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Best Cloth Diapers Primer

by Frugal Fran, our cost conscious contributor!  

If you're  trying to find the best cloth diapers, or to decide if cloth diapering is a good option for your family, this primer is a great place to start.   All the basics of cloth diapering are right here!

Finding the Best Cloth Diapers...

Which way to go? 

If you're  trying to decide if cloth diapering is a good option for your family, this primer is a great place to start.   All the basics of cloth diapering are right here!

  • Start with the basics, and learn about the kinds and styles of cloth diapers
  • Consider the pros and cons of Snaps vs. Velcro
  • And read about which 'must have accessories' I can't live without.  
  • I also share my recipe for my best cloth diapers wet wipe solution:  
  • Lady Violet's  L'eau du Fanny with essence of lavender.

My personal criteria

The best cloth diapers for our family had to meet all of the following criteria:

1) cost effective

2) will not leak 

3) as efficient as possible...from the changing table all the way through the laundering process. 

4) One size fits all.  This is simply an extension of the efficiency.  I did NOT want to go through the hassle of re-shopping, swapping, or selling cloth diapers every few months.  I just want to cut to the chase and get what works.   

I found the best cloth diapers for our family, and it actually exceeded my expectations!  Check out my Cloth Diapers Journal to see what I chose, and how it's going!

How Many Cloth Diapers Should I Buy?

Most sites suggest 24 as a safe starting point.  I went with this advice, and I have not been sorry. Two dozen is enough to stretch out washing to every 2-3 days, while still having several on hand.  If you're starting out with an older baby who wets less frequently, or are going to start using cloth diapers only on a part time basis then you can start with fewer, and always add more as you need to.  A dozen of the best cloth diapers works fine for an older baby who doesn't wet as frequently. 

Care and Laundering of Cloth Diapers

Basic detergent is all you need to care for basic all in one and pocket cloth diapers.  I use 2T- 1/4 cup of the very basic (and super cheap!) powdered Sun Detergent.  Read more about the best cloth diapers care and washing tips (for pocket and all in one diapers) in this article.  If your diapers are leaky and/or smell funky, then you may have detergent build up.  This can be remedied most of the time by stripping cloth diapers.

Do check out the customer service and guarantees from the company  you choose to purchase the best cloth diapers from, just in case you run into a problem with a defective snap or elastic that comes loose.  Even the best cloth diapers have occasional problems, and you want to find a company that really cares.

Cloth Diapers...cracking the code to find the best cloth diapers

If you've ever been on a message board researching or looking for the best cloth diapers, then you've probably seen the secret diaper code language.  What in the world are AIO's, FB's, PD's?  I'll show you the basics here, in simple language.  Cloth diapers come in a myriad of designs and styles, but there are really only three basic formats. I've boiled down to just the essentials to help you maneuver quickly through the decision making process when choosing the best cloth diapers. 

The Pocket Diaper 

cloth diaper pocket diaperA pocket diaper (PD) is designed the most like a disposable diaper.  It comes with at least two separate pieces.  The cover has an opening (or pocket) that you insert an absorbent 'soaker' into.  You can adjust absorbency by adding an additional soaker.  Pocket Diapers are made by Bum Genius (BG's), Happy Heinies, Fuzzy Bunz  (FB's) etc. 

They can be one size fits all, snapping open and closed to accomodate a growing baby.  An AIO/PD usually includes the inserts in the price.  They run from between $17-19 each.

The upside
is that the lining fabric that is against the baby's bottom wicks away moisture quickly keeping baby's heiny dry. 

Pocket diapers are the best cloth diapers for other caregivers, as they go on almost exactly like a disposable diaper.  It makes diaper changes easy for Dad, Grandma, babysitter, daycare, etc.  The cover and insert wash and dry separately.  This allows you to differ your approaches to laundering, which makes even the best cloth diapers last longer.  The cover with it's more delicate components of elastic and PUL (the waterproof plastic laminated polyester) can be washed more gently, and air dried.  The more durable inserts may be subjected to occasional soakings and regular machine drying.  The stuffing is fast.  I have timed this, and it takes about 30 seconds to re-stuff a pocket diaper.  And that is moving at a snail's pace, ensuring that the insert is flat and properly in place.  These turned out to be the best cloth diapers for our family!

The downside to these is that you have to wash both pieces (the cover and the soaker) every time.  You also have to remove the dirty insert at some point before washing, and then re-stuff them so they are ready for use.   Another downside, is that you usually do not have a choice of materials for the insert.  I found that the superabsorbent material ages and absorbs odors to the point where they will no longer get clean, even with repeated strippings/washings.  Plus, the superabsorbent material is picker than cotton in how you can treat it in the wash.  I would MUCH prefer an all cotton insert and lining on a PD.

The All In One
cloth diaper all in one twoAn All in One, or "AIO", is a ready to use cloth diaper.  The waterproof outer, inner absorbent soaker, and sometimes a separate lining material are permanently stitched together.  They close with velcro or snaps, and are very easy to use.  They range in price from $10 to $18.  Thirsties and Bumkins are All In One diapers.

Note: there are AIO/pocket hybrids out there called an 'all in twos'.  This would be an all in one that can be used as is, or with an additional soaker (which is usually included).  Some have built in pockets for the extra soaker, and others just tell you to lay the extra soaker on top for naps and night time.

The upside: Just one piece to wash and dry...no un-stuffing, folding, re-stuffing, or diaper covers needed.  Many consider the all in one to be the best cloth diapers for daytime wear for older babies who don't wet as much or as often.  They can be more trim and fitted than pocket diapers.  All one piece makes them very easy to change, almost like a disposable.  AIO's can be one size fits all.  Cute colors!

The downside:   Usually not as absorbent as a pocket diaper for overnight or nap time.  Since the layers cannot be separated for landering, they take a lot longer to dry, and mildewing may become a problem in humid environments.  If any one of the components wears out (ie. the velcro wears out), the whole diaper is shot.

Diapers that require a diaper cover:
These include contour diapers, fitted diapers, and pre-folds

There are tons of styles of diaper covers on the market, and they usually do not come with the diaper inside...they are just the waterproof covers.  You have more choice and selection over fit, material, patterns, etc.  Most are made with polyester waterproof lining (PUL), with polyester fabric over it to make it comfy for baby.  But natural wool covers and other (pricey) options are out there now too.  
The covers only need to be changed when they get dirty, so you don't need nearly as many covers as you would with a Pocket or All in One system.  This is very appealing to me, and is in the running as the best cloth diapers option for our family.  Covers may be sized, or they can be one size fits all.  G-diapers, flip diapers, Bummis, Thirsties and Kissaluvs all make diaper covers.
The inserts are also very flexible in style, material, and price range.  I have covered the basic styles/types below.  Some may need to be fastened, and other are designed to just lay inside the cover, so you don't have to fasten two layers for each change.

The upside: The covers don't need to be washed each time the diaper is changed.  This may give the covers a longer life than the All In Ones or Pocket Diapers, as they aren't exposed to the rigors of the washing/drying as often.  You also have the best cloth diapers cover options, with tons of adorable colors, patterns, etc. to choose from.  Extremely flexible absorption and lining material options are available...everything from organic fleece to flannel.  Some have a multi-size or one size fits all option.  

The downside:
cloth diapers fitted diapers
Two pieces to put on and take off for every diaper change...EVERY diaper change. 
Two pieces, two pieces, two pieces...ad nauseum.  

Also, there are just too many choices
in brand, colors, and patterns!  I'm talking WAY too many choices, as in "Stop the ride, I want to get off."  I consider this to be a 'con'...at least for me. 

While the tazmanian devil with tye-dye fabric may be just adorable as a diaper cover, what in the heck is the baby going to wear with it?  Call me 'plain Jane', but I just don't need all the flash and buzz of fancy fabrics.  It's a diaper.  If I could have gotten the disposables without Elmo on the panel, I would have.  Poop catchers don't need to be cute in my house, as baby has plenty of cute to start with, and I have lots of really adorable baby clothes.   

The Cost catch: The covers.  They run between $10-15 each, and average about $12.  Wool covers are even pricier.  Wool is naturally 'lanolized' which protects it from moisture.  Wool covers are loved for their ability to breath and deflect moisture, making it un-necessary to wash them as often.   Many Mama's feel that a wool diaper cover is the most natural and best cloth diapers cover, but you do have to give them special care.

Fitted diapers (illustrated above) are essentially snap or Velcro-on soakers that require a separate waterproof cover.  The fitted diapers run around $15 each.  I have shown the diaper cover in the illustration above to show function, but the diaper cover is sold separately.  Fitted diapers are the most countoured to your baby's shape.  They are the best cloth diaper for covers that are not as leak resistant. (The most leak resistand covers have leg gussets.)

cloth diapers contour diapersContour diapers are absorbent diapers shaped like a disposable (hourglass shape), but require you to use a pin or special closure system, and/or a cover to stay on.  They don't snap or Velcro.  Contour diapers are sold in 4 packs, and are priced under $9 per diaper ($35 per 4 pack).  They do come in 'sizes'...so you'll need some in each size.  I have shown the diaper cover in green to illustrate function, but the covers are sold separately.    Contour diapers are the best cloth diapers for ease of use...just slap it down and close the diaper cover.  

cloth diapers prefold diapers
Pre-folds are the 'old fashioned' cloth diapers, and the best cloth diapers for a very slim budget.  Like the name suggests, they are prefolded to offer thicker protection in the center.  You may have to tuck and fold a bit to get them to fit the diaper cover properly, and many Moms  will then pin or fasten them onto the baby before adding the waterproof diaper cover. The prefolds can be had for under $2 each.  
Prefolds also come in sizes. They are the best cloth diapers for someone a tight budget who really wants to use natural materials.  Prefolds may be modified 

Flats:  Flat diapers are the predecessor to the prefolds.  As the name suggests, they are just large flat squares of cotton, and you can fold them to shape.  The upside, is that you have a very easy to launder and  fast drying diaper.  Flats are the best cloth diapers for very humid environments, as they dry very quickly.  
The downside, is that you have to fold the little buggers every time.  Hence the birth of the prefold.  

Snaps vs. Velcro

pros: makes diaper changes fast, and are more like disposable tapes.  The best cloth diaper companies use a better grade of fastner tape that is supposed to hold firmer and last longer.
cons: are that it can snag and pill/pick the diaper cover.  You have to attach the tabs to 'laundry tabs' so that the Velcro doesn't stick to every thing in the washing machine and pick the fabric.  Velcro can get clogged up with lint
so that it doesn't hold as well.  The velcro can also age so that the hooks won't hold the loops (but drying in the dryer is supposed to re-vitalize them).  Some Moms have reported that the Velcro scratched the baby's skin.  Another con is that the baby may be able to remove their diaper.  However, this is generally not a problem with disposables, and I've never personally had a problem with this. 


pros:  Snaps are strong.  Very strong.   It's harder for baby to get the snaps open if they try to take their diaper off.   The best cloth diapers are backed by a replacement guarantee if your snaps malfunction.
Snaps are too strong.  You have to yank them open with a good bit of force, which can eventually tear the outer cover.  The other con is that they are snaps.  Lots and lots of them.   And you are going to be lining them up and snapping them firmly while wrangling a squirmy wiggling baby.  I for one have had enough of snaps just on the baby's outfits alone.  I'll pass on adding more snaps to my life.

The Best Cloth Diapers Accessories

You'll find lots of offerings in the accessories sections of cloth diaper websites.  What's essential, and what's fluff?  There are some items that I consider 'must haves' when starting out with cloth diapers.  I actually factored these into my cost figures for the "do cloth diapers save money" article.  I'm just starting out, and we're still in the grace period of breastfed-poopies which really don't smell too bad.  So I haven't tried out the sprayer systems or the rice paper diaper liners yet:

A Diaper Pail:
Cloth diapers are bulkier than disposables, so lots of websites recommend a standard kitchen garbage can as a diaper pail.  
I already had a diaper champ, and I love it with the cloth diapers.  It's smaller than the kitchen garbage cans, so it's a better
fit for my nursery.  It holds 8-10 cloth diapers (and more if I give it a good shake).  This really works to my advantage, as I have a tendency to put things off to the last minute.  The champ makes me wash regularly way before I run out of diapers.  It also works at keeping the smells at bay, but we're still in the grace period of breastfed poopies.   I do have to shake it and open the lid to clear stuck diapers, especially when it begins to get full.  A smaller kitchen garbage can would also be a good option.

Diaper Pail Liners:
Instead of using trash bags, you can opt to use fabric waterproof diaper pail liners.  The best cloth diapers pail liners should be machine washable (watch out...some are not!)  Most will close with an attached elastic loop, drawstring, or zipper.  When it's time to run a load of diapers, you'll just lift the whole bag out and close it up, and then turn it wrong side out into the washing machine with the diapers.  You'll wash the pail liner right along with the diapers.  Buy two liners that fit the pail that you use so that you have a backup while one is in the wash.  I made one plain liner, and one large travel wet bag that functions as my alternate pail liner.  Some of the best cloth diapers pail liners have a really nice feature: a little square of cloth sewn into the inside seam that you put a dot of essential oil on.  This really helps cut the smell.  I made mine with this feature, and built it into my wetbags as well.

A Travel Size Wet Bag:
A wetbag is a waterproof fabric bag.  You use these instead of disposable plastic bags to contain the messy diapers when you're away from the diaper pail.  You should find one that is machine washable (some are not...why???)  I like the zipper closures, but you can also get the drawstring kind.  I've only needed one little travel wet bag.  It holds up to 3 of my diapers, and keeps the smell at bay.  If your childcare provider uses the cloth diapers, then you'll need at least 2 of these in a larger size.  I also have a larger zippered wet bag with a loop handle for hanging on the doorknob. I made it so that it fits into my diaper champ as a liner, and I can also use it for vacations or weekends away.  

A Favorite Essential Oil:
I have a little bottle of lavender oil that I use to freshen the inside of my pail liners and wet bags (it goes on a little swatch of fabric sewn into the liner).  I also use it in my wipes solution.  You can also use Tea Tree, Orange, or another aromatic oil.  These also have the advantage of being a natural anti-fungal and anti-bacterial agent.  
Oil should never be added directly to the waterproof fabrics, as it will break down the elastics and vinyl laminate over time.  

Washable Wipes and Wipes Solution
I just love wet wipes, so this was a big decision for me.  Disposable wipes are convenient and I love the sweet smell.  But it's force of habit to fold them inside the dirty diaper.  If you accidentally toss a disposable wipe into the wash, then you'll have lots of fun picking all the little fluffy fibers out of your diapers.  Also, if you use disposable wipes, you'll run into the problem of where to put the used ones.  It's no fun having  to hunt for a trash can with a wad of poop stained wipes in your hand. So I decided to keep my box of wipes (just in case) and try out the washable wipes as well.  Well, I haven't used my beloved wet wipes in weeks.  I've really enjoyed the washable wipes much more.  

Some sites recommend using a wipes warmer, but the newer ones have the pop-up lids (and don't get very warm anyway).  Also, anytime your hands come into contact with the contents of the damp wipes box, you're introducing bacteria and germs that can lead to mildew and other icky things.  So I store my fabric wipes and a little pump bottle of wash solution in a hanging basket right by the changing table.   If you just really want to store them damp, I would recommend using a see-through wide mouth container with an easily removable lid (like a canister).  See below for my recipe for a homemade (way easy!) wipes solution.  I have a spray bottle in my diaper bag, and a pump bottle at the changing table.   You can find the small spray bottles in the travel section of your local discount store.   I started out with a squeeze bottle on the changing table, but it tipped over a couple of times and completely drained, so I have gone to a pump style bottle.  The pumps allow you to dispense lotion and wipes solution one-handed, so I am a big fan of these.

I've found a narrow rectangular clear vinyl pencil pouch that is the perfect solution for traveling with cloth wipes and spray.  I stand it straight up in the side of my diaper bag, so it's quick to grab, and doesn't get lost in the shuffle.  And since it's see through, I can instantly see how many wipes I have on hand.

I started out with a few packs of cheapie baby washcloths as wipes.  The baby washcloths worked OK, but they were a little thin.  They also have a tendency to roll up, and they're pastels so they stain easily.  I've since purchased a few scraps of cotton flannel and made some double layer re-usable wipes.  I love these!  The flannels come in some adorable prints.  I recommend getting darker colors that won't show stains.  It usually only takes one re-usable wipe per dirty diaper.   The double layer flannel wipes are  thick and very, very soft, and you can wrap them up in the dirty diaper and just toss everything into the laundry together.  They were super cheap to make (18 for only $2!) but they are a little tedious and boring to sew unless you have a serger.  At least I only have to make them once!  Some Mommies have suggested (wisely) that you make wipes in a darker print for diaper changes only, and then choose a pretty pastel to use for wiping faces and hands.

I love the homemade wipes solution, and there are tons of free wipes solution recipes out there. It's fun to experiment with different recipes and scents, and you can customize the solution to your baby's skin.   I double the recipe so it makes a lot, and store the extra in the back of the fridge for quick refills.

cloth diapers wipes recipes

Lady Adelaide's L'eau du Fanny- Essence of Lavender

5 cups of water
1 Tablespoon natural lavender body wash
1/2 teaspoon of lavender oil

Add ingredients in the order listed.  Store extras in the fridge for longest freshness.

Note: Lavender is a natural preservative, so the bottled solution should stay fresh for quite a while.  Please feel free to print out the label above for your spray bottle!

I hope that you've found lots of great tips, and have a better idea about choosing the best cloth diapers for your family!

Find out why I switched to cloth diapers, what brand I love, and how it all turned out in my Cloth Diapers Journal.  

Check out the Do Cloth Diapers Save Money article and discover how much we are saving by using the best cloth diapers!  Input your own numbers into the official Frugal Fran Formula, and find out what you could be saving too!