Leaky, smelly cloth diapers are a common problem for new cloth diapering families. If you start using cloth diapers without doing your research (easy to do, since there’s a lot of information to learn when you first make the switch), you may well find yourself with diapers that wick moisture because they’ve been insufficiently prepped or because you’re using a detergent that causes repelling.
But it’s also possible to have these problems after months or years of successful cloth diapering. When properly cared for and used correctly, cloth diapers are often more effective than disposables and leak less–especially when it comes to blowouts. But there are actually a variety of situations that can cause your cloth diapers to leak, and not all of them involve cloth diapering “mistakes.” Fortunately, most of them are easy to fix. Here are ten of the common–and not so common–reasons why your diapers might start to leak.
Even if you wash your cloth diapers “correctly,” using a detergent that’s approved by the manufacturer and stripping regularly, problems related to your wash routine can still come up. And because the hardness of your water and the exact make of your washing machine can affect the cleanliness of your diapers, it may take some experimenting to find the perfect wash routine for your situation.
1. Your wash doesn’t disinfect your diapers. You may assume that washing your diapers in a hot cycle disinfects them, but this is rarely the case. Unless your washing machine has a sanitary cycle, your water is probably not hot enough to disinfect. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but over time your diapers may start to smell, especially if you don’t strip them regularly. Solve this problem by stripping your diapers and then adding occasional disinfecting to your wash routine. You can do this by boiling your diapers (only recommended for prefolds and flats) or by adding a natural disinfectant such as tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, or oxygen bleach to your wash.
2. Your diapers have buildup. But adding something to your wash can eventually cause problems, too. For most cloth diapers, you can safely make oxygen bleach, vinegar, and small amounts of essential oils a regular part of your wash routine. But if you use too much essential oil, then the oil can start to build up on your diapers, causing them to repel. This is especially true if your diapers have a moisture-wicking layer of synthetic fiber like microfleece. Solve this problem by stripping and then adjusting your wash routine: try using less oil or just using it less often, such as every three washes instead of every wash.
3. Your machines have buildup. If you’ve been cloth diapering for a while, then you’re familiar with the problem of buildup on your diapers. But have you considered that your machines can get buildup as well? If you wash other laundry in detergents that aren’t safe for cloth diapers, or if you use softeners in your other laundry, then those additives can build up in your washer and dryer–and eventually on your diapers, too. The best solution is to wash all your laundry in a routine that’s safe for cloth diapers, but if that isn’t feasible, then consider cleaning your machines periodically. Run a hot rinse cycle in your washing machine before you wash your diapers, and periodically clean the inside of your dryer with hot water (rinse the filter with hot water as well). If you wash your diapers in a laundromat, consider running a rinse cycle in the washing machine and then hanging your diapers to dry instead of using the public dryer.
4. Not enough water. As you may have realized after stripping your diapers a few times, the most important ingredient in keeping your diapers clean is water–and lots of it. Your diapers will get cleaner when they’re washed in lots of water. Many modern washing machines, especially high-efficiency, front-loading machines, are designed to conserve water by using as little water as possible per wash. This is great for the environment, but it can be a problem for your eco-friendly diapers. If your machine has an option to add extra water to a cycle, always use that option for your diapers. If your machine can’t do that, then add a few wet towels into your diaper load. This will cause your machine to sense more bulk and weight in the load and add more water. An extra rinse cycle will also help get your diapers cleaner.
So you’ve figured out the perfect wash routine, but you’re still having problems with leaks? Since every baby is different, and different diaper brands and types all fit differently, you may need to experiment to find the diaper that works best for your baby. Even a simple system like prefolds and covers can still have occasional problems with leaks. Here are a few of the less common causes and how to fix them.
5. Pee speed problem. If your baby’s pee tends to come out quickly, then your diapers may not be able to absorb it quickly enough. Soakers made of hemp, although able to absorb a large volume of liquid, usually absorb at a slower rate than other soaker materials. Try adding a doubler of cotton, suede, or microfiber to slow the flow and give the hemp time to absorb.
6. Stuffing problem. When your diapers leak, often your first response is to add more absorbency. But sometimes the problem can actually be too much absorbency–or too much in the wrong place. This problem often appears with pocket diapers: if you overstuff a pocket diaper with very thick inserts or prefolds, you can cause the diaper to gap around your baby’s legs or at the waist. The crotch is so thick that the elastic of the legs can no longer lie flat against the skin. The diaper then won’t have a chance to absorb pee–it will simply dribble out the side. To solve this problem, use less absorbency and change more often, or use thinner but equally absorbent inserts.
7. Badly folded prefold. The problem of gaps and openings in your diaper isn’t confined to pockets; prefolds can also leak because of this problem. Even if you’re experienced at folding prefolds and always shape them into a snug fit around your baby, you can still have leaks because of the way you’re folding. Make sure you’re using a fold that puts the absorbency where you need it most: in front for boys and in back for girls. If you’re having nighttime leaks, consider how your baby usually sleeps: side-sleepers may do better with a fitted diaper, since it’s equally absorbent everywhere, while back and tummy sleepers will be fine with a prefold, which is mostly absorbent in the middle. Experiment with different types of folds; the jelly roll fold is often more effective for chubby babies, and the newspaper roll may prevent leg gaps.
8. Cover no longer waterproof. Covers wear out over time, so if you’re consistently having leaks, you should check to make sure your covers are still in good condition. Drying them in a a machine on high heat might cause the waterproofing layer to pull away from the cover, and small holes or wear in the cover can create leaks.
9. Poor fit. Sometimes, leaks are just caused by a diaper that doesn’t fit well. Every baby is built differently, and a diaper that works perfectly for one baby may leak on another. Pay particular attention to the fit of the diaper around the waist and around the thighs. Many babies have chunky thighs but skinny waists, or the reverse, so that they really need two sizes of diaper: a smaller one for the waist and a bigger one for the thighs. Solve this problem by choosing a more adjustable diaper. One-size diapers sometimes allow you to adjust the waist and thighs separately, and snap covers usually have separate snaps for the thighs and the waist. You may also need to try a different brand of diaper; since every brand is made slightly differently, a different brand may fit better and require less adjusting.
10. Wrong absorbency or insert. Sometimes, a leaky diaper isn’t complicated–it just isn’t absorbent enough to hold all the pee. The best solution for this is to change more frequently, but if you need the diaper to last longer (such as overnight), then simply add more absorbency (while avoiding #6). Be aware of how your inserts fit within the diaper. If your insert is too big, it can get scrunched up inside the diaper, leaving parts of the diaper with no absorbent layer, and if it’s too small, then it won’t reach to the edge of the diaper.
And if after all that, your diapers are still leaking, don’t give up. Contact the company where you bought your diapers: chances are they’ll be happy to consult with you and help you figure out why your diapers are leaking. It may take some experimenting, but there’s a leak-free cloth diaper solution for every baby–including yours.
Lisa C. Baker is a full-time mom and part-time writer in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes about green parenting topics at Organic Baby Atlanta andteaches workshops on cloth diapers and elimination communication. She’s been a mom since 2008 and has never bought a disposable diaper; she hopes she’ll never need to!