Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cloth Diapering a Todder... Part 2

Let's talk about The Stinkies.  Now that we've got the leak situation under control this is our new battle.

Recently, we started getting the dreaded ammonia smell in the mornings.  If you're questioning whether or not you have an ammonia problem then, good news, you don't.  Because if you have it, trust me, you'll know it!  It smells like ammonia, but quite noticeably it also feels like your nose is burning off if you catch a whiff of it.  You certainly don't want this against your baby's skin for 12+ hours because ammonia buildup can cause burns on your baby's bottom!

Ammonia buildup is an indication that your diapers aren't getting clean enough.  Often, the diapers will smell clean coming out of the washer/dryer, but once they are wet and new urine meets with the ammonia crystals from the old urine that has been left behind - BAM! you've got that lovely ammonia smell.

Now, a note, some people get nervous about ammonia buildup and think they have it when they don't.  The ammonia smell is only a problem when you can smell it right after your baby wets in a diaper and/or when you're taking a wet diaper off your baby.  Obviously, if a used diaper sits around long enough it and your diaper pail is going to start smelling of ammonia.  That's not a good thing, but it's not an issue.  It is an issue when a "clean" diaper is wet in and immediately smells of ammonia.  That's the situation which indicates buildup.

So, now that we know what ammonia buildup is, how do we fix it?  It seems that this is going to be quite the battle for us because Jack is a heavy wetter.  Ammonia issues occur more often in toddlerhood because toddler pee is different than baby pee.  Because they hold it longer it's more concentrated and it has things in it that a baby who doesn't yet eat solids doesn't have.  Additionally, if your child is a heavy wetter there is going to be more urine and more chance for problems!  As a result I've come to the conclusion that because toddler pee is stronger and yuckier it requires a stronger detergent to combat it and really get the diapers clean. 

I've been experimenting for a while trying to find a new wash routine.  There are a lot of suggestions out there because everyone has a different routine that works for them and their particular situation.  A lot of people struggle with finding a working wash routine at different points in their cloth diapering journey because it does depend on so many different factors.

I started out using a homemade detergent.  It worked beautifully for a full year and I'm quite sad that this is no longer the case.

Once I realized we were having problems the first thing I tried was stripping my diapers.  Stripping is the process of removing any buildup or gunk that may be hiding in the diapers causing problems.  There are several ways of doing this and I've tried many of them.  I utilized a few different stripping options this go around to fix the ammonia problem.

First, I tried blue Dawn.  That didn't work for this problem.

Photo courtesy of The Small Town Mom

Then, I tried boiling my inserts (a tutorial can be found at The Small Town Mom) (another note: all of this ammonia buildup and gunk talk is really referencing my micro-fiber inserts.  Because of the type of diapers and inserts we use, most of the problem that arise have to do with the inserts, not the "diapers" (shells) themselves).  That did work, very well actually, but it was a terribly long, involved, messy process.  HUGE pain in the tush.  And because it didn't really correct what was causing the problem after all that work, we returned right to the same problems as before.

Then, I tried increasing the amount of the detergent that I was using.  I was using 1 tablespoon in the main hot wash, so I upped that to 2 tablespoons.  Well, that only made things worse.  Not only did I have an ammonia buildup issue, but then we ended up with a detergent buildup issue, which led to the general stinkies.  This required more stripping. 

This time I utilized RLR and because I knew a large part of our problem was due to a detergent buildup that fixed the problem right up, pulling all the left-behind detergent out of our diapers.  But we still had an ammonia problem on hand.  ::bangs head::

Still with me?

Then, I took a leap and tried bleach.  Yes bleach.  It's kind of a naughty word in some circles, but sometimes a situation just calls for the Big Guns.  Cottonbabies (the manufacturer of the diapers we use) actually recommends using up to 1/4 cup of bleach once a month to keep your diapers fresh.  As I discovered on my ammonia-fighting quest some sort of antibacterial agent is necessary periodically for proper diaper cleaning.  This is more so true when using the more natural, eco-friendly, or boutique detergents as they do not typically have anything in them that will kill bacteria.  Obviously, this is necessary with diapers especially if they're used to diaper older babies.  When a child is younger and their waste isn't as complicated or concentrated it isn't as big an issue as it can be when they are a little older and problems start to arise.

So I moved forward with the bleach and it worked!  I just used 1/4 cup in the hot wash and then added a few extra rinses to make sure it was all washed out of the diapers.  Bleach is okay to use on PUL because it is a color-fast fabric.  The bleach will not affect the color, but because you don't really want to test out just how well it will retain it's color I suggest letting the washer fill completely and then pouring in the bleach once it starts to agitate so it can evenly disperse (they say to add it before the diapers, but because I start with a rinse I'm not pulling the wet diapers out so I can start the hot wash with an empty washer).

The bleach got rid of the ammonia problem, but only temporarily.  I still needed a better solution because I don't want to have to use bleach in every load (it's a pain because it takes more water and time and not everything can be in the wash at the same time if I'm using bleach because although PUL is color-safe I have other things like wetbags and cloth wipes that are not).

Next, I tried stuffing Jack's night time diapers with pad-folded flats in place of the micro-fiber inserts that were part of our leak-free sleep solution.  Flats are the cloth diapers of yesteryear and, I must say, our grandparents were on to something!

They're not as fancy or quite as easy to use as some of the more modern cloth diapering options, but flats are cheap, absorbent and super easy to wash because once they're unfolded they are a single layer of fabric!  Plus even though they're the cheapest cloth diapering option out there, there are so many ways to use them.  Because of these benefits they're really experiencing a resurgence among cloth diapering parents who are tired of dealing with the problems and sometimes complicated wash routines caused by synthetic materials like micro-fiber.

Flats are super versatile because you can choose from so many different folding options and pin or Snappi them, or you can pad-fold them and stick them straight into a cover or use them to stuff diapers like I do.  The only thing to note is that with flats, there is no waterproof material so unlike with a pocket diaper or all-in-one you will need to use some sort of cover to make it waterproof.

Anyway, we're now stuffing Jack's nap and night time diapers with flats to replace the micro-fiber.  His nap diapers are stuffed with one pad-folded flat and one large sized hemp insert.  His night dipes have a pad-folded flat and 2 large sized hemp inserts.  Once we started doing this it fixed our ammonia situation.  I think so much pee was getting absorbed by the micro-fiber inserts in his nighttime diapers that I just wasn't able to get them properly cleaned because of the way they are made.

So we finally got our ammonia situation squared away, but we were still having general smell issues from the diapers not getting clean enough, which meant I still needed to find a new working wash routine. 

Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow where I will share my new wash routine and detergent choice.


  1. Wow! I don't have kids but when I do and if I use cloth diapers, I'm coming to you for advice. This is fascinating for even a non-mommy!

  2. Whew! Glad you got it all fixed! Great tutorial!

  3. @Michelle - I feel like I know way too much about poo and poo-catchers at this point, but at least it's useful info! Glad it was interesting to you. I was worried all people would read was "wahwah wahh wahwahwahhh" (like the teacher from Charlie Brown), but hopefully the info will be helpful to someone in some way!

  4. Thank you so much. I'm expecting my first and want to cloth diaper. This is great information!

  5. I hope you find it helpful! I'm so glad we chose to cloth diaper for SO many reasons and although I hit a frustrating patch once DS was a little older (that thankully we were able to deal with for the time being!) the first year was easy peasy! Good luck!


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