The ABCs of Going Cloth

By Elizabeth Gawlik
posted with permission

It’s the middle of the night and my baby is squalling. I reach into the hamper for another diaper and discover that only two are left. I realize it’s time—not to run to the store for diapers, but to do a load of laundry.

I am one of a growing number of parents who use cloth diapers. I chose cloth for a number of reasons, including budget, the environment, and my baby’s comfort. I’ve learned from my experience that cloth diapers can be easier to use than I would have imagined, and can fit into any budget or lifestyle.

When I learned I was pregnant with my first child, I decided to use cloth first because of my concern for the environment. My husband and I recycle and try to produce as little waste as possible, and I knew that using disposable diapers would dramatically increase the amount of waste we produced. We knew that disposable diapers are a huge contributor to our nation’s landfills, and decided we didn’t want to add to the pile. In fact, if you had to keep all of your baby’s dirty disposable diapers in your house, you’d fill up the house with diapers before your baby was potty-trained.

When I decided to use cloth diapers, I had no idea how many choices were out there. I just went to the largest baby store in town and looked at the few options they had. Only later did I discover the smorgasbord of clothdiapering products available via the Internet. After some trial and error, I was able to find the best kind of diaper to suit my budget, my lifestyle, and my baby. To save you some time and effort, I’ve outlined the types of cloth diapers currently available.

The Diapers

Prefold diapers: These may be what come to mind when you think of cloth diapers. They’re rectangular, with a thicker layer in the middle and thinner layers on the two sides. Most prefolds can be folded over for young babies, then used unfolded all the way up to potty-training. They range in price from $2 to $5 each, and can usually be purchased by the dozen. Prefolds must be combined with a diaper cover, of which there are several kinds.

Contour diapers: These diapers are the next step up in price from prefolds, but they’re also a step up in convenience. Like disposables, contour diapers are shaped like an hourglass, and usually have thick padding in the middle. They can be laid directly in a wrap without having to be folded, and can therefore be easier than prefolds to put on a wiggly baby. Contours must be used with one of the types of covers described on page 54, and need to be pinned when used with pull-up pants, bubble wrap, and some wool covers. Due to their shape, you may have to buy two sizes of contours for your baby’s diapering lifetime. Prices range from $6 to $10 each.

Fitted diapers: These have elasticized waists and legs and fasten with snaps or Velcro. Most fitted diapers come in several sizes; you’ll probably need at least two different sizes over your baby’s diapering lifetime. Some fitteds, however, can be snapped or folded down to fit newborns, then expanded to fit babies up to potty-training age. Fitteds work well with any of the covers described above; many parents use pull-up pants, which tend to be the least expensive covers. Costing from $8 to $20 each, fitted diapers are at the higher end of the price range but can be a great deal in the long run.

All-in-one diapers: All-in-ones are the closest cloth option to disposables in terms of fit and ease of use. They consist of a fitted diaper with an attached waterproof layer that serves as a cover, and fasten with Velcro or snaps. Many parents who use prefolds or contours at home use all-in-ones for daycare, outings, or babysitters. Even die-hard users of disposables don’t have problems using a one-piece cloth diaper that fastens with Velcro the same way a disposable fastens with tape. Although all-in-ones sell for $10 to $25, in the long run the cost isn’t as much as it seems because covers aren’t required.

Pocket diapers: The latest advance in cloth diapers, pocket diapers consist of a waterproof outer layer and a soft inner layer, often of microfleece. These are sewn together along the edges, leaving an opening in the front or back. To complete the diaper, you insert in the pocket anything absorbent: a hand towel, a prefold diaper, or one of a number of specially made inserts. Once the insert is in, pocket diapers work like all-in-ones, and close with snaps or Velcro—no additional cover is needed. Moisture passes through the inner fleece layer into the insert, leaving the baby dry. A great advantage to pocket diapers is that you can customize the insert’s absorbency, increasing it for night use, naps, or heavy wetters. Many parents who use other kinds of cloth diapers during the day—even disposables—use pockets as their nighttime system. They average $15 each.

When my baby was born, I used prefold diapers with Velcro wraps because they seemed to be the best value while still being easy to use. These worked great when my baby was a newborn, but as he grew older and we were more often on the go, I looked for an easier option. After trying a few different kinds, I settled on pocket diapers. One reason was that the prefolds I’d already purchased worked well as pocket inserts, so that initial investment wasn’t wasted. Because our baby was almost big enough for the largest size of pocket diaper, we bought a stock of those, then continued to use prefolds and wraps until he grew into them. All of this represented an investment of about $700; our only additional costs were for detergent and water.

Swim diapers: Your use of cloth diapers needn’t stop when you leave dry land—there are many wonderful swim diapers out there, and if you use pocket diapers, you already have a great swim diaper on hand. Just take out the insert, fasten it onto your child (you’ll have to secure it a bit more tightly), and you’re ready to swim! The purpose of a swim diaper is to hold in poop, not pee. If your pocket diaper does that normally, it should work as a swim diaper.

If you use another system, you can buy a diaper specifically designed for swimming. Most are made of material similar to that used in women’s swimsuits and look a little like bikinistyle underwear. Some come with snaps on one or both sides for easy removal in case of a bowel movement. Some companies make girls’ swim tops to match the swim diapers (see photo at bottom of page 50), and a few also make, for boys, swim shorts with an inner diaper. Reusable swim diapers have become so popular that you may be able to find one at your local baby or department store, or online. Two links for swim diapers: and

Training pants: When it comes time to potty train, you can stick with cloth throughout the process. Some people find that their cloth-diapered babies potty-train more easily and earlier than their disposable-diapered peers. Many types of cloth training pants are available. The oldest and most easily found are cotton underwear with a thick absorbent middle panel. If you use these, both you and your child will know right away when accidents occur, which helps some children learn to use the potty more quickly.

If your child takes his time to learn, however, or you don’t want to clean up so many messes, there are other options. If you already have large enough pull-up covers on hand, you can use these as extra protection over cotton training pants—an inexpensive system that works well for some. If you’re looking for something a little more absorbent, try a pocket training pant. Several pocket-diaper companies make stuffable training pants for older children that are designed along the same principles as pocket diapers, but pull up and down easily so your toddler can achieve potty independence, and usually come equipped with snaps for easy removal. One advantage of such pants is that you can stuff them lightly during the day, as your child begins to catch on to using the potty, and more heavily at night for a child who still wets in his sleep or is not motivated to get out of bed.

Finally, there are a number of waterproof pull-up training pants. Basically, these are thick cotton underpants and a pull-up cover in one. While these are slightly more absorbent than most cotton training pants and won’t allow accidents to leak onto clothes, they look and feel more like underwear.
Additional links for training pants:,,, and

Pull-up pants: In the past, these covers were usually made of plastic, but many advances have been made in recent years. Pull-ups are now often made of polyurethane- laminated cloth, which waterproofs the cloth so that the diapers don’t leak through. Prefolds must be pinned in order to be used with pull-ups, and you’ll have to buy several sizes as your baby grows. They come in all sorts of colors and patterns, and cost from $6 to $15 each.

Wraps: These covers feature a waterproof outer layer, and sometimes a cloth inner layer that grips the diaper and keeps it from sliding around. They fasten either with Velcro or a series of adjustable snaps. You can use prefolds without pins: Just fold the diaper in thirds, lay it in the wrap, and fasten with the Velcro or snaps. As with pull-up pants, you’ll have to buy several sizes as your baby grows. The cost ranges from $6 to $15 each.

Bubble wraps: These are usually made of polyurethane- laminated cloth and fasten with snaps at the sides. They run big, to allow airflow so the diaper can “breathe.” Sizes in this cover style overlap quite a bit, but Smalls should fit most babies for a long time. If your baby fits into a Small for six months, you might be able to skip to a Large and save by not buying Mediums. This will depend on your baby’s build: Chubby babies often skip sizes, but skinny babies don’t. When used under bubble wraps, prefold diapers must be pinned. $8 to $12 each.

Wool wraps and pants: For parents who love natural fibers, wool covers are the way to go, and are available in both wrap and pull-up pants styles. Wool is waterresistant, not waterproof, but these covers are likely to leak only if the diaper is totally saturated, and at that point you’d want to change it anyway. Wool neutralizes urine, and wool covers can be used many more times before washing than other covers can. They need to be washed only every few weeks, or when soiled. However, wool is expensive; these covers cost between $18 and $40 each.

Pulling it All Together

I’ve found that it’s best to have 30 diapers on hand for my baby. This allows me to wash every three-and-a-half days and still have a few clean diapers left for baby to wear while I’m doing the laundry. If you want to do wash only about twice a week, you’ll need anywhere from two to three dozen diapers. Because you can usually reuse covers several times a day, you’ll need only six to eight covers, and even fewer if they’re wool.

Diapers can be stored in any kind of covered pail until wash day. (I use an empty kitty-litter pail.) Most diapers get clean with a short soak or pre-rinse and a normal wash; use the same detergent you use with all of your baby’s clothes. You can cut down on stains by laying your diapers out in the sun to dry. Or, if using an electric dryer,set on High (prefolds, contours, most fitteds) or Low (all-in-ones, pockets). If you can do a load of laundry, you can wash cloth diapers.

Now that you’ve been introduced to the world of cloth diapers, what’s stopping you? Go do some exploring and shopping. Even if you decide to use cloth only at home and stick with disposables for trips and outings, you’ll be doing your pocketbook, your baby, and your planet a big favor.

Beth Gawlik is a wife, mother, and freelance writer who lives in Lexington, Kentucky. When she’s not busy chasing after her toddler, she enjoys playing with her four cats, writing fiction for older children, and reading everything from juvenile fiction to scientific studies, with lots of picture books in between.


  1. we LOVE our cloth and I can't imagine using any other diaper. I'm so glad we decided to do this for our baby. We use pockets mostly and I'm going to be sad when my daughter potty learns!

  2. Thanks for your article!!! The lack of information available to me about the world of cloth and my love of cloth diapers inspired me to open my own babywearing and cloth diaper business and I love every minute of it!!! It is one of the 3 things I will miss most when my children grow up. ~ Kristen Eaton

  3. We invested in pre-folds and covers for our baby and if we don't change him every 30 minutes to an hour he gets terrible diaper rash. We've decided (which I do not like at all) to use disposable at night and cloth during the day. Thanks for all the helpful information. It took a lot of time on my part to research not only cloth/covers but detergent as well...but all very well worth it!

  4. I would watch using any detergent. Cloth diaper pros have taught me that not all detergents are created equal! Absorbency is lost if using over-scented and softening detergent as most people use for their babies.
    Anonymous #2, it may be your detergent causing the rash. We have had very little rash with our baby since we switched to cloth at 4 months old.

  5. Thank you for putting this together!
    I have found that not all detergent is cloth diaper safe. Rockin Green & Fuzzibunz brand detergents are our favorite!
    Anonymous #1- I completely agree!
    Anonymous # 2- I'm sorry you're having problems. That definitely souds like ammonia build up. Look into stripping your diapers. I use regular Dawn dish soap & scrub with a brush or soak them in Rockin Green. I always let my loads soak for about 30 minutes before washing & do an extra rinse.



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