Friday, January 20, 2012

The Diaper Doctor: Leaks

The Diaper Doctor aims to help you diagnose and cure your cloth diapering problems.  In today's installment, we tackle leaks.

No matter what kind of diapers you use, leaks and blowouts will happen from time to time.  With a good quality cloth diaper though, leaks should be very minimal.  But when they do happen, and start to happen chronically, they can sometimes be very frustrating to solve.  Here are some tips for troubleshooting your cloth diapering leaks and making your life a little cleaner and drier.

Leaks can be caused by a variety of things.  It could be problems with the absorbent, wicking, or waterproof layers of your diaper.  Leaks can also be caused by a poor fit.  Your first step is to determine where the problem lies.

Does your diaper fit well?  First check the fit of your diapers.  If you're not sure how to do that, check out our cloth diaper fitting guide.  A diaper that doesn't fit well will have a hard time containing everything.  Leg gapping is one of the top causes of leaky diapers.  The guide has some tips for getting a good fit with your diapers, but if you just can't seem to make it work, it may be time to either exchange your diapers for a different type or save them until baby grows into them.

Is your diaper completely saturated?  If your diaper fits well, the next thing to check is your absorbent layer.  This would be your prefold, flat, or fitted diaper or the insert inside your pocket diaper.  On All-In-One diapers this might be the inner layer that touches baby or it may be a hidden layer sewn inside the diaper.  If your absorbent layer is completely saturated when you go to change a leaky diaper then that is very likely what is causing your problem.  You can fix this by either changing your baby more frequently or adding a doubler to your diaper for additional absorbency.  You can also try switching to a more absorbent fabric.  If you are using diapers made of flannel for example, try switching to a cotton terry, hemp, or bamboo for a little extra help.  If you are using sized diapers, a completely saturated diaper may indicate that it is time to switch to the next size up.

Is your waterproofing wearing out?  If your diaper is not completely saturated when it leaks, then you may want to inspect your waterproofing layer.  If you are using PUL, look at the inside of the PUL if you can to see if it is yellowed and cracking.  PUL doesn't last forever and as it ages it starts to crack and let pee through the fabric.   If you are using wool, it is probably time to re-lanolinize.  If your cover is made of fleece, check to see if it has become very thin and worn over time.  You can also do the "blow test" to see how your fleece is holding up.  Blow through your fleece on to your hand and see how much of your breath is stopped by the fabric.  The more wind stopping power the fleece has, the more pee stopping power it has as well.  Leaks that occur in the middle of the fabric, instead of at the leg holes or waist, are usually because of a faulty waterproofing layer.  Wool can be lanolinized again and PUL can sometimes be resuscitated with waterproofing sprays or wash-in waterproofing products, but once fleece covers start to thin and wear out, there is very little you can do. 

Are your diapers repelling?  If your waterproofing layer seems fine and your diaper is not saturated, you may have a repelling issue.  This happens when the diaper is not able to absorb the urine and so it runs over the top of the diaper and then out.  It is more common with diapers that have a wicking layer, like pocket diapers, but it can happen to any diaper.  The biggest cause of repelling is detergent build-up.  Build-up occurs when detergent isn't completely and totally rinsed out of a diaper.  Over time the amount of detergent left in the diaper builds up and coats the absorbent fibers, preventing them from absorbing.  In diapers with a wicking layer, the detergent can fill up the spaces between the fibers and blocks urine from passing through.  You can tell if your diapers have a repelling problem by sprinkling a few droplets of water onto your diapers.  If the water soaks in immediately, you are in good shape.  If it beads up for a few seconds but then soaks in, you may have the start of an issue, but you're still probably okay.  If the water just sits on top of your diapers without soaking in, you definitely have a repelling issue.

The good news is that detergent build-up is easily reversible.  In order to get the build-up out of your diapers you need to strip them.  There are a variety of ways to strip diapers, but the simplest is to get a cloth diaper safe detergent like Rockin' Green or Charlie's Soap and do an overnight soak.  Of course before stripping your diapers, check the manufacturers recommendations to make sure you will not void any warranties with your stripping method.

Detergent isn't the only thing that can build-up.  Zinc oxide based diaper creams as well as various oils and greases can also block the fibers in your diapers.  Stripping will help with other kinds of build-up, but some, like zinc oxide, can sometimes be nearly impossible to wash out of diapers.  In order to prevent build-up, there are a few steps that you can take.

*Use a detergent formulated for cloth diapers.  A lot of detergents on the market have a variety of high-tech ingredients such as optical brighteners and softeners that are designed to remain on clothing fibers after the wash cycle.  Make sure you use a clean-rinsing detergent.

*Use less detergent.  If you are using a standard laundry detergent instead of a cloth diaper safe one, make sure you aren't using too much.  You only need about 1/4 of the recommended amount when washing diapers.  Too much detergent will just cause build-up to happen faster.

*Use a cloth diaper safe rash cream, or none at all.  If you do need to use a cream that is not able to be washed out of cloth diapers, put some kind of a liner between the cream and the diaper.  Reusable fleece liners are great for this, but you can also just cut up an old t-shirt for this purpose.  Anything that provides a barrier to protect your diapers from staining and build-up from the cream.

*When prepping new diapers, keep natural fibers separate from microfiber.  Natural fibers like hemp, cotton, and bamboo, can have natural oils still in them which need to be washed out before they are up to full absorbent capacity.  If you prep them with microfiber or pocket diapers in the load you can cause those oils to be redeposited and cause repelling issues.  Once they are fully prepped and the oils are gone, they can all be washed together, but at first keep them separate.

*Be cautious of what has gone into the washer right before the diapers.  If the load that was washed before your diapers contained greasy work clothes or detergent with lots of additives they may leave residue in the washer that can redeposit on your diapers.  To help prevent this, try running a load of towels with cloth diapers safe detergent before you put your diapers in to remove the residue.  This is especially important when using laundromat or shared apartment washers because you really never know what was in there before your diapers. 

Are your diapers fine, but they're still leaking?  Sometimes a fine and dandy diaper ends up leaking because of user error.  This is especially common with parents who are brand new to cloth diapering, or when an uninitiated babysitter is putting on the diapers.  So what's the problem?

*The diapers aren't prepped.  Sometimes an excited parent might put a brand new diaper straight on baby without prepping it first.  Diapers that haven't been prepped aren't at their fullest absorbency and so aren't going to work as well as they will after they are sufficiently prepped.

*Something's peeking out!  A diaper can only be waterproof if ALL of the absorbent material is tucked inside and doesn't have contact with baby's clothing.  If a little corner of prefold is hanging out of the leg cuff or an insert sticks up a bit in the back, you are going to have leaks. Soft cotton onesies and sleepers are very absorbent, so if they come in contact with a damp insert they will absorb their fair share of the wetness.  Keep all diapers and inserts completely contained within the cover in order to prevent this type of leak.

*There's a fabric mix-up.  There are so many different fabrics used in diaper making, it can be a little confusing at first.  Many people are surprised to hear that wool can be waterproof or that fleece is not absorbent.  It has certainly happened before that a sleep-deprived new dad has put a fleece liner inside a diaper cover and then couldn't understand why it didn't absorb any urine.  Fitteds with cute prints are notorious for being mistaken for an all-in-one diaper (because who would want to hide all that cuteness with a cover?).  Make sure that you have absorbent materials inside and waterproof materials outside and you'll be just fine.

*It's a positioning problem.  There are certain things that you can do when putting a diaper on to make leaks more or less likely.  When putting any diaper on a little boy, make sure the penis is pointing down to prevent wet leaks in front.  Another thing to look for on all babies is to make sure the diaper is sitting in the inner most leg creases, where underwear is made to rest on you.  If it is sitting further in or out than that, leaks may happen.  Sometimes, especially on chunky thighs, it can be confusing telling one chubby crease from another, so double check that the diaper is in the right position.  Also make sure that the diaper is centered and you aren't leaving one butt cheek somewhat uncovered.  It happens!

What about poopy blowouts?  Poop leaks are not generally caused by saturation, repelling, or poor waterproofing.  Blowouts generally happen as a result of gapping at the leg or waist elastic, a diaper that is too small, or just really really enthusiastic bowel movements by your baby.  Check the fit of the diaper to make sure it isn't gapping.  A diaper that is too small won't have enough room for large bowel movements to fit inside and so they will more easily squeeze up the back or out the leg holes.  If your diaper ever gives your baby "plumber's crack" just think of that as a blowout highway and get yourself some diapers with a higher rise (or adjust your one-size diapers to a larger setting) right away.

For enthusiastic poopers, especially those who are exclusively breastfed, forceful bowel movements mixed with large amounts of gas can be a problematic combination.  The best solution for this is a diaper with extra poo-containing features.  A diapering system with a fitted and PUL wrap style cover offers double layers of elastic around the legs and waist so that even if poop escapes from the diaper, chances are that the cover will still be able to contain it.  There are also special ways you can fold prefold diapers and flat diapers that help to contain poopy messes as well.  Yet another option is Rumparooz.  They have an innovative pocket diaper and a newborn all-in-one that both have an extra internal elastic channel to help contain messes.

Everything seems fine, seriously - I just don't get it! If you've checked your fit, stripped your diapers, done everything you can, and they still leak - then what?  If that happens, feel free to shoot us an email or give us a call at the store and we'd be happy to try to help troubleshoot your individual situation.  Most manufacturers are also happy to help you troubleshoot problems with their products so definitely use them as a resource as well.

Stay Dry,


  1. Great post! I had lots of leakage problems a few months back with my son's pocket diapers and detergent/diaper cream build-up was the problem!

    I noticed the Rockin' Green soak didn't really help though. What REALLY helped get rid of the buildup for me was to wash all of the diapers with Dawn dish soap. It cleared the problem right up! Have you ever tried that before?

  2. Christina -

    Yes, I've stripped many a diaper with original blue Dawn. It's a great go-to for stripping with all that grease (and residue) cutting power. I've also heard of people having great luck with either vinegar/baking soda or just washing soda (for hard water) using the grape stomp method. Glad you found something that worked for you!

    ~Liz at ATD