4 Cloth Diapering Options Defined

This post was first published on Simple Mom on June 2, 2009.

Anyone looking into the world of cloth diapers for the first time can feel very overwhelmed. There are so many different websites with so many different types of diapers available that it’s easy to experience information overload. But cloth diapering is really very simple once you find the system that works for you.

There are certainly some variations, but overall, there are four basic types of cloth diapering systems. All systems include some sort of absorbent cloth next to the skin, as well as a waterproof outer layer.

1. Prefolds and Covers

This is the primary system I use. A prefold is a piece of cloth that has been folded up and sewn to stay that way–hence the name. A prefold diaper looks like this:
Photo by The Little Seedling

These are NOT the same as the cheapy brands you can buy at Target or Babies-R-Us; they are far more absorbent and much better quality. You can fasten them on your baby with diaper pins or a Snappi. A Snappi is a little stretchy plastic fastener that has grippers like an Ace bandage. It looks like this:
Photo by Satara

So, that’s the absorbent part; you still need a waterproof cover (also called a wrap) over the cloth diaper. These are usually shaped just like a disposable diaper, but they are made of a waterproof fabric (usually polyurethane laminate, or PUL – which is more breathable than the old vinyl covers), and they fasten either with Aplix (heavy-duty Velcro) or snaps. There are many brands, but here is one example:
Photo by Peach Blossom Baby

You can just air out the covers between changes, swapping them back and forth, and re-use them until wash day (unless they get poop on them – then, into the diaper pail they go).

Advantages and Disadvantages of This System


1. This is the cheapest way to do cloth diapers by far – that’s why it’s our primary system!

2. The prefolds are the easiest kind of cloth diaper to get really clean.

3. The waterproof cover is separate from the cloth, so you can take better care of it and it will last longer. The waterproof covers really shouldn’t go in the dryer or they won’t last as long.


The only disadvantage I find to this system is that it is less convenient than some of the other systems because you have more pieces (the diaper, the cover, plus a Snappi or pins). Because of that, other people like babysitters, grandparents, and child-care workers get nervous about it.

2. Fitteds and Covers

A fitted diaper is like a prefold, except that it requires no folding and no pins–it is already in the shape of a diaper (like a disposable), and fastens either with Aplix or snaps. Here is an example of a fitted diaper:
Photo by The International Breastfeeding Symbol

I have also used this system, and I really like it. Grandparents and babysitters tend to be a lot more comfortable with fitteds than prefolds. You still need to use a waterproof cover on these fitted diapers, just like with the prefolds. Besides the PUL covers, another popular choice for is a wool cover. Wool is very breathable, so it’s great for night-time (or anytime, really) and doesn’t need to be washed very often – just aired out, unless poop gets on them. Wool covers are expensive, though, so we only have two, and only use them at night. Here’s an example of a wool cover:
Photo by Curly Purly

Advantages and Disadvantages of This System


1. This is still a pretty cheap way to do cloth diapers.

2. Fitteds are easier than prefolds because they’re already diaper-shaped, and you don’t have to deal with pins or Snappis.

3. The waterproof outer layer is still separate from the cloth, which means it will dry faster and last longer.


1. Fitteds are still not as convenient and easy as some of the other systems I will cover next.

2. Fitteds are not as cheap as prefolds.

3. Pocket Diapers

Pocket diapers can be a little hard to explain. With a pocket diaper, there is an outer waterproof layer made of PUL that is sewn to a cloth layer which goes against the skin, and there is an opening left in the back between the two. Here’s an example of a pocket diaper:
Photo by The International Breastfeeding Symbol

You put an absorbent insert into that opening, and then you remove the insert for washing and put the insert and diaper both into the wash together. Most brands come with their own inserts, or you can use prefolds or purchase additional inserts. The whole diaper fastens with either Aplix or snaps. We use these at night, too, and they are very absorbent.

Advantages and Disadvantages of This System


1. This system is easy and convenient–you can have a bunch of diapers with inserts already inside of them at the changing table and in the diaper bag, so you just pull one out and put it on your baby. Babysitters will love it.

2. You can separate the inserts out from the rest of the diaper for washing and drying, so you get the inserts really clean. Then you can dry the inserts in the dryer, and you can line-dry the rest of the diaper, which means it will last longer.


1. They’re a bit more expensive than the first two options.

2. It’s a little bit harder to get the diaper itself really clean. I have found that anytime the cloth against the skin is sewn to the waterproof outer layer, it’s just a little harder to really clean them well. But tons of people love and use this system without any problems, myself included.

3. Pocket diapers rarely use natural fibers in the layer that’s against the skin–it’s usually some sort of polyester microfleece which is designed to wick moisture away from the skin. For many people, that is fine, but some people prefer to stick to natural fibers. There are natural fiber pocket diapers available, but they are harder to find.

4. All-in-Ones

An all-in-one is just what it sounds like – the waterproof layer, the absorbent layer, and the layer against the skin are all sewn together in one diaper. It’s diaper-shaped, and it fastens with Aplix or snaps – super easy, it’s essentially like a reusable disposable! Here’s an example of an all-in-one diaper:
Photo by Zany Zebra Designs

Advantages and Disadvantages of This System


1. This is by far the easiest and most convenient system of them all! Your child-care providers will barely know the difference.


1. All-in-ones are the most expensive of the diapering systems. We’re talking between $16-20 per diaper, maybe more. There may be a lot of up-front sticker shock, but you will still save money in the long run over disposables, even if you ONLY use all-in-ones and nothing else. You can re-use them for the next baby and save even more!

2. These are the hardest kind of cloth diaper to get completely clean.

3. They may not last as long as other systems if you put them in the dryer. The PUL will wear out faster.

That covers all the major cloth diapering systems. As I mentioned, there are a few variations, but for the most part this is what you need to know in order to decide which system will work best for you.

Cloth Wipes

Some people like to use cloth wipes, too – it just makes sense to stick the wipe into the diaper after you change the baby (just like you do with disposables) and throw it all into the diaper pail and then into the wash. You will need about two to three dozen. I keep a spray bottle with water at the changing table, and either just use spray that onto the bare bottom, or sometimes I use a diaper wash spray, too, if I need a little extra clean-up help.

Washing The Diapers

If it’s a pee diaper, you can just throw it into the diaper pail. With the poopy ones, you need to wash the poop down the toilet (unless they’re not eating solids yet – then it can also go straight into the wash). To wash the poop off, you can dunk them up and down into the toilet, or you can use a sprayer attached to the toilet to spray it off.  Simple Organic contributor Nicole has an excellent tutorial for making your own toilet sprayer inexpensively.  Here’s an example of a toilet sprayer:
Photo by Instructables

After the poop is rinsed off, I love to spray the poopy diapers with BioKleen’s Bac-Out – the enzymes start the cleaning process right away and leave no stains behind! Then we have a separate smaller diaper pail in the bathroom where we put those diapers until wash time.

You need to wash about every three days, or you risk the growth of bacteria. You also shouldn’t use detergents that leave residue behind–no softeners or scents; it should be totally clean-rinsing. I like both Charlie’s Soap and Soapnuts from Laundry Tree, which Tsh also uses.

Here’s how I wash: a cold cycle with a full scoop of detergent, a hot cycle with a half scoop of detergent, and then a warm rinse with no detergent, for extra rinsing. Then, covers get hung up to line-dry, and diapers and inserts go into the dryer.

I hope this information is helpful if you’re making a decision about cloth diapers. No matter which system you choose, you are making a great choice for the environment and for your budget. And oh yes, I forgot to mention one other factor–they’re just so darn cute! Nothing cuter than a baby crawling around with a little cloth diaper on.

If you use cloth diapers, which system do you like? If not, are you interested now that you know the options?

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Katie is a writer, a teacher, a mezzo-soprano, and a mama. She and her husband Shaun are passionate about mentoring and equipping artists of all kinds. Find her online at katiefox.net.

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  1. I use all four systems at different stages. Fitteds and covers are awesome for night, wool covers give you that extra bit of protection. Prefolds and covers are the easiest on newborns as nb grow so quickly and they can folded so many ways or just laid in the cover.
    Pockets are our go to system. AIOs get used sometimes but are hard to get dry in winter.
    .-= Helen’s last blog: Launch of Simple Living Media =-.

  2. calliope says:

    Finally, a thorough article about cloth diapering!
    Thank u so much!

  3. Can you provide a link to the BioKleen’s Bac-out? They have about 4 products by that same name listed on their site and I can’t determine which one is best/safest for cloth diapers. Thanks so much!
    .-= Kristi @ Creative Kristi’s last blog: Draft Stopper =-.

    • Sure, Kristi! I couldn’t link directly to the product on Biokleen’s site (it is the seventh product down under Household>>General), so I just embedded a link to the product on Amazon.com into the post above.

  4. What an EXCELLENT post, Katie! Thank you! I wanted to use cloth diapers on my third, but my husband said a very emphatic, “No!”, and I think it was because he was not aware of how easy they are to use.

    When we have #4, I will be able to show him this post, and I think he will go for the cloths this time around! Thank you sooooo much!
    .-= Amy @ Amy Loves It!’s last blog: An Unlikely Pastor’s Wife =-.

  5. Terrific overview of cloth diapering systems. Thanks!

  6. How many reusable diapers do you need? I’m pregnant with my first and have no idea how many to expect to buy. Everyone keeps telling me that every time I go to the store to buy a box of disposables which has completely taken me out of that market! Those things are really expensive and you only use it once!

    • For a nb you want about 12 a day. 36 infant prefolds are a good amount with 6 covers. That gives you about 3 days worth so you don’t have to wash everyday. As they get older you change them less so you can get away with 6-8 a day. I am making 50 for my newborn due in 8 weeks but she is due in winter so drying time is a factor.
      When I started I had 6 and washed every day but he was 8 months old. Cloth is easy and fun.
      .-= Helen’s last blog: Launch of Simple Living Media =-.

  7. I use fitted diapers (homemade, from the Ottobre pattern) with wool covers. Longies at night, short covers during the day. One thing, though–wool covers do NOT have to be expensive! Not even longies. I know how to knit, and covers were one of the first things I ever knit–Ottobre has an easy pattern on their site. But, if you can sew AT ALL (or know someone who is willing to do it for you), one rummage sale wool sweater will make a short “butt sweater” (DH’s name for them) and a pair of longies (out of the sleeves). You can have one of each in an hour or less, with expenditure of less than $1. We use both homeknit covers and recycled sweater covers, and all but one of my pairs of longies are recycled sweaters. I don’t use longies often during the day, but they are the bomb at night–let the baby sleep in one less layer of clothes for comfort, and they pretty much eliminate any possibility of leaks. My little guy (17 months) sleeps in a T-shirt and longies. When the weather gets too hot, I’ll probably just have him sleep in a regular cover–or try some thinner longies, as he’s starting to stay dry at night, anyway. And he sleeps with us, so no leaks is important!

  8. To Camaron: This depends on how often you want to do wash. I find that about 3 dozen diapers works well for us. With a newborn, 4 dozen might be even better, but 3 is what I made. Right now, my little guy is 17 months. I wash diapers when the diaper pail gets full–about every 3rd or 4th day. The diaper pail seems to hold about 18 diapers in his current size. I don’t do any of the fancy spraying of things in the toilet pictured above. If poops will dump easily into the toilet, I do. If not, I just put the diaper into the pail as is. Do some playing around with how it works best to wash diapers. In my machine, 2 cycles are necessary. My mother in law has a better machine, & once with a soak was enough when we stayed with her. Line drying is best–sunshine disinfects, too.

  9. I agree with Heather — we do prefolds and wool covers, because wool covers have turned out to be the cheapest for us! Several sellers on Etsy.com sell recycled wool covers for cheaper than you could buy PUL covers. I’ve both bought some on Etsy and made my own from thrift store sweaters.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but we have a serious mold/mildew risk, especially in the summer, if I don’t wash the diapers every day. Not ideal, but still better than disposables!
    .-= Jessie’s last blog: Brown Rice =-.

  10. I love pocket fitteds stuffed with a CPF. It has the elastic of a fitted without the long drying time, and cheapness of a CPF. We use wool over.
    .-= Cara @ Natural Family Crafts’s last blog: Seasonal Window Art- Cardstock cutouts with tissue paper =-.

  11. Wow! I’ve done much reading about cloth diapers on many different sites often ending up more confused then when I started and this post was BY FAR the easiest to read and understand! Our first is due in 10 days and I plan to explore the world of cloth diapering several weeks after he’s born and we’ve started to “settle in”. This post has made things a lot clearer and will make the decision on which route to try first much more simple. THANK YOU!!!
    .-= Sue’s last blog: There’s a Baby Moving In! =-.

  12. This post and Tsh’s cloth diaper review is the reason I am cloth diapering babies number six and seven (twins!). I wish I had started with my first. As to the “how many” question, I only have three dozen prefold for both of my babies. I haven’t tried AIOs, fitteds, or pockets. I was really wanting the most economical and easiest to clean system. Thanks for the great information!

  13. Jennie L says:

    I use pocket diapers. This is my third baby and my first time cloth diapering and I LOVE IT! When I started though all the info out there was completely overwhelming, especially since there were no stores nearby that carried cloth diapers and I had to do all my shopping from pictures on the Internet. I started by ordering seven to see if I really liked cloth diapering and then added more shortly after.

    I do have one question-what diaper pail do you use in your bathroom? I am looking for one that keeps the odors to a minimum since it is the bathroom our guests also use.

  14. I used cloth diapers 12 years ago. I started with prefold and unfolded. I like the unfolded better than the prefolds, because I could “shape” them to fit my baby. I also used simple Gerber plastic covers (one peice slip ons, no velcro or snaps). But no one other than my Mother would change these diapers. DH stated he was afraid of pinning the baby. So when we had our second and I had been given some of the fancy covers like you show and a couple of fancy cloth diapers, I bought a set. It was pricey (about $200), and I didn’t like them any better than my unfolded. As a matter of fact my unfolded did the best job, cleaned the best and easiest and 8 years later now that my girls are no longer in diapers all my flat fold and unfolded diapers are still in use as rags (and still perfectly white).
    The formed diapers stained easily, I did not have oder issues with them as some complain of, but I just liked my unfolded diapers better. And despite DH’s aversion to pins, which these fancy shaped diapers did not use, DH changed no more diapers for our second child than our first.

  15. We used AIOs with our daughter and loved them. They were more expensive than other options, but the ease of use was worth it (especially when we left her with a babysitter). And you can find them much cheaper than $16 each, especially if you buy several at a time. Yahoo’s Natural Baby store, e.g., has AIOs for less than $12 each if you buy 6.

  16. i used the ones u have to fold (cotton), with a sheet of ricepaper (just to trow this in the toilet, and the diaper in a bucket with cold water(with lid), then when bucket filled just empty the whole bucket into the washingmachine.

    and I knitted wool “covers” no pins, just fold and put the wool on to “fix”

  17. We use gDiapers with WAHM-made cloth inserts or the biodegradable inserts they were originally designed for and love them! So cute, trim, and easy compared to other systems (cheaper than many of them too). And our BumGenius 3.0 are great at night!

  18. Really awesome i really enjoy how can we create a lot of things for help our planet, such a great options .

  19. I didn’t realise cloth diapering was as easy as you have described, although I don’t think we had as many choices back in 2001 when I had my first child and had considered more “eco-friendly” options than disposable diapers.
    Thankfully, there are more options nowadays for moms who also want to help the enivironment.

  20. Cars and houses are expensive and not every person can buy it. Nevertheless, personal loans was created to help people in such kind of hard situations.

  21. Thank you for your thoughtful post!

  22. Great post, but I wish you had included the AI2 system… such as ones like the Grovia system where the inserts snap into the covers.

  23. Thanks for your post! We’re expecting our first baby and are in the “diaper research phase.” Your descriptions and analysis of the different styles is very helpful.

    We are interested in installing a diaper sprayer, but suddenly realized it could be a set-up for fun-loving toddlers and little ones (ours and visitors) who will be alone in the bathroom? Anyone have experience with this?

  24. I am expecting baby #5 in October. We started using cloth diapers when baby #4 was about 6 months old. Way better than disposables! I am kicking myself for not trying them sooner! We use prefolds and AIOs (that I bought cheap from a friend). No more blowouts or ruined outfits! I am looking into All-In-Twos, such as Best Bottom Diapers, sold on http://www.nickisdiapers.com, for my next purchase. They seem to have all the pros and none of the cons of all the other systems combined. AIOs are hard to get dry, even in summer. Prefolds clean easily and quickly, but are very bulky. That is why I am looking into other options for my next one, but I will definitely stick with cloth!

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