Diapers, folks. Diapers.

Okay, folks. I’ve got a really bonkers Unknown Unknowns post for you…a year and a half after I meant to start writing about this kind of experience.

I decided to do cloth diapers with Ronan because I’m cheap and I like the planet. I say “I” because, let’s be honest, John and I are pretty traditional in our household work breakdowns. I have no desire to mow the lawn or snowblow the driveway again for the rest of my life. He is really good at keeping our old and finicky washing machine in working order, but his grasp of how to operate it is…not strong. He’s supportive of doing cloth diapers because he likes reducing waste, but it was ultimately my call as the doer of laundry.

The cloth vs. paper debate is a terrible one.

There are a lot of emotions and arguments out there about which way to go with it. You can do cloth diapers expensively and wastefully. You can do paper diapers with reasonable environmental impact (although not cheaply). If you have both time and money, you can do the crazypants expensive cloth diapers that throw questions about their ecofriendliness into question. If you have money and no time, you can buy really nice eco-friendly diapers that are sustainably produced and break down reasonably well. If you have neither time nor money, like most parents, you probably need to buy whatever’s on sale. John and I happen to have more time than money, so we decided to do cloth prefolds with fitted covers.

Whatever you other parents reading this chose for whatever reasons, you’re totally right too. Good job.

The chief problem with doing diapers is learning how to do laundry.

I kid John for not knowing how to wash his own socks, but when I started doing diaper laundry, I quickly realized that I actually have no idea how to do laundry either. I mean, I have a process for doing laundry that seems to keep our clothes from smelling, but did you know that it’s possibly to avoid deodorant buildup on clothes?? I…did not. Not until recently.

You see, we have the unfortunate situation of having pretty hard water…and a high-efficiency washer. It’s rough on clothes and also doesn’t get them all that clean by just chucking detergent in an walking away. As adults, that has functionally just meant that I would stop wearing certain shirts without sweaters to hide the armpits after awhile. I thought that was totally a thing and that everyone who uses deodorant (which is another debate altogether, but I dislike smelling funky and my skin can’t handle any of the effective natural deodorants I’ve tried to date). Apparently, it is not a thing for people who know how to do laundry.

Here’s the thing with cloth diapers, though: if you have mediocre laundry skills, your kid will get a diaper rash. A lot of parents would give up and just use paper faced with a persistent rash, but Ronan has seemed completely unbothered by this rash (world’s chillest baby). Given that we are intensely aware of the need to change our way of life so he’ll actually have a useful planet to grow old on, we’ve continued to experiment with the cloth diapers, and I’ve Learned Some Things.

Hard water messes with detergent.

I have to descale our kettle every couple of weeks, so we knew we had hard water. Hard water is just water with a high mineral content, which is delicious, at least at our house. It also, however, interferes with the effectiveness of soaps and detergents on a chemical level. Over time, fabrics end up with a buildup of detergent and mineral particles and ammonia that wasn’t fully carried away. Hello, rash factory. The advice for dealing with hard water breaks down into three categories:

1. Strip your diapers.

I don’t understand stripping on a chemical level. The process is that you buy something like RLR or Mighty Bubbles and every so often, depending on how quickly you have buildup issues, you run an extra cycle after washing to refresh the diapers. If the buildup is bad, you might have to run a few cycles. That’s helpful, and necessary if the buildup sneaks up on you as it did on me, but it’s another chemical to buy and more laundry cycles to run, which factors into the time, money, and environmental impact questions. I also found a number of people arguing that stripping is only necessary if you don’t know how to do laundry properly, so I figured I’d try to learn laundry more deeply, which factors into the other two troubleshooting categories.

2. Soften your water.

You can soften your water at a house level, which we have always sort of meant to eventually get around to at least for the hot water just because hard water shortens the effectiveness and lifespan of your water heater and washing appliances. But it takes money and time that we haven’t gotten around to investing, and while cloth diapering has bumped it up the priority list, we haven’t gotten around to it yet. Fortunately, you can also soften water in the wash. I had been chucking vinegar in with the diapers because it works to descale the kettle, but on further research, vinegar seems to be not very effective and is hard on fabric. I tried Borax next, because it functions to boost laundry by softening water, but further research led me to the revelation that Borax is a precipitating water softener. I didn’t master the chemistry deeply enough to explain what’s going on there, but the long and short of that is that it works best in higher water environments. For high efficiency machines, you’re much better off with a non-precipitating water softener like RLR or Calgon. Even with those softeners, however…

3. More water helps.

Enter the stage in which I learn that I have no idea how to coax the best performance out of my washing machine. This changes per machine, and there are more knowledgeable people than me writing about this topic, but I discovered that for our particular machine, you can trick it into using more water by throwing in a wet towel to increase the perceived weight of the load. Also, the delicates cycle uses the most water in most high-efficiency machines, if those other people are correct, but…

You really need to know your machine.

Apparently, top-loading high-efficiency machines with no agitator rely on friction between the fabric to get clothes clean. That means you need the drum to be 2/3 or 3/4 full for it to work its magic. I was washing diapers alone. Twenty-four cloth diapers all by themselves in a machine that’s big enough to wash a king-sized duvet without breaking a sweat. That one took some pondering. I landed on giving the diapers an oxygen bleach soak and a rinse cycle before adding the rest of the baby laundry for a normal detergent + Calgon cycle, and that was an improvement, in that Ronan’s rash seemed to be diminishing. It hadn’t gone away completely, though, and this is the point at which we had a pediatrician visit, at which point I learned about detergent.

Detergent matters.

I had been using a natural, gentle laundry soap that some cloth diapering blog recommended, but I didn’t realize that there’s a difference between laundry soap and laundry detergent. This gets into chemistry I haven’t mastered well enough to explain, but the long and short of it is that detergent does a better job at not leaving residue, especially in hard water environments. Furthermore, our pediatrician noted that especially for fabrics that might sit wet against skin for any amount of time, like diapers, it’s extra important to actually use hypoallergenic detergents designed for baby skin. So I switched detergents, and finally, finally, Ronan’s rash started to clear up. Then he started sleeping consistently through the night.

Overnight diapers are a genuine conundrum.

During the day, it’s easy to change a diaper every two hours to be rigorous about keeping a rash dry. At night, prioritizing sleep for all three of us complicates the equation, because diaper changes wake the lad right up. On the one hand, it’s AMAZING to put him down at 6pm, find him consistently dry when I dream-feed him at 10pm, and have him sleep through until 5am. On the other hand, that means 11 hours in the same diaper, with possibly up to 7 of those wet if he pees immediately after I feed him. We’ve added moisture-wicking doublers and played with moisture-wicking covers like fleece and wool (tip: fleece and wool are better at keeping skin dry, which is definitely useful for teething drooling rashes), and while I think those help reduce the degree of rash, they just haven’t been enough to clear it fully. My mom suggested, gently while thrusting a massive pack of paper diapers into my hands, that we try putting him in paper at least overnight, since paper diapers can hold a lot of fluid before your baby’s skin experiences moisture. And you know what? It works.

So here we are, at almost six months, with a diapering routine that I think we can all live with. I’ve grown to enjoy the smell of Dreft-fresh diapers hanging on my great-aunt’s old laundry rack, Ronan’s rash-free, and the level of waste involved is within tolerance for our environmental sensibilities. It’s been a ride, but even when we’re eventually done with diapers, I’ve got some translatable laundry skills (softer towels! reduced deodorant stains!) and a heap of empathy for the struggle involved in making choices about diapers. It’s a nutso little world, parents, and you’re all doing a good job, and this has been a hopefully useful exploration of how I learned those laundry and empathy skills.