How To Wash Cloth Diapers (While Keeping Your Sanity)

Last Updated On: 

August 10, 2018

The decision to use cloth diapers doesn’t come lightly for many. Disposables are so convenient and easy, but they’re also so bad for the environment.

Landfills take in millions of tons of disposable diapers each year, and these diapers don’t magically disappear. They take hundreds of years to break down.

When you think of cloth diapers, you might automatically wrinkle your nose at the thought of all that laundry you’ll have to deal with – ugh!

While diaper laundry services really are a thing, you might not live in the right place, or you might not want to pay the hefty price.

Don’t worry about any of that, though, it isn’t nearly as difficult as you might imagine (or might have been told) it is. With a little work, you can keep your cloth diapers clean and fresh.

Starting From Scratch—What Do You Need To Know?

There are lots of cloth diapers on the market for you to choose from. If you’re brand new to cloth, you might ask around on social media for advice on what kinds other people like.

Cloth diapers are sort of like salad dressing, everyone has a favorite. Some experimentation will go a long way and help you find what works for your baby, though.

Once you’ve decided what kind you want to use, you can stock up!

Look for sales or used diapers on local swap meets or at consignment stores if you’re striving to save money because of a limited budget.

Used diapers are okay to use, even if the idea is a bit strange. Just look them over for obvious stains and tears and give them a discreet sniff for odors first.

How Many Cloth Diapers Do You Need?

Once you start collecting, you might find cloth diapers to be addictive. There are always more colors and more patterns available, and many brands offer seasonal and holiday designs, too.

The best thing is to decide how many you need, and then stick to that number.


Newborns require more cloth diapers than older babies because you have to change them constantly. Expect to go through at least 12 a day.

Unless you want to do laundry every day (you don’t!), try to get at least 20-24 diapers.

One thing to consider is newborn diaper rentals. You don’t have to accumulate as many in your personal stash, and you might get to try out a few different brands before you invest your hard-earned cash as well.

Every diaper change using a cloth diaper is one less disposable in the garbage.

Older Babies

Older babies can be tricky, especially when you add food to their regular breastmilk or formula.

Your baby may have an adjustment period so you could see more or less dirty diapers during that phase.

Aiming for at least 15-20 diapers will usually get you at least two days of clean bottoms before you need to wash.

Toddlers Until Potty Trained

Once your child starts sleeping through the night, you’ll notice a drop in the number of diapers you need.

For some babies, this occurs early, but some may be toddlers before they sleep all the way through.

Having 12-15 cloth diapers should get you through two days, but this number really depends on your child and how often you want to do laundry.

Your Stash Is Ultimately Up To You

Your stash size is rather personal, and you know your baby’s potty time best.

A smaller stash is fine if you wash to wash every day or every other day. On the other hand, a more substantial stash will be more of an initial investment, but you won’t have to dedicate as much time cleaning them as often.

Having a slightly larger stash is also better for the diapers themselves. A small stash means continually washing the same diapers over and over. If you can go three days between washings, your diapers will hold up longer. More than three days can allow bacteria to grow, however.

Bringing Your Diapers Home

Before using your new diapers (or hand-me-downs) on your baby, you’ll want to wash them first. Brand new diapers and inserts may need to be broken in to be fully absorbent.

Here’s the tricky part – your diapers may require several washings, depending on the material.

If your diapers are made from natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo, or hemp, you really want to wash them at least a few times before having your baby wear them. Like a good dessert, more is better!

Some natural fibers contain oils, and you want to thoroughly rinse this out before using.

Synthetic diapers are usually made of microfiber, and these are a little easier to break in. Typically, just one wash cycle is all you need.

Whoa! How Do You Wash These Things?

First, check your tags. The manufacturer will recommend certain conditions if something specific is needed.

Some diaper covers are so delicate that the manufacturer specifies they should only be hand-washed. Most of them, however, are perfectly fine going in your washing machine. Be sure to check before you buy so you don’t regret this later.

While having lots of different diapers may appeal to the side of you that loves collecting, it can make laundry time a huge headache. Better to stick to one or two brands that have similar care instructions, this makes your life easier.

If the diapers are brand new or gently used, they shouldn’t need to be pretreated.

It’s usually a good idea to wash your diapers alone. Soiled diapers can be gross, and you don’t want your expensive sweater or dress shirt to get mixed in.

You also might want to separate shells from liners, depending on what kind you use.

Some Considerations Before You Wash

The following is a list of some important considerations you have to keep in mind before washing your cloth diapers.

What Kind Of Washing Machine You Have

HE machines, or high efficiency machines, are more common, but if yours is a relic of the past, you can still use it.

– HE machines: You must use the right detergent. HE-safe detergents aren’t as sudsy as regular detergents because these machines use much less water. Avoid soaps with optical brighteners, fabric softeners, or artificial scents.

– Standard machines: Detergents without fabric softeners and scents are okay to use, and you may want to use slightly more than you would for a regular load of clothes.

What Kind Of Water You Have

If you have noticed mineral buildup around water faucets, you might have hard water. These minerals can damage your diapers and trap bacteria.

If that’s the case, avoid extra rinses that introduce more minerals to the diapers, and instead, add water softeners such as Borax.

Soft water is easier to deal with. You should be able to use your chosen detergent without extra softeners.

Watching for suds, especially in new HE machines, is very important. Too many suds will damage your machine!

Avoid Diaper Creams

If your baby needs diaper cream, you have to use a disposable liner to protect your cloth diapers.

Otherwise, you need to choose a cloth-safe cream or powder, which can be quite challenging to find sometimes.

How To Wash Your Cloth Diapers

After checking for special instructions from the diaper manufacturer, you are ready to go! Diapers should be stored dry in a pail or waterproof bag in between washes.

Storing them in water is not recommended and can promote bacterial growth. Try to wash every 2-3 days. You don’t want to go longer because things can grow, and smells can get locked in.

Step 1: Ideally, you should dump any solid wastes immediately, before storing. If you forget to do this, you’ll usually only forget once! The smell from your storage container will forever be stuck in your nose.

Step 2: Give your heavily-soiled diapers a quick rinse before storing in your container, if you can. You don’t need to scrub them, but you want to get off any bits of solid waste and dilute the ammonia in urine.

Step 3: Snap the snaps and Velcro the Velcro. If you can remember, snap or Velcro everything before storing your diapers. This will help avoid damage when they go through the wash.

Step 4: On wash day, load up your machine. Check your manual to determine what load size you should aim for. You can also calculate how much laundry your specific washer can handle.

Step 5: Don’t skip the prewash. You want to run a pre-wash cycle to rinse the diapers first. You don’t want to wash them while they’re still dirty.

Some machines have a pre-wash cycle, and you can use a small amount of detergent. If you don’t have a pre-wash setting, do a regular cycle to rinse them first.

Step 6: Choose the heaviest wash cycle your machine has for the main wash. Adjust your water temperature based on what detergent you are using. Double-check the instructions for your diapers, as high heat can damage some materials.

Step 7: Avoid a “sanitary” cycle, though, if your machine has it. You don’t want to use water that is too hot because it will break down your diapers.

Don’t forget, brand new diapers might need several cycles before they are most absorbent.

Heavily soiled diapers or diapers that were waiting for a little longer to wash may need a repeat washing.

When all is done, your diapers should smell clean and fresh, with no hint of ammonia or mustiness.

Drying Your Cloth Diapers After Washing

Most cloth diapers can be machine dried, but always check the instructions first. Some materials do best if you air-dry, especially the ones with waterproof covers.

Most diapers do alright on a lower setting. Checking first will avoid damage to your precious stash. It’s not like these things are the cheapest to come by, anyways.

Whenever you have the chance to, hang your diapers out in the sun. The sun will also help sanitize them and keep them smelling fresh.

If your diapers are safe in the dyer, consider using wool dryer balls, which will allow them to dry faster, all while reducing electricity or gas and saving on wear and tear in the process.

The Washing Machine Broke! Now What?

You can panic and run to the store for disposables, or you can breathe and handle the crisis like a pro!

Women have hand-washed diapers for thousands of years, so you can make it just fine yourself if you had to do this for a few days. It’s not the end of the world.

Coin-Operated Machine Or Laundromat

If you’re using a coin-operated machine or laundromat, typically, you want to run two full cycles. For the first cycle, use half of the detergent, and use full strength for the second go round. Pick the most robust cycle the machine has, usually heavy-duty.

Hand Washing

Hand-washing may not be your favorite pastime, but it will get your cloth diapers clean.

You probably won’t enjoy hand-washing, but not everyone has access to a washing machine or even a laundromat. Hand-washing will use much less electricity too, so look at the bright side, focus on the positives and look at how much money you’re saving.

You can rig a bucket and plunger or use a large plastic tub, but be prepared for some sore muscles – you have to provide the agitation!

Step 1: Let the diapers soak in hot water (depending on the type you have) until the water is cool to loosen up any chunks or bits. Dump out the dirty water in the toilet, if you can. You’ll have to sanitize your bathtub if you dump it there.

Step 2: Repeat the soak. You might want to do it a third time, depending on what your baby has eaten lately.

Step 3: Add the detergent of your choice. Too little, and your diapers will stink. Too much, and you’ll have bubbles out your ears. You might have to experiment here.

Step 4: Agitate! Work those arms or stomp on those diapers. Think about how long your washer takes to get the job done. Now do that manually. Expect to spend around half an hour to get the diapers properly clean.

Step 5: Rinse until the water is clear. You might have to rinse several times, so be patient!

Step 6: Wring them. If your arms haven’t fallen off yet, get ready – they will now! You want to wring out the excess moisture and then hang them out to dry.

What To Avoid When Cleaning Cloth Diapers

Even with a strict washing regime, you might have problems with your cloth diapers. Newbies to the cloth diapering world might be wondering about issues such as stripping, smells, and diaper rash.


Stripping will remove oils from your cloth diapers. Diapers – remember, we’re talking about diapers!

Stripping is sometimes needed when you haven’t washed diapers properly because of factors like hard water, fabric softeners, or diaper creams.

However, it’s best that you do everything you can do to avoid this issue in the first place.

As each diaper goes through the wash, it will inevitably begin to break down. Stripping your diapers more than absolutely necessary will only speed up this deterioration.


If your diapers smell like they’ve been playing in the barnyard, something isn’t right. That smell is bacteria.

First, check your water hardness. You can get tests at some home improvement stores, or you can order them online.

If you have hard water, start using water softeners when you wash your diapers to keep them adequately cleaned.

Diaper Rash

If your baby has diaper rash, smell your diapers when they are freshly washed and dried. If you notice any ammonia or barnyard smell, they aren’t clean enough and could cause irritation and rashes.

Remember that many diaper creams – when used – require a disposable liner. The oils in them will ruin the absorbency of your diapers.

It’s Not Rocket Science, After All

While cleaning cloth diapers may seem daunting at first, you’ll soon develop a routine that works for you. It might take a bit of trial and error at first, but it’s not nearly as difficult as it’s often made out to be.

Whether you stomp your cloth diapers like grapes or use a washing machine, you can have clean, fresh diapers for your little one whenever they need them.

Cloth diapers can save you thousands of dollars down the road, and they have much less negative impact on the environment than disposables.

If you have never tried using them before, consider taking the first step to doing away with disposables. Pick a pretty color, a cute design, and then step boldly into the realm of cloth diapering!

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