How to clean cloth diapers and diaper covers

Have you decided to give cloth diapers a try? Or maybe you’re considering them and want to see what you’re getting yourself into. Just let me say — don’t be put off by the laundering! Having used cloth diapers exclusively on all four of our babies (many years ago!), I can attest to it being super easy and well worth the little extra effort. 

First, a little background:

The cloth diaper

You can purchase flat, prefold, contour, or fitted diapers. 

A flat diaper is a large cloth that you fold to a good size for your baby. These are versatile because you can adjust the size as your baby grows — and to fit your baby’s needs. For example, you might fold them to be more absorbent in the back at bedtime or to be more absorbent in the front if you have a boy. Flat diapers also dry more quickly than other choices, because they’re thin.

A prefold diaper is sewn into a smaller size, with a thicker portion in the middle for better absorption. It’s a tidy diaper, easy to stack and store. It takes a bit longer to dry than a flat diaper.

A contour diaper is like a prefold, but it’s shaped to fit around your baby. It’s also worn inside a diaper cover.

A fitted diaper has closures and elastic at the waist and legs. 

Newborn baby wearing a mint blue and pink hair bow and bright pink diaper cover

Diaper covers

This waterproof layer goes over the cloth diaper. In some cases you’ll need to fasten the cloth diaper to your baby first (using old-fashioned pins, Boingo fasteners, or Snappis, for example). In other cases, you just lay the diaper down the middle of the cover or insert the cloth diaper into a pocket inside the cover. 

Covers are typically made of wool, fleece, or polyurethane laminate, for waterproofing. They usually come with snaps or Velcro closures.

There are also all-in-one diapers that are one-piece diapers with an inner absorbent layer, a wicking layer, and a waterproof outer layer. Keep in mind that one-piece diapers do take a while to dry.

How to launder a cloth diaper/diaper cover

If the diaper is just wet, you can toss it in your diaper bag or pail until you’re ready to wash diapers. 

If your baby has a BM, though, dump the contents into the toilet. Then swish the diaper in the toilet. If that makes you squeamish, there are diaper sprayers that attach to the toilet (they look like a little showerhead). These are great for spraying diapers before putting them in the diaper pail. You could also use a spray bottle of water (though it takes a bit of spraying). However you get the diaper rinsed off, put it in with the other dirty diapers for laundering afterwards. 

Note: If your baby is exclusively breastfed, experts say you don’t need to remove poop before storing it with the other dirty diapers. But if your baby is eating any solids or formula, you’ll need to drop by the toilet first. While my wee ones were exclusively breastfed, I still swished dirty diapers in the toilet before putting them in the diaper pail. And I would think especially as your baby gets older — with bigger BMs — you’ll want to do the same.

Wash the diapers (and only diapers; don’t put diapers in with other clothing) in two steps. 

  1. Run a load of diapers in cold water, without detergent, to rinse them off. (You can use a pre-rinse for this step, if your machine has a setting for it.)
  2. Wash the diapers using hot water. (Some covers need to be washed separately in warm water as directed by the manufacturer — be sure to read your labels.) Use a gentle detergent. Also include an extra rinse cycle, if you have that option. 

Dry cloth diapers on the line or in the dryer. Check the care label on diaper covers. Some need to air dry, while others can be put in the dryer.

clean cloth diaper covers in green, blue, white, and orange folded and stacked on a white background

Tips for laundering diapers:

• Don’t overload the machine with diapers.

• Don’t use fabric softener with your diapers or they’ll lose their absorbency. (And check to make sure your detergent doesn’t contain softener; many baby detergents do.)

• Add a couple of tablespoons of baking soda to the wash cycle, if you like, to help with stain and odor removal.

• If you use a wet bag to store diapers, it’s a good idea to have two so you can toss one in with the load of diapers for washing. (You might also invest in a small one to carry in your diaper bag.)

How often should I wash diapers?

Some people like to stock up on diapers so they don’t have to wash them so often, but I liked to run a load every day, to avoid unpleasant smells and setting of stains. You shouldn’t put too many diapers in a load, anyway (a dozen or so is a good number). I’d say wash them at least every other day.

What if the diapers are yellowing?

Drying them on a clothesline in the bright sunshine will help naturally bleach them. (The sun can help eliminate bacteria, too.) You can also add about half a cup of lemon juice to the wash cycle to help brighten them up. 

What should I do when the diapers stay stinky?

After a while, cloth diapers can retain an odor that doesn’t come out with normal washing. This is from the buildup of ammonia; you’ll recognize the smell! It happens as the urine on the fabric breaks down, and it gets stronger thanks to any bacteria in your diaper pail or bag. Diapers also become less absorbent over time, because of detergent buildup. 

Most cloth diaper and diaper cover manufacturers will provide directions for something called stripping. To strip diapers, you wash them in hot water using a special laundry treatment. Some use Dawn dish soap, others use bleach (or both). There’s also a natural method.

baby legs wearing an owl diaper cover

To strip diapers naturally

  1. Wash the diapers in hot water without detergent, to help eliminate detergent buildup. Do this two or three times, if you think the buildup is bad. 
  2. Fill your washing machine with hot water and about 3 cups of white vinegar. Add clean diapers and soak overnight. 
  3. Drain and wash in the morning with just a little bit of your normal detergent. 
  4. Rinse twice.

It’s a good idea to strip the diapers every few months, or when you first start to detect that they’re starting to smell or are not as absorbent as they were. 

BTW, you can slow the process of ammonia development by rinsing the wet diapers (as you do the poopy diapers; see above) before putting them in your diaper bag or pail.

I’m clearly an advocate of cloth diapers, for many reasons. If you’re interested in some of those reasons, you might enjoy this article on The Benefits of Cloth Diapers.

Do you use cloth diapers for your baby? Do you have any solutions (or encouragement)  to share?

You might also enjoy:

Towel care — How to keep bath towels soft, fluffy, and absorbent!

Washing machine care — how to make yours last

12 tips for washing kids’ sports uniforms

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