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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

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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  • Myriam

    June 17, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    I do have an HE front-loader and use Bum Denius 4.0 with snaps with microfibers inserts. I do not use a diaper sprayer, but I do use a flushable liner. So, my diaper-washing routine is :
    1-dump diapers in washer
    2- program a rince and spin-hot eavy duty wash-add extra rince. About one a month, I will use the sanitize cycle, or a little bit of bleach…. Works great for me!

    • Isabel


      June 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks for the intelligence. This is awesome info. Clearly the more we have, the better. looks, like it’s an issue that needs optimizing.

    • Josée.

      June 17, 2013 at 2:56 pm

      Same diapers, same laundry routine. Works like a charm!

    • Olivia

      June 18, 2013 at 12:29 pm

      Same routine in my regular, top loading washer.

  • Autumn

    June 17, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    We use Grovia all in 2s  with all cotton inserts in our HE front loader.  It’s taken some playing around with, but here’s what I do.

    1. Dunk poopy diapers in the toilet to remove as much as possible.

    2.  When you are ready to wash, throw everything in for a rinse and low speed spin.  Add 2 or 3 old towels to Bump up the volume.

    3.  We do a warm wash with 1 TBSP of Rockin Green and the “water plus” option which overrides the sensor and dumps an extra couple gallons in.

    4.  Finally, an extra rinse and high speed spin.  When my daughter was exclusively breastfed I didn’t need this step.

    The new HE machines have lots of options, so get to know your owner’s manual, and play with it.  It took me 6 months to figure out this best combo.  

  • Anna

    June 17, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    I can jerry-rig a soak on my front loading HE machine – I put it on a rinse cycle and then turn it off once it’s at optimum fullness. When you want to end the rinse, turn the machine back on and set it to drain.

    BUT. Today our machine let the door open when it was full of water? (Normally it locks). I hadn’t told my partner that I’d done the soak so water flowed out everywhere. So… If your machine will open will a full drum, make sure you leave a note on the handle if there are other adults in your house and don’t do it on a machine a small child could fiddle with and open!

  • Karlei

    June 17, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    We have an LG HE front load now and I think our diapers are cleaner with this machine then with our old regular one. We use BumGenius pockets with microfiber inserts. We do a rinse cycle, 2 hot wash cycles (1 with detergent and 1 with vinegar) and then 2 rinse cycles. And we use the water plus option with each cycle. We throw in a sanitary cycle every couple of times and I bleach once a month. We just use Tide and we do not have a diaper sprayer. We dunk particularly nasty diapers in the toilet, but aren’t that careful about it. 

    I was dreading the HE machine, but my husband really wanted one and I’ve been so pleasantly surprised.

  • Karlei

    June 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Re-reading that it must sound like we use a lot of water, but our water bill didn’t really go up, so I’m not sure what is happening, except that the HE part is off-setting it somehow? 

  • Kate

    June 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Wow, so validating to see this.  We cloth diapered our first daughter and loved it–had a top loading old school washer that gave us no trouble at all.  Then we (to my regret) bought an HE front loader and our attempts to use cloth with my second daughter were a nightmare.  I would literally run the washer five times straight (that’s five hours of washing time!!!) to get one load of diapers passably clean, but the diapers still smelled bad all the time.  I stripped the diapers, washed them more times, used a diaper sprayer, etc. etc.  The only thing that got the diapers smelling and looking clean again was bringing them over to my in-laws and washing the diapers in their top-loader.  Not a sustainable solution as my in-laws live an hour away.  All of this was such an exercise in frustration.  I ended up just throwing in the towel and we’ve used disposables ever since.  ARGHHH!  (Still frustrated.)

    • Isabel


      June 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      wow. frustrating indeed!

  • Mary

    June 17, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    When we had a HE front loader, I had residual stink issues and turned to my local Cotton Babies store for help. They told me about HE rinsing issues and suggested throwing one or two soaking wet bath towels in with the diapers. The weight of the wet towels trick the washer into thinking the load is super large and it uses much more water than usual. That combined with sun drying as much as possible led to significantly better smelling clean diapers.

    • Tasterspoon

      June 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      Great idea about the towels! Maybe because my loads are heavily weighted with the rest of our white laundry (undershirts, sheets, socks, dishrags) I’ve never noticed a lack of water swishing around.

      I have a combo of BGs and cotton inserts with covers and a front-loading HE Samsung. I guess I’m lazy, but I don’t go too far out of my way to accommodate diapers.

      I don’t soak anything, ever. Spray out poops with a sprayer (flushable liners are GREAT, I just forget), but otherwise just throw any dirty diapers in whenever I’m doing a light (hot) load every 2-3 days – press the “pre wash” and “extra rinse” buttons – I put half a scoop of (Charlie’s) soap in the “pre wash” hole and a full scoop in the normal hole. No residual poo and everything comes out clean.

      When I can I hang the diapers in the sunshine, and every other month or so I might do a single load with bleach or vinegar in the “bleach” hole. Zero issues.

      (I have stripped stinkies via boiling in a big vat of dish suds on the stove but it didn’t seem to last or be as effective as just the occasional bleach. Environmentally I hate bleach, but I figure it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what a hospital might be using on any particular day.)

      • Tasterspoon

        June 17, 2013 at 5:31 pm

        Oh, but you do have to pull out the inserts with a front loader. They don’t magically swish out on their own like I hear they do with a top loader.

        • Myriam

          June 17, 2013 at 9:25 pm

          I simply pull out the inserts before the diapers go in the pail. You don’t have to pll them out : if you use BG, grab the diaper by the front end, and shake, and they will fall out into the pail.

    • autumn

      June 20, 2013 at 2:04 am

      The Towels are the best cheapest easiest HE solution ever!  And now I have 2 towels that are ridiculously clean cause all they ever do is get washed and dried.  Having that extra bulk just made everything work so much better

  • Guacaholic

    June 17, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    I have a five year old LG front loader and have devised a system that works like a charm:

    1. All poopy diapers get sprayed (which also creates more weight which tricks the washer into using more water).
    2. Gentle cycle on cold, no spin, heavy soil, water plus option on.
    3. Regular wash (hot wash, cold rinse), heavy soil, water plus option, extra rinse.

    I also run an additional rinse at the end (I have soft water and need the extra rinse to get the suds out) with a dropper full of GSE (recurrent yeast is super fun).

    I think I’ve tried every cloth detergent and keep coming back to Country Save with a little Crunchy Clean oxygen booster. That combo gets everything super clean without residue buildup.

  • Delora

    June 18, 2013 at 1:58 am

    I have a top-loader HE machine that doesn’t have a soak option. I always soak outside the machine. I had started using a 5gal bucket when my son was little (and his diapers were little), and eventually switched to soaking directly in our utility tub. I do a quick rinse/swish to get the worst of the pee out, then drain and do a hot soak with a half-scoop of Charlie’s overnight. My machine has a Heavy Duty setting, which is the one that fills with the most water and agitates longer. Usually a second rinse is enough to get everything smelling like nothing, but occasionally if things don’t seem as clean as I’d like, I do a Normal wash cycle without soap which will get me two additional rinses (the “soap” drain and the regular rinse).

    Good luck! I’m sure you’ll figure it out with a little trial and error. And don’t fear the bucket 🙂

  • Jay

    June 18, 2013 at 3:30 am

    I have a front-loading HE, and I feel lucky – it has a lot of different options! I start with a cold soak, then a Heavy wash on Hot/Cold, and they’re done. The “heavy” setting adds another rinse, which is great. Maybe once a month I’ll run a Warm/Warm for warm wash and warm rinse, but that’s more for me than for anything the diapers seem to need. We use disposable liners with Green Mountain prefolds and Flip covers. Good luck to everyone with this always tricky task!

  • Erin

    June 18, 2013 at 4:48 am

    In our top-loading HE Samsung, diapers are over a 3 hour process.  First, the cold cycle: pre-soak, no spin.  This keeps the diapers nice and wet for the hot cycle with high spin and an extra rinse.  I use cotton GMD prefolds and hemp doublers and still get stains galore, and I haven’t cared enough to sun-dry them out yet.  Good luck!

  • Diane

    June 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

    I’m not a parent, but I do have a suggestion:  Start a campaign to educate the washing machine manufacturers.  Co-ordinate so they are absolutely swamped with comments one day a week.  Tell them how you love their HE machines, are using cloth diapers in part for the same ecological reasons, and ask them to add a diaper cycle.  Good luck!

    • Myra

      March 17, 2015 at 9:13 am

      This is a great idea!  I would definitely take part in a campaign like this, if someone with a higher profile than me would organize it.

  • Hillary

    June 18, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Just a caution about the sanitize cycle. It is a great alternative to boiling your diaper inserts for the purposes of stripping, but it will destroy your PUL and, if your diapers weren’t totally clean, will kind of bake the gunk in. The hot cycle on heavy duty should be perfectly fine for the regular washing.

  • Carie

    June 18, 2013 at 11:12 am

    We have the LG top load HE machine and I have good experiences with it and cloth diapers. 

    My wash routine: rinse and spin on warm.  This lasts for 20 mins. Then the regular wash cycle on cold with detergent, using the setting for heavy soil (1 hr). Then I run the same cycle on hot water with no detergent (heavy soil setting). 

    I am a WAHM and use my own pockets that have suedecloth inner (same as BG) and haven’t needed to strip. For detergent I use the Arm & Hammer for sensitive skin. It has no perfumes and dyes and you can buy it anywhere. I can’t use Charlie’s because of my son’s sensitive akin and I had I luck with other detergents. I’m not super careful about how much I put in either. 

    • Tiff

      September 6, 2013 at 12:11 am

      So how much detergent do u use? I got an lg top loader a few months ago and am still trying to figure it out:-/

  • Martine

    June 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    I have been washing cloth diapers in a HE Samsung Front-Loader for 20+ months.  I use SoftBums (AI2s w/ microfiber soakers).  I don’t use liners. I don’t use a sprayer (I just shake poop into the toilet–if it doesn’t shake off, it goes in the machine).  I don’t have a fancy complicated wash routine. And my diapers are as good as new.  Here’s my wash routine:

    1. Rinse + Spin (gets the worst of the urine/poo out) — 20 mins
    2. Rinse + NO Spin (gets diapers soaking wet) — 8 mins
    3. Heavy Duty w/ Purex F&C — approx 90 mins

    That’s it.  Purex F&C works great for my water type (water softener in the Minneapolis area)

    Every 9 months I do a sanitize cycle, a bleach wash, a sanitize cycle, followed by a regular Heavy Duty Purex F&C cycle to brighten/soften them up.

    • Lilly

      August 10, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      does temperature matter for any of the 3 cycles you run them through?

      I have the same machine =)

  • Kate

    June 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    I haven’t read through all the comments, so apologies if I’m repeating something another commenter mentioned, but I have two suggestions for question #2. First, see if your machine has a “bulky” setting or a “sheets” setting or something like that — that usually tricks the machine into using more water. Second, for a HE machine you will save yourself SO MUCH ANGST if you just ditch the microfiber now. just do it. stuff your pockets with folded flats or prefolds or bamboo or hemp inserts — anything that is a natural fiber. Natural fibers are so much easier to get clean and you won’t be dealing with the constant battle of the stink. (Personally, I stuff my toddler’s pockets with a folded flat and a hemp/cotton blend insert. no stink issues ever and I don’t even use “cloth safe” detergent!)

  • Brigitte

    February 16, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Love my HE washer:

    I set it to BULKY LOAD and then hit the buttons “pre-rinse” and “extra water” when it’s finished, I just do a regular “rinse and spin”

  • Irina Johnson

    December 2, 2014 at 3:21 am

    Excellent article on how to was cloth diapers. I Use a top loading samsung machine and they was fine

  • Danielle Reich

    December 7, 2015 at 5:14 am

    Hi, really late to this conversation, but has anyone tried using Nature’s Miracle enzymatic cleaning spray? Or is this type of treatment bad for cloth? I’m a first time mom and have exclusively cloth diapered our three month old. So far no odor issues unless it’s cloudy/rainy/humid on laundry days, but anticipating issues as our son gets older. I’d read some time ago about using Nature’s Miracle for adult armpit odor/stain & fond it worked well; thought maybe a quick spray or even a soak for the diapers might help out.