All cloth diapers have a couple of things in common. First, they're made of a soft, absorbent fabric, often cotton, sometimes hemp. Second, they're reusable, which means they need to be washed.
While the concept is pretty straightforward, a cloth-diaper setup does come in a few different configurations. The most significant variation is the way the setup deals with the two necessary features of any diapering system: absorbency and waterproofing. The basic breakdown goes like this:
- Diaper wrap -- In a diaper wrap system, you have two separate pieces, the cloth and the wrap. The cloth, simply a piece of fabric that gets folded and placed against the baby's bottom, is the absorbent component of the setup. The outer wrap is the waterproof part.
- Diaper insert -- This system also has two separate parts. In this case, it's a waterproof wrap and an absorbent, fabric insert. The insert gets tucked into a pocket in the wrap, so it's typically less bulky than the straight diaper-wrap setup.
- All-in-one -- An all-in-one system has only one part. In this setup, the absorbent material is sewn into the waterproof diaper wrap. This type of cloth diaper is the closest in form and function to a disposable diaper.
Using an all-in-one cloth diaper is simpler than using any of the other cloth-diapering systems, since there's only one piece. There's nothing to fold and nothing to insert or remove. It typically has a convenient fastening mechanism, like hook-and-loop or Velcro, and of course, it's washable.
Like other cloth diapers, while all-in-ones are somewhat expensive by the unit -- in the area of $15 per diaper -- they usually end up being cheaper than disposables over the non-potty-trained long run [source: FamilyEducation]. Plus, it's easier to tell how much urine the baby is producing (a sign that he or she is or is not getting enough to eat) because cloth diapers stay wetter than disposables.
Which brings us to some of the downsides to all-in-ones (and many other cloth setups). They stay wetter than disposables, so they may be more uncomfortable against baby's skin once they're soiled. Also, all the washing will be done at home, since diaper services don't typically pick up and deliver all-in-ones. Finally, and perhaps most troublingly, they tend to leak more than disposables. But that's an issue with most cloth diapers, regardless of type.
If you're going with cloth, though, it's because the upside of keeping diapers out of landfills overpowers the downsides of a few more leaky messes -- and a whole lot of extra laundry duty.
For more information on cloth diapers, all-in-ones and related topics, look over the links on the next page.