Which nappies should I buy?

One of the hardest things about using real nappies is choosing which ones you like best! There's a huge range, which means there are nappies to cover every budget, function, and taste. However, the downside of all this choice is that it can be a bit overwhelming when you come to decide which nappies will be right for you, so if you are struggling with this, please read this section.

Each type of cloth nappy has different pros and cons, and many people find that having two or three different nappies works best so that they can choose the one that suits at the time.

To give you a bit of preliminary help, I have listed below some factors you need to consider, together with some brands of nappies that would work well in certain situations.

But first, some jargon...

In general terms, there are two distinct types of nappy system: a two-part system and an "all-in-one".

In a two-part system, you have a nappy to absorb wetness, and a separate outer waterproof cover, known as a "wrap". The absorbent nappy may be flat, which you then fold into the desired shape, (eg prefold or terry square), or shaped to fit around your baby, usually elasticated around the leg cuffs and back.

I use the term "all-in-one" (AIO) here to cover nappies that are just one piece to put on. They are all shaped to fit around your baby but within this category there are variations:

  • True all-in-ones come in one single piece - the outer waterproof cover is sewn on to the absorbent part of the nappy. Some have a stay-dry lining too, but others don't.
  • Pocket nappies are usually made from a stay-dry inner layer such as fleece, and a waterproof outer wrap - these two layers are sewn together with an opening left at the back, forming a "pocket". Inside the pocket you put an absorbent pad (known as an "insert"), which soaks up the wetness. The two parts come apart for washing and quicker drying, but there is just one piece to put on your baby!
  • Hybrid all-in-ones (also sometimes called all-in-twos (AI2) or snap-in-ones) are also made up of two parts: here the inner absorbent pads popper on to the outer waterproof wrap. Like pocket nappies, they can be separated out for washing and drying. Again, some have a stay-dry lining too, but others don't.

With either system you might also need to use liners - either flushable paper ones, or washable ones. With the paper version, most of the poo can easily be separated from the nappy and flushed down the toilet. Washable liners are usually made of polyester fleece, a synthetic material that does not absorb moisture but allows it to pass through into the nappy - the fleece dries quickly, keeping a dry and soft layer against the skin. For sensitive skin you could use silk liners.

Other choices you will come across relate to:

  • the fabric (cotton, hemp, bamboo, synthetic, etc),

  • type of fastenings (velcro-type, poppers or nappy nippa),

  • and one-size vs. multi-sized nappies (one-size nappies are adjustable so that the nappy can fit from birth to potty training for most babies, otherwise you will need to buy a set of nappies in two or three different sizes as your baby grows).

So, things to think about when choosing your nappies...

Cost: Whichever real nappies you choose, you will save money compared to using disposables (unless you become a "nappy addict" and buy far more than you really need!). However, some are considerably less expensive than others. At the cheaper end are the flat nappies (pre-folds and terry squares) with wraps. The most expensive tend to be the pocket nappies and all-in-ones that come in 3 or 4 different sizes. The "one-size" or "birth-to-potty" nappies, can be an economical option - one set will be cheaper than the equivalent sized nappies; but they might only last through one baby so, if you are planning more children, buying nappies in different sizes might not work out more expensive in the long run.

Click here for a cost comparison of some of the more popular systems.

Drying time: Most real nappies can be tumble dried, but it is cheaper and 'greener' to hang dry and many people do not have a tumble drier. Line drying is best because it is free and the sun bleaches out most stains. You can also hang-dry somewhere warm, preferably with good air movement, eg on an airer in front of a radiator. Some nappies dry quicker than others: the different fabrics need to be considered and, in general, the more you can open out a nappy, the quicker it will dry. The main disadvantage of the true all-in-one nappies is that the permanently-attached waterproof outer layer increases drying time. Hemp and bamboo, being very absorbent, tend to take longer than cotton to dry. Synthetic microfibre terry dries the quickest (it absorbs moisture between, rather than into, the fibres - a bit like a sponge).

Consider a synthetic fibre shaped nappy or a pocket nappy with microterry inserts if drying speed is one of your top priorities.

Containment: Newborn baby poo can be very runny and the fit of the nappy (and wrap) is crucial to containment. This varies according to the nappy, the wrap and the build of your baby, so it is difficult to say which particular nappy gives the best containment. However, in general, shaped, two-part nappy systems are the best type of nappy for containment, as there are two sets of elasticated leg cuffs and waistbands (the nappy itself and then the wrap) to act as barriers to leaks. With all-in-one type nappies, those with double leg gussets or adjustable leg holes will generally be better for containment.

With a real nappy that fits correctly, you will have far fewer leaks than with disposables.

Absorbency and Bulkiness: As a rough rule, the more absorbent a real nappy is, the more bulky it is. However, the fabric does make a difference to this. Hemp and Bamboo are more absorbent than the same weight of cotton, so you get a slimmer fit. Synthetic microfibre is also absorbent whilst remaining lightweight and soft, but it is generally thicker for the same level of absorbency.

All nappies can be boosted to make them more absorbent for when you need the nappy on that bit longer, eg at night. With pocket nappies you can simply stuff more absorbent material into the pouch, so it remains just the one piece to put on. With the two-part systems, you can add a booster either between the nappy and the liner, or between the nappy and the wrap. Bamboo or hemp make the best boosters, because they are absorbent yet slim. But you can also use microterry pads, old flannels, towels, microfibre cleaning cloths or anything else absorbent!

Easy to put on: All-in-ones and pocket nappies are usually the easiest to put on as there is only one piece. With the two-part system, shaped nappies with Aplix (Velcro) fastenings are generally easier than prefolds and terry squares that require folding and fixing in place.

All-in-ones or pocket nappies make ideal nappies for leaving with nursery, childminders or other people who are used to disposable nappies and can also be more convenient when you are out & about.

Durability: Nappies with an integral waterproof cover tend to need replacing quicker than those without. If you use a two-part system, you can simply buy a few more wraps if they lose their waterproof qualities, but for all-in-ones you will have to buy a complete new nappy, which is more expensive. Natural fibres are usually harder-wearing than synthetic ones. Onesize nappies will get more wear than sized nappies and therefore are less likely to last through subsequent children.

Popper fastening nappies generally last longer than velcro, which tends to get a bit tatty and lose its "stickiness" over time.

Cute factor: Most people would agree that cloth nappies look so much nicer than disposables, so why not show them off? There is something to suit every taste too from the cuddly, traditional fluffy white or natural terry nappies to the fun and attractive patterns. Obviously you wouldn't choose a nappy based on looks alone but...!

The questions in my advice questionnaire might help you decide which reusable nappies to choose. Sorry but I am no longer able to respond individually to the questionnaires.