We are going back to basics with this post! If you are just beginning your cloth diaper journey, or are preparing to start in a few more months once the baby arrives, you will find this guide to each style of diaper informative. If you’re already an experienced user of cloth diapers this may bore you. The goal of this post is to show parents the differences between each major style of cloth diaper. There are smaller differences within each larger group and the steps referenced in the guide only refer to putting the diaper on/taking off. It doesn’t reference one size vs sized diapers or snaps vs velcro.
The cloth diaper options today are very overwhelming, but if you break it down into smaller, bite size chunks it is much easier to understand.
An All-in-One (AIO) is considered to be the closest cloth diaper to a disposable. It is just one simple step away from BEING a disposable. It goes on, and comes off, just like a disposable. The only difference in practice is that you have to go one-step further and wash/dry it. You do pay a premium for convenience, this style of diaper can be the most expensive, often costing between $25-$30 each. Still, you will save money in the long term over buying disposable diapers.
Pocket diapers are the most popular choice because they are still just two steps away from a disposable, but are often more affordable than the All-in-One. A pocket diaper needs to have the insert stuffed inside of the envelope opening and often, removed before washing. Stuffing/un-stuffing adds one more step, plus washing after use, so it is two-steps away from a disposable diaper. Not bad, not bad at all!
The All-in-Two (AI2, AKA Hybrid if used with disposable inserts) combines features of a few types of diapers into one. These vary wildly by brand in how they work, but the premise is that you have a reusable shell, often with a wipeable lining, and have absorbent soakers that snap or lay into the cover. The inserts are removed when soiled and replaced with a clean insert several times before needing a new cover. Securing the inserts is one step, removing and replacing the insert is another, and washing is the last and final step. This one was hard to quantify since it could be a 2 step or 4 step depending on the brand and who you ask. I went with 3 steps to cover all bases. AI2’s are an affordable option that still offers a lot of convenience.
Fitteds+Covers are now bringing us to a new range of diapers- non-waterproof. The Fitted diaper looks like a one-piece diaper and is, but lacks any waterproofing so it relies on a separate waterproof cover to keep moisture in. This means the diaper changer has to apply two completely different diapers on the baby for each change, even if the cover is reused. Often, like you see above, the fitted has a lot of snaps on the waist (not always the case) but pairing with a velcro closing cover can make up for lost time in application. Apply the fitted (usually one piece), apply the cover on top, then wash which makes it 3 steps away from a disposable.
Prefolds+Covers add one more step. Prefolds require that you fold the diaper to put it on the baby (or fold into a trifold and lay in a cover, essentially creating an AI2 and going down to 3 steps). Once you fold the diaper on the baby, you then must secure the diaper onto them using either a Snappi, Boingos, or pin(s). Once that is done you need to apply the waterproof cover on top. This means you are 4 steps away from a disposable-fold, secure, cover, wash. Don’t let the number of steps scare you, prefolds are easy to use with a bit of practice, but do take a little longer per change, especially when you first start using them.
Flats+Covers have the most steps and the steepest learning curve, but the reward is a very inexpensive diapering system that is very effective. You begin with a large (28×28 or so) square of fabric. To turn it into a diaper you have to fold it several times, sometimes folds require 4-8 different folds vs 2-4 for prefolds). Folding the diaper is 2 steps in our chart since the folds have so many steps. Then you need to secure the diaper onto the baby using a Snappi, Boingos, or pin(s). Next, put the waterproof cover on top, then wash. All of these steps bring us to a grand total of 5. This system is the farthest removed from the ease of disposables, yet a lot of parents prefer them over All-in-Ones and not just because of the significant price difference. To remove a step and make it easier, you can also do a pad fold to make the square into a long rectangle, lay it in the cover, and essentially create an AI2.
This visual reference is an easy way to understand how each system differs in practice from one another. A diaper with 2 steps is not rated better or worse than one with 4. In the grand scheme of diapering there are things that make the easiest diaper harder (some are harder to wash and take longer to dry) than flats, which are harder to put on but easier to wash and faster to dry.
I completely understand how overwhelming cloth diapering can be and hope this is helpful to your research. For more on cloth diapering, visit my “New to Cloth Diapers” page for more helpful videos and articles. You can also browse diapers by type on the searchable cloth diaper database Cloth Diaper Finder.