In the 1950s and before, cloth diapers were every new mom's choice -- because that's all there was. Then, with the advent of disposable diapers, it seemed for a decade or two that there was once again just one choice: paper and plastic. There is an increased interest today in cloth diapers, according to ConsumerReports.org, but many of today's cloth diapers don't much resemble Grandma's. Flat-fold and prefold diapers represent two of the choices available to today's parents.
Flat-fold diapers, sometimes called "flats," are Grandma's original diapers. Usually made of a single layer of bird's-eye cotton, flat-fold diapers are nothing more than a large rectangle. You can fold them in different ways to best fit your baby, but the piece of cloth isn't contoured in any way. Prefold diapers are smaller and easier to fit to your baby's body. They're thicker in the middle, where your baby deposits his offerings, and thinner on the sides, where he doesn't need as much protection and absorbency. Prefold diapers often come in different sizes for different ages, while flat-folds are generally "one size fits all."
Both flat-fold and prefold diapers are made of bird's-eye cotton, but both types of diapers also come in a variety of other materials in addition to cotton. Cotton might seem like the best diaper material choice, but newer fabrics -- such as flannel, hemp, terry, bamboo or even wool -- often either absorb better and/or feel softer. Flannel is the softest and most absorbent cloth diaper material, according to ConsumerReports.org.
Neither flat-fold nor prefold diapers provide adequate protection on their own. In both cases, you'll need to cover them with a leak-proof cover. Both prefold and flat-fold diapers often fit into commercially manufactured liners or covers that offer a vast improvement over the rubber pants of the past. Prefolds come in different thicknesses, which are described by the number of layers on the sides and in the middle. A 4-8-4 prefold, for example, has four layers on the sides and eight in the middle. Prefolds with less than a 4-6-4 configuration are less bulky but also might not absorb as well.
If cost is your primary concern, you can't get any cheaper or more utilitarian than flat-fold diapers, which cost less than prefold diapers. Bird's-eye cotton is the cheapest diaper material; using hemp, bamboo or terry diapers costs more, whether you choose flat-fold or prefold diapers. Organic diapers of either type also cost more than nonorganic. Cheaper cloth diapers often have a polyester foam or rayon center inserts, which break down easily and don't add any absorbency, according to DiaperPinCorner.com.