Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cloth Diapering 101 - The Overview

So lots of people ask me about using cloth diapers. Most of the time, people think of cloth diapers as the prefold diapers that you get from the diaper service and use with rubber pants. Modern cloth diapering has a myriad of options, and can be quite different from what you would expect.

As a new mom, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer options in modern cloth diapering. I joined a discussion board (Diaperswappers) to learn more, but most mamas use quite a bit of "lingo" and abbreviations that make it difficult to follow the conversation in the beginning.

To complicate matters further, there are a number of reasons a mama might want to start cloth diapering, and those reasons might help to influence the types of cloth diapers she might want to use. Knowing what you want to get out of cloth diapering, or the reasons you are starting, might help you in the long run. Some mamas just like the idea of "the best" for their baby - in which case cost for cute diapers might not be a problem. Other mamas want to help save the environment - I know I can't stand the thought of all those used diapers going into landfills every day. Some mamas want to try to save money by using reusable diapers. Some mamas have babies with sensitive skin (like mine) that have fewer rashes with cloth diapers. Some mamas want only all natural fibers next to their babies skin. Knowing the reason (or reasons) you want to try cloth diapering will help you wade through the choices.

This post will be an overview to kick off a number of posts about different aspects of cloth diapering. Each item will have other posts that provide additional detailed information - the overview is already long enough! Be sure to check the tags to find the posts on the types of diapers you are interested in. Let me know in the comments if you find any of this helpful.

Ok, here we go! A "diaper" actually requires two components - a part that absorbs and a part (waterproof or moisture resistant) that protects the clothes, bedding, furniture, carseat, etc, from getting wet. Cloth diaper "systems" have both elements.

Diaper and Cover

These systems most closely resemble your traditional "diaper and rubber pants" memory. The diaper component can be a flat, prefold, contour, or fitted, and the cover can be polyester, fleece, or wool. For this post, we will consider the polyester wrap-style covers.

A flat is a large square of thin material that can be folded in specific ways to put absorbency where you need it. A prefold is several layers of this thin material that is already shaped and sewn with the layers in the center. It still usually has to be folded to fit into the diaper cover. A fitted diaper has elastic around the legs, and sometimes has snap or velcro-type closure to keep it on. It is only made of absorbent material, however, and so will still need a waterproof cover. A contour diaper is somewhere in between a prefold and a fitted - it is usually cut to better fit inside a cover than the rectangular prefold, but might not have elastic or closures like the fitted.

The cover is usually a polyester fabric that has been laminated on one side with a very thin coating of a waterproof polymer. This fabric is usually referred to as PUL (polyurethane laminated) and so these covers are often referred to as "PUL covers". These covers can be re-used for several diaper changes, until they are soiled. They are similar to the "rubber pants" - however, they usually have velcro-like or snap closures on the sides, so they can be more easily removed from a soiled diaper. (No more pulling poopy rubber pants all the way down the legs to get them off!) As with anything else in life, there are tons of brands and you always wonder what is the best. Each has different features that some mamas can't live without and other mamas think are extraneous. I swear by Thirsties covers. They have leg gussets that help with the fit around the legs, they come in cute colors, they are not very expensive, they are well made and hold up for a long time, and they have laundry tabs to hold the aplix tabs so they don't get stuck on other diapers in the laundry. I have tried other covers that work similarly - Bummi's Super Brite and Bummi's Super Whisper Wrap were the first kinds of covers we tried. Those worked better when wee one was tiny, because the Bummi's newborn size fit better than the Thirsties XS size. However, the Bummi's don't have the leg gussets, and the Super Whisper Wrap is two layers of PUL which make it a heavier cover.

If you are looking into cloth diapering to try to save money by purchasing reusable diapers, the diaper-and-cover system can be the cheapest way to go. To save the most money, buy flats and a couple of covers. The flats are the cheapest, they will fit your baby as they grow depending on how you fold, and they can be hung to dry saving money on the laundering aspect. The downside is that there is a learning curve to learning to fold, and they may not be as absorbent as you need for a bigger baby or for nighttime. Prefolds run a close second for being affordable. However, you will need several different sizes over the course of diapering a baby, and there are folds to master here too. The simplest way to use a prefold is to fold it in thirds lengthwise and lay it into the cover. Lay your little one on top, and fasten the cover around them. Yes, it works.

Fitteds are more expensive than prefolds, and can run into the really expensive depending on what kind you get. See the post on fitteds for more discussion on this. One benefit to fitteds is that they fasten on without a cover. If you're hanging out at home, you can let your little one run around without a cover on. Some mamas say this helps prevent diaper rash, since the fitted is more breathable without a cover. Other mamas like to see the cute prints. Fitteds also help contain the poo in the diaper better than flats or prefolds, so you may be able to get away with fewer cover changes with fitteds. Since we don't use pins with prefolds, I use fitteds underneath woolies.

At this point I should probably discuss "one size" diapers. Some diapers are designed to be "one size fits most babies", and so they have some way of being adjusted to meet the needs of differently sized babies. The idea is to only have to purchase one diaper that will fit your baby from very tiny to very big. This usually works better in theory than in practice. Thirsties has come out with the idea of making two sizes, one for very small to medium sized babies, and one for medium to large toddlers. Their covers and their new pocket diapers are now available liek this. There is a cost savings to only having to buy two sizes of covers to range from small to extra-large, rather than having to buy four sizes of their previous style. However, some mamas have complained about the fit. I already had a set of medium sized covers, so I have not used the new style cover yet. I'll review it when I do.

Pocket Diapers

Another very popular type of diaper are pockets. These are diapers that look similar to the PUL covers, but there is an additional layer of fleece lining the inside that is open at one or both ends to create a "pocket". This pocket can be stuffed with the absorbent material. Pocket diapers, when stuffed, are very easy to use. Daddys, Grandmas, babysitters, and others not familiar with cloth diapers can easily recognize how to use the pocket diaper. They close in the front with velcro-like closures or snaps, and you put them on similar to disposable diapers. My daycare requires a "one-piece" cloth diaper, so I send pockets to daycare with the wee one.

There are some downsides to pocket diapers. You have to unstuff most styles of pocket diaper before putting them in the laundry, and then they all have to be re-stuffed after being dried. Most inserts are made of microfiber, which some mamas say get "the stinkies". I have not had this issue, but it gets discussed regularly on the discussion board. Pocket diapers are more expensive than prefolds and covers - and since the diaper is all in one piece, you can't re-use any part of it for the next diaper change.

Some brands of pockets are sized, meaning they come in different sizes. Some are "one size" (OS) similar to the discussion above about one size covers. The Bum Genius 3.0 is a popular one size diaper, as is the Thirsties Duo diaper that I love.

Hybrid Systems

The Gro-Baby and other systems fit into this category. The Gro Baby has a cover to fit multiple sized babies, with an absorbent insert that snaps into the cover. They tend to be pricey, and work similar to a prefold and cover system. I thought it was pretty pointless and sold mine after not using it very much. The cover worked well, but I prefer the Thirsties leg gussets and colors.


This is pretty much what it sounds like, a diaper that is all one piece. Has the advantages of pocket diapers in that it is easy to use, and most babysitters and dads are willing to use them, and you don't have to do the stuffing and unstuffing of pockets. However, they tend to take much longer to dry because you don't remove the absorbent material from the inside. I also tend to worry about them getting really clean. All-in-twos are similar to all-in-ones, but some or all of the absorbent material can be removed for washing and drying, eliminating some of that downside.

Many mamas use some of each of the different types, to meet different needs they have at different times. When I stayed at home with wee one for the first four months, we did mostly prefolds and covers, and experimented with other types. Now that she is in daycare and they require "one piece" diapers, we have pockets for that. Fitteds work better under covers since we don't pin prefolds. Our nighttime system uses pockets with extra inserts.

To add to the confusion, each diaper comes in a variety of styles and materials (more detail in a later post).

So its easy to be overwhelmed by the choices. But that's something that makes cloth diapering fun. You can always experiment and try a new diaper to see if you like it. There is always something new to try!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love some pics of her like that but no diaper