Making the decision to use cloth nappies might feel a bit daunting at first. However, using cloth nappies isn’t difficult, it’s just different. Here’s everything you need to know about cloth nappies – how they work, how to look after them, and answers to some of the common questions that come up.
How do cloth nappies work?
Cloth nappies are made up of a number of different layers, all of which do different things.
The nappy itself – the absorbent bit. This is usually made of microfibre, cotton or bamboo.
An outer wrap – the waterproof bit – usually made of PUL, a waterproof plastic covered fabric, often patterned or coloured.
Booster pads – for use over longer periods such as overnight, to provide more absorbency
Some nappies combine these as an all-in-one option, whilst others are made up of individual parts you can mix and match to get the sizing and absorbency you want. Take a look at the different types of cloth nappy if you’re not sure which ones to choose, or which cloth nappies you have.
On top of the nappy, you would usually use a liner. These can be washable or disposable, and act as a permeable barrier which will let wee through to the absorbent pad, but catches any poo – making it far easier to flush away efficiently.
How to look after cloth nappies
Looking after cloth nappies is easy. When you change your child, simply flush any poo down the toilet, and then place the nappy (and washable liner, if you’ve used one) into a nappy bucket, making sure any hook and loop fastenings are done up to avoid them all sticking together when you wash them!
When using a separate wrap and nappy rather than an all-in-one, you can use the same wrap for the next nappy, with no need for a new one each time unless it is soiled. If you find that poo has leaked past the liner and onto the nappy itself, you may want to give it a quick rinse before you put it in the bucket, to try and avoid staining.
A ‘nappy bucket’ can be any bucket with a lid, although you can get specific buckets made for this purpose. Many people find it useful to use a net liner inside the bucket, which can be closed with a drawstring and makes loading the washing machine much easier. It’s not necessary to fill the bucket with water or detergent; in fact this can damage cloth nappies, particularly the wraps which will lose their waterproofing. Instead, keep your nappy bucket dry, and add a couple of drops of lavender oil (for babies older than three months) or tea tree oil (for babies over six months) if you like – it’s a natural antibacterial agent which will keep things smelling nice. Empty your nappy bucket at least every two days to make sure your nappies stay in great condition. If you leave them sitting longer, ammonia found in wee can start damaging the fabrics.
Washing cloth nappies
Firstly, think about what detergent you are using. Some detergents which contain percarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, or optical brighteners can be unnecessarily harsh on nappy covers and bindings, causing them to last a lot less time than they otherwise would. In general, aim for a non-biological detergent – although some nappy brands may have specific guidelines about how to get the best out of them, so it’s worth investigating the recommendations for washing your particular type of cloth nappy. When deciding how much detergent to use, take a look at the guidelines on the packet for a full drum of washing, and reduce that to three quarters of the amount. You don’t need to use fabric conditioner, as this can build up and reduce absorbency of cloth nappies over time.
When loading the machine, make sure that it is no more than three quarters full. This will allow room for your nappies to move around and circulate whilst being washed – space to fidget and shimmy will make sure you end up with nice clean nappies. Next, set your machine to carry out a cold rinse cycle. This doesn’t need any detergent and will remove any heavy soiling and urine, prior to washing. Once this has completed, run the longest cycle you have for 40 or 60 degree washing (again, this depends on the brand of nappy) on a 1000rpm spin. 60 degrees is better, if you’re able to use it – particularly if your baby is under three months old, is unwell, has sensitive skin or is prone to rashes, or if you are using the same nappies for more than one baby.
Drying cloth nappies
By far the best way to dry cloth nappies is outside, in the sun. Sunlight can naturally bleach your nappies, getting rid of any staining – in fact, this trick works for all clothing, not just cloth nappies!
When outdoor drying isn’t an option, use an indoor wall mounted drying rack, airing cupboard, or a freestanding drying rack in a well ventilated room. If your radiators are on, you can place the rack in front of them, but avoid drying directly on a radiator as this can make cloth nappies feel quite hard once they’ve dried.
It is also possible to dry cloth nappies using a tumble dryer, although this works out more expensive as it will gradually remove some of the pile within the nappy, shortening it’s life. Make sure you only tumble dry the nappy itself, and not any wraps or all-in-ones which have the waterproof covering built in unless there is no other choice. Some people like to tumble dry just for the first ten minutes of drying time, and then move to another method, which can make nappies feel softer once they’ve dried fully without detrimenting the nappy too much.
If you’re using terry nappies or prefold nappies, these can be ironed dry – but this option is at the bottom of the list because it is quite time consuming!
If your nappies feel a bit stiff once they’ve dried, you can shake them to soften them up a little. It’s worth noting that your baby won’t actually come into contact with this part of the nappy anyway, as there will be a soft reusable or disposable liner on top.
Common questions and answers about using cloth nappies
1. How often should I change my child’s nappy?
In general, you should change your child’s nappy every 2.5 to 4 hours, and always straight after they have done a poo. The exact frequency will depend on how old your child is, and how heavily they wet their nappies.
At night time, if you’re using a booster, your child can stay in the same nappy for up to 12 hours, as long as they haven’t done a poo.
2. Do I need to use any creams or other products?
In general, it’s not necessary to use any creams regularly. You may find that while your baby is teething, they are more prone to rashes or soreness. Changing nappies more regularly may help, although in general most rashes are not related to how wet your child’s nappy is. Most soreness occurs when poo comes into contact with stale urine, as this reacts with the bacteria from the poo and produces ammonia.
If you think your baby may have nappy rash, do speak to your health practitioner, as they will be able to give more advice about what the rash is, and why it may be happening.
3. What should I use to clean my child’s bottom?
Many people who have decided to use cloth nappies also find it worthwhile to invest in reusable cloth wipes. These are environmentally friendly, cost nothing to use once you’ve bought them, and are brilliant at cleaning effectively. Once you’ve used them, you can stick them in the nappy bucket along with the dirty nappies, and wash them in the same way.
You can also use cotton wool balls and water, or packets of disposable wipes – just make sure these are placed into a bin and not the nappy bucket or toilet.
4. Do I need to do anything to prepare my nappies before I use them for the first time?
If you’re using brand new cloth nappies, make sure you wash them a couple of times before you start using them on your baby. This will help improve the absorbency.
If you’ve bought second hand nappies, you may want to wash them in a 60 degree wash as described above.
5. What should I do if my cloth nappies still smell after being washed?
If your cloth nappies have been washed correctly, they should smell of nothing when they come out of the machine. Sometimes you may still be able to smell detergent, which is a sign you may have used a little too much.
If your cloth nappies still smell dirty, you may need to use more detergent, a longer cycle, or load less into the machine. It’s worth bearing in mind that you should run a maintenance cycle on your machine every so often (a wash cycle at 80 degrees, with nothing in the machine).