My cloth diapering journey has come full circle.
When my son was born in 2012, his first cloth diapers were prefolds and covers. Now that my twins are about to potty train, I’ve returned to this system and fallen back in love with its efficiency and simplicity.
So let’s talk about how to use prefold cloth diapers.
Maybe you haven’t started cloth diapering yet, or maybe you’re looking for a more effective and economical solution to improve your system.
Either way, let’s learn about prefolds!
What is a prefold?
A prefold is a rectangular, 4-ply piece of absorbent fabric—most commonly cotton twill—that has 8 total layers of fabric sewn down the centre.
A prefold can be used either by folding and securing it around the baby (think old-school, diaper pin style) with a waterproof cover on top, or by folding it into a rectangle and laying it inside a cover and then placing it on the child.
I am wholeheartedly team “fold into a rectangle.” For one, it’s just easier, and two, you end up getting a lot more absorbency right where you need it.
What sizes do they come in?
Brands typically sell prefolds in three sizes (some brands will have more): newborn, baby and toddler. The brands I use are Bummis (3 different sizes) and AMP (4 different sizes), but there are quite a few prefold brands on the market, as well as DIY patterns for the sewists out there.
Newborn prefolds are very tiny. For a preemie they are plenty, but for a full-term baby it won’t take long for them to outpee the newborn size, so it would be safe to skip ahead to the middle (usually called “baby”) size. Brands usually categorize this size as suitable for babies up to 20-25 lb (9–11.8 kg). I started using this size on my first by the time he was 3 weeks old.
The toddler-sized prefolds are quite long, and typically described as suitable up to 35 lb (15.9 kg). Using a variety of folding techniques you can get them short enough to fit smaller babies, all the while being absorbent enough for even my 3-year-olds.
What is a cover?
A cloth diaper cover is the waterproof outer layer, usually made of polyurethane laminate (PUL), you use in combination with a prefold to make the system waterproof.
Many diapers on the market today will have both the waterproof portion and the absorbent portion sewn together, and this is called an “all-in-one” diaper (AIO). We call prefolds + covers an “all-in-two” diaper, since it comprises two pieces.
What sizes do covers come in?
Cloth diaper covers are either sized or one-sized. The most cost effective is to choose one-size covers, although my favourite covers are Thirsties Duo Wraps, and they have a size 1 and size 2.
One-size covers often have a range of about 8–35 lb (3.6–15.9 kg), while two-size systems often cover the ranges of 5–20 lb (2.2–9 kg) and 20–40 lb (9–18 kg). Of course, the weight ranges are just a suggestion. Some skinny babies may need a smaller size even when they’re over 20 lb, while chubby babies may need a larger size sooner.
The benefit of a sized system is often for kids on either end of the size spectrum. Particularly small kids will have less bulk with a diaper cover not designed to fit all the way up to 35-40 lb, while particularly large kids may need a cover that fits kids over 35 lb.
To fit a wide range of sizes, most covers will have rise snaps, allowing you to shorten the cover’s length.
What are the different styles of covers?
Covers are either lined or unlined. Unlined covers are considered “wipeable.” Basically, if a little poop or pee gets onto the cover, you can wipe it off and reuse the cover. Lined covers have polyester fleece or jersey fabric on the inside and sometimes contain a pocket so that the inserts can be placed inside if desired. I find it much less appealing to reuse a lined cover.
Some covers have a double gusset, which is an extra, inner “lip” of PUL that creates a nice seal at the leg and is critical for use on top of fitted diapers or thicker prefolds to avoid a gap.
Other differences in design will include the arrangement of snaps at the hips. Some brands have two rows of closure snaps, some just one, some brands have a hip snap (an extra snap at the corner). To fit tiny babies better, some brands have cross-over snaps at the waist. Some brands have a front tummy elastic that is especially helpful for tummy sleepers. Many brands will also offer Velcro closure options. I used to prefer Velcro closure for ease of use, but have long since come to appreciate the increased durability of snaps!
Even with the same weight range, each brand’s covers will fit a bit differently simply based on the different designs and cuts. I am a big fan of trying a few different brands to see what works best for your child!
How do you fold a prefold?
Don’t stress about this. It’s not an origami competition!
You can fold them tons of different ways, and it doesn’t have to be perfect! You can experiment with what folds fit your child best.
Remember that the more you fold, the more layers of absorbency you create.
Here are some ideas:
How do you change a prefold diaper?
One of the benefits of using prefolds is that you can reuse your covers over multiple changes: if there’s no poop on the cover and it’s not damp, reuse the cover and just swap out the soiled prefold.
For simplicity’s sake and because I have twins, I prep my covers with prefolds that I’ve folded straight out of the laundry and stack them at our change station. I have a few more prefolds than I have covers, so I keep the extra ones handy and swap them out at change time—I don’t have them folded in advance—but you could do that to expedite the process.
How do you wash prefolds?
One of my favourite things about prefolds is how easy they are to wash. The cotton fabric is very forgiving and is going to withstand a rigorous wash routine. Covers and prefolds, as well as wet bags, wipes and other diaper styles can all be washed together. If you’re going to use the dryer for everything, dry on low or medium. If you separate out the covers to air dry them, you can dry your prefolds on a hotter setting without issue.
What is a typical cloth diaper wash routine?
Every washing machine is different, but most these days are some form of high efficiency. In general I recommend a wash routine like this:
- Prewash cycle: choose the quickest full wash setting on your machine (so not just the “rinse” setting), use cold water and a small amount of detergent. My detergent of choice is Tide Original Powder, and I use up to line 1 for this prewash.
- Main wash: if your washer is a top loader it is important to peel the diapers off the sides of the drum and fluff them up before starting this cycle. For this cycle, choose the longest full wash cycle on your machine, hot water, and the amount of detergent recommended for a heavily soiled load. I use up to line 4 of Tide for this. Do not add any extra rinse cycles, but if your washer has a “fabric softener” option, pressing this will increase the amount of water used in your rinse so go ahead with that (but don’t add fabric softener).
- Dry in the dryer on low/medium; if only drying prefolds or other inserts, you can dry on high.
What are other great things about prefolds?
Prefolds are super absorbent.
Because you can fold in a variety of ways, you can truly customize fit and absorbency to your child. We have reached a point in our cloth diapering journey when a lot of kids are out of diapers, so I’m not really surprised that none of our one-size AIO and pocket diapers don’t cut it for my twins anymore.
I made the switch to using toddler prefolds in covers and passed all of our other daytime diapers to my nephew. Our prefolds get me at least three hours between changes for my twins, and it’s awesome.
Prefolds prevent leaks.
Because they are cotton directly against the skin, you don’t get leaks due to urine pearling on top of fleece or microsuede. Made from 100% natural fibre, prefolds are also not prone to compression leaks, which is when the pressure of the child sitting down squeezes liquid out of the material (typically microfibre). Toddler-sized prefolds have more layers of absorbency than any one-size daytime diaper on the market, so if your child is saturating their diapers, a switch to prefolds may be the way to go.
Prefolds have a life beyond cloth diapers.
Once you’re done with AIO diapers, they’re not much use to you unless passed down to another baby.
Prefolds, on the other hand, are infinitely useful. They are the PERFECT “unpaper towel” for soaking up big spills. Use them as cleaning cloths, use them to sop up big messes, keep them in your bug out bag to soak up blood and dress wounds in a zombie apocalypse.
Prefolds are economical.
If you buy 12 covers and 24 prefolds, you have enough diapers for one child if you’re washing every two to three days. Depending on the brands you choose, you can easily get what you need for $300 or less. Because prefolds are so easy to launder (and to disinfect if needed), I wouldn’t hesitate to buy prefolds second hand and then just buy brand new covers.
A package of 6 toddler prefolds is $40–45, which is not far off the price of a single premium AIO diaper!
And you don’t have to miss out on the cute prints just because you’re using prefolds. Diaper covers come in just as many awesome prints as pocket diapers and AIO diapers do!
Prefolds are simple.
Some folks have the misconception that using prefolds means using diaper pins and learning intricate folds. Hopefully, you’ve seen that is not the case: just make some sort of narrow rectangle, put it in the cover, put the cover on the baby!
When you’re out and about, you can even just pack a couple fresh prefolds and reuse the cover baby is already wearing, making it a space-saving solution too!
Cotton prefolds are a very forgiving fabric. You don’t need a fancy wash routine, and if you do end up having stink issues, you’re not going to destroy your prefolds doing some heavy duty washes to get them deep cleaned.
If your washing machine craps out or you’re going camping, prefolds can even be handwashed. It’s laborious but it’s doable!
What are the drawbacks of prefolds?
Compared to an AIO diaper, which is a one piece and go sort of deal, prefolds, of course, do require a folding step. If you have caregivers who are apprehensive about cloth diapering, set up your diapers in advance, with the prefold already placed inside the cover, and they will be fine! (But I promise, my husband was doing fine with prefolds even on our first baby.)
When my twins were small, I just couldn’t mentally handle the extra steps involved with prefolds. We used primarily bumGenius Elementals and bumGenius pocket diapers with one microfibre insert and one hemp trifold stuffed inside. And one might argue that having to stuff all those pocket diapers would’ve been the equivalent of just folding prefolds, so I’m not saying parents of twins can’t handle prefolds!
Because they come in multiple sizes, you do need to buy at least two sizes, depending on when you start. If your baby is 15 lb (6.8 kg) or over, I’d say you can get away with just toddler-sized prefolds if you don’t mind that they’re a bit bulky in the early days.
Because they’re 100% cotton, prefolds feel very wet to the touch once peed on. Some babies are super sensitive to wetness and don’t like this. Mine don’t really care, but they will bring me a fresh diaper when they want to be changed, which I figure is a good sign we are getting ready to use the toilet!
If wetness is an issue with prefolds, you can always try using a fleece liner on top to create a stay-dry layer.
The Bottom Line on Prefolds
In the early days of cloth diaper blogging (which I look back upon with horror … the poorly lit photos, the lack of editing … the naivety of it all!), I wrote a post called My Passion for Prefolds.
It’s funny that I’ve now come full circle, having literally tried 90% of what’s on the cloth diaper market, and I’m back where I started: using prefolds and loving it.