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Cloth Diaper Problems and Troubleshooting

Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting: The Dreaded Poop Stink

By Amalah

Hi All-Knowing-About-Cloth-Diapers-Amalah!

Ok, so I’ve followed your column since like, Noah was born, and I’ll admit that had it not been for you, I would not likely have tried, let alone known about, cloth diapers. So, I’ve already tried the things you mention in your other troubleshooting articles, as well as things recommended by the manufacturer(s), and I still need someone to shoot my trouble! My son’s diapers STINK! They don’t smell ammonia-y, they smell like poop. Bad.

I soak in hot water, I wash in hot water with a cold rinse. I double rinse. Triple rinse. I’ve even tried 4 rinse cycles. I’ve stripped with vinegar, and bleach, and they’re all pearly white and look brand new! I’ve tried Rockin’ Green (a mix of scented & unscented), Tide Free, Method Free, and Charlie’s (which may or may not have caused a wicked case of diaper rash each time, so that one I think is out, unless it was just an unfortunate coinky-dink.).

Now, my son is only 4 months old, and we’ve been using cloth diapers pretty much since Day 1, and now that he’s bigger and they fit, he’s in them almost exclusively unless I run out of clean ones before I can wash them again. Which, I only use 18 diapers, so that happens about every 36 hours anyway, so it’s not like they’re sitting for a long time before washing or anything. He’s exclusively breastfed, and his poop tends to be crazy acidic causing, although I think we’re finally figuring out a routine that helps with that. So his poops aren’t solid yet, so the diapers pretty much go straight into the wash as-is when they come off his bottom. Is that what I’m doing wrong? Because if I need to rinse them each and every time I change him, I do not see the cloth-diaper & me relationship working out too well.

Not sure if it matters, but here’s what I’ve got: 12 BumGenius 4.0s, 6 BumGenius Freetime (LOVE THESE, considering buying more, it’s so nice to not have to fish out a disgusting insert), 6 FuzziBunz (HATE and not using. They leak EVERY.SINGLE.TIME. I apparently have a super-peer I guess, I don’t know. But the long inserts work great for breast pads in a sports bra, so at least they’re getting some use.) And we’re between sizes of gDiapers, so we aren’t currently using those at the moment, but I do love those. The BG 4.0s are the worst offenders BY FAR. Yes, I’m taking the insert out to wash, and I’m even unsnapping it, just to make sure no germies are hiding in the folded-over part. Also not sure if it matters, but I dry them on low heat twice, just to make sure they’re good and dry. I’ve also tried washing them two or three times in a row with extra rinse cycles (with and without soap, because I CAN’T FIGURE THIS OUT.) and nothing helps. I’m pretty sure my washer gets hot enough, it’s not an HE, it’s your standard top-loader that probably cost about $500 for the set 11 years ago or so. And our water heater puts out water hot enough to actually burn skin if you aren’t careful, but who knows. Maybe this is the problem?

HALP MEEEEE PLEASE! If you have any further questions, and I somehow missed something, just let me know.

Thank you soooo much!

Mom to a stinky-butt boy

Cold soak. COLD soak.

COLDSOAK COLDSOAK COLDSOAK!

I know that there are probably about a million different suggested cloth diaper laundering processes out there and they ALL somehow manage to contradict each other, but this is the one that I have followed for years and have been served very well by: Soak soiled diapers in COLD, not hot. Super-hot water can basically “cook” the poop and odor into your diapers, resulting in a super-persistent, hard-to-get-rid-of stink problem. ESPECIALLY for manmade fabrics like microfiber, suedecloth and fleece. Cold soak, hot wash with detergent, extra rinse. Done.

So I would wager the hot soak is the source of most of your issues, especially if your water gets as hot as you claim. You’ve essentially been undoing everything you’re doing “right” — small, frequent loads; plenty of water and a non-HE washer to properly agitate; good detergents, extra rinses, etc. — by baking the poop stains and odors in from the get-go.

That’s not to say that soaking in cold from now on will be like, immediate clouds parting, angels singing and diapers that smell like fresh mountain air. You’ve got four months of poop baked into manmade fabrics, and that’s a tough mess to comeback from. You may need to repeat some of the stuff you’ve already tried. You may even want to start fresh with some new inserts — perhaps a lower-maintenance fabric like cotton prefolds or hemp/bamboo inserts. Or even try going with a new part-time batch of those bumGenius Freetimes (supplemented with disposables) while you wait for the stink to fade — for some stink issues I’ve found that a temporary retirement can work wonders, for reasons I cannot fully explain. Time? Air? Mysteries of the cloth-diapering universe!

If I were you, I’d probably attack the problem like so:

1) Soak the whole lot in a sinkful of Dawn. Yes, the dish soap. This is a very popular catch-all fix of last resort that people swear by. Fill a sink with hot water and a tablespoon of blue Dawn liquid. Swish and agitate and then let them soak for a few hours. (If you don’t have a big utility sink, do the diapers in batches of five or six covers at a time to avoid overcrowding. Do the inserts and doublers on their own, or just bleach or boil them.) Then wash your diapers as usual with no detergent and rinse until there are no suds and the water is draining clean and clear.

2) Line-dry in the sun at least once, if possible. Personally, I’ve only ever done the line-dry when my 100% cotton diapers get really, really stained and I want them white again. Not so much for persistent microfiber/suedecloth stank. But they DO smell fantastic afterwards. Fresh and neutral. So worth a shot for your stinky stash, even if all you can do is drag a laundry drying rack out on a balcony or backyard.

3) Pick a detergent and stick with it. Preferably NOT one of the “free and clear” options, as those still often contain brightening agents that leave residue (which can lead to stink, but more often repelling/leaking) and aren’t really recommended too highly for cloth. Try using whatever detergent you choose on all your laundry for awhile, to make sure your machine is rinsing cleanly and your diapers aren’t being affected by stuff in your clothes’ detergent. (Note that MOST of the time it’s perfectly fine to use different detergents for diapers and clothing — hell, we use about four different laundry products depending on what we’re washing. This is a temporary troubleshooting step only, just to cover ALL the bases.)

4) Use Bac-Out before you wash. Hit those diapers with a generous spritzing of Bac-Out before you put them in the pail. It really, REALLY helps with odors, both preventing and killing the deep-down stuff. Sometimes I’ll dump a load of diapers in the washer and spray Bac-Out into the tub before the soak cycle, just for an extra boost of stink-murder.

5) Get a diaper sprayer. No, you absolutely SHOULDN’T have to give each breastmilk poopy diaper an individual rinse. That’s a high-maintenance bridge too damn far. BUT: Let’s say your son’s poop is especially acidic and that level of acidity is reacting poorly to something in your water. (Is your water super soft? Hot? Well water? Also wildcards to consider for your future Googling needs.) It is best then, to get as much of it off the diaper before you toss it in the pail or washer. Diaper sprayer to the rescue. We bought a cheap one off Amazon and its perfectly serviceable.

My advice for using a diaper sprayer, by the way, is as follows: Get one with a separate water on/off switch (I think they almost all have one?). Lift the toilet lid and lower the diaper as far in as you can without touching the water. Start spraying INTO the water to get a handle on the pressure, then slowwwwwly lift up and spray the diaper to avoid water blasting off the diaper and onto you. Toss diaper directly into pail or wet bag, if possible, or else use a cheap burp rag or towel to catch drips while you run back to the pail. Turn the sprayer OFF, then spray into the toilet one last time to get any residual water out of the hose before you replace the nozzle.

(That probably Completely Obvious Advice is courtesy of me, The Idiot, who initially aimed the sprayer directly at a poopy diaper, hit it full blast and sent poop shards ALL OVER THE PLACE.)

Once you start soaking in cold and using Bac-Out, I HOPE you’ll start noticing a marked difference in the smell of your diapers. Keep washing on hot and adding an extra rinse. But like I said, you may need to strip again. If your water is particularly soft or hard, make note that things like vinegar, baking soda, Borax or OxyClean may actually work against you if paired with the wrong water type. I have hard water and vinegar makes stink so much worse, and I need to use a lot less baking soda and Oxy than the usual recommendation unless I want to add like, four extra rinse cycles before the suds are fully gone. (And yes, I’m laughing at myself for using the phrase “usual recommendation” in reference to cloth diapers. THERE IS NO SUCH THING THERE IS ONLY CONTRADICTORY MADNESS BWA HA HAAAA.)

Published March 25, 2013. Last updated October 29, 2017.
Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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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