Intro to Cloth Diapering

There are so many decisions to make when it comes to how you will prepare and care for a new baby.  Diapering is one of the most important of these decisions considering just how much of your time you will spend changing baby’s bum.  There are tons of disposable diaper brands to choose from but an often overlooked alternative is cloth diapering.  Cloth diapering offers some major benefits to baby’s smooth bottom, the environment and mom and dad’s wallet.  But if you search ‘cloth diapering’ on the web, you will be astounded (and possibly intimidated) by the amount of information available about the topic.  It can be completely overwhelming when you are just trying to get a basic understanding.  So here’s the scoop on cloth diapering to answer any questions that you may have and help you decide whether or not to give it a go.

What is cloth diapering?

Cloth diapering is a diapering system in which you use reusable/washable materials to catch your baby’s waste.  All you really need is something absorbent directly against baby’s skin and then something waterproof to go over the something absorbent.

What are the different types of cloth diapers?

There are literally endless ways to cloth diaper a baby.  Here are some of the most common methods:

Origami folded flat with a diaper pin

Flats and covers:  This system is the most basic and most closely resembles what your granny and great granny may have used back in the day.  The flat is a large, thin piece of absorbent fabric that gets folded one of a trillion ways, secured on baby’s bum with the fastener of your choice (diaper pin, snappi) and then covered with a waterproof cover.  The flat can also be folded until it fits inside the cover (pad folded) to mimic the pocket or AI2 system (see below).

Pad folded flat and cover

Pros: You have unlimited options with how to fold the flat which gives you lots of flexibility and control over the absorbency of the diaper.  Flats dry very quickly when being laundered.

Cons: The flat needs to be folded which means prepping ahead of time or at each diaper change.  If you are not pad-folding, you will need to use a fastener.

Prefolds and covers: Prefolds are similar to flats except they have already been folded (hence the name) and sewn into a tri-sectioned fabric with the middle layer being the thickest.  The prefold gets wrapped around baby and secured with a closure and topped with a waterproof cover.  You could also just pad fold the fabric and lay it in the cover.

Pros:  Prefolds do not need to be folded ahead of time since the absorbency is already built-in.

Cons:  The middle section of the fabric is several layers and can take a bit longer than flats to dry.  If you are not pad folding the diaper, you will need to use a fastener.

Fitted diapers

Fitteds and covers:  This style is an absorbent fabric that resembles a disposable diaper in the sense that it has elastic around the leg holes and waist so that it fits baby well.  Fitteds have snap closures built-in but still need to be paired with a waterproof cover.

Pros: No separate closure is needed since the fitted has its own snaps.

Cons:  Though fitteds resemble a complete diaper, they must be used with a cover.

Pockets/All-In-Twos (AI2): Pockets and AI2 are similar styles.  They both consist of a waterproof outer shell and inserts.  Pocket diapers are covers with a pocket that the insert gets stuffed into.  AI2 diapers usually have snaps on either end of the diaper for the insert to connect to.  So with pockets, the lining of the cover is directly against baby’s skin and with AI2s, the insert is directly against baby’s skin.  Note that lots of parents use pockets as covers – there is nothing forcing you to place your insert inside the pocket.

Pros: Each of these styles is highly customizable as you can combine inserts to increase absorbency as needed.

Cons: You don’t have to do any folding, but you do need to stuff the diapers ahead of time or at each diaper change.  Some inserts can also take longer to dry than flats since there are multiple layers of material.

All-In-Ones (AIO): This style is the simplest and most like a disposable diaper.  As the name implies, the absorbent and waterproof components are built into one piece with its own snaps.

Pros:  Easy peasy!  There is no folding, pinning or stuffing involved, giving you the same convenience and ease of use as a disposable diaper.

Cons:  Of all the styles, AIOs take the longest to dry.  These also tend the be the most expensive cloth diaper solution.

What kind of cloth diapers should I use?

The diapering system that you choose is completely dependent upon your needs.  Factors like budget, convenience and desired absorbency should all be considered.  Lots of cloth diapering parents use a combination of styles while others are loyal to a single method.  Flats and covers are typically the most cost-effective method while All-In-Ones offer the most convenience.

How many will I need?

Again, this is dependent on your family’s needs.  How often do you plan to wash?  How many children are you diapering?  A good number to start your stash is about 12-18 diapers for one child.  For a newborn, this stash would likely allow you to wash once a day.  For an older baby, you may be able to go two to three days between washes.

Adjustable diaper covers

Do cloth diapers come in sizes just like disposables?

While some styles are size specific, lots of styles and brands offer adjustable diapers that allow your diapers to grow with your child.  These diapers have snaps that allow you to adjust the rise and waist to customize the fit.  This is a very economical way to make your stash last the duration of your diapering days.

How do I change a cloth diaper?

Overall, the same way you change a disposable!  Open up the diaper, clean baby up and put on a clean diaper.  You will need to dump any solid waste in the diaper into the toilet and flush it before tossing the diaper into your pail.  There are sprayers you can buy to make removing less than solid waste from the diaper easier.  Or you could simply rinse the diaper in a sink.  If you are cloth diapering an exclusively breastfed baby, there is no need to rinse the diaper first because baby’s poop is water-soluble.  However, keep in mind that rinsing the diaper and keeping it wet until wash day greatly minimizes stains.  Finally, toss the dirty diaper into your pail until wash day.  The pail can be a trash can, bucket, wet bag or any open air container.  Surprisingly, using open air storage significantly reduces odors.  Now as far as how to properly put on a particular type of cloth diaper or perform a particular fold, you can check your diaper manufacturer’s website or a plethora of tutorials on the internet.

Diaper laundry

How often do I have to wash my cloth diapers?

The most common recommendation is to wash the diapers every other day.  Depending on your wash routine, stash size and schedule, you can likely stretch this to washing every two to three days.  It is generally not recommended to go more than a week between washes as this will make it more difficult to clean your diapers and could lead to unpleasant issues.

How do I wash my cloth diapers?

You will find lots of different information on wash routines.  You just have to find what works best for your particular situation.  The most important things to accomplish are thoroughly disinfecting the diapers and removing all the detergent from your diapers so that absorbency is not affected.  Wash routines can vary based on whether you are using a high-efficiency or front-loading versus top-loading machine and whether you have hard water or soft water.  You can tumble dry, air dry or sun dry your diapers.  It is advisable to start with the simplest routine possible and tweak it as needed based on the resulting cleanliness of your diapers.  See below for specifics on the wash routine that we use in my house.

What detergent should I use?

There are some detergents on the market specifically for diaper laundry.  Some parents swear by these and some don’t bother and just wash with whatever detergent they use for their regular laundry.  There are some mainstream detergents that you will want to avoid because they contain additives that can affect the absorbency of the cloth and/or irritate baby’s skin.  Some diaper manufacturers will list which additives to avoid in order to best preserve the life of its diapers.  A good place to start is to simply research whether whatever household detergent you currently use can be safely used on your diapers. 

Will the diapers get stained?

This depends on your wash routine, wash frequency, and fabric.  It is possible to keep your diapers stain free if you are diligent.  Keeping your diapers wet until wash day aids in preventing stains and allowing your diapers to dry in the sun is super helpful for removing stains.  Considering what the diapers are catching, some stains are inevitable and are not necessarily an indicator that your diapers are not clean. 

Do I have to wash the diapers myself?

If you plan to purchase and maintain your own stash, you will need to launder them yourself.  However, you also have the option of using a diaper service.  A diaper service rents diapers to you that get delivered on a weekly basis.  The service will pick up the soiled diapers to be laundered and swap them with a clean stash.

So now that I have completely bombarded you with information on cloth diapering, you may still be wondering exactly what a cloth diaper routine looks like.  No worries!  Here are all the details on exactly how it goes down in my house:

Stash type: We are a flats and covers family.  I use pad folded organic cotton flats with adjustable polyurethane covers.  I have a couple of fun statement pocket diapers but I still use my pad folded flats as inserts.  Overnight, I add a hemp booster insert to the pad folded flat to increase the absorbency and prevent overnight leaks.  I love flats because I can be super confident in how clean they are since there are no unseen layers.  Also, they dry incredibly fast.

Stash size: I have about 24-30 flats and covers.  I am currently only diapering a toddler.  I purchased an additional 12 flats and covers to cushion my stash so that I will not have to wash more frequently when my newborn arrives.

Wash frequency: On average, we wash every two to three days.  However, our stash size and wash routine allow us to comfortably go up to five days between washes if needed.

Wash routine:  We have a non-high efficiency, top-loading machine with an agitator.  Our base routine starts with a cold rinse with a small amount of vinegar to neutralize odor and small amount of a mainstream detergent – the same detergent we use for our regular laundry.  This rinse cycle is followed by a heavy hot wash with the appropriate amount of detergent for the load size.  We finish off the wash with a final cold rinse.  If needed, we add an additional hot wash with the shortest time setting before the final rinse.  We tumble dry the diapers on low heat.  I usually have to lay out my hemp boosters after the dry cycle because hemp is super absorbent and thus slow to dry.

So there you have it – cloth diapering in a nutshell!


Are you considering cloth diapering?  What questions or concerns do you have?  Are you already cloth diapering?  What does your stash and routine look like?  Share below!

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