Cloth Diapers Explained in Disposable-eese

This one's for you, Nisha-dog. 

 Thank you, Microsoft clip art, for this awesome photo.

The Parts of a Disposable Diaper

The outside of a disposable diaper is plastic and holds all the wet in.  We’ll call it the waterproof shell.  The inside layer that touches your baby’s skin is a stay-dry plastic material, we’ll call it the stay-dry layer. The inner workings of the disposable are cellulose pulp and SAP (super absorbent polymer).  That’s what holds all the pee.  We’ll call it the absorption.  [For more on the anatomy of a disposable, click here.]

Disposable Diaper
Photo from

Types of Cloth Diapers

Now let’s discuss the different types of cloth diapers in terms of the parts of a disposable diaper, with the plusses and minuses of each.

An all-in-one (AIO) cloth diaper is equivalent to a disposable diaper, except it’s reusable!  It has a waterproof shell on the outside, probably something like polyester laminate, that fastens closed with Velcro or snaps.  In the middle is the absorption, could be natural (cotton, bamboo, hemp) or synthetic (polyester).  Then a stay-dry layer that rests against your baby’s skin, which will be made of a synthetic fabric.  Here are some examples.  I do not have a favorite all-in-one cloth diaper.  Now for the plusses and minuses.

+ Easy, just like a disposable!
- Expensive
- Can’t wash too many at a time because they are bulky
- Take a while to dry in the dryer because they are thick and bulky
- If one part breaks down (say the Velcro), the whole thing is useless, unless you can fix it yourself or get someone else to fix it

Prefolds with covers is the other end of the spectrum.  The waterproof shell is the diaper cover, which is usually made of polyester laminate with Velcro or snaps. The absorption is provided by the prefold, which is basically a very thick rectangular piece of cotton cloth.  Don't worry about why they are called prefolds.  You can fold it in fancy ways, but I just fold it in thirds and lay it inside the cover, fasten the Velcro on the cover, and I'm done!  There is no stay-dry layer.   My favorite cover is a Thirsties cover – lightweight, very waterproof, and double leg gussets (2 sets of elastic at the legs which help to contain those pooplosions).  I like unbleached prefolds – they absorb more and are better for the environment.

+ Cheap, cheap, cheap!  By far the cheapest option
+ Reuse the cover many times. I only wash mine if poop gets on it
+ You can wash lots and lots of the prefolds together and they dry the quickest
+ Just as easy as putting on an off a disposable, in my opinion
- No stay-dry layer, if you care.  I don’t.  Except at night, when I use a pocket diaper

Last but not least is the pocket diaper.  Pocket diapers are halfway between the all-in-one cloth diaper and the prefold with a cover.  The pocket diaper is made of a cover and insert.  The cover is both the waterproof shell AND the stay-dry lining, with a hole or pocket between the two – like an all-in-one diaper with nothing in the middle (no absorption).  You stuff the pocket diaper with the absorption of your choice.  Pocket diapers come with very absorbent synthetic inserts (rectangular white thing pictured above) that you can stuff inside the pocket to serve as absorption.  You can stuff the cover with EXTRA absorption (extra inserts/doublers made of synthetic material or natural material like hemp, or even just one of your prefolds) for naps, overnight, long car rides, etc.  So pocket diapers are a little more versatile than all-in-one diapers.  Since you cannot reuse the cover (as you can with prefolds and covers), since the cover gets dirty with each using (remember part of the cover is against the baby's skin), about the same amount of laundry as all-in-ones, but faster to dry than all-in-ones since the insert is removable.  My favorite pocket diaper is the BumGenius.  I use it at night, stuffed with the synthetic insert plus two hemp inserts.

+ Easy: if you stuff ahead of time, just like a disposable
+ Medium expensive
- Synthetic inserts tend to be smellier than natural materials
- Lots to launder

Clear as mud, yes? There are further nuances, such as all-in-one diapers with no stay-dry layer, and fitted diapers with covers, but we shan't get into that right now.  This is just an introduction!

Guess which cloth diapering system is my current favorite?  You will find devotees of every variation of cloth diapers.

Some other great introductions to cloth diapers (types, laundering, cost, etc.):
Jillian's Diapers New to Cloth Diapers?
Cotton Babies Cloth Diaper Basics
Diaper Jungle Cloth Diaper Guide
The Eco-nomical Baby Guide (book) has a great introduction to cloth diapers.

Any questions?


  1. Why didn't I look into this with Sophie? I seriously feel like I'm missing out bigtime on this frugal, earth saving goodness. Next baby, I'm using cloth!

  2. Hey, now that you have me REALLY thinking about this. Landon is only 11 months. We have at least another year of diapers with him. Do you think I should switch with him? How often do better cloth diaps come on the market? Would I want all new with the next baby? Where is the best place to by these? There you go - Q&A for your next post ;)

  3. Nisha! Totally, go for it! We started my son on cloth around 9-10 months and it's was more than worth it (and we got him out of diapers at 23 months, and did EC so we wouldn't even have used as many disposables anyway--so WAY more worth it for someone using diapers full-time). We saved lots of money, but it goes way beyond that. Cloth is an investment in your child. It's much healthier for them, and the extra care you put into diapering can actually increase feelings of love for your child (that might sound strange, but I swear it's true). A possible bonus is that your child will potty-learn sooner. I say go for it!


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