You've prepped your diapers.
You even put a diaper on the baby.
But then...IT happens. Your baby USES the diaper. And not as a hat. But for its intended purpose!
Actually, no. No horror! We promise. It is very easy to clean a cloth diaper, and the visions of a poop-filled washing machine you have in your head? Not gonna happen!
WASHING YOUR DIAPERS: THE BASICS
To wash your diapers, you will need a washing machine (or your hands and a bathtub if you are going to hand wash them!) and a cloth-diaper safe detergent.
Most wash routines consist of three parts: a pre-wash or rinse, a wash, and an extra rinse. The specifics of each part can vary from person to person and machine to machine. Some people start with just a rinse, while some do a full wash. Some people use a small amount of detergent in the pre-wash, while some do not. Much like the diapers themselves and the detergent, there is no one set solution that will work for everyone.
We recommend starting with some variation on the following:
1. Cold rinse (or quick wash) with no detergent
2. Hot wash with detergent
3. Extra rinse
That very basic wash routine is generally successful for a large number of people. The first rinse or wash on cold gets most of the poop off without staining. The hot wash (the hottest wash short of sanitary, which is too hot for the PUL in your diapers!) cleans the diapers. The extra rinse ensures that every bit of detergent is gone and helps prevent build up.
There is a wide range of what works within that basic set up. Some people do two full washes with an extra rinse. Some people skip the pre-rinse. Some do all cold washes; some do all hot washes. Some people use detergent in the quick wash and the hot wash. Some do two rinses at the end. If you're having issues, you can usually tweak routine to fix them. For example, if you're having issues with buildup, you might want to try another extra rinse.
Some people find that their high-efficiency washers don't seem to work as well as regular top-loaders, because they use so little water to wash. There are a number of ways you can add extra water to your HE machine to ensure that the diapers are washed and rinsed thoroughly: you can usually add water to the cycle through the detergent drawer, you could stop the first rinse/wash cycle before it spins out so that the diapers are still soaking wet when you begin the hot wash (this tricks the machine into thinking there is more laundry in the drum, so it sends more water to wash them), or you could add a wet towel to the hot wash cycle (again, this tricks the machine into sending more water).
There is a huge variety of cloth-diaper safe detergents out there, and they work completely differently from person to person. The hardness of your water, the exact chemistry of your child's urine (seriously!), the type of washer and dryer you have, the type of diaper you use...all of these factors come into play when determining how well different detergents work. Some people swear by Rockin Green; some find that it doesn't get their diapers clean at all.
You can find a list of cloth-diaper safe detergents here:
Many people choose based on what is easily accessible and what is affordable for them. If you have friends that live nearby and have a similar washing machine setup, you may want to ask them for their recommendations. You can also check this table of different wash routines to see if there is a setup similar to what you have, and try the detergent listed there.
Unfortunately, because there are a number of factors that come into play when choosing your detergent, we can't make a blanket recommendation. Try one, and if after a period of time you notice your diapers don't seem to be getting clean or don't smell fresh, try another one. Many people don't have issues, though, and the first detergent they try will work just fine for them.
How much detergent? That's tricky. You want to use the least amount of detergent possible to get the diapers clean. Most cloth-diaper safe detergents have good guidelines on the package (for example, Rockin Green recommends 1 tablespoon for HE machines and 2 tablespoons for regular machines, and that's a good place to start for most powdered detergents). Watch the last rinse cycle - if there are still bubbles or suds at the end of it, you might be using too much detergent (or you might just need to add another rinse cycle). If you're using too much detergent, you may get ammonia build up. If you're using too little detergent, you may get a barnyard or dirty smell (smelling the wet diapers as they come out of the washer is a good indicator - they should smell fresh!).
Most people just use detergent in the main wash cycle, but some will throw in a bit during the first wash as well. Whenever you're using more detergent, be sure that there are no residual suds at the end of the extra rinse cycle!
ADDITIVESIf you talk to ten different people, you might hear ten different things that they add to their wash cycle. Vinegar. Bleach. Tea tree oil. RLR. Blue Dawn. Grapefruit Seed extract. Funk Rock. ecover. They all have different purposes - softening, freshening, stripping, disinfecting, etc. Because there are so many, I'm not going to discuss them in detail here, and I generally recommend keeping your wash routine as simple and purse as possible. But you can Google any of the above with "cloth diapers" and find information.
DEALING WITH THE PEE
Pee diapers are a cinch. Throw them in the wetbag. Wash them. That's it! Some people do choose to rinse pee diapers out, as they feel that it lessens the buildup of ammonia (a natural byproduct of urine), but others see no difference.
DEALING WITH THE POOP
There are two stages of cloth-diaper washing: pre-solids (breastfeeding or formula fed) and post-solids.
If you are nursing or formula feeding your child, just throw the soiled diaper in the wetbag. Then when you have a load's worth of dirty diapers, wash them. No, really, that's it. No separating pee diapers from poop diapers. No rinsing or scraping. Breastmilk poo is totally water soluable and will simply dissolve away in the washer. Formula poop should be as well, but I can't personally vouch for that as I haven't dealt with formula poop.
You CAN rinse or use a liner, but there is absolutely no need to do so and you're just creating an extra step for yourself. Of course, some people are uber-paranoid about the thought of poop spinning around in their washing machine, and if that's you, then by all means do what you have to do in order to ease your mind! But you don't have to do anything other than wash the diaper.
Breastmilk poop (and I assume formula poop) may stain your diapers a bright orange. That's okay. Sun that stain away!
(Note about meconium - it will come off, though you may want to swish/spray/scrape the diaper [see below], and any stains will sun out!)
Depending on how you introduce solid foods into your child's diet, you may immediately see a change in their, um, output, or you may continue to see the breastmilk- or formula-type poop for several weeks or even months. We started solids using the baby-led weaning techniques, and it took two months for her poop to change from the seedy, sweet-smelling (seriously!) breastmilk poop to the "real" poop of people who eat real food. Some people, though, see the change almost overnight.
Once your child's poop has changed - and it will be obvious, trust me - you will need to start dealing with the poop. This is the point a lot of people bail. However, I promise - I've yet to get poop all over the place or even touch poop. I promise you if you were using disposables, you would have had to deal with a poop blowout at least once, if not regularly! Also, if you were using disposables correctly, you would be dealing with the poop anyway - you aren't supposed to put human waste in the trash, and are supposed to remove solids from the disposable diaper prior to throwing it away!
Eventually, your child's poop may become "ploppable," meaning you can just turn the diaper over the toilet and the solids will drop right off into the toilet.
In the meantime, your kid's poop may range from peanut-butter stickiness (um, you may not want to eat during this post) to hummus textured to mashed potato-like. Those poops, you can't just drop into the toilet. They stick. They cling. They don't want to leave the diaper.
You have several options on how to deal with those types of poops.
You can hold the diaper in the toilet (by one corner, usually) and swish it around in the toilet water, eventually flushing the toilet while holding the diaper tightly so that the rushing water cleans off the diaper. Be sure to have a wetbag nearby, because you'll have a dripping wet diaper to dispose of! This is minimally messy, but it can be difficult to fully clean the diaper. Plus? It's free and needs no additional equipment!
You can install a diaper sprayer on your toilet (or some enterprising cheapskates use their removable showerhead - brilliant!). You then use this sprayer to spray the poop off the diaper while holding the diaper over the toilet bowl. The key here? Don't use the full force of the spray, and spray DOWNWARD, not into, the diaper. If you spray into the diaper at full force, you will end up with a bathroom full of poop. There's a bit of a learning curve to spraying diapers, but they get diapers quite clean. You do have to purchase a diaper sprayer or make one yourself, however, and again, be sure to have a wetbag immediately available because the diaper will be dripping wet.
Using a (I hope) dedicated spatula, you hold the diaper with one hand and use the other hand and spatula to scrape the poop off into the toilet, sometimes finishing up with a swish. This is a cheap and generally fairly un-messy option, though some blow-out type poops that get in the elastic areas may be difficult to get off this way. If you don't swish afterward, the diaper remains relatively dry.
No choice has a huge advantage over any of the other choices, and they can each work equally well at cleaning the solids off of the diaper. Once the solids have been removed from the diaper, you can put it in the wetbag and wash it as usual.
Solid food poop also stains, and also suns out beautifully.
DRYING YOUR DIAPERS
If you can, line dry the diapers in the sun. It helps the PUL and elastic last longer, and the sun acts as a natural sanitizer. Your natural-fiber diapers and inserts might get "crunchy" (stiff and rough) when line dried. To combat this, you can toss them in the dryer for five or ten minutes on low to fluff them back up.
If you use the dryer, dry on low or extra low, and don't stretch the elastic until they've cooled down.