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No matter what type of cloth diaper you use, they'll need washing so you can use them over and over again. (In fact, new cloth diapers should be washed at least once before using, to increase their absorbency.)
One option is paying a diaper service to do the dirty work, though diaper services are getting harder to find, depending on where you live. Even if you're near one, the company may not offer a wide variety of service packages. Still, some parents say the service is worth looking into at least for the first few weeks that your baby's home, while you're adjusting to life with a newborn.
If you plan to wash the diapers yourself, start by checking the directions provided by the manufacturer on the label or packaging. Some require special handling. (For example, most wool covers need to be hand washed, lanolized, and air dried.) Special instructions aside, here's how to wash most cloth diapers.
Preparing dirty diapers for washing
Generally speaking, you can put dirty diapers from your diaper pail or wet bag straight into the wash.
Alternatively, soak stained diapers for a couple of hours before washing them, to help with stain removal. (Some diaper covers and diapers with waterproof outer layers shouldn't be soaked at all – read the manufacturer's washing instructions to find out.)
Some parents keep dirty diapers in a wet pail, which means the pail is filled with water (and possibly a little baking soda to fight odors). This isn't recommended for two reasons – the liquid poses a drowning risk to small children and soaking diapers for more than a few hours can actually cause stains to set. But if you do use a wet pail, pour the liquid into the toilet before starting your wash routine.
Products to use – and avoid
Use detergent (not soap) that is free of fragrances, enzymes, and other additives, such as whitening and brightening ingredients.
Avoid fabric softeners and antistatic products, as they can irritate your baby's sensitive skin and make cloth diapers less absorbent.
You may need to use bleach when fighting an infection, such as a yeast diaper rash, but don't rely on it regularly. Bleach breaks down the fibers in cloth diapers, causing them to deteriorate. It can also ruin some diaper covers.
To help eliminate odor, some parents like to add a little baking soda (about half a cup per load) to the wash. Another option is to add white vinegar (about one cup per load) to the rinse water, but some manufacturers don't recommend it, so check the directions. In addition to helping with odors, vinegar helps to soften the diapers.
If you find that your diapers have detergent buildup or other washing problems (they're not getting clean, for example), you may need to experiment to make sure that the detergent you're using is compatible with your water. Also make sure that you're not using too much detergent. Some experts suggest using about half as much detergent for diapers as you would normally use for a load of clothes.
Washing cloth diapers
Wash dirty diapers and diaper covers in a load separate from your other laundry. You can wash the diapers and the diaper covers together unless they have different washing instructions from their manufacturer. Don't overload the washing machine, or the diapers won't get as clean and the friction between them will cause pilling of the fabric. For most machines, this means a maximum of about two dozen diapers.
For water temperature, consult the washing instructions for your particular diapers. Cotton diapers should be washed in hot water, for example, but some diaper covers and diapers with a waterproof outer cover may deteriorate in very hot water (especially if your hot water heater is set at an exceptionally high temperature – not recommended for a childproofed home – or you have a high efficiency washing machine with a sanitizing cycle).
Start with a cold pre-wash cycle, then a regular wash in hot water (unless your directions say otherwise). Follow with a rinse.
Make sure the diapers are very well rinsed. The rinse water should be completely soap-free by the last cycle. If necessary, re-rinse the diapers.
When you take the diapers out of the washing machine, they should smell fresh and clean. If they still smell of dirty diapers, even faintly, then rewash. (Odors can mean that the diapers contain lingering bacteria, which can irritate your baby's skin or cause diaper rash.)
Drying cloth diapers
Close any Velcro fasteners before putting diapers in the dryer, to prevent them from linking together or damaging the diapers.
While drying in the dryer is fine for most cloth diapers, some diapers and diaper covers may not withstand high drying temperatures, so check the manufacturer's directions.
Line drying cloth diapers is a cheap, environmentally friendly option. The sun can help whiten cloth diapers, too. Hanging cloth diapers in strong sunlight may cause them to dry quickly and get somewhat stiff. If that happens, you can throw them in the dryer for a few minutes to soften them a bit. Line drying diapers when it's windy, in the early morning or late afternoon, or indoors can help them dry softer.
How often you'll need to wash diapers
While you'll no doubt come up with a laundry schedule that works for you, most parents find that washing diapers every other day works well. This way you don't have to wash daily, but you'll still wash often enough that you won't need to own an enormous number of diapers. It also helps keep odors under control, since dirty diapers often become especially smelly after a couple of days.
How many loads you'll need to do depends on how many diapers your baby goes through in a day. Here are some approximations, assuming your machine can wash 24 diapers:
- Newborns: 12 to 18 diapers per day (one to two loads if you wash every other day)
- Babies 6 to 18 months: 12 diapers per day (one load if you wash every other day)
- Toddlers 18 months and up: nine diapers per day (one load if you wash every other day)
- Toddlers who are potty training: three to six diapers per day (one load if you wash every other day)
Where to go next:
- Talk to other parents about cloth diapering
- Cloth diapers: A guide to your choices
- How to change a cloth diaper
- Locate a diaper service