When I first started looking into cloth diapers (nappies for our Brits), it was confusing and overwhelming. Now that I've figured it out, I figured I'd break it down for you!
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Snaps vs. Velcro
Before I get into the different systems, I thought I'd explain snaps vs. velcro, because you'll notice this when you start looking into cloth diapers. Some diapers are made with snaps and some are made with velcro tabs, commonly known in the cloth diaper world as hook and loops. Here are the common opinions on both.
Velcro/Hook & Loop: Using velcro is easy and most similar to using disposables. It can also sometimes help you get a better fit on your baby, but depending on the quality of the velcro, they tend to wear out more easily. I believe most (if not all) are now made with laundry tabs to prevent the velcro from ruining other diapers in the wash. If they don't have the laundry tabs, then that is a downside to that velcro diaper. The other potential downside is that once your baby gets older, they will probably start to fiddle with their diapers and with velcro they can easily undo their own diapers. For these reasons, I initially avoided hook & loop diapers. Why spend money on something that will wear out easily, or that later I'll struggle to keep on my child? However, recently I came across a Scottish brand of diapers, called TotsBots, that consistently gets rave reviews. At first, I was disappointed because they only have hook & loop diapers. However, I decided to look into reviews and found that everyone who has used their diapers has been very positive about the high quality of the velcro. One parent even specifically noted that her daughter's exploratory hands were not able to undo her diaper. So, I decided to get a couple of their covers. I'll keep you posted on how I like them! Many also recommend velcro for newborns when you're doing changes every 2-3 hours for convenience, and they're also easier for caregivers who are not used to using cloth diapers.
Snaps: Snaps are probably the most common type. Even on velcro diapers, you'll have snaps to adjust "the rise" of the diaper, which is the length of the diaper. So, if you've got a diaper with snaps, they'll have snaps for the rise, as well as the waist. This is how cloth diapers can last from newborn to toddler ages, or some have other sizing options. Snaps are sturdy and easy to use, but as mentioned, depending on the shape of your baby, velcro tabs may help you get a better fit. That being said, I've not heard anyone complain about snaps.
Now, I'll get into the different systems or types of diapers.
Normally when people break down cloth diapering systems, they start in a different order. I am going to start with the most straight forward one, especially for those who are resistant or reluctant to try cloth diapers. AIOs are the easiest to use and most similar to using disposable diapers. The only difference between using these and disposables, is that instead of disposing of the diapers after each change, you wash them and reuse them (Stay tuned for a post on washing diapers and dealing with the poo!). AIOs tend to be more expensive, because they have all the absorbency built into them. So, you don't have to do anything but secure them onto your little babe. It doesn't get easier or more straight forward than AIOs. That being said, as I mentioned they tend to be more expensive, because more is built into them. Depending on how big your stash is, if you just have AIOs and a moderate to minimal stash, there can also be more wear and tear, because you have to wash them with every use. They also take longer to dry when you wash them, because everything is built in, and they are bulkier for travel (though some brands have accomplished trimmer AIOs). If you have a heavy-wetter and the absorbency is not enough for your baby, I'm keen to say you can still add a booster or extra insert for extra absorbency, but keep in mind it will also make your probably already bulky diaper a bit bulkier. Bulk doesn't bother me, but some people aren't a fan of bulky booties. I personally think it's cute, and as long as the baby is comfy I'm all for a fluffy bum.
To mind our budget, I've decided not to get any AIOs at this time. However, in the future we may consider some, especially as they tend to be easier for other caregivers to use.
Flats, Prefolds, and Fitted Diapers
Each of these diapers: flats, prefolds, and fitted, require a waterproof cover. But if you have the recommended minimum stash of 24 diapers regardless of system, you do not need 24 covers. You'll need a minimum of 4-8 covers depending on how often you do laundry. So, think of this as a two-step system.
Flats and prefolds are apparently the most similar to what our grandparents probably used. However, these days our flats and prefolds are much more absorbent and the overall quality much higher. Flats are essentially a giant piece of fabric, usually made of cotton or even flannel. Nowadays you can also get hemp an bamboo flats which are way more absorbent than cotton. This giant piece of fabric is then folded/wrapped around your baby and then fastened onto your baby with pins, Snappies, or Boingos (Snappies and Boingos are so easy to use!), or it can be pad folded, which doesn't require any fastener. Pad folding is essentially folding your giant piece of fabric into a rectangular shape that you then lay into the waterproof cover you will need to go along with this system, and then the cover is snapped or velcro-ed onto your baby. Prefolds are like a smaller version of flats, but you'll notice they have three panels, and usually come in a 4x8x4 configuration. This means that the outer two panels have 4 layers of fabric each, while the middle layer has 8 layers. When you pad fold prefolds, you're just tri-folding them. It's the easiest, laziest way to use cloth diapers.
You can also use inserts or add boosters (sometimes known as doublers0 for extra absorbency. Inserts are meant to be used as the main absorbency in a diaper, but our son is a heavy wetter so they aren't usually sufficient alone. Boosters might be thinner than inserts and are used to add extra absorbency. We use both our inserts and boosters as extra absorbency, or we layer on multiple inserts on top of one another. Both inserts and boosters look like pads you just lay into the cover. I have purchased both bamboo and hemp inserts and boosters, because those materials are more absorbent than cotton or microfiber.
Despite the little bit of extra work it takes to put these on your baby, I have found that across the board this is the most popular system. Not only is it the most economic, but they are also the most versatile. Many parents comment that using flats and/or prefolds is also the most leak-proof system, probably because you can customize it multiple ways. Flats and prefolds are the most economical system because they are cheaper to buy, and you only need a few covers to use since you can reuse a cover until it gets poop on it. Most people say that each cover is good for 3-4 changes. It really all depends. Some days we alternate between two covers all day and night, while others we go through five in one day! Additionally, with prefolds, once your baby outgrows certain sizes or you are done with diaper days, the prefolds make great cleaning clothes, wipes, burp cloths, and they probably have other uses that I've forgotten or not thought of yet. Smaller prefolds that are outgrown can also be used as extra absorbency boosters. Prefolds are very durable, and you'll definitely get your money's worth if not just through multiple kids, but also life after diapers.
Fitted diapers are absorbent pieces of fabric sewn into the shape of a diaper, and have elastics around the leg holes. They're usually snapped or velcroed on. These also require a cover, which is why I put them under the same category as flats and prefolds. These tend to be more expensive, but many like these as nighttime or heavy wetter solutions because they are more absorbent and tend to contain everything inside. However, for super heavy wetters you can still boost them with an extra insert.
We decided to start exclusively with prefolds, and have both organic cotton and bamboo prefolds. As I mentioned earlier, we may add some AIOs, but for now prefolds seem to make the most sense. They're economical and versatile. As much as many people love flats, I found them a little more intimidating, because they're a giant piece of fabric. Prefolds are smaller and seem easier to handle. But that's just me, personally. I like the compactness of prefolds. And thus far, we've gotten away with solely pad folding them, and with the right combo of a bamboo prefold and hemp insert, we have a solid night time solution that is good for 4-5 hours, which is all we need at this time. Eventually I'll need to find a solution that lasts our son all night and am looking into getting a couple of fitted diapers.
Note that prefolds are potentially more difficult for other caregivers to use who are not used to cloth diapers, but if you just pad fold the prefold, it should be very easy and straightforward for anyone to use. In fact, it's difficult to mess up pad folding a prefold.
Keep in mind, you can technically also use any absorbent material with a cover to diaper your baby. People have used old t-shirts, kitchen towels, flour sacks...whatever works to absorb the pee and catch the poo!
*Sidenote: I have seen that some people like to use cloth diaper covers with disposable diapers, especially as night time solution or travel to deal with blowouts.
Pockets are also popular, and like the AIOs they're a one-time use system. As soon as they are soiled with pee or poo, they need to be fully changed, unlike any of the covers system where the cover can be reused until the cover gets poo on it. Instead of the absorbency being sewn into the pocket diapers, there is typically a liner sewn into the diaper, which creates a pocket, and they come with inserts. Then you stuff the pocket with inserts for absorbency. So, some people like these better than AIOs because they're convenient like AIOs in that they're "one-time use," but you can customize the absorbency depending on your needs and preferences. Pockets are also easy for other caregivers who are not used to using cloth diapers to use, because if you have them already stuffed, all the caregiver has to do is snap or velcro the diaper on to you child.
I initially thought stuffing diapers might be annoying to me, and I prefer the re-usability of covers, so stayed away. However, I accidentally bought one from Lalabye Baby, and it is now my favorite diaper. I even bought more and am planning to get at least a couple more. Lalabye's One Size Diaper is technically an All in Two, which I'll explain later, but I use them as a pocket diaper. Stuffing is not as much of a pain in the butt as I anticipated, and I think that partly has to do with the fact that the Lalabye diaper has an opening on both ends and they're a nice wide opening. Some pockets only have one opening for the pocket, which I can imagine taking a little extra effort to make sure everything lays in their nice and flat and isn't bunched up. I did also find that many parents find stuffing diapers therapeutic. So, yes it takes more time, but when you can find a few minutes to sit and stuff diapers, I suppose it's the organizational aspect that gives off a positively therapeutic effect. It's like when I build IKEA furniture, I always feel great when it's all done.
The nice thing about having pockets and covers is that you can use any combo of absorbency in your pockets just like your covers
It took me a while to figure out what exactly AI2s are, but the Lalabye diaper accidentally bought is actually an AI2. AI2s are a little confusing, because some brands call certain diapers AI2s, but they're not really AI2s. AI2s are essentially covers that come with snap-in inserts. It's supposed to be like the upgraded version of using prefolds, because you can wipe down the cover, and instead of a prefold or flat, you have inserts that can be snapped in. So, you can reuse the cover or use it like an AIO, but to me it doesn't make sense to use something once if you can reuse it. Also, you can still use a prefold or flat if you like. The Lalabye diaper is more like a pocket diaper because it has a sewn in liner which creates a pocket. It also comes with two bamboo inserts (one small and one large that can snap together for extra absorbency). Lalabye considers this diaper an AI2, because instead of stuffing it, you could snap the inserts on top of the liner and reuse the cover if the diaper isn't soiled, but I don't see how that wouldn't happen unless you change your baby's diaper before they've soaked through their entire absorbency. The snaps for the inserts on any AI2 are a nice feature so you know the inserts won't move around. True AI2s with just the cover and snap in inserts are very easy to use, and I can see the appeal.