Care of Cloth Diapers

Adult-sized cloth diapers are expensive and are a huge investment if used on a daily basis. However, studies have shown that in the long run, cloth diapers are cheaper to use than disposables and are less prone to cause rashes than poorly ventilated plastic-covered disposables as well as being more comfortable. They do, however, require an expenditure of time to properly clean and care for them. Likewise, plastic pants require proper care to keep them flexible and comfortable.

Cloth diapers are usually made from either pure cotton or a combination of cotton and synthetic absorbent material, called "sponge", although hemp-based fabric diapers are becoming more available. The advantage of (Gerber-style) cotton diaper-weave gauze is that the open weave allows water to penetrate and flow through the fabric better than other fabrics, so it can be cleaned and disinfected better than other fabrics. Gauze is easy to clean, becomes softer with use, is comfortable, and has great absorbency. Its main disadvantages are that it is more prone to damage from diaper pins and it is moderately expensive.

Birdseye weave cotton fabric can be cleaned nearly as well as gauze with the added advantage that it is more resistant to rips and tears caused by diaper pins and daily use. Unfortunately, its strength is achieved at the cost of absorbency and softness.

Cotton flannel is initially the most comfortable, but it requires more work to wash and dry than Birdseye or gauze and is nearly impossible to disinfect. Also, itís absorbency and softness declines rapidly with daily use while the thickness of the fabric makes it more prone to cause perspiration and traps bacteria. Flannel is readily available, is relatively inexpensive, can be sewn on household sewing machines and is available in a variety of prints and colors.

Cotton terry cloth diapers are made from a coarser fabric and are less comfortable than flannel. In addition, the weave traps even more bacteria than flannel diaper cloth and has the same rapid decline in softness and absorbency.

Hemp-based fabric is the strongest of all and becomes softer with use. They are also durable, mildew-resistant and eco-friendly. They are usually composed of a mix of 55% hemp and 45% green cotton (unbleached and undyed) whose seams are serged with 100% cotton thread. Because they are woven into a fleece fabric, they too trap more bacteria than gauze. They are absorbent and become more so after use, however, they are hideously expensive!

Prefold diapers of all types (except the hemp diapers) usually contain a soaker panel made from a non-woven synthetic "sponge" material. Although the sponge makes the diapers more absorbent, the open cells in the sponge material trap even more bacteria than woven fabrics. There is a company that markets a super-absorbent, rewashable hemp/cotton diaper called adult Hempers(tm) which is a 55/45 hemp/cotton (muslin) fabric. The company can be found at Adult Cloth Diapers.

The greatest danger to diaper fabrics is the overuse of bleach. Bleaches use either a strong acid, such as Clorox® (hydrochlorous acid) or an alkali, such as Clorox Ultra® (sodium hydroxide) to perform their work. Every time a diaper is washed in bleach, the chemicals "eat away" at the fibers of the fabric, reducing their strength and absorbency. Although the common view of the purpose of bleach is to "whiten" fabrics, itís real use is to disinfect diapers. Long presoaks in bleach may make diapers "snowy white", but they also "burn" holes into the fabric in short order.

Stain removers can be used to remove discolorations and stains, but they reduce a diaperís useful life as do most fabric softeners. Fabric softeners work by adding a coating of surfactant to the fibers of the material which reduces their ability to absorb fluid. They can also be an irritant and allergen. Most diaper manufacturers recommend the use of borax-based bleaches to prolong the life of their diapers. Borateem® is the most well known, but other borax bleaches are equally as good.

Nearly all cloth is coated with sizing chemicals when it leaves the factory. Sizing chemicals hold the threads together during the manufacturing process and give the fabric a "finished" look. Sizing has traditionally used starch, but environmental and water recycling concerns are causing many textile manufacturers to switch to more exotic chemicals like polyvinyl alcohol. Many people are allergic to sizing agents, especially if the fabric is used as a diaper. All clothes should be washed before they are first worn, but diapers rate special concern and care.

To wash diapers for the first time before wearing:

Fill the washer with warm water and stop the washing machine after a few moments to let them soak. After an hour, spin dry. Next fill the washer with hot water, using Dreft® or another "baby" laundry detergent following the directions on the box. Finish the wash cycle and wash once more in warm water with half the amount of detergent specified on the box.

Dry the diapers in either a clothes drier with the heat set no higher than medium. Just before removing the diapers, add a few sheets of anti-static treatment sheets like Clingfree® or (best) hang the diapers on a clothesline in the bright sunlight to disinfect and dry. (Anti-static sheets are not needed if the diapers are line-dried.)

If using a clothes dryer, remove the diapers just before they are completely dry and still have a bit of moisture in them while you fold, smooth and stack them. The moisture will allow the rest of the wrinkles to smooth themselves out under the weight of the fabric while they finish drying in the warm air of the laundry room. (Hint: To keep your clothes dryer functioning properly, clean the lint trap before every wash load. It only takes a few seconds and it speeds up the drying process.)

To wash soiled (poopy) diapers:

If your baby wears cloth diapers, you should get a diaper duck for the toilet as well as stock up on disposable plastic picnic knives. First scrape off the excess poop into the toilet (special plastic diaper holder called a Diaper Duck. Just hook it over raised toilet seat. It holds the soiled diaper for rinsing. (No more "flushed" diapers and stopped up toilets!) Then, just wring the diaper dry! Made of tough white Lexan plastic. Guaranteed to last the entire diapering period. $7.77 Available from: Parents of cloth diaper users are "hooked" on this on this one! Daddies love them! Save your hands, your time and your money!) bowl with the disposable knife before using the Diaper duck, then either rinse off the knife in the toilet or dispose of it. (Recommended.) Then rinse the soiled diaper with (Important!) cold water. Warm water will "melt" the oils and fats in the poop and allow them to further penetrate the fibers of the diaper! After rinsing in the toilet, presoak the diapers in a mild solution of borax-based bleach following the directions on the box. Do not presoak for more than twelve hours! If washing will be delayed (a good schedule is to wash diapers every other day to keep them from mildewing in the pail), re-rinse and store in a closed diaper pail with other pre-soaked and rinsed diapers.

Washing: Use a stain stick on any obvious stains on the diapers as you load the machine. Do not over or underload the washing machine. Since most of the washing action takes place by the diapers rubbing together, there must be enough room for them to move and enough diapers to rub against each other continuously through the wash. Moderation is the key.

Heat Settings: Gauze, Birdseye, terry or hemp need hot water for all but the final rinse. Flannel diapers need either warm or hot water depending on the weight of the fabric. Run a test load to find out what the proper setting should be if no labels or instructions are provided with the diapers.

After filling the washing machine with diapers and water, add a "baby" detergent like Dreft®. The total amount of the detergent you should use for the entire washing cycle should be 2/3 the recommended amount that is stated on the box. Split the detergent so that about 1/3 is used for the pre-wash cycle and the rest is used in the main wash cycle. During the main wash cycle, add the rest of the detergent and the recommended amount of Borateem® to the water.

If you must use a fabric softener, add 1/3 the recommended amount of a hypoallergenic softener (i.e., without dyes or perfumes) like Downy Free® midway through the final rinse on every other load of diapers. After the final rinse, spin dry and then run a second spin cycle to remove water that the diapers still retain. (Remember, diapers are SUPPOSED to absorb and hold fluid!)

Dry the diapers just as they were dried in the first washing, i.e., either in a clothes drier with the heat set no higher than medium. Clean the lint trap before drying and remember to add a few sheets of anti-static treatment sheets like Clingfree® (Get the "Powder Fresh" scent that smells like baby powder.) just before removing the diapers from the dryer. Donít dry them completely. Instead, remove the diapers just before they are completely dry and still have a bit of moisture in them while you fold, smooth and stack them to finish drying in the laundry room.

Or you can hang the diapers on a clothesline in the bright sunlight so that the ultraviolet radiation in the sunlight will disinfect them as the breeze gently dries and makes them wrinkle-free.

Diapers that have been worn, but not peed or pooped in should still be washed as they will have soaked up babyís perspiration; especially if the baby is wearing flannel or terry cloth diapers in the summer months! Since babies are often overdressed in winter months, they tend to sweat in their winter clothes as well, making this a year-round concern.

Many people are more allergic to their own perspiration than they are to their urine. Also, body oils and flakes of skin work their way into the fibers, making the diaper difficult to clean. Yeast and bacteria can feed on the oils and skin flakes as well as the urea from the babyís pee, causing infectious rashes. (This is another good reason that babies should have daily baths.) Baby oils and Vaseline also make cloth diapers difficult to clean. If the diaper is poopy, it should be changed as soon as possible, not just to prevent anal rashes, but to remove as much oil from the fibers before they have had time to saturate and dry within the fabricís fibers to form a dry gummy substance that is difficult to remove.

Remember: It is normal for fabric diapers to yellow with use. Only the overuse of bleach will keep them "snowy-white", which will destroy them long before they have a chance to yellow.

Diaper Pins, Diaper Clips and Blanket Pins

Diaper clips are by far the best way to fasten a diaper to prolong its life. Every time the stainless steel needle of a diaper pin is thrust through the fabric, the warp and weft is disturbed, destroying part of the fabricís integrity. Since the pin is not infinitely sharp, some fibers are caught and broken rather than shoved aside. The larger the pin, the more damage it does. Use of oversized or blanket pins will destroy a cloth diaper in short order. A blanket pin is intended for use on a fabric with a large yarn with a relatively loose warp and weft like wool blankets rather than the fine threads of a diaper. Although oversized pins have the appeal of being the right scale to make an adult diaper look more like an authentic baby diaper, it will only take a few uses of them to destroy the diaper. Donít use them!

If regular diaper pins rather than clips are used, the pins should be stored in an open position with the sharp end stuck into a Johnson & Johnsonís baby bathing bar or a bar of soap to keep the points lubricated. Lubrication of the pin will make pinning easier and do less damage to the cloth. Also, the pin should be oriented in a position parallel with the babyís legs rather than horizontally. Pins that are fastened horizontally tend to trap and tear the fabric at the head of the pin and are difficult to remove without damaging the diaper. If the pins bend and open under stress (as they often do with larger babies), use two pins on each side in a column such that the head of the bottom pin overlaps the bottom coil spring portion of the top pin.

A new product has come out on the market called Snappi Diaper fastener from South Africa that uses elastic bands to produce a standard triangular fold in a diaper and keep it closed. I don't know if it will handle adult use or whether it will fit adult diapers. It can be found at:

If anyone purchases one and experiments with it, Mama would love to know the results.