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Cloth Diaper Systems

Starting out new to cloth diapering can be confusing!  So many brands, systems, new terminology and options.  You can make yourself crazy researching, the more you learn the more there seems to be to know.  It's like riding a bike, explaining how it is done sounds terribly complicated and sometimes impossible.  But once you actually try it, you realize it wasn't nearly as complex as you thought.  Here we will get back to basics a bit and try and help clear up some confusion.

There are three basic "systems" for cloth diapering.

  1. All in Ones
  2. Pocket Diapers
  3. Fitteds or prefolds and cover

All in Ones

The first is by far the simplest and probably the most familiar to current disposable users.  There are no extra pieces, the diaper has both the absorbent pieces and the waterproof outer "all in one."  They may have various shapes, fabrics and styles of absorbent innners, but they all function primarily the same way.  They close either at the hip or on the front panel with snaps or hook and loop closure.  Sometimes these are the easiest for caregivers unfamiliar with cloth diapers to use. 

The drawback is that the absorbency differs by brand.  If the diaper is not absorbent enough for your child, you can add a doubler, but this can be awkward in some diapers and defeats the whole premise of having everything all in one diaper.  

Pocket Diapers 

Pocket diapers come in at least 2 pieces.  First is the waterproof outer with a wicking liner, and second is the absorbent inner piece.  The diaper is sewn with an opening at one end, sort of like your pillow case.  Inside this space, you insert the absorbent piece, usually sewn in a rectangular shape.  The main benefit of this system is customization of the absorbency.  If your child is a heavy wetter or it is bedtime and he or she will be wearing the diaper all night, you can add extra pads to increase the absorbency.

The drawback is that to wash, you must remove the pads.  Sometimes this can be a less than pleasant experience, although holding the diaper upside down and shaking will usually cause the insert to fall out into the washer.  Some people find that their washing machine seperates out the pad in the wash all by itself.

Fitteds or prefolds and covers

This system is made up of two main parts.  In this, the absorbent piece is a diaper in itself but requires a separate waterproof cover.  If you remember cloth diapering at all, there's a good chance this is the system you remember.  Flat diapers fastened with pins and rubber pants was the standard before disposables came along.  Even this basic system has greatly improved however.  

For the absorbent diaper, you will find adorable prints, hand dyed organic and bamboo cotton velours, hemp, or just about anything you can imagine.  They will have several layers of absorbency, depending on the construction and brand.  This style of diaper is usually extremely absorbent without the folding required by prefolds.   

Prefolds are generally made from 100% cotton gauze or twill.  Avoid the Gerber brand sold in many department stores if it has a polyester padded middle.  Polyester does not absorb anything, and you will need to change very often to avoid leaks.  Instead, look online for Indian or Chinese prefolds in either bleached or unbleached cotton.  These look a little flat when you get them, but once washed a few times they are soft and cushy.  They can be pinned, fastened with a Snappi, or simply laid in a cover and put on baby.  Prefolds are still the most economical way to cloth diaper, and many still prefer them over "fancier" systems.  Folding them correctly can take a little practice, but before long you will be an expert.  They are very trim, extremely absorbent, and dry quickly.

With both types of diapers you will need something to act as the waterproof cover.  Here you have four options-

  1. PUL covers
  2. Fleece covers
  3. Nylon covers
  4. Wool cover

PUL covers are usually front or side snapping and have an inner lining of something soft against baby's skin for comfort.

Fleece covers are highly breathable and usually made from Malden Mills waterproof or 200-300 weight fleece.  These are great covers, although sometimes bulky and can sometimes "compression wick."  That means when pressure is applied to one area of the cover, such as a seatbelt in the car, moisture can leak through the pressure point.

Nylon covers are more breathable than PUL but a little less than fleece or wool.  They can be pull on, side snapping or front snapping depending on the brand and are usually one layer thick.

Wool covers can be knit with yarn or sewn with wool fabric.  The types of yarn and fabric vary, but the function is about the same.  Wool makes a great diaper cover.  It is very breathable and the only natural fiber cover available.  Wool covers should be treated with lanolin, which is the natural substance secreted by sheep.  This allows the wool cover to repel water and be very waterproof.  It can also be subject to compression wicking.

There is no one "right" system for everyone.  Many online stores offer sample packs so you can find the system that works best for your family.  Alternatively, you can buy a few of each style used and find your favorite.  Used diapers in good condition can be resold on sites like Diaper Traders and Hyena Cart, so you won't end up spending tons of money on things that may not don't work.  Don't forget that even an expensive cloth diaper is still cheaper than a weeks worth of diapers you will only put in the trash after they are used.  Chances are you will still come out ahead even if a few diapers you try don't work for you.  If your baby is already here, chances are good you can decide from this list what system will work best for him or her and your family. 

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