25 January 2013

Cloth Diapering: The Basics

Cloth diapering is a confusing world, so I thought I'd share what I've learned over the last six months in hopes of helping others who are considering cloth diapering. My goal is not to proselytize (though I admit that I'm bound to fail at this from time to time); rather, I want to share an accurate look at the realities of diapering and make note of some pros and cons along the way.

Let's break it down. For each diaper, at a minimum, you need to pick a type of diaper, whether you want it sized or one size, and a type of closure. Confused yet? I'll walk you through the options and jargon.

Diaper Systems and Related Gadgets

Prefold: This is what most people imagine when they think "cloth diaper." Prefold refers to the rectangle piece of layered cotton (or bamboo or hemp these days) with two lines sewed down the middle to "prefold" the cloth. It forms the absorbant part of the diaper and comes in different sizes and thicknesses that may or may not need to be increased as the baby grows, depending upon your tolerance for bulk. A prefold can be either bleached or unbleached. It must be paired with a cover (see below) for a complete diaper. This is generally the least expensive cloth diapering option. It also requires the most labor when putting the diaper on and is generally the least trim.

Prefolds (I love these ones.)

Fitted Diaper: This is an alternative to a prefold for the absorbant layer of a diaper. As the name suggests, it is fitted, providing a more trim experience but also needing to be replaced with larger sizes as the baby grows. It must be paired with a cover for a complete diaper.

Fitted Diaper

Snappi: Officially, this is a brand name, though it's also the common name for the gadget. A snappi is the modern version of diaper pins. It has three arms, with the longest two reaching to each side of the diaper and the short one connecting to the center of the diaper between the legs of the baby. It is used in conjunction with a prefold under a cover, though a prefold can be used with a cover without a snappi. Snappis come in different sizes, and the packages say they should not be used for any longer than six months.

Cover: This is (more or less) the product that was called plastic pants a generation ago and is generally made out of polyurethane laminate (PLU) or some other waterproof fabric. It goes outside of an absorbant layer to form the waterproof layer of a diaper.

Covers - hook and eye on left; snaps on right (Thirsties Duo Wrap)
Covers - hook and eye on left; snaps on right (Thirsties Duo Wrap)
This is how a prefold sits inside a cover without Snappis.  
This is a wool cover. They're supposed to be good because they absorb liquid when the absorbant layer is full (rather than PLU, which continues wicking and tends to leak when capacity is reached). I've never used it.

Pocket Diaper: This has some soft material (cotton, bamboo, hemp) sewn into the waterproof outer, creating a pocket. In the pocket, you insert an absorbant pad to do the heavy lifting. Some pocket diapers have the insert sewn into the diaper on one end so that it's always attached but will come out of the pocket in the wash; others use a completely separate, detached insert. A pocket diaper, when used with its designated insert, is a complete diaper.

Empty pocket diaper with insert (Charlie Banana)
Insert going into the pocket (Charlie Banana)
Complete pocket diaper (Charlie Banana)

All-in-One Diaper: Like the name suggests, the waterproof outer and absorbant inner are all sewn together to create one complete diaper. This gives you an experience as close to disposable diapering as you'll get with cloth diapers...at least as far as taking the diaper on and off. Many all-in-ones accommodate additional inserts to boost absorbancy. This is generally the most expensive route for cloth diapering, though not always significantly more expensive.

All in One (Thirsties Duo All in One)
All in One (Thirsties Duo All in One)

Hybrid Diaper: There are many variations between pocket diapers and all-in-ones in which multiple pieces come together to form a complete diaper. (In many ways, a pocket diaper is just a type of a hybrid diaper.) A hybrid diaper is generally more trim and less complex than the prefold/cover combination but not as simple as an all-in-one. One example of a hybrid is the snap-in-one, in which pads of varying absorbancy can be snapped into a waterproof outer layer to create custom absorbancy.

Hybrid (itti bitti d'lish snap in one)
Hybrid (itti bitti d'lish snap in one)

Booster: These "pads" can be made of a variety of material, including bamboo, hemp, and cotton. They are added to a complete diaper of whatever variety in order to enhance the absorbancy. Because they're super absorbant, I've found that they take a long time to dry.

Booster (Thirsties hemp)

Diaper Sizing

One Size Diaper: This is the diaper equivalent of one size fits all. These diapers generally come with a bunch of snaps along the middle of the outside of the diaper or around the legs to customize the fit as the baby gets bigger. Some diapers claim to be one size from newborn to toddler, though I'm skeptical that anything can fit well the whole time. Of note, covers, pocket diapers, all-in-ones, and hybrids can all be one size diapers.

One size cover snapped down to its smallest (Rumparooz)
Same one size cover expanded to its largest (Rumparooz)

Sized Diaper: This is the opposite of a one size diaper in that it comes in various sizes, each meant to fit a child within a specific range of weights. Therefore, sized items have to be replaced by larger ones as the child grows. Covers, fitted diapers, pocket diapers, all-in-ones, and hybrids can all be sized.

This is a medium, which replaced the small and will eventually need replaced by a large. (itti bitti d'lish snap in one)

Diaper Closures

Hook and Loop: This is more commonly called Velcro. This is one option for closure of covers, pocket diapers, all-in-ones, and hybrid diapers. It allows for the most customized sizing but may wear out and get stuck on other things in the laundry. Note that most diapering products that use hook and loop come with a place to secure the hooks in the laundry; I've had mixed results with these staying closed in the washer/dryer.

Hook and eye on the left. Because the tabs are double sided with Velcro, the tabs can overlap and provide a tight fit. 
This is how the hook and eye should be secured when not in use.
But it often comes open anyway and collects fuzz.

Snaps: This is the other option for closure of covers, pocket diapers, all-in-ones, and hybrid diapers. When baby's size is between snaps, the fit becomes imperfect. In general, it's more secure than hook and loop, thus harder for little ones to remove on their own when they get to an age where they want free of a diaper. They also tend to last a little longer than hook and loop.

Snaps on the right
Two different snap systems, expanded to their largest.
Two different snap systems at their smallest waist
By having outward facing snaps on the tabs, the tabs can overlap to make the waist smaller if necessary.

Are you still there? Take a minute to congratulate yourself for taking the first step toward understanding the crazy world of cloth diapers and give yourself some time to absorb your many options. Check back soon to read about the logistics of getting started with cloth diapers and read the day-to-day reality of cloth diapering from some moms who've been there. (Yep, I said moms. I'm hosting my first guest!) In the mean time, feel free to leave questions in the comments.

The rest of the cloth diapering series:
   Getting Started & Daily Care
   Kendra, Greg, & Kenley's Experience
   Our Experience & Product Reviews
   Traveling with Cloth Diapers


Janie said...

Wow! When you were little, I used cloth diapers and we simply had flat or prefolded. Period. end of diaper logistics. This article should be submitted to a parent magazine. I certainly learned a lot.
The Mama

denayeb said...

My head is spinning. Information overload.

aaron and misha said...

Yes! Love this. Bookmarking for the future.