It’s that time of year again – Reusable Nappy Week! Well it used to be called Real Nappy Week, though I’ve always preferred to call it Cloth Nappy Week (as I don’t like the implication that disposables aren’t ‘real’), but Reusable means the acronym RNW still fits. I’ve blogged about cloth nappies quite a bit over the 3 years since we started using them, especially when I was running Nappyness (Cambridge Nappy Library and Meet-ups). This year I decided that a couple of posts about busting some cloth nappy myths would be a good idea. I know I had some preconceptions about what they were like before I looked into it some more — mainly from what I’d heard they were like when I was in nappies! And others who I’ve spoken to have had similar ideas about what they think cloth nappying involves. So here are some statements about cloth nappies that I have personally come across — of course there are no doubt more — and why, in my experience I think they are myths….
They’re hard/complicated to wash
Forget boil washing on massively long cycles! That’s the first thing to note when washing modern cloth nappies. In fact if you boil them, they won’t survive too long. Boil washing would be fine if you were using plain cotton terry squares, but not for newer designs that have PUL (polyurethane laminate — waterproof fabric) and/or elastic as part of the nappy itself, because these materials degrade quicker than you’d like at high temperatures. But there’s no need to wash at those high temperatures anyway.
40 degrees is generally fine for most of the times that you wash cloth nappies. The main exception when it’s advisable to wash at 60 degrees is if you know of or suspect a tummy bug or other contagious illness. Otherwise I wash at 60 about once a month or so or if I do a ‘strip wash’ (more on this soon). Washing at 40 rather than 60 (or 90) also reduces the amount of energy you use to clean the nappies.
One issue that cloth nappy users sometimes run into if they don’t know about it (like I didn’t when we first started before I read up online about it) is using the right amount of detergent. Too much and it can clog the fabric making it less absorbent, too little and it won’t be effective in cleaning and may lead to ammonia build up. Other factors like water hardness and washing machine can also influence how much detergent is needed. For example we lived in Cambridge for 3 years of nappy washing and after realising that we were using way too much detergent leading to less absorbent nappies, I cut right down to the often cited 2 tablespoons of powder; only then we had ammonia build up (stinky nappies, sore bottoms), so I used a little more (about 4 tbsp, still less than a full dose) and we no longer had issues. Some modern washing machines are very ‘eco friendly’ in their minimal water usage, but this isn’t ideal for nappies that need plenty of water to rinse the detergent away so it doesn’t hang around in the fabric.
OK, this does sound complicated, you may be saying. It sounds like it, but once you do a bit of trial and error to figure out how much detergent if optimum in your machine, it’s very easy. And if you do use too much detergent for too many washes or if you get ammonia build up, it’s a simple procedure to correct: you do a ‘strip wash’. As the name suggests this means stripping the nappies of any built-up chemicals. If you goggle ‘strip wash nappies/diapers’, a few different methods come up. The one I’ve done is to use a full dose of detergent at 60 degrees and then do many rinses until I can no longer see bubbles in the washing machine.
Have you already got lots of washing, with a baby and maybe other children too? I know not everyone wants to have any extra loads of washing than they have to, but my take on this was that I’m doing piles of washing anyway, so what’s a few more loads a week going to do to me? I had two boys in full time cloth nappies for about 9 months until Andrew potty trained in the day (he still wears nappies at night), and I did (and still do) 6-7 loads of washing a week – total for clothes, bedding, nappies etc.
What about fabric softener? Some people worry about fabrics (that are next to sensitive baby skin) getting rough over time, and so would like to use softener to counteract this. The trouble is that softener clogs the fabric and leads to a decrease in absorbency. I’ve not had a problem with rough nappies, and there are several styles that don’t have rough terry fabrics next to the skin anyway, but rather a soft, stay-dry fabric like fleece, minky or velour. I’ve also heard that a quick blast in the tumble drier every now and then can help to soften up rough, dry nappies.
Which type of detergent is best? Non-bio is better than bio, because bio will degrade elastics and PUL over time. Powdered detergent is better than liquid, because liquid tends to coat fabrics leading to build up and decrease in absorbency. Some cloth nappy users swear by natural products like the Eco Egg for washing nappies, which have no chemicals so you can’t get a build up of them in the fabric. We tried an Eco Egg a while ago but didn’t think it cleaned particularly effectively in our machine. This is just our experience and I’ve heard that its performance can differ quite a bit depending on your machine.
Here are my key points for washing cloth nappies…
- start off using about 2 tablespoons of detergent (non-bio powder), adjusted up if your water is particularly hard
- wash at 40 degrees on a normal (not quick wash) cycle, or 60 degrees in cases of illness or strip washing
- do extra rinses if your machine is economical with water usage or if you still see bubbles at the end of your main wash cycle
They’re hard to get dry or take too long to dry
I think this very much depends on the time of year and what your home is like for size and ventilation. Of course it’’s easiest to dry nappies when you can get them out in the sun and wind and they dry naturally. The sun also helps to get rid of stains. I’d say I get nappies outside most days that I wash them from about April to September, though I’m aware that some fairly recent British summers have been very wet and this might not always be possible.
I think we were lucky that our flat where we lived for 3 years of nappying was very efficient at drying nappies hung on an airer — they would generally dry in a day, or two days for the very absorbent night nappies. It was only a small flat, but we never felt like nappies and washing were taking too much room, so I’d say it’s perfectly possible to get nappies for 2 dried in a flat without a tumble dryer. Since we moved to live in a (fairly modern) house, it’s been taking a bit longer for them to dry inside. I’ve found that the key is to have good air circulation and ventilation in the room where they are drying.
Another key point is to think about what style of nappies dry quickest (and that are suitable for your baby’s/toddler’s needs). I find that it’s useful to have a variety of nappies, some that dry quicker and others that dry slower, so we can mix and match depending on what’s dry. Flat nappies like pre-folds dry very quickly, as do the waterproof wraps that go over the top, and some styles of nappy have insert sets that popper into the shell, meaning that you can have extra popper-in sets (which dry slower than the shell) to use with the quick-drying shell. Natural fabrics take longer to dry than man-made fabrics, so having some of each means you’ll always have some nappies dry and ready to use again sooner than others. And just having more nappies available in your wash and wear cycle in the winter than in the summer is a good idea.
What about tumble drying? Well it is possible to tumble dry some types of nappy, but if you regularly tumble dry, the energy you use to do it means that using cloth nappies is no longer as environmentally friendly as you might think. Of course not everyone uses cloth nappies for environmental reasons, but if that’s one of your reasons, tumble drying is best avoided. It’s also not a good idea to regularly tumble dry nappies with elastic or PUL (waterproof fabric) because they degrade more quickly with constant heating like this, and some fabrics, especially bamboo, are quite fragile and tumble drying would decrease the life of the nappy.
What about drying on radiators? Similar points apply as to tumble drying. Direct heat like this is not good for elastic, PUL or fragile fibres like bamboo. From an energy consumption point of view – if you constantly have fabric items hung over your radiators, the central heating will have to work harder to heat your room to your desired temperature, and you’ll be using more energy for that. So again, it’s not ideal if you’re concerned about the environmental side of nappies.
You get poo on your hands when changing cloth nappies
You get poo on your hands when changing nappies — full stop! So I guess this one’s not actually a myth, but I don’t believe it’s true that you get more poo on your hands using cloth nappies than disposables. This kind of statement is usually flung at me by those who don’t yet have (born) children. Unless you’ve been a particularly well involved Aunt/Uncle/much older sibling/Godparent etc. and actually changed a baby’s nappy, then you may not be aware that being a parent means you’re going to come into contact with poo — fact. Of course there are steps you can take to minimise the amount of poo contact, by learning how to change a nappy most effectively, but it will still happen. And that’s before you even get to toilet training.
When it comes to cloth nappies, there are flushable liners that you can place in the nappy to catch any solids in the nappy, which you simply pick up and flush, meaning there is no more contact than sorting out a disposable nappy. This is probably also a good time to point out that technically we’re not supposed to get rid of any human poo in the bin, so even disposable users should flush as much poo as possible from the nappy — believe me, I’ve tried, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to flush poo from a cloth nappy than a disposable. Of course nobody actually does this and it’s clearly not an enforced rule, but still, interesting if you’re concerned about the environmental side of nappies.
I personally choose to use reusable fleece liners, which I pick up at a corner that isn’t covered in poo and sluice in the flush as I pull the lever on the toilet, holding on tight to the liner. I may get some dirty water splashing over my hands, but it’s no more yucky than muddy puddle water, which I frequently come into contact with when looking after my boys, and in the bathroom I can immediately wash my hands with anti bacterial hand wash (which I can’t in a muddy field).
I hope this has covered enough about poo… or maybe not quite….!
You have stinky buckets of water sitting in your bathroom
One image I had of cloth nappies before we used them is buckets full of pooey water hanging about in the bathroom until wash day. In fact I did this for a while until I learned that this isn’t how best to do it for modern cloth nappies (i was going on perfectly reasonable practice from old terry squares). These days the advice is to ‘dry pail’ instead of ‘wet pail’. When you take a wet nappy off your child, you simply put it in an empty bucket with lid or a ‘wet bag’ (waterproof bag that keeps in smells) as it is – no water involved. When you take off a dirty nappy, you get rid of any solid poo by using a flushable liner or by sluicing a reusable liner in the flush, and then put the nappy in the bucket/bag as it is.
When it comes to wash day, you do a cold rinse cycle before your main wash, which is the equivalent of the old soaking, except this means the nappies aren’t sitting around in the stinky water for a couple of days. It’s important to do a cold rinse, because if the water is body temperature or above, stains will be set in rather than washed out.
I hope this has been useful information about the laundry aspect of cloth nappies. In my next posts I will bust some more myths about other aspects of cloth nappies – hope you’ll come back and read them 🙂