Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Cloth nappies - different types and how they work

Modern cloth nappies are a brilliant example of how markets can evolve, but the rapid growth over the past 10-15 years has resulted in a bewildering array of options. In one sense this is awesome because if you have specific preferences you'll probably be able to find someone who makes something to suit you - but it also makes it really hard to understand all the lingo and options.

If you're keen to get started but don't know where to begin, hopefully this will help demystify everything a bit for you. If you're still not sure if cloth nappies are for you check out my pros and cons first and hopefully I can convince you they're worth a shot. ;-)

Types of nappies

All in ones (AIOs)

A Thirsties AIO* (snap added by me so
we can boost absorbency)
As in the name, these are probably the simplest system, as the whole nappy is one piece. Older all in ones have a reputation for being slow drying, as the absorbent part of the nappy was fully attached to the waterproof cover, reducing airflow. More recent versions often have a "snake" insert which flips out for drying, and then just needs to be tucked inside when they come off the line or out of the dryer.

Some AIOs include an extra booster that snaps in place - these should stay attached during a wash so that the nappy is still effectively a single piece, but provide the option to remove bulk for smaller babies who don't need it yet.

These are usually the most expensive nappies, and good ones can cost around $40 per nappy - but they're still cheaper over time than disposables.

All in twos

A Pop-in AI2 nappy (though as you
can see this one has three parts)
All in two nappies (a.k.a. AI2s) have removable absorbency, which will generally snap onto the cover.
These are sometimes designed so that you only need one shell (the waterproof bit), enabling you to only wash the absorbent inserts for wet nappies, and only change the shell when it gets soiled - but this does vary from nappy to nappy, and this will slow down nappy changes a bit.

Advantages can include having flexibility on inserts (sometimes you can get these in different fabrics and absorbencies), and, if you can reuse the covers they can be cheaper than AIOs, since you won't need as many covers.

Pocket nappies

These are probably the most widely used variety of modern cloth nappy (though we don't have any!), and consist of a waterproof cover with a pocket sewn into it. The pocket can then be stuffed with whatever absorbent material you want - new nappies will usually come with inserts, but these are generally interchangeable, and old-style flat cloth nappies and prefolds can also be used.

These are widely available at many different price points. Cheap non-branded nappies tend to be pockets, and because these are so widely used they're also easy to come by secondhand, so this can be very cost-effective.

Fitted nappies

Snazzipants fitted nappies
Fitted nappies are a shaped, absorbent inner which need a separate waterproof shell. They seem to be a bit out of vogue these days - there aren't too many options left, except in night specific nappies - but they can be great for the early days as the double layer of elastic at the leg and waist is great for containing newborn, erm, output.

Cost-wise these sit somewhere in the middle - the fitted nappies themselves aren't necessarily crazily cheap, but they are less than AIOs and you'll only need a handful of covers (we had 6, which was more than enough). You can find secondhand ones floating around, too, and since the waterproofing is separate you can keep using them until they fall apart with newer covers.


Prefolds are sort of a halfway point between old-school flats and modern nappies. They're flat rectangles which consist of several absorbent layers sewn together. This means there's less origami than with old school flats, but still a bit of fiddling to get them onto a baby. Often they're fastened using a Snappi - a little plastic stretchy thing which snags the fabric (easier to use than safety pins). As with fitted nappies, you need a waterproof cover over the top (some folk omit the fastening and just use the cover to keep the prefold in place.

These are generally the cheapest option, but require a bit more effort to put on, especially when bubs is squirming.

Types of fabric

Fabric technology is a large part of what makes modern cloth nappies worth using. Many of the fibres available provide a stay-dry layer so that moisture is wicked away from the baby's skin, improving comfort and reducing the likelihood of nappy rash.

You don't need to know all of this, but sometimes it can help with working out what might suit your family best, so here's an overview. Skim over the detail if you need to - but it's here if you need to refer to it later.


Cotton is good at absorbing but can be bulky (by weight it's not as absorbent as some other fabrics, so you need more to achieve the same result). It can also be a bit slow to dry on the washing line and is my least favourite option for this reason. It doesn't wick so is usually best paired with a liner or other stay-dry layer against the baby's skin. 


A few different types of insert
The ultimate hippy fabric, hemp is my favourite for absorbency because it sucks in the liquid very effectively and seems to dry reasonably quickly. Commonly blended with cotton, again, this won't wick so best with a liner or another layer next to the bum. 


Bamboo is a manmade fibre derived from bamboo. It is similar to hemp in terms of absorbency so is another great option. It often pops up in blends - bamboo/cotton blends tend to be very absorbent but slow drying; bamboo/minky blends can provide a stay-dry fabric that's also really absorbent. 


This is a manmade fibre, and does a really good job of keeping moisture away from the surface. It works a bit like a sponge, though, so once it's got a certain amount of liquid in it you can experience compression leaks, where the liquid gets squeezed back out. For this reason it's often best paired with natural fibres, which do a better job at holding onto the wetness. 

It's so good at sucking in liquid that it tends to be a bit too drying to sit directly on the skin, so microfibre inners in nappies usually have a microfleece layer attached: 


Microfleece is similar to polar fleece, and wicks but is less irritating to the skin than microfibre. As well as being used as the next-to-skin layer on microfibre (and sometimes other) nappy inserts, it's often used to make reusable nappy liners. You might want these if your nappies don't have a stay dry layer built in, and some people prefer to use them to help simplify the cleanup of solids. 


A Thirsties Duo wrap* PUL nappy cover
Polyurethane laminate is cloth coated with a poly backing, which is waterproof but breathable. It's by far the most common option these days for waterproofing, whether it's visible on the outside of the nappy or covered by a minky outer. Cheap PUL can occasionally delaminate but generally it's very resilient. 


You can still get wool nappy covers, and lots of people like using them for overnight, but they are a bit more labour intensive as they need to be lanolised regularly. 

Other options


Thirsties newborn nappy and OSFM nappy*
Some nappies come in sizes, which are usually by weight. A lot of nappies now are "one size fits all/most" (OSFA/OSFM) and will have snaps on the front of the nappy which allow you to make it smaller in the rise for little babies, or leave the snaps open for bigger babes. OSFA/OSFM nappies are often a bit big for newborns for the first few weeks, so you may need to use disposables at first (we did).

Snaps vs velcro 

Most nappies use either snaps (domes) or velcro/aplix/hook and loop to do up. Some brands give you the choice of fastening, but most brands just have one or the other. Pros of snaps are that they last longer and there's no risk of them catching on fabric in the wash, and kids usually can't undo their own for longer; velcro is a bit more flexible in terms of fit. We prefer velcro in the Cake household, but we're fussy about it because some velcro is a bit crap. ;-)

Night nappies 

A Baby Beehinds night nappy
These are usually either fitted nappies or AI2s with extra absorbency so that once your little one sleeps through the night you can trust the nappy to last until morning. You might not need a special nappy for overnight - you can just add extra absorbency to your normal nappies - but some kids are very heavy wetters and there are some mega absorbent nappies out there if you need them.


These are optional, and there are two types. Disposable liners are single use, and often billed as flushable but you probably shouldn't unless you want to risk a big plumbing bill at some point. Microfleece liners are rectangles of fabric, and very easy to make yourself with half a metre of the fabric and pair of scissors.

Both types are intended to make cleaning up soiled nappies easier, the idea being that you can just tip the solids off the liner instead of having to deal with the whole nappy. Microfleece ones are also used to help create a dry layer next to skin, and to prevent nappy cream getting into the fibres of the nappy itself, which can affect absorbency in the longer term.

We don't bother with liners unless we have nappy rash, which we're lucky enough to have largely avoided so far.

A few cloth wipes - bigger is better!


You can use just about anything that will hold together - I was lucky enough to be given a big stash of homemade two-layer ones, made from flannel, but they're available to buy from all cloth nappy retailers. You can also use cheap facecloths if you want - they'll do the trick.

Wet bags

These are usually made of PUL and allow you to store wet/dirty nappies in a contained fashion. They come in various sizes - small for out and about all the way up to big bin liner sizes for the change area at home.

Phew - that's a lot of info! 

If you're keen to jump in you can hire a starter kit of nappies from NappyMojo, which will give you a chance to try out several different brands and types before you commit to buying. I wish this option had been available when the Little Monkey was born! 

And if you're more the copy/paste type, next week I'll share the nappies we prefer and how we manage our dirty nappies and washing. 

If you've read this far you must be pretty keen, I reckon. ;-) Are you expecting at the moment, and trying to sort out a cloth nappy system that works for you and your family? Or already have little ones and trying to cut costs? Do you have any reservations about using cloth? I'd love to hear what you think.

*Links are affliliate; I only recommend products I love and if you choose to buy them via my link I get a small commission on your purchase. 

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