Prefolds and Flats

Today I’m excited to start a new, in-depth series on cloth diapering! Maybe you’re a newbie who’s surfing around for information on how to get started. Maybe you have tried cloth and want to experiment with a different style. In this series I’ll talk about all the different cloth diapering systems (cause I’ve tried ’em all) and give you an overview of the basics of cloth plus some tips and tricks. Ready?

After working in both Sweetbottoms’ storefront and online sectors for two years, I’ve helped a lot of customers understand cloth diapers. Although your options can seem overwhelming, it really just boils down to two layers: the absorbent inner and waterproof outer. All of your different styles and brands are just different versions of the absorbent and waterproof layers.

Cloth Diapering with Prefolds and Flats

I start with Prefolds and Flats because they are the most basic. They are the styles that our grandmothers used. My family tells me that my great-grandmother had three diapers for her children. One would be on the baby, one would be in the wash and the third would be drying. I assume what she had were “flats.”

Flats are a single-ply piece of cloth that can be folded and/or fastened around your baby in whatever method you need. These are extremely inexpensive, wash very easily and dry quickly.

Prefolds are just a PRE-folded version of a flat. But instead of just being folded, they come sewn together in a tri-paneled rectangle. Different brands may vary on thickness, but there are typically 2-8 layers of cloth sewn together to make the pre fold. The most absorbent layer is in the middle. Like flats, these can be folded or fastened as you wish. They are also easily washed, but take much longer to dry than flats would. They come in sizes. Each brand may have slightly different sizing, but generally speaking there are four sizes: Preemie, Infant, Premium, and Toddler.

So why pick prefolds over flats? With all your cloth diapering choices, you have to pick which characteristic is most important to you. Prefolds are significantly smaller and require much less wrangling and folding than flats. But if fast drying and maximum customization are top of your list, then flats might be your pick. In the end there’s no “best diaper” there’s just what works best for you!

Another piece of information you’ll need to help you narrow down your choices is the material option. These materials will pop up again in the absorbent layers of other styles, so keep them in mind. The price point of diapers is usually related to the materials used.

  • Cotton- This is the most basic absorbent material. You might see “bleached” or “unbleached.” This simply tells you if it’s been treated with whitening bleach or not.
  • Organic Cotton- Just like regular cotton, this is commonly found in diapers. The “organic” just means that the cotton plants were grown organically. It’s also known to be more absorbent than regular cotton.
  • Bamboo- Made from durable bamboo, this natural fiber is extremely absorbent, organic, and antimicrobial.
  • Hemp- Like Bamboo, this natural fiber is extra-absorbent. It’s known for slower absorption, so many people use it overnight and with an extra cotton doubler.
  • Fleece- Made a polyester, this is a non-absorbent stay-dry layer that’s sometimes sewn into a prefold or added individually as a single layer.

Because they are made from natural fibers, both prefolds and flats are extremely durable. I’m using the same set today that I used when my son was born in early 2011. I estimate they have been washed more than 200 times and they are still going strong.

Diaper Pins Cloth Diapering with Prefolds and Flats

Some people use fasteners to secure the flat or pre fold around the baby. Traditionally, we had just pins–and this is what intimidates some people. However, today we also have Snappi and Boingo fasteners, which make things super easy. There are many ways to secure the diaper. You can also skip using a fastener and just fold your fabric into the cover. (From personal experience, doing this is much easier but ends up making covers a bit dirtier so there’s a tradeoff.)

Cloth Diapering with Prefolds and Flats

That brings me to the waterproof layer: your cover!

Prefolds and flats need some sort of waterproof cover to keep your baby from leaking. You always have the option of keeping them in just a fastened prefold and changing them as soon as it becomes wet, but most people use a cover. As opposed to other diaper styles, the cover can usually be re-used several times before it needs to be laundered. We recommend 5-6 covers for a newborn. (And 25-30 prefolds/flats)

I’m not going to go into a huge explanation of your options here, but you have two basic choices: PUL or wool. PUL is polyurethane laminate and it’s a synthetic material that will hold in wetness. Wool, by contrast, is a natural fiber. You can read much more about it here. Some choices you have for PUL covers include:

  • Gussets – These are extra panels sewn into the cover that help hold in the liquidy poo that newborns and exclusively breastfed babies typically have. If you are buying covers for a newborn, it’s recommended to look for a type of cover that has them.
  • Snaps or Hook and Loop/Aplix/Velcro- This refers to the way that the cover fastens. Snaps are extremely popular because of durability, however the hook and loop variety can be easier on tired hands and restless babies.
  • Sized or One-Size- One Size (OS) covers are made with more snaps so that they can become smaller or larger to accommodate your growing baby. Sized (typically small/medium/large or 1/2) will fit more perfectly without the extra fabric. Many people use a small or newborn sized cover for the first couple of months and then move to a OS cover. If your cover isn’t fitting properly, you’ll get leaks so this is an important decision.

In summary, prefolds and flats are a very inexpensive way to cloth diaper your baby. I recommend them especially for people who aren’t ready to make a huge upfront investment. They work well for newborns. I used the Preemie size prefolds for a week or so and then switched to the Infant. My daughter was about 9 lbs, so she grew out of them faster than a smaller baby would! The Preemie size can still be used as a doubler for extra absorbency later. Any flat or prefold can actually be used for extra absorbency or as a multipurpose cloth for your household needs.

If you would like information on prepping and laundering your diapers, I’ve got a whole post planned for that. But this should get you started.

Now share with the group: What do you love about flats or prefolds? Were you intimidated to try them? Who would you recommend them to?

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