Cloth Diapering: The Different Types of Cloth Diapers

by Kate on March 29, 2013

in Frugal Living, Natural Mom

When I started looking into cloth diapers, I realized I needed a bit of a vocabulary lesson. There were all kinds of new terms and abbreviations: prefolds, flats, AIOs, AI2s, Pockets! So I thought I’d give an overview of the different types of cloth diaper, their benefits, and downsides.


Cloth Diapering MethodsFlats are largely what they sound like. A flat, square, piece of fabric, usually cotton, though hemp and bamboo are gaining in popularity. Flats are most likely what your grandmothers and great-grandmothers used (depending on how old you are… :)). To make flats work you’ll want to learn the Origami Fold. It seems a bit complicated, but women who use flats swear it becomes second nature and quick once you’re used to it. Flats will need to be secured with a snappi (a stretchy little attachment device with teeth on it to grip the fabric and keep everything secure–see image at right) or safety pins. They will also need to be covered with a cover.
Additional Products Needed: Cover, Snappis or Safety Pins
Benefits:┬áCheap! You only need to buy one set of flats ever and you can generally find them for very very cheap. Plus, many covers can be re-used before they need to be cleaned so most people say they can get away with buying just 6-10 one-size covers. They are one-size-fits-all. Easy to wash–they dry quickly, and the natural fabrics of most flats don’t retain odors and can be easily sunned to remove stains.
Downside: Definitely the most “labor intensive” route. This method has the most steps. But even still, most flats users say they’re really quite easy to use and that the ease of laundering flats far outweighs any difficulty in folding them and putting them on your baby. Most daycares won’t use them.


Methods of Cloth DiaperingPrefolds are like flats in that they’re just a square piece of fabric, but pre-folds have been prepared, or “pre” folded. Prefolds comprise many layers of fabric so they are thick and absorbent. They have also been tri-folded to be ready to put on your baby. Like Flats, Prefolds will need a cover and may need a snappi or safety pins as well depending on which folding method you choose. The easiest way to use prefolds is to trifold them. In other words just fold the prefold into thirds and place in the well of a diaper cover. Some people have success with this method but many people, especially those with babies who are still being exclusively breastfed, find tri-folding is very leak prone. The most popular prefold method for preventing leaks seems to be the jelly roll, whereby you roll the prefold inward to created a well (see video).
Additional Products Needed: Cover, Snappis or Safety Pins
Benefits: Easier to use than flats. Natural fibers clean up easily. Dry quickly. Still very affordable, especially compared to some of the more modern all-in-one diapers. As with flats, you can probably get away with buying a total of 6-10 one-size waterproof covers to reuse with prefolds unless your baby poops, when you should change the cover.
Downside: These are sized so you’ll probably need to buy 2-3 sets to diaper your baby from birth to potty training.┬áMost daycares won’t use them. Still not quite as simple to use as an all-in-one or pocket diaper, though prefold users generally argue that AIOs require so much effort to clean and Pockets require stuffing, so really it all evens out.

Pocket Diapers

Pocket Diaper-Diapering MethodsPocket Diapers are basically a diaper cover with a pocket built-in, and may or may not come with materials or inserts to stuff the pocket with for absorbency. Pocket diapers are quite easy to use once they are stuffed. In most cases you put a pocket diaper on just as you would a disposable. (The Bum Genius 4.0 pictured at the left is a very popular pocket diaper.)
Additional Products Needed: Possibly some inserts or prefolds to stuff the pocket with. You cannot use a pocket as is; it must be stuffed with absorbent material. Many pocket diapers are sold with inserts as a package.
Benefits: Customizable because you can insert any number of different materials to get just the right absorption needed for your baby. Once stuffed, very easy to use and a great option for daycares and they are used just like disposables when putting them on.
Downside: The stuffing and, in some cases, un-stuffing. In order to get the inserts properly cleaned you must take them out of the pocket for laundry. This can be pretty gross with a heavily soiled diaper. It also means you’ve got an additional laundry step. Furthermore, once everything is clean you must stuff the inserts back in to prepare the diaper for use. There are some pocket diapers which have the pockets open on both ends, allowing the inserts to agitate out in the wash so you never have to un-stuff them. But you’ll always have to re-stuff them. Also, pocket diapers are definitely more costly than pre-folds and flats.

All-In-One Diapers:

Diapering Methods-All In OnesAll-In-One (AIO) diapers are the easiest option for cloth diapering. Everything is built-in with an All-In-One diaper. These typically have a waterproof shell, an attached soaker/insert, and a soft inner lining to keep baby comfortable. There’s nothing to stuff or unstuff. These are very husband-friendly, grandparent-friendly, daycare-friendly diapers! (The Bum Genius Freetime at the right is a very well-liked AIO.)
Additional Products Needed: Possibly some inserts or prefolds but in many cases, nothing at all!
Benefits: So stinkin’ easy to use!
Downside: If the diaper’s attached soaker/insert isn’t absorbent enough for your baby then your only option is to lay a prefold or additional insert on top. While this can work, when added inserts aren’t secured sometimes they can move around, causing leaks. AIOs can also be harder to keep clean because you can’t take out the soaker to ensure it gets enough water/soap circulation/pressure. But many AIOs are secured only at one or both ends, so the insert can flop about freely in the wash. Finally, AIOs generally take longer to dry.

All-In-Two Diapers

Cloth Diapering Methods-AI2sAll-In-Two (AI2) diapers use snaps to allow you snap inserts in and out. That way you can use them like an AIO (just leave the inserts snapped in) but you generally have a bit more choice in the material used for your inserts. (The popular Grovia Hybrid Diaper at the right shows how the inserts snap in.)
Additional Products Needed: Some AI2 diapers are sold with both the shell and inserts together, but generally you buy the shell and inserts separately since most people want to be able to customize.
Benefits: Very easy to use and customizeable!
Downside: Expensive! AI2’s are generally the most expensive cloth diapers, especially if you choose higher end materials.

So there’s the general overview of all the cloth diaper options! If you can afford them, it’s great to have at least a few AIOs and AI2s on-hand for late night changes or friends/family/nannies who don’t know how to use prefolds. Overall though, it seems different systems work for different people. So perhaps start off with a mix of options and then zero in on what works best for you!

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*In the spirit of full disclosure, links to products in this post may be affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission if you decide to purchase any of the products I recommend. Know that I only recommend products that I have used and love myself.

*I am not a doctor, a nurse, or any kind of health practitioner. I’m just a gal with a pretty keen intuitive sense, great research abilities, and curiosity that is easily peaked. Please understand that my advice is really just another opinion and it’s for you (and your doctor) to decide the best course for your health and well-being.

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