Cloth Diapering, vol 2: The Gory Details

I started this two part series last month with a post about different types and brands of diapers. I asked for y’all to opinionate about the subject, and wow did I ever get schooled! In retrospect, I realize that I am completely unqualified to instruct on the matter. I have been a very haphazard cloth diaperer, as you are about to see. Fortunately I have y’all to back me up and I invite a repeat here: please leave your seasoned advice in the comments.

So, prospective cloth diaperer, here you are. You researched and deliberated and considered and then spent a small fortune on diapers (or you got lucky and were given hand me downs, like me). Your new babe has emerged, the midwives have gone home and you are wondering how this whole thing works.

Someone left a comment on the other post saying that you should allow yourself disposables for the first month. Give yourself time to adjust to everything. I think this is good advice. For one thing, it’s hard to get a cloth diaper not to rub on that stub of cord, plus a newborn’s narrow little butt just doesn’t fill out a diaper very well. My only reservation with this advice would be that routine sets in fast, and if you are at all worried about your staying power with cloth, it might be better to just start out right– like learning to drive on a stick shift.

But no, not like learning to drive a stick, because learning to drive a stick is hard! Cloth diapering is easy. I want to start out by telling you how I started out. Because I was gifted all my diapers, no one ever told me how to clean them. Consequently (and combined with my generally lassez faire washing style) I just threw those suckers in on whatever temperature the washer happened to be set at, with a regular quantity of detergent. Including the poopies for the first few baby-milk months. Yes, that’s right, poop and all, straight into the washer. They came out fine.

Over the course of 4 1/2 years of cloth diapering, my methods have changed very little. I got a sprayer (more on that in a minute) and started using less detergent. Otherwise, I am still extremely… err, shall we say, loose in my methods. I am telling you this because if washing cloth diapers seems intimidating, I want you to know that it can be done with very little effort, knowledge or terminology.

Having said that, I am about to pontificate on the subject something heavy. But before I get into it I want to tell you a funny story.

Coincidentally since writing that first post, our extremely generous neighbors who gave us our last best diapers gave us another enormous bag of new model Bum Genius. They used these diapers for two years and they look fucking brand new. I mean literally, the only evidence of use was that the velcro was wearing a bit. Otherwise pristinely white. I’m convinced this is partly due to their perfect kid, one of those infuriating babies who never cries, sleeps 12 hours a night without waking plus a two hour nap, and would sit on the potty during her (predictably early and effective) potty training months for up to one solid hour. Just sit there looking at books! While her mom was in the other room! We are talking about a barely 2yo! Unbelievable, almost freakish. And apparently her poop does not stain diapers at all, ever.

However, I do have to grudgingly admit that the pristine quality of those diapers might also be due to the fact that her parents followed the cleaning instructions faithfully. One wash on cold with a bare smidge of detergent, followed by a wash on hot, plus occasional mild bleaching. And they always sprayed the poopies immediately and very thoroughly, because their house is not a chaotic shambles with feral children swirling at their feet, wherein one might not get the opportunity to use such a fun looking device to spray poop into the toilet at any given moment.

Ahem. I am getting ahead of myself. I am rambling. About diapering! This is the true sign of my fall, friends.

Let’s start over.

Setting Up Your Diaper Area

When I was a new mama and so horrified by the idea of being Taken Over, I resisted the diaper changing table like it was Beelzebub. My wise mother-in-law kept trying to convince me and I was certain she was trying to crush my spirit. We changed on the floor for ages. And really, it worked fine when I was young and perky and my back still felt invincible.

Here’s the real deal with your changing area. It doesn’t need to be a changing table, it doesn’t even need to be a table, the floor is fine if your back is still good. What it does need is to be set up.

A good set up is not complicated at all. You just need dedicated space for everything– your clean diapers, wipes at very easy access, a bucket with a lid for dirties, and a very small trash bin (it’s really worth it to get the kind that you can open with your foot). The gear is simple, but having a good dose of organization in this area will keep the poop emergencies at bay. Believe me, there will be some times when you would give your right foot to have what you need, when you need it.

One of my best tricks is to sprinkle my diaper bucket liberally with baking soda to help keep the odor down. After emptying the load of dirties into the washer I rinse the last batch of soda out (it helps wash the bucket too) and sprinkle on fresh stuff pretty thickly. It’s no miracle, but it does help.

Now, the question on every new mamas mind:

What about the shit?

Baby’s first few months of pooping are surprisingly inoffensive. Like I said, I would just throw the whole thing in the washing machine and walk away. Those were some of my gladdest moments in life regarding machines. Sadly, once the baby-milk phase wears off and little tiger starts to beg real food off of your plate (or, as a good friend says, “they’re old enough to eat solid food when they’re old enough to crawl around under the table and forage for it for themselves”) you will find your babe’s poop starts to get much less…. umm… innocuous. And much more… umm… chunky. You’ll know for sure the ‘drop it in the washer and walk away’ method has come to an end when you start pulling out ‘clean’ diapers with rehydrated raisins clinging to them.

When that happened to me, I set up a seperate bucket for poopy diapers and then on wash day I would soak them for an hour or so to loosen the poop, swish them around to get the chunks off, then pull them out dripping and throw them into the washer with the others. Then I’d dump the shit water down the toilet. After several months of just steeling my stomach against the job, I finally realized that no one was going to dock my hard-core points if I used a goddamned pair of rubber gloves. Things went a bit easier after that.

But still, as a bi-weekly chore, it was a drag. I guess some folks have toddlers who shit nice little logs that just “shake off” into the toilet. But my kids vascilated between loose chunks and sticky tar, neither of which “shakes off.”

By baby number two, I’d made a wonderful discovery. Toilet sprayers. It’s a simple little device that hooks right into your toilet’s intake hose. I blogged about it when I first got it, waaaay back in the early days of Apron Stringz. It cost me $50 and was very easy to install, if you have the extra money, I would highly recommend one.

It takes a little while to get used to using the sprayer, and chances are high you might take a hit in the face while you’re still learning. But it gets drastically easier over time, and now I find it very easy to spray each diaper down, right there in the toilet bowl where city poop is supposed to go, before dumping the diaper into the dirties bucket.

I do wish our changing area was at least adjacent to the bathroom though, because transport is a catching point. I usually squeeze the diapers out good over the toilet and then pretend that they don’t ever drip on the way to the changing room.

One last plug for the toilet sprayer: This is a multi-purpose tool. If your bathroom is set up right, you can use it to spray out the tub! It is awesome! Even better, if you like me, never knew what to do with the toilet brush after scrubbing the toilet (shouldn’t it be rinsed? Where? In the bathtub? That seems disgusting. In the fresh water that refills into the toilet bowl? That seems inadequate.) you can just spray the shit out of that sucker right over the toilet bowl with your high pressure sprayer. It feels good.

And when potty training comes along, the sprayer makes quick work of cleaning the little kid potty. I don’t even know how people do it without.


All the cool people use cloth wipes. I tried it too, in the beginning. I cut up all those extra receiving blankets, and sewed the edges like a good girl. I used them for a few weeks and then gave it up, I just couldn’t get the logistics. I’ve read some people keep a spray bottle next to the wipes bin, others take a few wipes to the sink to wet them first. The first I found ineffective, unless the wipe was completely wet, it didn’t wipe to my standards. The second was just awkward, our bathroom being on the other side of the house from the changing area. Even when perfectly wetted, the cloth wipes just never did the job near so good as the disposables. Probably, like everything else, it has to do with the kind of poop your baby makes. Did you read the part about the tar?

I do think you should give cloth wipes a try if you can. They might work for you, many people love them. For a ‘free trial,’ just rip up a receiving blanket, don’t worry about sewing the edges until you know you like it.

Washing Diapers

Get ready. You are going to be doing a lot of it. Even if you had enough diapers, you can’t just let them sit around dirty for more than 3 days, 4 tops if the weather is very cool. That means diaper loads at least 2x/week.

I wash diapers solo, I don’t put anything else in, even though there’s plenty of room. Despite everything you’ve just read about my slovenly habits, combining diapers with clothes seems gross. And even though a 3 day batch of diapers is really a ‘small’ load, I run it on ‘medium’ anyway, I figure the extra water helps get the vortex going and flush out the nasties. I use a small amount of detergent, though I have used regular quantities in the past. It’s very hard to hold back on the soap when you’ve just dumped all that stink in there. But apparently detergent is part of what wears diapers out over time, as well leaving a residue that gums up the soaking ability of the fabric. So, go light. Very, very light I am told. When the reek of ammonia just about knocks you flat, and your hand quivers to fill the measuring cup all the way to the top, have faith! It will all work out in the wash, even with a 1/8th quantity of soap. (As an eye opener, I urge you to try washing a load with no soap at all, just once. I did, and I was shocked at how almost completely clean they were.)

Now, those fancy pants Bum Geniuses that I just got instruct you to wash once on cold, no soap, then once on hot with a spare smidge of soap, then run an extra rinse cycle, and then once a month, follow by a wash cycle on cold with a weak bleach solution. Jesus H Christ, what do they think we are doing with our lives, sitting on the washing machine all day getting our rocks off?

But, like I said, fucking pristine. So maybe I should take heed.

I can’t. I’ve been running them once, on cold just like I did before. But! I did learn a key thing in the comments on that last post, and I will pass it on to any of you who are similarly ignorant. Several folks mentioned that when their diapers weren’t absorbing properly, they just needed to be “stripped” and then all was right again. On further investigation I found out that when you usually wash on just cold like me, you must occasionally “strip” meaning– wash on very hot to remove those soap residues I mentioned earlier. I’ll be darned. Now doesn’t that make sense?

So, you’ve got a load of clean, wet diapers. Throw them in the dryer? You can, depending on the type though it can take for ever. At least two full cycles for my thick fitteds, which seems patently absurd and wasteful. I use the outdoor line here, almost all the time. It takes about two days, three if the weather is cooler. I’m sure they would dry in a day of sun if we lived anywhere else but a tropical swamp. (Well, I take that back– it took almost four days to dry diapers in the house on a rack back in Cordova’s temperate rainforest. Why did I move from one steam room to another?) Pre-folds dry much faster than the thick fitted kind, and I hear ‘flats’ dry in the blink of an eye.

The beauty of line drying is that the shit stains bleach out shockingly well in the sun. The downside is that that same bleaching effect will wear your diapers out over the long run. Definitely don’t leave them on the line any longer than necessary.

Getting the Smell Out

With both kids, we went through a phase of time when the diapers just would not get completely clean. I couldn’t figure it out. They would seem clean, but then the instant the kid peed in them they reeked like holy hell, like a diaper reeks after it’s been on for 12 hours– except that sometimes it had only been on for 30 minutes. I think something, some kind of beasty/bacteria, was living in there and as soon as the pee activated it, the diaper went straight from “clean” to egregiously offensive. I tried washing on hot, I tried adding vinegar, baking soda, bleach, everything I could think of. It seemed like maybe all those things helped, but nothing knocked it out. I wonder now, as I think about it, if those were times that because of weather or whatever reason, the diapers were not getting 100% dry in between uses. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, and in fact here in New Orleans “dry,” which is generally used to mean the same relative humidity as the air, is simply not dry. So what can you do? Maybe I should have dried them on the line and then put them into the dryer for 30 minutes. Who can know. But for whatever reason, the phase died out and all was well again. A little stinky, as anyone would expect, but manageable.

Night Diapering

I am not remotely hard core about cloth, we use disposables at night as well as for vacations or even long day outings sometimes. We tried cloth at night a few times to great disaster, and like the cloth wipes, out the window it went. Nothing, nothing was going to get between me and my sleep.

By disaster I mean that the cloth was completely inadequate to hold either of our babies’ copious night pee, and we woke in a puddle at 3am. With big red baby butt rashes the next day. This is yet another entirely individual factor. I have realized that both of our babies peed a lot at night, on the high end of normal. Our 4yo is still in night diapers in fact, because she so frequently has accidents, sometimes overflowing even the disposable! I hear that late-age night peeing is hereditary, and so it seems possible that my kids are a bit… different. I have known many mamas who use cloth at night and have a fine time of it, so you should definitely give it a go. I have also heard stories about mamas who had my same problem, but then found the diaper that made it all work. The miracle diaper.

In fact, these new Bum Geniuses might be that miracle. They do rock some serious piss absorption! I just started trying them out on my 2.5yo and they seem pretty good. I had recently noticed a drastic decrease in his night peeing though, so things might be conspiring for the good here.


Crap. Have I really just rambled on for 2,846 words about diapers? Wow.

And now it’s your turn to get all uppity. Seasoned mamas, tell us your tricks and tips. And please, new mamas, you speak up too! Questions, concerns, revelations? Were these posts helpful?