Fitteds, prefolds, pockets, soakers… Huh? Cloth diapering can be overwhelming to a newcomer who isn’t used to all the terminology. In this post I’ll break down the different types of diapers available and help you choose the perfect diaper for your needs.
If you’re just joining us now, you might be interested in part 1 of this series, in which I wrote about why I personally chose to use cloth diapers, and part 2, in which we dispelled the most common misconceptions about cloth diapers. Watch for part 4, which will contain a list of essentials for anyone intending to use cloth diapers.
Without further ado, let’s take a deeper look at the different types of diapers available today.
Types of diapers
Flats are basically a large sheet that can be folded to fit around a baby. They need to be secured with pins or an alternative fastener, like a Snappi. Flats can also be “padfolded” into a smaller rectangle, and laid inside a cover like a diaper insert.
Prefolds are flats that have been “pre-folded” and sewn into a smaller rectangle for convenience. They’re folded such that the middle section has more layers — therefore, more absorbency — than the outside sections. They can either be wrapped around the baby and secured with pins or an alternative fastener, or they can be “trifolded” and laid inside a cover like an insert.
Contour diapers are similar to prefolds but have been cut in an hourglass shape that makes them easier to wrap around a baby without folding. They are hard to find in sizes larger than newborn.
Fitted diapers are shaped diapers that are worn similar to a disposable (except that they require a cover, which I’ll explain next). They usually have snaps or hook and loop closure (what we typically call “Velcro”), but sometimes the ends are left plain and the whole diaper is secured with pins or an alternative fastener.
All of the diapers mentioned above are non-waterproof in and of themselves, so if you want a waterproof diaper (most of us do), you’ll need to use them in conjunction with a cover. Covers come in three main types: PUL, wool, and fleece.
PUL (PolyUrethane Laminate)
These are by far the most common type of cover. PUL refers to any material that has been laminated with polyurethane laminate (as its name suggests), to produce a waterproof fabric. These covers can be used with flats, prefolds, contours, and fitteds, but can also be used with a simple diaper insert. Diaper inserts are rectangles of absorbent fabric that are usually used with pockets, all-in-twos, and all-in-ones. When using with an insert, padfolded flat, or trifolded prefold, just lay the absorbent material inside the cover and wrap and secure the cover around the baby. PUL covers come with snaps or hook and loop closures.
Wool covers are great because of its anti-bacterial properties and breathability. They are hand-wash only and take a long time to fully dry, but they only need to be cleaned and relanolized once a month due to the anti-bacterial properties of wool. Wool covers come in the form of soakers, shorties, or longies.
These have a lot of the same benefits as wool, except they’re a synthetic fabric. They’re inexpensive and great for babies with sensitivities to PUL or wool. Like wool, they don’t need to be washed with every use, but they are much faster to dry than wool. Fleece can result in compression leaks if the diaper underneath is nearly soaked through. Fleece covers also often come in the form of soakers, shorties, and longies, in addition to the common wrap style.
Pocket diapers are like a PUL cover with a lining and an opening at the back, front, or both ends to create a “pocket.” This pocket is where you would add a diaper insert for absorbency. The diaper “shell” doesn’t have any absorbency on its own. With a pocket diaper, you can control how much absorbency you add by adding different types of inserts, or by adding extra inserts. You could add a single microfibre insert, or two microfibre inserts, or you could add a microfibre insert on top of a bamboo insert, or you could trifold a prefold and use that as an insert. The possibilities are endless, and you would customize your insert depending on your needs.
When using pocket diapers, normally you would “stuff” the diapers in advance (I do it when the diapers are dry after washing them), and then store them like that until you’re ready to use them. Then you just grab a diaper and put it on the baby, just like a disposable. When changing the diaper, you would have to remove the insert(s) before putting both shell and insert into your laundry bin. Usually you can just shake the diaper over the bin and the insert will fall out on its own, but be warned that sometimes it won’t and you’ll have to touch the insert. The good news is that if you change diapers often (immediately or soon after they’re soiled), you might find that the back edge of the insert is still dry.
All-in-two diapers are like a PUL cover with an insert laid inside, but the insert snaps into the cover. This means you can snap the insert into the cover in advance, and then put the diaper on in one step when you need it. When changing the diaper, you would just unsnap the insert and throw it in the laundry, and you can wipe clean the inside of the cover to use again.
All-in-ones are like a cover with an insert attached, all in one piece. When you remove the diaper, you don’t need to separate anything — just put the whole diaper in the wash. These typically take a long time to dry but are very convenient to use.
Hybrid diapers are a mix of cloth and disposable. They have a reusable outer shell, and can be used with either cloth or disposable inserts. One of the most popular brands of hybrid diapers is gDiapers. I don’t use hybrid diapers myself, but I have to admit, gDiapers are the best looking diapers I’ve ever seen. They’re soft and trim and come in gorgeous colours and designs.
Types of fabric
Along with the different types of diapers, you’ll have to choose between two types of fabric: natural or synthetic. These typically refer to the layer of fabric touching the baby’s skin.
Natural fibres include cotton, hemp, and bamboo. Diapers in this category are mostly flats, prefolds, contour diapers, or fitted diapers, but there are also a few pockets, all-in-twos, and all-in-ones made with natural fibres.
Synthetic fibres include suede cloth, microfibre, microterry, and polyester fleece. They’re often used to provide a stay-dry feel to a diaper. Most pockets, all-in-twos, and all-in-ones fall under this category.
Now, the burning question:
The perfect diaper for…
The most expensive diapers are all-in-ones and hybrids (if you factor in the cost of disposable inserts), and the most expensive covers are wool. Fitteds can also be pricy. Flats are the absolute cheapest, with prefolds not too far behind. Pockets are pretty much in the middle.
Ease of washing/drying
The easiest to wash are flats, prefolds, and PUL covers. All-in-ones are easy in that you just toss the whole thing in the wash, but hard in that they take forever to dry (and are usually hang dry only). Fitteds also take a long time to dry, but can usually be put in the dryer.
Ease of putting on baby
The easiest in terms of prep work are all-in-ones, because they’re ready to go right out of the wash. All-in-twos just need to be snapped in place, and pockets need to be stuffed. But after that, there is really no difference between any of them: you put them on just like you would put on a disposable. The next easiest option is a cover with an insert, prefold, or flat laid inside: this is also similar to putting on a disposable, except that the insert may shift a little as you’re trying to put the diaper on.
The hardest option is wrapping a flat around the baby, and the next hardest is wrapping a prefold, but having done both, I really don’t think they’re that hard.
To facilitate potty learning, you really want to stick with natural fibres as much as possible. Any natural fibre option will help the baby learn to recognize when she needs to use the potty. The problem with synthetic fabrics is that the stay-dry aspect makes it hard for the baby to recognize when she’s peeing, so it’s harder to make a connection between the feeling of a bladder being full and releasing, to the feeling of being wet. I like using prefolds with a Snappi without a cover in the early stages of potty learning, so that I can immediately tell when the diaper is wet and change it within a minute or two. Once the baby really starts getting the hang of the potty, you might want to switch to something that’s easy to remove and put back on, like a pull-up or trainer style pocket, or these specialty EcaPants.
Overnight or more absorbency
Most people have good luck with a high absorbency fitted diaper for overnight. You can also add in extra inserts to any pocket, all-in-two or all-in-one diaper. Dirtydiaperlaundry.com has a great article on myths about night time cloth diapering.
What do I use?
I use prefolds with a Snappi most of the time. I use them alone sometimes when I’m at home, and with a Flip cover when we’re out or when I’m busy with something like cooking and am not able to change a diaper immediately. I also use BumGenius 4.0 pocket diapers when we’re out for convenience. I personally like snaps more than hook and loop, but The Husband likes hook and loop — it’s really individual preference. In the newborn stage, we used newborn size Rumparooz covers and Bummis Super Brite covers, because the gussets were great for containing breastmilk poop and because the sizing fit our small babies well. The one-size Flips took a while to grow into.
In the next post of this series, I’ll talk about how many diapers you need, and what other supplies are necessary or nice to have for cloth diapering.