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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!

E, 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?

Try Wool Covers

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.

Have You Checked with the Doctor?

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.)

Have You Tried Natural Fabrics?

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)?

Could it Be Diaper Stripping?

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.


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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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