Problems using washable nappies




Nappies may leak either because they’re not as absorbent as they should be or because they don’t fit properly.

1) Nappy not fitting properly

A nappy may leak if it's not put on the baby correctly.  The leg elastics should be right up at the very top of the leg, at the knicker line.  If your baby has red lines on his or her thighs from the elastic, you need to push it right up to the groin.  Also, cloth nappies sit lower at the back than disposables do.  If the nappy is too loose, you may get leaks around the leg holes.  If the nappy is leaking round the legs, but it’s not soaked through, experiment with adjusting the size.  The nappy needs to be short enough to make the leg holes the right size.  A birth-to-potty nappy will need to be on the smallest setting for the first few months - even on a big baby.  If it doesn't seem big enough, it's probably too high at the back.

There are some really helpful videos and pictures of how to fit a cloth nappy correctly on YouTube and on the cloth nappy library network website

Very occasionally leaking is due to the nappy being too tight.  If it is squeezed tight against the baby, it can’t hold as much liquid.  Similarly, if a nappy is over-stuffed with bulky microfibre boosters, it may not absorb properly.  Bamboo boosters have the advantage of being very slim for the amount of liquid they absorb.  If you need to add extra absorbency to a night-time nappy, it may work best if you put the booster outside the nappy, between the nappy and the wrap, and use a bigger wrap.

2)  More absorbency required

As your baby gets bigger s/he will pee more and you may need to add boosters to the nappy.  Some babies are “heavy wetters” and pee a lot.  When babies are entirely milk fed, they are taking in a lot of liquid and so will pee a lot!  Some mums may make relatively dilute milk and so their baby has to drink a lot of it and they will be heavy wetters.  (Other mums make full cream milk - their babies get fatter and pee less!)  If the nappy is leaking because it is sopping wet, try adding an extra booster.  For little boys, it can help if one of the boosters is folded in half and put at the front of the nappy.  If you are using a pocket nappy, you may just need an extra insert or, if your inserts are made from microfibre, a bamboo rayon or hemp insert (instead of or as well as the microfibre one) may help.  I have a range of inserts/boosters for sale in the Shop section of this website. 

Always remember that any nappy, insert or booster needs to be washed several times before it achieves maximum absorbency - so your nappies may leak if they are brand new.

3) Disposable liners

For young entirely milk-fed babies, who can produce absurd amounts of exposive semi-liquid poo, disposable paper liners may not be very useful. This is because the liners slightly reduce the rate of absorption of the nappy and this can make poo skitter across surface of the liner and out of leg holes.

Lack of success with the very lovely Baba+Boo nappies can be because people are laying a disposable liner neatly across the extra rows of elastics inside the nappy (as in nappy on left in picture) instead of tucking it in between the rows (as in nappy on right) - and so directing the poo neatly over the top of the clever poo catchers.


Disposable liners come into their own when babies are weaned and poo is firmer and smellier and generally harder to deal with. But in the first few months, when poo is soft, inoffensive and very water soluble, they may be less than helpful. They may be a cause of cloth nappy failure. If cloth isn't working for you, try ditching the paper liners!  If you feel you must use liners try to lay the liner very loosely inside the nappy, leave a space between bum and liner, and never ever have the liners poking out of the leg holes.

4) Nappy rash cream

Nappy rash creams are designed to waterproof your baby’s skin and excessive use can also waterproof the inside of cloth nappies. This can make urine run over the surface of the nappy and slow the rate of absorption.  If you feel you need to use nappy rash cream, use a disposable liner as well.  You can test to see if you've inadvertantly coated your nappies by pouring a bit of liquid inside one and looking to see if there are any puddles on the surface.  If your nappy is coated in nappy rash cream, rub the affected area with some soap (olive oil soap is said to be best) before washing at 60oC.  Some people find soaking the nappy in milk can help.

Waterproof on the outside of a nappy = good.  Waterproof on the inside = bad!

Most people find they don't need to use nappy rash creams routinely with cloth nappies but I've added a list of cloth-safe creams at the bottom of the page.

5) Loss of absorbency

 If your nappies don't seem to be as absorbent as they used to be, it may be that you have a build-up of detergent in the fabric, caused by using too much detergent or inadequate rinsing.  Modern washing machines are very economical with water and you may need to do an extra rinse after washing the nappies.  Always use any "extra water" options that your washing machines offers when washing nappies and always use a really long wash programme.  Nappies that have lost their absorbency due to detergent build-up are often a little bit smelly too.  If you think you may have a problem with detergent build-up, follow the instructions for a strip wash outlined below in the "stinky nappies" section.  Usually however, when nappies seem to have lost their absorbency, it's actually that the baby is getting bigger and producing more urine!

6)  Clothes too tight

Trendy close fitting jeans and other grown-up style clothing may squash the nappy and prevent it from doing its job properly.  Try looser, stretchier clothes.  You may need to buy a bigger size of vests and body suits etc.  Try undoing the poppers on the vest. Vest extenders are available and Frugi make baby clothes that are “cut for cloth”.  Tight clothes are generally more of a problem with bulky microfibre nappies than with nappies made from natural fabrics (bamboo, cotton etc.) as microfibre nappies don't lock the moisture away very well and are prone to "compression leaks".

7) Faulty or damaged waterproofing. 

If you can see wet patches on the outside of the nappy, coming through the actual PUL, the nappy or wrap may be damaged or faulty, or just getting very old.


Stinky nappies

The cause of smelly nappies is that they are not really clean.  A good long wash (or two) at 60oC with the recommended dose of non-bio or biological detergent will usually sort the problem out.  A long wash programme is important as this is needed to make sure the detergent is completely dissolved and evenly spread throughout all the washing.  Powdered detergent seems to work better than liquid, and the mainstream or supermarket-own brands are more effective than the more environmental versions.  Things like EcoEggs or Soap Nuts do not do a great job on washing that is as dirty as nappies.   Although biological washing detergent is not usually recommended for baby clothes, it does seem more effective than non-bio at getting rid of wee and poo smells.  If you only use it from time to time (when you have a problem) and rinse the nappies well, it can be very effective without causing any problems. Use the dose of detergent recommended on the packet for the load size you're doing and the hardness of the water - some people are so careful about not overdoing the detergent that they don’t put enough in and so the nappies are not getting washed properly!  Oxford water is very hard so you will need to use the higher dose of detergent. Remember, you will probably never wash anything dirtier than nappies. 

Powdered detergent intended for washing white and light-coloured clothing is best for washing nappies.  It contains stuff called "oxygen-based bleaching agent" - mostly sodium percarbonate.  This bleaches stains and kills bacteria.  It isn't added to laundry gels and liquids, because it's activated by getting wet, and it's not added to powder intened for washing coloured clothes, as it can fade bright colours.  It's the main active ingredient in nappy sanitising products like MioFresh, TotsBots Potion, BioD Nappy Fresh and Napisan.

Inadequate rinsing and build-up of soap can also sometimes make the nappies smelly even when they’ve been well washed, and can cause nappy rash.  If your nappies are not performing well and smell strongly of detergent, the answer may be a strip wash: give the nappies a really long wash at 60oC with no detergent, and then the usual 40oC wash with a little detergent and lots of rinsing until everything is bubble-free (no need to dry the nappies between these washes).  I like Fairy non-bio powder because it contains no soap, which means it rinses out well and is less inclined to clog up the nappy fabric, and it has a very light fragrance.  Waitrose own is very similar.

If your nappies smell fine when they come out of the wash but smell awful as soon as they are weed on, you have got bacteria in the nappies that have not been removed by washing.  The bacteria come from faeces and are probably not harmful to you or your baby (as long you don't start sucking the nappies!) but they break down the urea in urine to ammonia which is very smelly.  You need to wash the nappies more thoroughly at 60oC to get rid of the bacteria.

Soaking in Napisan is not recommended because it rots the elastic and waterproof covers but, used very occasionally, it will sterilise nappies. You can soak prefolds and terry squares in Napisan (and similar sanitisers) because that it is what it was designed for.  You can add a scoop of Napisan, Miofresh or other nappy sanitiser to the detergent when you wash your nappies to kill bacteria.  Do not use chlorine bleach on your nappies as it will ruin the colour of the PUL, turn polyester fleece a nasty yellowish colour and rot the fabric and elastics.  There are websites advocating the use of bleach but I would never recommend it.  If it is concentrated enough to have any effective germ-killing effect, it will be concentrated enough to damage fabric. It isn't necessary if you are washing your nappies properly.  Nappies do not need to be completely sterile as you don't eat them or use them in food preparation.


Hang stained nappies outdoors in daylight.  There is enough UV even in weak win097ter sunshine to bleach out most stains.  It also freshens the nappies and kills germs.  If you don't have a garden, hang stained nappies next to an open window. This will remove organic stains - poo stains and food stains (it works surprisingly well on red wine, ketchup and bolognese sauce stains).

Sometimes nappies can get pink or orange-coloured stains if babies are given medications with colouring in them which can be difficult to remove.  If you use a nappy rash cream and find that your nappies are stained from it (usually grey stains that look like oil residue) Olive Oil Soap is good for removing it. Try rubbing the stain with soap before washing.  Or you can try soaking the nappies in milk then rinse thoroughly by hand until the water runs totally clear, then a rinse cycle in the washing machine, and then a 40oC wash as usual to ensure all traces of milk are removed from the nappy.  If things get desperate, you can try using stain remover or dilute bleach, very cautiously, just on the stained area - but don't get bleach on the waterproof PUL covers or elastics and be aware that bamboo rayon is a delicate fabric and can easily be damaged.


This is a list of creams etc that are generally agreed to be okay for cloth, providing they are used sparingly and rubbed in well:

  • Angel Baby Botty Balm
  • Arbonne Baby range of products
  • Badger Balm (questionable)
  • Balmy Notions
  • Bio Baby Eco Spray
  • Breastmilk
  • Burt Bees (questionable)
  • California Baby Diaper Rash Cream
  • Chamomile tea (NOT chamomile essential oils)
  • Cavilon (cream or spray)
  • CJ's BUTTer (all variants including tubs, tubes and spritz)
  • Coconut oil (solid or cold pressed)
  • Eco Sprout Bum Salve
  • Lanisoh
  • Little Violet's Baby Balm
  • Neal's Yards Baby CREAM (NOT baby balm)
  • Punkin Butt
  • Purepotions Lav Salve
  • Sheepish Grins Bottom Balm
  • Thirsties Booty Love
  • Waitrose Bottom Butter
  • Weleda Baby