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Cloth Diaper Problems and Troubleshooting

Cloth Diaper Troubleshooting: Prepping New Diapers & the Dreaded HE Machines

By Amalah

(We’re doing a two-fer today. Two advice-nings for the price of one! Whee!)

Question #1

Hello, I have been a fan of your posts since I started cloth diapering a month ago. They seem to be the only place I can find reliable information on the topic. My friend gave me some used inserts to get started, and she had already stripped them. I can’t seem to find a straight answer on how to prep new cloth inserts. They are charcoal bamboo and microfiber. Do I just strip them? Or is there a specific way to prep new ones? Thanks in advance, and I love your posts!

Ah yes, the prepping process. One of those topics that doesn’t get a ton of discussion online, so it can sometimes shock newbies that…whaaat? I have to wash these things HOW MANY TIMES before I can use them? But yeah. most fabrics need a couple washes to reach full absorbency, so skipping the prep process can result in leaky diapers your first couple go-rounds.

Prepping Process for New Cloth Diapers

Waterproof covers and pocket diaper shells: wash once. No specific process or water temperature is really needed — you can toss them in with a regular load, provided you use a diaper-friendly detergent. I usually go for an extra rinse, too. You’re mostly just trying to get them clean and free of any dirt from the manufacturing/shipping process.

Microfiber inserts/doublers: wash at least once, preferably twice.  I’ve found that 100% microfiber is good to go after a single wash, but since so many inserts are a combo deal, you’ll want to make sure you’re following the instructions on the highest-maintenance fabric.

Cotton pre-folds and other natural fiber inserts: wash at least three or four times, and tumble dry in between each wash. Your bamboo inserts fall into this category, though I imagine you could start using them on the low-end of the washing scale. Just know that the more you wash and dry these fabrics, the more absorbent they get. Otherwise it’s leak central. And while fabrics like hemp or bamboo don’t pucker up and expand the way a cotton pre-fold does after a slew of washes (AKA, the sign of ABSORBENCY POWER ACTIVATION), they do arrive at your door full of natural oils that need to be fully washed out before you put them to work. They also may shrink, which is completely normal.

(Some sites recommend six to eight washes for prefolds, which is when you’re guaranteed to hit full absorbency, but I always got impatient and found the diapers perfectly ready for daytime use after three or four washes. Likewise, you could probably get away with using your bamboo inserts after two washes or so, but not for overnight until a few loads later.)

If you have a huge stash of diapers to prep, you can run them as a separate load. But if we’re talking six inserts here, there’s no need to be overly precious with them. Toss them in with your regular laundry — just use your diapering detergent and not too much of it. Or wash them with your dirty diapers. Whatever laundry load you happen to be running. There’s no need to overthink it or fret about adding anything special to the water here since there’s no poop or ammonia to deal with yet. Just wash ’em a bunch and they’ll be fine.

Question #2

Hi Amy,

Maybe you’ve answered this before, but I didn’t see it anywhere.

I have a high efficiency washer, and am planning to cloth diaper baby #2 now that his butt is filling out and I have the energy to do loads of wash. I used cloth with baby #1, but had an old school washer at that point. So far I’ve done one load of diapers, and they didn’t really look…. Clean. I washed them again, and just kinda put them in the sun to dry and ignored the yellow spots that magically disappeared in the sun.

So I have a whole stash I’d love to use, but can’t be doing 3 cycles to get them clean, that’s far from “earth friendly,” or efficient. Should I soak them first? My washer doesn’t have a soak option, but in a bucket or something? Or use the “bulky items” cycle? One cycle has to output more water right?

I just have no idea. Help!
Thanks a bunch!

UGH. High efficiency washers. Great for the environment, COMPLETELY LOUSY for cloth diapers. When my old-fashioned top loader died I turned to Twitter and asked for recommendations for an HE machine that would be good for cloth diapers. The top-loading Samsung and LG models were the winners; we went with the LG; I still really wish I’d overruled my husband and just gone with another water-consuming non-HE machine. It took me FOREVER to figure out a process for my cloth diapers — and my machine HAS a soaking option!

(But three hours is the maximum soak — I used to cold soak overnight! — and then it automatically moves to a wash cycle and I can’t change the water temperature mid-cycle to hot, gaaaah, so I have to do a 180-minute cold soak paired with the shortest wash cycle, THEN I come back and run a full hot wash with detergent with an extra rinse. Sounds like that should work just fine, right? Tell that to all my stinking-for-reasons-beyond-my-comprehension microfiber inserts.)


The problem is that cloth diapers just absorb a TON of water during the laundry process. So the common issue with HE machines (in addition to a sub-par or non-existent soak option) is that your diapers suck up all the water and then are basically tumbling around in air instead of sudsy water. This…uh…does not get them clean, no.

Personally, I would try Googling your exact washer brand/model with “cloth diapers” added to the search string and see what comes up. There’s probably a forum thread somewhere with people discussing their specific MacGuyver’d approach to getting their cloth diapers clean. But from what I’ve read, if you’ve got an HE front-loader with no soak cycle, here’s a common work-around:

1) Diaper sprayer. Even if you never used one before, you will need to use one now. In my pre-HE days, I could just shake poopy diapers out in the toilet and give them a quick blast in the utility sink by my washer right before I washed them. No more. No stray bits of poop in the HE washer, because they will still be there at the end of multiple cycles. So gross.

2) Use whatever option your machine has to saturate the diapers (in cold water) as much as humanly possible before you do the hot wash with detergent. Do you at least have a rinse option? Or rinse & spin? Try that. Pick a low spin speed. Maybe try running that twice, if you still think the diapers aren’t sopping wet enough at the end.

3) Hot wash with a super excellent cloth-diaper friendly HE-compatible detergent. (I like Charlie’s Soap.)

4) If you have a sanitize or extra-hot setting, run the diapers on that once a month as a stink precaution. (I wouldn’t use it every time because it’ll be really rough on the fabric.)

Some common troubleshooting tips, since yeah, you’re basically going to have to relearn how to wash cloth diapers ALL OVER AGAIN here:

1) If your diapers smell bad right out of the washer, you need to use more detergent (or a stronger one). You can also pre-treat them with a product like bumGenius Odor Removal Spray before you put them in your diaper pail.

2) If your diapers smell like detergent, use less or you’ll need to strip them in no time. You basically want them to smell like…nothing.

3) If your cloth diapers smell fine right after you wash them but stink the instant your baby pees, they aren’t getting rinsed fully or you’ve got detergent build-up. Wash a bunch of times on hot with no detergent and rinse, rinse, rinse. (If your washer drains to a utility sink, watch the outflow and keep washing and rinsing until that water drains completely clear and suds-free.)

4) Staining can happen no matter what kind of washer you use, frankly, and you did the right thing there: Dry them in the sun. Heals all wounds and disgusting yellow stains.

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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