rectangular and have several layers of fabric sewn together, with a thicker, absorbent area in the central third of the diaper. They require a cover and a means of fastening the diaper.
- You can customize how you fold the diaper depending on your baby’s size and shape, absorbency needs, and your preferences.
- Extremely absorbent.
- Double up as an extra insert for pocket diapers.
- Most pre-folds come in three sizes, so you may need to buy three sets as your baby grows.
- They do, despite the name, require folding around your baby.
- For most pre-folds, you’ll need a fastening such as diaper pins or Snappis (we’ll talk about Sanppis a little later) and covers.
Flat diapers are the large square pieces of fabric that previous generations are most familiar with. Flats are folded in a variety of ways and require both a cover and a fastener.
The majority of flats are 27”x27” after an initial wash and dry. They are usually made of cotton, but there are a growing number of brands making flats from hemp and cotton blends.
You will see brands of different quality and prices. It is worth going for the better quality flats as they last longer. The difference between the cheapest and most expensive flats may be as little as a few dollars for a complete set.
- The most affordable option, even when you factor in fastenings and covers.
- The way you fold can be customized according to your needs and preferences.
- Each diaper requires folding, a fastener, and a cover making it the option with the most steps at changing time.
- Friends, family, and other caregivers may find these the most difficult to get to grips with.
- Some brands list the dimensions of the diaper before its first wash, not allowing for shrinkage.
Cloth Diaper Comparison Chart
This chart will give you a very rough guide to how much each style of cloth diaper costs, and how long they take to dry.
Cloth Diaper Materials
There is a surprising range of materials used for cloth diapers, covers, inserts, and waterproof layers.
Pocket, All-in-two, and All-in-one diapers: Outside
All-in-ones, all-in-twos, and pocket diapers usually have an outer layer made of PUL. You will also see some diaper manufacturers talk about TPU.
PUL, or polyurethane laminate, is a form of waterproof material. TPU, or thermoplastic polyurethane, is a type of plastic film. PUL is made of polyester material with a thin layer of TPU affixed to it.
So, polyester fabric + TPU = PUL. If you see a cloth diaper that says it has a TPU cover, it is also PUL.
Inside the PUL, there will be a layer that sits next to your baby’s skin. This is usually cotton, microfleece, or another “stay-dry” fabric.
Fitted, Pre-fold, and Flat Diapers: Covers
If you use fitteds, pre-folds, or flats, you will need a cover to go on top of your diaper.
Some covers are made of PUL, the same material used for all-in-ones, all-in-twos, and pockets, sometimes with an extra layer of cotton on the outside.
You will also see wool, fleece, and polyester covers.
Also known as wool soakers, longies, and shorties, wool covers go over the top of fitted, pre-fold, and flat diapers. The wool wicks moisture away from the diaper and holds it within the cover.
The wool contains lanolin, a natural oil from the sheep, and it is the lanolin that prevents the moisture from leaking from the cover. Washing slowly removes the lanolin over time, so if you use wool covers, you have to “lanolize” the covers every two or three weeks.
Between uses, you can lay the cover flat to dry. The wool should eliminate any odors. However, if you get poop on the cover, you have to wash it immediately.
Similar to wool, fleece covers are for flats, pre-folds, and fitted cloth diapers. Fleece doesn’t breathe as well, so they are great in the cold but may make your baby too hot in the warmer months.
They do not need any special care, so you put fleece covers into the washer and dryer with the other pieces of your diapering system.
Polyester covers are made for pre-fold, flats, and fitted cloth diapers. They are similar to the old-fashioned covers our parents and grandparents may remember, but with one big difference.
Because they are made with PUL, these covers are much softer and less rigid than the old-fashioned plastic pants. They can also be washed and dried with your diapers without becoming stiff and crunchy, like plastic pants.
All Diaper Styles: Absorbency Layers- Materials
The absorbency layer of your cloth diaper is the part that soaks up the pee. No matter what style, shape, or make, of diaper you choose, this will be one of the following:
Most often used for flats, fitteds, and pre-folds, cotton is highly absorbent and easy to care for.
Microfiber is used as either an absorbency layer, inside other fabrics, or for the inserts used in pocket diapers. Pocket diapers have a layer of material, usually microfleece or cotton, that sits against your baby’s skin, and the microfiber insert does not touch your little one.
Why is this important?
Microfleece is different from microfiber. Microfleece can sit against your baby’s skin; microfiber cannot. This is because microfiber is so effective a drawing away moisture; it can pull moisture out of your baby’s skin and irritate.
Made of polyester, microfiber is a popular material for pocket diaper inserts. Absorbency depends on the quality or thickness of the insert.
Microfiber absorbs liquids at a super-fast rate, meaning your baby will have their wee against their skin for a minimal amount of time. Microfiber also dries quickly in the dryer or on the line.
Bamboo - Rayon
Bamboo is highly absorbent but not always the environmentally preferable choice it appears at first glance. While the plant itself may be grown and harvested with minimal local impact, the processing often involves harsh chemicals and high energy use.
Technically speaking, the material made from bamboo is rayon, and it is rayon that is used in cloth diapers, even if it is labeled bamboo.
Bamboo inserts are highly absorbent, but they are slow to soak up the liquid. For this reason, it is best to use a bamboo insert under a microfiber one. Also, bamboo inserts can be bulkier than other options and may develop a wavy shape over time.
In addition, bamboo inserts do not retain the antimicrobial properties of raw bamboo. Therefore, anything you read that says bamboo inserts are “cleaner” or hold odors less than other inserts are incorrect.
Hemp can hold up to 2 ½ times the liquid as the same amount of microfiber. This makes hemp the ideal material for the extra nighttime inserts you might want to add to your pocket diaper.
Charcoal bamboo insets have tiny particles of charcoal added during the manufacturing process. This gives the cloth a dark grey color.
You will see claims that the charcoal reduces smells and/or has antimicrobial properties, reducing potential odors. This is not true. The only difference between bamboo and charcoal bamboo inserts is the charcoal color.
Also, be careful if you are trying to avoid microfiber. Both bamboo and charcoal bamboo inserts are sometimes made with an outer covering of bamboo with microfiber inside.
Cloth Diaper Fastenings
All-in-ones, all-in-twos, pocket diapers, and many diaper covers come with snaps. Depending on the style, these may allow you to do up the diaper or cover it in different ways according to the size and shape of your child.
Other makes of diaper have hook and loop/Velcro fasteners.
What’s a Snappi?
A Snappi is a T-shaped piece of stretchy polyurethane. It has a flat, round, gripping area on each arm. You open the grip, snap it closed on the diaper fabric at each hip and on the front. When it is correctly in place, it will pull to a Y shape, like the photo above.
They do not have sharp prongs and are a less stressful alternative to safety pins for pre-folds and flats.
Cloth Diaper Liners
Some people like to use disposable liners in their cloth diapers. They can make it easier to deal with poop. Liners are thin and come in rolls. You rip a liner off the roll and lay it inside the diaper.
After use, liners are either flushed or thrown into the garbage, depending on the make.
Which Type of Cloth Diaper Is Best?
We know this isn’t something you want to hear, but there isn’t a best type of cloth diaper. Instead, it’s a case of which style or styles of diapers work best for you.
Most people new to cloth diapers either begin with some pre-owned diapers so they can try different styles or go for pockets. Pocket diapers have the advantage of being affordable, flexible, and reasonably quick drying.
How Many Cloth Diapers Do I Need?
How many diapers you need will depend on how often you want to do your laundry and how old your baby is.
These are the average number of diapers you’ll need, depending on how often you do the washing.
|Laundry frequency||Newborn||3 to 9 months||9 to 18 months||18 months+|
|Every two days||36||30||24||20|
|Every three days||54||45||36||30|
If you are concerned about running out of clean, dry diapers, you can pick up two or three extras or even a pack of emergency disposables.
What Else Do I Need to Start Cloth Diapering?
In addition to your diapers, you’ll need somewhere to store your dirty diapers and detergent for washing. Most people have a diaper pail and two wet bags - one in the diaper pail and a spare for when the wet bag is in the wash.
That’s it. That’s all you need.
Some people use a sprayer to wash solids from the diaper into the toilet and a spray guard to prevent the poop from going anywhere else.
How to Use Cloth Diapers
Here we look at all aspects of using cloth diapers. We begin with setting up your changing station, how to change a cloth diaper, how often to change a cloth diaper, and what to do with the poop.
Then we move onto how to store your dirty diapers and working out the best wash routine for your washer, water, and wash frequency needs. We also discuss stripping cloth diapers and cloth diaper services.
Then we move onto how diaper creams can affect cloth diapers, how to choose the right one for you and your family, and take a look at cloth wipes.
Setting Up Your Changing Area
Your changing set-up for cloth diapers is no different from a set-up for disposables. The only difference is that you will need a place to store your dirty diapers next to, or close to your changing spot.
What Do You Do About the Poop?
If your baby is exclusively breastfed, their poop will be pretty liquid and water-soluble. This means you don’t even need to scrape or clean the poop off the diaper. Just toss it in the pail, throw it in the wash, and you’re good to go.
If your baby is formula-fed, partially breastfed, or has started on solids, you’ll have to deal with actual solid or semi-solid poops.
The easiest way to deal with this is liners. When you take off the diaper, lift out the liner and either flush or dispose of the liner in the garbage.
If you choose not to use liners, poop isn’t as bad as you might think. More solid poos come off with a simple shake into the toilet bowl, something many people who use disposables also do.
For more liquid poo or the kind that sticks to the diaper, there are three options; swish, spray or scrape.
This method involves installing a manual sprayer on your toilet. This is an affordable, easy task, and you don’t need special tools or skills. You hold the diaper in the toilet bowl and spray water at the area where the poop meets the diaper.
This dislodges the solids, and you can flush them away.
Spray guards are optional. In the example above, you clip the top of the diaper onto the bit at the top that looks like a clipboard. You then hold it, so the other end of the guard is in the toilet bowl.
When you spray your diaper, the guard prevents stray splashes from escaping.
You can use a dollar store plastic spatula. Hold the diaper in the toilet bowl and use the spatula to scrape the solids off and into the water.
A method as old as toilet bowls, you hold the diaper in the toilet bowl, with the poop below the waterline. You then swish the diaper around until the poop comes off.
How to Store Dirty Diapers
Ask ten people how they store their dirty diapers, and you are likely to get ten different answers.
Contrary to what you might think, airflow is your best friend when it comes to avoiding odors.
The three main options are:
- Wet bags: You either hang your wet bag on a hook or store it in a container. You then wash the wet bag with the diapers.
- Pail liners: These can be specialized diaper pail liners, garbage bags, or even carrier bags. You put your liner in a pail, and when you wash the dirty diapers, you put the liner or bag in the garbage.
- Storage without bags: You can store your dirty diapers in a laundry basket with a lid, as long as it has some holes to allow the air to circulate. The downside to this method is that you have to wash the basket each time it is emptied.
How to Wash Dirty Diapers
The details of your washing routine will depend on your washing machine and the hardness of your water. However, the basic steps are Cold rinse for stains - Hot wash for cleanliness - Rinsing for detergent removal.
- First: Put the diapers into your machine, and run the machine on a cold rinse, cold, quick wash, or another short, cold cycle. This is important as it reduces the chance of staining (source.)
For this wash, use a small amount of detergent. The exact amount will depend on the detergent you choose. We have recommendations for exactly how much in the next section on detergents.
You can also use Oxiclean or a similar wash booster.
- Second: Wash the diapers on a hot cycle with detergent and a half cup of baking soda. Baking soda is not essential, but it does help to boost the cleaning power of your detergent.
If you use pocket diapers and do not remove the inserts before your first wash, check they have come out of the pockets before your second wash begins.
- Third: Finally, run a rinse cycle. This step is critical as detergent build-up on your diapers can reduce their absorbency and contribute to diaper rash.
If you can choose different lengths of rinse cycle or different water levels, choose the longest cycle and the highest water level.
Not all detergents are equal when it comes to washing diapers. Some are not strong enough to thoroughly remove human waste, while others contain softeners that coat fibers and reduce absorbency.
Our top picks are:
- Tide powder or liquid- except the versions with Downy softener: This is safe for most machines, will get your diapers clean, and is efficient in hard water. Put a measure to line one or two in your first rinse and a full scoop, or cup into your main wash.
- All Free & Clear - powder only: The liquid version of Free & Clear contains a softener that will build up on your diapers, preventing them from absorbing pee. Use a scoop to line one in the prewash and 1 ½ full scoops for the main wash.
- Arm & Hammer Pus Oxiclean: Regular Arm & Hammer doesn’t seem to get the diapers as clean as we would like. Use the Oxiclean version; if not, add some powder to the first rinse.
- Earthwise: An excellent plant-based option, but you’ll need to use the recommended amount on pre-wash 1 ½ times the recommended amount in the main wash and ensure you wash on a hot setting rather than warm.
- Gain: Scoop to line two on rinse or pre-wash and line four for the main wash.
- Persil Sensitive Liquid: Use ½ cap in the pre-wash and two caps in your main wash. Best in soft water.
- Purex Baby: Use ½ cap in pre-wash and 1 ½ caps in the main wash.
Hard Water Issues
If you have hard water, either use one of our recommended detergents or add some Borax or Calgon to your wash. See the packaging for how much to use in a single laundry load. You do not have to add extra because the load is dirty diapers.
How to Dry Cloth Diapers
The optimal way to dry your diapers is outside, laying flat, in the sunshine because sunlight is your bacteria-killing, stain-fighting superhero.
When you hang your cloth diapers on the line, hang them with the longer side on the line. If you hang them with the shorter end on the line, there is more stress on the elastic which can reduce the life of your diaper.
Cloth Diapers in the Dryer
You can put your flat, fitted, or pre-fold cloth diapers in the dryer without a problem. For all-in-ones, pocket diapers, and all-in-twos, use the no-heat or low heat setting. You can speed up the drying time by adding a dry towel or dryer balls.
We have also written an in-depth post about cloth diapers in the dryer you might like to check out.
Cloth Diapers and Diaper Rash Creams
You’ll hear lots of opinions about diaper creams and cloth diapers, but in reality, it is all very simple.
If you use artificial fibers, don’t use a cream with petroleum or mineral oil in the ingredients. This type of cream will coat the fibers and cause repelling- that is, they will stop your diaper from soaking up the pee.
Don’t worry if you use cream you thought was petroleum-free but was not. All you need to do is scrub the affected area with a little warm water and dish soap. Use a toothbrush or similar and clean until the diaper is free from the cream and wash as usual.
If you do need to use a petroleum-based cream for some reason, use a liner to keep the cream away from the fabric.
Creams with zinc will cause staining, but these stains will wash out.
And that’s it.
On natural fibers, you can use any cream you like.
What To Put in Your Cloth Diaper Diaper Bag
When you are out and about with cloth diapers, you will need:
- Your diapers of choice.
- A wet bag
- Liners and/or cream if you are using them.
Welcome To The Wonderful World of Cloth Diapers
So there you have it.
We’ve run through the different styles of diapers, the pro and cons of each, and the materials from which they are made. You now know how many diapers you’ll need, how to store them, wash them, and deal with the poop.
We have lots of other diaper information coming up, so watch this space, and if there is anything, in particular, you would like us to cover, drop us a line on Facebook, and we’ll see what we can do.