For those of you who have never used cloth diapers before, the idea of washing them may seem a bit daunting or too icky to consider. For 30+ years, most people have simply been wadding up the whole soiled diaper and sending off to the landfill for disposal. In a situation where there is no trash service, you will quickly have to figure out how to deal with ALL you trash.
Pre-treating and Storing Until Wash Day
To begin with, it is usually best to dump “solids” before setting the diapers aside for washing. (This step is usually not necessary if the baby is on breastmilk only since that usually washes clean pretty easily and isn’t very solid). With working plumbing, diapers can be shaken over the toilet and flushed. If you are in an outhouse situation, you would take them there. From this point, though, there are lots of possibilities.
In the “old days,” people often kept a bucket filled with water and either Borax or baking soda to help prevent the stains from setting. They stored the soiled diapers in there until there were enough for a whole washer load. The liquid could then be poured off into the toilet before the diapers were poured into the machine. There is a bit of danger to this method, though. The presence of a bucket full of liquid presents a drowning hazard if not carefully covered at all times.
With the advent of all the new types of diapers and detergents, that method is often modified. As they come off the baby, the Velcro (I prefer snaps) should be secured to the diapers to prevent a twisted diaper chain later. Some people keep a pail with a cloth liner and store all the diapers without liquid in it, sprinkling baking soda over them for help with odors. When wash day comes, they pull the whole liner out, empty it inside out into the washer, and then throw the liner in too.
What Kind of Detergent Should I Use?
As far as what kind of soap or detergent to use, again there is debate. Borax is easy to find, pretty inexpensive, and does a good job. Soap nuts get high ratings too (and remember, soap nuts are very space economical!). Some of the most common brand name detergents get pretty low scores on diapers, possibly because of the heavy perfumes and residues left on the fabric.
This may take some experimentation. If your child is getting a rash, it is possible that he or she is reacting to the detergent or that it is not rinsing completely out. If the diapers are wet and waiting too long until wash day, they may be turning sour or growing mold or mildew. I will try to trouble-shoot some of this in the next installment about preventing and treating rashes.
How Do I Wash the Diapers?
It is important not to overload the washer. They need to have plenty of room to swish around in the water. Two dozen diapers at a time is usually the limit, depending on the size of your washer. It’s also important not to use too much laundry soap when washing diapers. They are fairly thick and, since they are usually made of natural fibers, can really soak up detergent.
Many people advise a cold water soak and rinse first, then a warm or hot wash with about 1/4- 1/2 the recommended amount of detergent, and then a rinse. Be sure that the rinse water is free of suds. If not, rinse again. The water needs to be clear and bubble free so the diapers do not irritate baby’s skin.
Stains that did not come out in the wash may be treated with lemon juice and sun dried and then re-washed. For persistent smells, you may want to wash with baking soda to re-balance the pH of the diapers.
Certainly all this would be easiest with an electric clothes washer, but it is doable by hand in buckets or tubs. A laundry plunger will really help.
What About Drying the Diapers?
Most diapers can go into electric dryers, but be sure to read the care instructions for whatever type of diaper you get to be sure. Even if they include dryer instructions, they will last longer if air dried. In winter or bad weather, I have set up a drying rack next to the pot-bellied stove and dried them there. It is better to line dry them both for energy savings and for sun-bleaching any remaining stains. Stained diapers that go into the dryer will mostly likely be heat set forever.
There are some things you should NOT use on cloth diapers, especially the covers that have elastic or waterproof materials. Do not use bleach. It will break down the fibers, may discolor non-whites, and is hard on covers. Also, keep in mind that you do not want to use commercial fabric softeners on diapers. It prevents them from being very absorbent and that would be pretty defeating in a diaper. You may use some white vinegar in the rinse water to soften and freshen without that concern. It will rinse/air out rather than imparting a vinegar smell by the time they are dry.
Additional Uses for Cloth Diapers
Though the focus in these last 2 posts has been on the primary use of cloth diapers, people have thought of lots of other convenient ways to put them into service, especially the old-standbys, prefolds. Given the very soft and absorbent nature of the fabric, they are useful in first aid situations. They could be used as wound dressings or just as clean surfaces for tending wounds. For these uses, I would use bleach on them and put them through a dryer to make sure they are pretty sterile. (I have also done this with old cotton T-shirts and then cut them into strips for bandages). I store them sealed in ziptop bags with the first aid items then.
Often, when they are past their prime for actual diapering, they are demoted to cleaning rags. They are good for dusting, among other things. People frequently use them for buffing cloths after washing their cars now, but we’ll have much more important things to do with them in a TEOTWAWKI situation.
There is an additional “old-timey” cloth diaper called Birds-eye fabric. It is a much larger piece of cloth that is a very thin one-ply. They can be folded up in various arrangements to be the soaking layers inside a diaper cover, but I prefer them for other uses. Since they cover a lot of territory, they make good cloths to lay baby on when changing. Ones not used for diapering can be handy in the kitchen. When I need to strain the chicken stock, it is sometimes hard to keep out all the little bones just using a colander. Laying one of these inside the colander will catch all of them and get any other “unpretty” bits.
Coming up soon:
In a future posting, I will tell about preventing and treating diaper rash and what products should not be used on cloth diapers.
Do you have a favorite washing method or a detergent not mentioned here? Do you have another alternate use for cloth diapers you want to list? Please share it in the comments section.