Introduction to Cloth Diapers

19 Mar

I first started investigating cloth diapers while I was pregnant, and I got very confused, very quickly. Every single article that claimed to be about the basics of cloth diapering dived right into the deep end of choosing a cloth diapering system. I think people obsessed with cloth diapers have forgotten a little bit what it was like to be an overwhelmed pregnant woman who’s never even seen a cloth diaper. It’s not been that long ago for me, and I do remember. Ok, enough introducing the introduction.

The fundamental principal of all diapers is that they have two primary parts: a water-repellant shell and an absorbent core.

Consider disposable diapers. The water-repellant shell is made of polyethylene (plastic) and the absorbent core is made of cotton and super absorbent polymers (SAP). If you cut the diaper open and shake the contents into your hand, you will get some little white crystals that resemble salt – these are the super absorbent polymers. When the crystals come into contact with liquid they absorb it and start to turn into a gel. And to fasten them closed, disposable diapers have either velcro-like closure tabs, or in older style diapers, sticky tabs that work like tape.The reason there are many cloth diapering “systems” is that you have several options when it comes to water-repellant shells and absorbent cores. And when you mix and match these shells and cores, you have even more options.

Absorbent Cores

The absorbent cores are the easiest to understand, in my opinion. Their job is to soak up as much liquid as fast as possible. There are two natural fibers, cotton and hemp, and one synthetic (man-made) fiber, microfiber, that do this well. Natural fibers are considered easier to wash, and microfiber is considered to be more absorbent but it’s rough and harsh on baby’s skin. Here are the types of absorbent cores for cloth diapers.


Very few people use flats nowadays, so feel free to skip this section. Flats are squares of cotton fabric, a little over two feet square. This is what our great-grandmothers used for their babies. These squares are folded, origami-like, into a variety of shapes that both put several layers of fabric between the baby’s legs and enable the diaper to be pinned onto the baby. Once the diaper is fastened on the baby, it is covered with a water-repellant shell.


Prefold DiaperUnlike flats, prefolds are very popular. Three reasons for this popularity is that they are cheap, easy to wash, and easy to use. A prefold diaper is a flat diaper that has been folded up in 4x8x4 ply – which means that it has four layers of fabric in the left and right panels and eight layers of fabric in the center panel. The easiest way to use a prefold diaper is fold it in thirds, place it inside a wrap diaper cover, and fasten the wrap shut. A little more complicated way to use a prefold is to pin it on the baby and then cover with a water-repellent shell. Finally, a folded-up prefold diaper makes an excellent insert or doubler.


Fitted diapers are shaped more like disposable diaper. Fitted diapers are a little bit trimmer than prefolds and they are easier to fasten on a baby. However, they are more expensive and slightly more delicate in the wash – you can’t boil them or you will ruin the elastic. Fitted cloth diapers go on the baby in the same way as a disposable diaper, and then they are fastened shut. Some fitted diapers have fasteners attached, such as velcro or snaps. Some fitted diapers don’t have fasteners attached, and so you have to use diaper pins or a Snappi. And once the diaper is fastened on the baby, it is covered with a water-repellant shell.


An insert is a rectangle or hourglass of several layers of fabric, either natural or synthetic. Like folded prefolds, inserts can be put into a Wrap Diaper Cover or a Pocket Diaper or used as a doubler. If the insert is made of synthetic fabric, it should be covered in a softer fabric like fleece, cotton, or hemp.


A doubler is meant to be added to one of the previous diapering options. It is thinner than a prefold or an insert, and is meant to boost absorbency while not being bulky. Like inserts, a doubler is a rectangle or hourglass of several layers of fabric.

Water-Repellant Shells

The job of the water-repellent shell is to keep the mess inside the diaper. Without a water-repellent exterior, liquid would be absorbed first by the cloth diaper, then by the baby’s pants, and finally by whatever the baby is resting on. Yuck. The reason water-repellent shells are a little more complicated than their absorbent core counterparts is that people have tried to make these very similar to disposable diapers.

Plastic Pants

Like flats, few people use plastic pants nowadays, so feel free to skip this section as well. This is what was used to cover cloth diapers until the recent introduction of polyurethane laminated fabric (PUL). (More on PUL when we discuss wrap diaper covers.) Plastic pants have been made from a variety of waterproof fabrics, and now they are mostly made from waterproof nylon. They pull on over the diaper, so the absorbent core part of the diaper has to be attached to the baby via snaps, velcro, Snappi, or diaper pins. Having a cover that is put on like a pair of shorts over the cloth diaper is considered the big drawback to plastic pants, since the other drawbacks to plastic pants, such as sounding crinkly or leaking, have been resolved by modern fabrics.

Wrap Diaper Cover

A wrap diaper cover is typically made of polyurethane laminated fabric (PUL) which is waterproof, and is called a “wrap” because it wraps around from back to front and fastens in the front, just like a disposable diaper. PUL fabric is typically a polyester knit fabric that has a little bit of stretch that has a thin polyurethane film bonded to it. This means that PUL fabric can come in beautiful colors and prints, has a little bit of stretch, and is still waterproof. The easiest way to use a wrap diaper cover is to place a folded prefold or an insert in it, and then put on the baby like a disposable diaper. You can also put a wrap diaper cover over a fastened fitted diaper.

Wrap covers are fastened with either velcro or snaps. Velcro is a little faster to put on the baby, but after lots of wear and tear, it can lose its “stick.” Also, velcro is easier for toddlers with nudist inclinations to undo. Snaps are a little slower to put on, but they will never lose their ability to effectively fasten the diaper closed. They also resist being undone by little fingers.

Woolie Pants

It is not well known that when wool is treated with lanolin, it is very water-resistant. Lanolin is a wax produced by sheep that covers their wool coats, and it protects their skin and wool from the elements. Lanolin is usually removed when wool is processed into yarn or fabric, but it can easily be added back in through either special wool washes or adding pure lanolin to the wash water. The biggest benefit to woolie pants is that they are very breathable, which both helps babies who are prone to diaper rash, and keeps them cool in hot weather. Cool in hot weather? Yes – the usual illustrating example is that you would prefer to wear a wool sweater rather than its garbage bag equivalent in the summer. The biggest drawback is that wool must be hand-washed, and the pants are pulled on and off like plastic pants. Wool can also be used in wrap covers.

Pocket Diaper

A pocket diaper is similar to the wrap diaper cover, except it has a layer of fleece sewn over the PUL at the sides, leaving the front and back open. Then a folded prefold diaper or an insert is placed inside the pocket between the PUL and the fleece. Why go to all this trouble to have this layer of fleece between the baby and the absorbent core? For two reasons – first, once assembled, pocket diapers are operated in the exact same way as disposable diapers. This makes them very attractive to people who are uncomfortable with cloth diapers, like day cares and grandparents. Second, fleece is wicking and will pull the moisture away from the baby and into the absorbent core.

There are two big drawbacks to pocket diapers: they are more expensive and harder to wash. Having the extra layer of fleece over the PUL requires more materials and makes the diapers more complicated to manufacture, which results in more expensive diapers. The fleece in pocket diapers are a synthetic fiber, and like the microfiber inserts, can hold onto unpleasant odors after they are washed. They are harder to wash than prefolds because their elastic will break down if they are sanitized by boiling. A minor annoyance with pocket diapers is that they have to be stuffed before they can be used, and stuffing is more labor intensive than, say, laying a prefold inside a cover.

All In One Diaper

An all-in-one diaper (AIO) is very similar to a pocket diaper, except the absorbent core is sewn into the diaper with the water-repelling shell. This eliminates the need to “stuff” the diaper with the absorbent core, but at the cost of more complicated washing and drying. Because the wash water is blocked by the water-repelling shell, it is harder to wash these diapers. And because the absorbed wash water can’t exit through the water-repelling shell when the diaper is drying, it is slower to dry these diapers.

Other, Less Important, Considerations


There are “sized” diapers, “two-size” diapers, and “one-size” diapers. Sized diapers work much like baby’s clothes and disposable diapers – small diapers for little babies, extra-large diapers for toddlers, and everything in between. Two size diapers mean that the diapers come in two adjustable sizes. The first size fits newborns to one year-olds (approximately), and the second size fits one year-olds through toddlers. These are nice because with sized diapers, you can end up buying four or five sets of diapers in different sizes, but with two-size diapers, you only buy the two sets of diapers. The two-size diapers adjust up and down through rows of snaps at the waistline. Finally, one-size diapers are even more adjustable than two-size diapers, and are designed to fit a child from newborn to toddler. You only have to buy one set of diapers, but they tend to fit poorly on children who are under 12 or 15 pounds.



A Snappi is like one of those bandage-closures with teeth, only it has three arms instead of two ends. It stretches slightly. I have never hurt myself or the baby with a Snappi, but some of my friends have cut themselves with one of the teeth. I still think it is safer than a diaper pin.

Diaper Pin

A diaper pin is similar to a safety-pin, only it is larger, slightly curved, and the head snaps down to lock the pin. It is possible to stab the baby with the pin, and without practice, they are quite difficult to use, especially when the baby is squirmy. On the other hand, they are pretty toddler proof, and an option if you have problems with your baby taking her diaper off.

This is part one in a five part series.


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