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Cloth Diaper Stink

Diaper Stink Wars

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Maybe my seven-month-old just has crazy potent pee, but the ammonia smell emanating from her cloth diaper in the mornings could fell a moose. Our typical nighttime diaper is a Knickernappies SuperDo insert wrapped in a piece of suedecloth, inside a Flip cover. Once in a while I’ll switch it up and do a hemp insert and a microfiber insert (wrapped together in suedecloth), or a tri-folded prefold under a Grovia fleece booster (no suedecloth because those boosters are great for wicking away moisture), but the SuperDo is our standard. They don’t smell coming out of the dryer, and I have stripped the covers, all the various inserts, and the suedecloth every way I know how — boiling water, vinegar, blue Dawn, Rockin’ Green (regular and Funk Rock), bleach, and various combinations of the above. (My normal wash routine is cold soak, then a hot wash with Charlie’s Soap and a second hot rinse.)

Could switching to a wool cover instead of the waterproof Flips help, do you think (if so, any recommendations? I’ve never tried the wooliepants.)? Or doing the second rinse on cold instead of hot? Or maybe I should give her more water during the day? (Her urine is clear, not dark, so I don’t think she’s dehydrated, but maybe more water would help dilute the ammonia?) Perhaps I ought to accept my fate and invest in a gas mask?

It’s really only an issue because she wakes up around 5:30 or 6, and if I nurse her in bed she’ll go back to sleep till 7:30 or so, and I’m not willing to give up that extra hour and a half of sleep just because of a smelly cloth diaper. If I change her, she’s all, “Dance party, WHEEEEE!” and even snuggling and a boob in Mommy’s bed can’t get her to calm down and go back to sleep, so right now I mostly just hold my breath until I fall asleep or pass out so I don’t notice the stench.

Any advice you can offer is much appreciated, oh Cloth Diaper wan Kenobi!

Erin, mom to a stinky baby

Argh, diaper stink! The bane of a cloth diaperer’s existence. So frustrating, because it never seems to be caused by the same thing, and everybody ends up swearing by a different solution. As you’ve probably figured out in your half-dozen different stripping attempts. More detergent! Less detergent! No detergent! And ETC. I’m currently battling with repelling pocket diapers myself (and not having much success with any of the recommended solutions I’ve found online either), so I feel your pain.

Ammonia stink is a tricky one to figure out. Is the smell *only* noticeable in the morning, after a long night in the diaper? Or is that just when it’s the WORST, but you are smelling it at least a little bit every time she pees?

If it’s just that overnight diaper that’s the problem, I would give a wool cover a try. Ike is a VERY heavy wetter and I definitely noticed a yucky morning odor (though not as bad as what you’re describing, I don’t think) when we were putting him to bed in PUL covers. (Flip covers are 100% polyester.) Switching to wool at night really helped. I have not tried any of the brand-name, commercially-produced wool covers, but instead spent some time searching around on Etsy for handmade ones at lower prices. If the number of choices on Etsy seems overwhelming, I’ve found Green Mountain Diapers to be a good resource for getting the real pros AND cons on different cover types and brands. Their wool selection is here.

If you’re concerned overall about the ammonia concentration in your daughter’s urine, take her to the doctor. The odor COULD be a urinary tract or bladder infection, and while most babies will cry and run fevers when they have one, some do manage to harbor low-grade infections without any other symptoms for quite some time. And definitely any guidance on additional water or other liquids should come directly from your doctor, as the advice/opinions on that varies. Most agree that babies should not get ANY additional water before six months, but after that things get a little murky. (My first pediatrician said an ounce or two a day in a sippy cup for practice was fine at mealtimes when Noah was around your daughter’s age, but then we switched practices and the new doctor just about had a stroke and bit my head off when I said I was offering Ezra a little water in a cup before 12 months old because ZOMG WRONG BAD.)

If you’re still thinking you’ve got ammonia build-up on the actual diapers — like, even though they smell clean after a wash you’re hit with stink every time she pees — try an experiment at night, by diapering her 100% in natural fabrics. I’ve learned the hard way that the BIG downside to all the space-age synthetic fabrics like microfiber, fleece, suedecloth, etc. is that they are your prime candidates for laundry problems, especially if you’ve got less-than-perfectly-balanced water. (And ours is very hard.) Microfiber is super prone to stink, fleece and suedecloth get mineral build-up and repel/leak, etc. Basically every nighttime configuration you mentioned is using at least one of those fabrics.  Don’t get me wrong, these are popular diapering fabrics because they WORK and absorb a ton of liquid with a ton of bulk, but if you are having stink/leaking problems, these are usually your culprits.

Try going a night or two in just cotton/hemp/bamboo and see if the smell is less pungent. If it is, then you’ve found your problem and need to give the microfiber/fleece/suedecloth components another go at de-funkifying. Are you doing a pre-wash in between your soak and wash cycles (VERY IMPORTANT)? Are the diapers soaking in enough water (common problem with HE machines)? Are you maybe actually using too little detergent so the diapers just aren’t getting clean (it’s easy to get spooked by RESIDUE HORROR STORIES and end up not using enough)?

It’s also possible that some of your stripping attempts made things worse: if you have hard water, for example, vinegar can actually react with your water and cause the stink you’re describing. I’ve encountered microfiber stink a couple times and had great success with the stripping instructions on the Rockin’ Green package (which I know you tried), but weirdly can’t use that stuff on a regular basis because the stink comes BACK much faster than it does with Charlie’s. Even though it’s SUPPOSED to work best for water like ours. I just…I don’t get it either. If I were you, I’d  try washing the diapers/inserts 5-6 times on hot with no detergent or additives at all, then resume your normal washing routine (with a pre-wash cycle) and maybe upping your detergent amount a smidge.

(Take any guidance I give with a grain of salt, however, because like I said, my fleece and suedecloth pocket diapers are all repelling like hell right now. Washing them over and over on hot with no soap — which the Internet said would work! — did not help. I might pick up some Dawn this weekend and give that method a try, but if it doesn’t do it, I’m putting the whole lot up for sale on Craigslist.)

(If anybody reading has more patience for this sort of thing and wants some cheap diapers, lemme know, because I am Over It and would rather stick with prefolds and fitteds anyway. Bleh.)

If you still think everything smells just as bad after a night in all cotton and hemp, then…well, yeah, you’ve probably just got exceedingly stinky pee. A breathable wool cover might help let some of the smell out gradually at night instead of trapping it all in her diaper, or your doctor might want to check her for an infection or look at her diet/liquid intake. Good luck, and may the Defunkifying Force be with you.


Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Hillary

    October 21, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I had this problem! (I still sort of have this problem, so I know that part of the smell really is just morning pee.) You may want to try this with your laundry: a cold cycle on DELICATE with a bit of soap, then a hot cycle on HEAVY with the rest of the soap. Basically, divide the current amount of soap you use, and put some in on the cold wash, and some on the hot wash. If you use the delicate cycle you will get more water in the washing machine, and it will turn a bit slower so you’re still getting a bit of a soak, but you’re also rinsing all the gunk out before the for real wash.
    My daughter is an epic night wetter, plus she has eczema, so I do a cotton fitted with a flip insert (bc the cotton burns her skin and the flip microfiber wicks) and a wool cover. The smell is still sort of gross. But tolerable, definitely tolerable. Before I changed the wash routine, I was gagging when I got into her bedroom. No doubt about it, the cloth really retains stinky morning pee, and sometimes a typical wash routine can’t get it all out. Hopefully she stops waking up for a morning nursing session soon! 🙂

  • Elizabeth_K

    October 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    We battled the same issue this summer, only with our daughter (our son is mostly potty trained), but her diapers were AWFUL only after nighttime. As Amalah said (and your letter said), the Internets are full of advice … and none of it worked for us. I was ready to BUY A NEW WASHING MACHINE when I read one thing that said — “try tide.” We only use cotton prefolds, so not the same at all, but … the Tide is miraculous. No stink at all. So, I dunno, might be worth a try.

  • Myriam

    October 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Did the odor start at the same time you introduced solids? Does it smell every morning, or just some?  Maybe it’s related to something she eats.  I remember when I introduced asparagus and broccoli, oh my, the smell!!!  I use BumGenius 4.0 all the time, and Pampers once in a while in a pinch.  My daughter smells much worse in Pampers than in cloth diapers… 

  • Carolyn

    October 21, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    First of all, if you need more diaper laundry advice, try the forums at (they are HUGELY helpful for all sorts of things!) I haven’t had this problem, but my understanding from reading through HUNDREDS of pages of diaper washing pages (we had some super hard water issues for a while!) is that morning ammonia smells like that are caused when the urine reacts with bacteria already present in the diaper. So essentially – you need to get your diapers way cleaner to completely kill the bacteria in them (since microfiber and other synthetic fibers are tougher to wash, that’s why they are more often associated with ammonia stink). Tide is a stronger detergent, which is why it probably helped the previous poster. Otherwise you can try more washes with the HOTTEST water possible, more detergent, or try using the bleach again. Do you get the ammonia stink with the other nighttime options, or just the Super-Do?

  • Olivia

    October 21, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    My daughter’s pee has smelled like that for months, though I can’t smell it until I take the diaper off. I just figured bigger kid (she’s 2 now) = stinkier pee (and poop). *shrug*

    Just a different opinion about the “pre-wash” cycle. Not all washers have that setting. What works for me is a rinse, a hot wash cycle, and another rinse.

  • Susan

    October 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    elizabeth_k, the reason Tide works, according to the “diaper specialist” at my local cloth diaper store, is that it has enzymes that combat ammonia like no natural or “green” laundry detergent can. I too had spent hours on the innerwebs researching how to get rid of the stink from our gCloth microfiber/hemp inserts and didn’t ever read anything about enzymes. I am hesitant to try it because Tide is anathema to everything I try to do for my littles (harsh, chemically, etc.) but like Amalah, I’m also ready to just chuck the stinky little buggers (though I don’t love prefolds as much as she does).

    I bought a big bottle of Bio-Kleen BAC-OUT per Amalah’s blog mention, and that helps combat some of the stink (it’s all enzymes) but now I have a different problem – fruit flies swarm in our bathroom because the Bac-out is made of lime extract! Can you ever win?!

    The diaper specialist also recommend this chart of detergents, but it didn’t really help me:

  • Elizabeth_K

    October 21, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Fascinating! I had no idea, and I too shudder at the thought of all those chemicals, but Charlie’s soap gave them an actual burn, and vinegar made it worse if possible, and I hate wasting all the water of washing without soap again and again and again (and then it would only work for one! day!) so I’ve bitten the bullet and we use Tide just for now. We’ll switch back to green something or other when this box is gone and pray for the best — especially cause we have a newborn coming next month!!

  • Olivia

    October 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Okay, now I’m wondering if I should buy a small bottle of Tide. Do you know if it matters whether it’s the regular Tide or will the Tide Free work?

  • Holly

    October 21, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    My daughter has the knock-you-down ammonia diapers in the morning too. I thought part of the problem was that they weren’t getting totally clean with the Rockin’ Green Hard Rock soap, so the long wear overnight just brought up the smell. I bought some of the Rockin’ Green Funk Rock just this week – did the long soak overnight with their regular detergent, then an hour soak with the Funk Rock, finished washing as usual with no extra soap. So far it’s LOADS better in the morning. I’m going to keep up a bit of the Funk Rock in every normal wash cycle, so hopefully I don’t have to do the long soaking stuff very often. It seems to be a good solution for us!

  • Katie

    October 21, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Only sympathy here…and I’ve got the exact same routine going…5:30 to 6am wakeup, followed by an extra hour and a half of sleep, precious sleep, if I bring the munchkin back to our bed quickly, before any dance party begins.

    Worst of all, the smells seem to be overcoming our pail too! My only consoling thought is that I actually find the disposable diaper 6am reek to be worse than the cloth diaper one. So at least no one can tell me just to switch to sposies 🙂

  • Elizabeth_K

    October 21, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Again, no idea what will work, but the post I read (where? who knows, I was deep into WHY DO THESE DIAPERS STINK??? land) said REGULAR Tide, so I bit the bullet and all the chemicals and smells in the world and bought regular. If you try free and it works — tell me!!

  • Susan

    October 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Elizabeth, I just went out and bought a box of regular Tide, too, and the smell almost bowled me over when I opened it – but not as badly as the diapers, so I guess I’ll just run an extra rinse and sun dry them to get the detergent smell out.

  • Meg in VT

    October 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Just a word here to counter everything everybody says…. We have very mineral water and had problems with morning diaper stink, too (although we have, thanks to wonderful Karen at Green Mountain Diapers, always only used cotton and hemp under PUL covers). We use a double rinse cycle as a pre-wash, followed by a ‘heavy duty’ hot wash with two rinses…. Anyhow, the culprit turned out to be the Charlie’s soap. I tried adding vinegar to the first rinse of the wash cycle to get the soap out, which worked okay but meant I had to wash all my covers and pail liners separately. (You do NOT want to see what vinegar does to those. I forgot once and torched a pail liner, oops). Anyhow, when I got lazy about mail-ordering Charlie’s online and bought the Bio-pac my local co-op sells in bulk, never had a problem again!. I currently am using Planet ultra (on sale) and also no problems. So maybe fire the Charlie’s. And definitely try switching to cotton diapers — much, much easier to wash.

  • Erin

    October 21, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Original question-asker here — thanks to Amy and the commenters for all your advice. I suppose by “soak” I mean “pre-wash”, as that’s the only setting my washer has that does a soak. So I guess it cold-soaks, rinses, spins and then I do the hot wash.

    It’s only in the morning that I notice the smell (we use a combination of prefolds and Grovia cotton inserts for daytime) — well, the morning and any time I open the diaper pail that’s got the overnight diaper sitting in it. Yowza. I will try out the wool covers and all-natural fibers inside and hope it helps — if it does, I’ll report back!

    I keep hearing about Tide but I’m allergic to it, so I hesitate to try it on the diapers … maybe I’ll try a small bottle and test it out on a shirt first and see if she has a reaction, if the wool and all-natural fibers don’t seem to help.

  • Wallydraigle

    October 21, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    My kids have crazy sensitive skin, so I’ve been on a quest to have the most stripped-down diapers possible without having to let stuff build up and then actually strip them every few weeks. I mean, I still strip them, but I don’t have to do it very often anymore. I tried many different detergents. I have to say that regular “free and clear” detergents tend to be a humongous waste of money. I haven’t tried Tide, but it seems like I’ve tried all the others.
    I loved Charlie’s until we moved to Utah, away from our beautiful water softener, and into extreme hard water central. I don’t drink water; I chew and swallow it here. A friend here recommended Country Save, and I love it. I have found my laundry detergent.
    Now, I still have to use a capful of Calgon (cheapest at Wal-Mart, at least here it is) in the initial soak/rinse and in the hot wash, and I still have to use Dawn in every soak/rinse, and I still have to check the rinse cycle for suds (and often end up doing several rinse cycles). But I was thisclose to giving up on cloth diapers when I found Country Save. It’s not expensive. I get mine for $15 at a local health foods store (weird, right?), and it lasts for a good three months; we don’t even have an HE washer. It can be hard to find, but I love it. I use it for all our laundry now, not just diapers. It’s just like how Charlie’s was before we had hard water.

  • Shannon

    October 22, 2011 at 9:44 am

    A simple solution I just read about a tried the other day was just to dunk the morning diaper in the toilet to rinse off all that extra ammonia pee smell. While our LO’s pee isn’t quite as bad (yet), the pail was still pretty potent after those morning diapers. But after a quick rinse in the (clean) toilet, there was no smell at all! This won’t save you AS you are rinsing of course, but is an easy thing to try 🙂

  • Kelly J

    October 22, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    Regular Tide really does a great job, and the powder works MUCH better than the liquid.

    Also, the washing regimen that was recommended to me and seems to work great (especially where combatting stink is concerned) is HOT water pre-wash, hot water wash with Tide, and then a 2nd rinse. The hot water pre-wash will do more to “loosen” all the nasty on the diapers than the cold will do. In fact, I was told if a cold water pre-wash was your only option, you are better off skipping it.

  • Corinne

    October 22, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    I had to do a strip with RLR because of ammonia stank . WORLDS of difference with our hard water. I can’t smell his morning diaper at all anymore, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m thinking I’ll get some Calgon to help with the hard water issue eventually, but for now the RLR has made everything sunshine and rainbows again. I also use a combination of Tide and Dropps for detergent. The Tide (Ultra Powder) is great for getting the diapers clean, without costing a ton, but I really like how the Dropps works and the enzyme, color, additive free things, but they’re expensive for as often as I wash diapers. 1 box of Tide has kept us going for 3 months and I’m not stingy with the detergent

  • Mary

    October 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    If you really want to get rid of your pocket diapers, I have a taker. My friend Miranda recently left her job to stay at home with her son, and her husband is a full time student. They only have about a dozen pocket diapers b/c her previous daycare wouldn’t accept cloth. They really want to cloth full time but don’t have the money right now to invest in more cloth. I’ll pay to have them shipped to her (she lives in Arkansas). Email me if you decide they’re not working for you anymore. 

  • Emily

    October 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    fine. I’m buying tide. I am SO SO sick of the smell. I know the moment she pees because it smells. Yuck. In the mornings, I pray it’s a poop diaper she woke up in because otherwise, I have diaper smell issues. But no repelling. Absolutely no absorption issues. just stink. Tide. I can do this. I will try this. Poor Charlie’s.. I have a whole new container of you and you might get sent to the regular clothes laundry routine.

  • Mary

    October 23, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    If you really want to get rid of your pocket diapers, I have a taker. My friend Miranda recently left her job to stay at home with her son, and her husband is a full time student. They only have about a dozen pocket diapers b/c her previous daycare wouldn’t accept cloth. They really want to cloth full time but don’t have the money right now to invest in more cloth. I’ll pay to have them shipped to her (she lives in Arkansas). Email me if you decide they’re not working for you anymore. 

  • Jo

    October 23, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    I use g diapers with cloth inserts and we were getting the STINK. I ended up boiling them in a huge canning vat for 30 minutes, with a little dawn soap. Then washed again on hot with our regular soap (ALL free and Clear). No more stink!

  • Susan

    October 24, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I tried the Tide this weekend on our gCloths and not only did Jack’s diaper stink to high heaven this morning (I had two gCloths back to back inside a FB) but I cannot stand the detergent-y smell – we’ve used natural and unscented laundry detergent for so long that the smell of Tide just gags me. Also, the diapers I sun dried were stiff as a board (stiffer than normal line drying) – according to the Country Save detergent website, that’s due to leftover detergent residue on the fabric.

    Guess I will swing by Whole Foods on my way home for the Country Save – if you had told me three years ago that my life’s obsession would be getting the stink out of cloth diapers, I would have told you to go stuff yourself…

  • Hillary

    October 25, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    I tried Tide Free and Clear and we all got burny skin. My daughter’s eczema is pretty bad, and the detergent made it much worse. It is definitely a harsher chemical! It did make the diapers whiter, though. Now I use Tiny Bubbles and LOVE them, but Country Save and Crunchy Clean were OK. I had no luck with Charlie’s or Allen’s.

  • Jessie

    October 25, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Another idea, if you’d like to get your diapers really clean and start fresh, is to contact a local diaper service, if there’s one in your area. One of the services in my area (which we don’t use regularly since I wash my diapers at home usually) will pick up the diapers and give them a super thorough cleaning and stripping, then deliver them to our house again. Plus they give us loaner diapers while they’re cleaning ours. Just an idea. Good luck!

  • Cloth Diaper Lover

    October 25, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Rockin Green makes a great product that works well to remove the smell.

    You can find it here:

  • Amanthus

    October 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    I wonder if Bac-out would be helpful?  The enzyme action might help?  We use it after we spray off our son’s poopy diapers and it actually seems to eat the poo that can’t be sprayed off.  Also used it A LOT when our dog was a puppy pre-potty trained. Worked great at getting the dog urine smell out of the carpet.  I swear by the stuff.  Bet you could do a soak with it. Worth trying anyways.

  • Amanthus

    October 25, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    Oh, and when I line dry clothes and/or diapers and they dry a little stiff, I will throw them in the dryer on air dry and it softens them up.  Just a suggestion.  

  • Christine

    October 26, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    I have read over Amy’s past posts about how much she LOVES cloth diapers and they have almost converted me. I am due in May 2012 and am trying to make up my mind before spending the money only to find out that I made a mistake. I fell on this recent post from Amy and now wonder if buying cloth diapers is a complete mistake (due to the comment about donating the entire lot to craigslist). Is it really that bad? Do these solutions to “strip” really work? Are cloth diapers really only good for 6 months or so???

  • Meg

    October 28, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    We have the same problem with stinky inserts. We use a pocket with 2 flip inserts or a Kawaii cover with the inserts. We have tried everything even the diaper pail was bad.
    We use Charlies or Eco Sprout did not make a difference. I just started rinsing the inserts in the sink with every changing in cold water takes a minute no biggy. No smell in the pail I can keep it open in the bathroom. I put a couple Tablespoons of baking soda in with the det when I wash.. First I do a rinse with extra water in my HE machine stop it before it spins and add my det & baking soda start the washer and do a wash with extra water on the hot/cold cycle with an extra rinse. has worked pretty good so far. hope it keeps working. Just something else to add to the list of things to try.

  • Corinnetags

    October 29, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    OP – I would try using natural fibers overnight first to see if that takes care of the problem. Then I would try using more detergent (you might have to do more rinses if you see repelling issues), because the diapers might just not be coming all the way clean.

    Amy – Stripping with blue dawn should work, then a bunch of hot washes. I never had any luck with just hot washes. If you use any diaper cream, even coconut oil, it can still build up on the pockets and cause repelling. You might need to scrub it into the fabric this time with a toothbrush or scrubbrush. If that works (and it should), just do a “stripping” load once a month or so with some blue dawn and lots of hot washes to prevent any build up.

  • Emily

    October 31, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Just an update: tide worked! powder, as someone mentioned. Yay! No stinkies anymore for me (no, I’m not the OP). Sorry, Charlie’s you’re relegated to regular laundry duty.

  • Ginger

    November 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    For the repelling pockets, if the dawn doesn’t work, try some RLR. We have a lot of minerals in our water and RLR is the only thing that gets rid of the repelling on my fleece/suedecloth/microfiber!

  • Ginger

    November 15, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    Amy – For the repelling pockets, if the dawn doesn’t work, try some RLR. We have a lot of minerals in our water and RLR is the only thing that gets rid of the repelling on my fleece/suedecloth/microfiber!

  • megan

    February 6, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Try aquarium amonia remover- for the fish tank. I wash in cold water with my usual soap, then soak overnight with the amonia remover. Wash again in hot water with soap and rinse a couple time to get it all out. Works great and doesnt irritate babys skin:)