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How to Wash Your Cloth Diapers by Hand

image of cartoon handwashing clothes
If you live in an apartment or other dwelling that does not have laundry facilities on site, you will know that it is a little more challenging to cloth diaper. If you cannot or do not want to use a Laundromat or a friend’s/family’s machine, you will need to know how to hand wash. There are different ways that you can hand wash your cloth diapers. You can use a bathtub and your hands; you can use a bucket and a plunger; or you can use a washbasin and a washing board. There are also portable tabletop machines, but we are going to focus on the ways to wash by hand.
  • The bathtub/hands method takes the most water and time, but no extra tools, and is convenient. Just follow the steps and use your hands. You can also use a plunger if desired.
  • The bucket/plunger method conserves water, but you can only wash about 6 diapers at a time.
  • The washbasin/washing board method is old school, but works if you have the space. You could also use this method outside is desired.
I have made up some instructions for hand washing your diapers and accessories that could help in a pinch, or even on a routine basis if needed. I like to have personal experience with anything that I write about, so I took the hand washing challenge. I no longer have children in diapers, so I enlisted the help of Jessica who has a 3 month old. Washing the diapers in the tub took longer than I thought it would, but it was kind of fun, and surprisingly therapeutic! I am also happy to report that the diapers were very clean! What you will need:
  • Cloth diaper safe detergent
  • Hot/warm water
  • Soft scrub brush
  • Stain soap that is safe for cloth diapers (optional)
  • Rubber gloves (optional)
  • Clothes line or drying rack
Bathtub/hands method add:
  • Bathtub
Bucket/plunger method add: Washbasin/washboard method add:
  • Washbasin
  • Washboard
  • We recommend the use of rubber gloves if using your hands in the water.
  • You will want to change into clothes that you will not mind getting dirty or wet.
  • If using a plunger, we recommend buying a new one for this purpose.
  • If you are using a bucket or basin, you can use more than one; one for the wash water, and one for the rinse water to speed up the process.
Instructions for washing cloth diapers by hand:
  1. Presoak soiled diapers. Use warm water along with a pinch of detergent. Soak prefolds, flats, fitteds, inserts, and wipes for half hour, and laminated items for the last 10 minutes.
    image of bucket
  2. Prewash: Fill your basin/bucket/tub 1/3 to ½ full of warm water. There should be enough water to saturate and cover the diapering items. Add ¼ the amount of detergent that you use in the wash load for a bathtub – adjust for a bucket or basin.
    image of bathtub
  3. Add diapering items and agitate with your hands, or use a plunging action with a plunger for several minutes. You may want to rub the fabric against itself on the inside of the diapers. You may also use a washboard. Let soak for 10 minutes if you think necessary. Tip: You may add oxygen bleach powder to the soak once a month if your diapers need a deep clean or extra whitening.
    image of laundry
  4. Drain the water.
  5. Squeeze the excess water out of each item. Toss into the diaper pail, or push to the back of the bathtub. Do not ring out diapering items, as this can stretch the fabric/components out of shape).
    image of laundry
  6. Check items for staining, and use stain soap or detergent and a soft bristle brush to gently scrub. Add to the other diapering items.
  7. Add hot water to your basin/bucket/tub. Add detergent and mix. The amount of detergent you use depends on the amount of diapering items and level of water. If using 3 gallons of water in a bucket, you would use ¼ the amount of detergent that you would use in a washer. If you are using the bathtub and it is half full, that is about 12 gallons - the typical large load size of a standard washing machine.
  8. Add diapers, and swish around in the water. Make sure there is enough room for the diapers/inserts to move freely. Knead/agitate the diapering items, or use a plunger for several minutes.
    image of laundry
  9. Drain the water.
  10. Squeeze the excess water out of the items.
  11. Fill tub/bucket/basin again with warm water.
  12. Agitate by hand for several minutes, lifting the items and squeezing out the water. You may use the plunger for this step as well.
    image of laundry
  13. Drain the water.
  14. Repeat steps 11-13. If there are any bubbles (as in the photo above), or the water is slimy, repeat again.
  15. Squeeze the water out of your diapers/inserts and put back into your diaper pail or liner.
    image of laundry
    Tip: To remove excess water, roll the diapers up in a towel like a jelly roll and push down.
  16. Hang to dry. Drying in the sun will help to remove stains, help to sanitize, and add fresh air to your diapers!
  17. Wash the tub/bucket/basin with a disinfectant cleaner such as pine oil cleaner or vinegar.
FAQs: Q: What if you only have cold water? A: You will want to make sure to use a cold water detergent that is safe for cloth diapers. You may need to extend your soaking/prewash/wash/rinse times. Q: Why use a plunger? A: It is not necessary, but the use of a plunger will help the water to travel through the fabric of the diapers, and thus aids in the washing process. Buying one new and drilling holes will aid in the process, or use a Rapid Washer (made especially for hand cleaning clothing). Q: How can I soften my line dried diapers? A: Diapers can become stiff when hung to dry, but over the counter fabric softeners will coat the fibers of your diaper, which will leave your diapers unable to absorb properly.  The following are ways to help soften the diapers safely: -Add ¼ cup of baking soda to the last rinse (for Thirsties items). -For prefolds, flats, wipes, and inserts, add ½ cup of white distilled vinegar to the last rinse. -Beating the diapers or tossing them back and forth can help to fluff up the fibers. This could be a fun game between you and a toddler! There are many websites with instructions and videos on how to hand wash cloth diapers or clothing. Feel free to view some of these to see how others do the job. But please keep in mind that diapers need more thorough washing than clothing, and as always, use a cloth diaper safe detergent. Please send any questions to! ~Sonya
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  • I’m so glad I found this. We’re traveling out of state next month & I wasn’t sure what to do about my son’s diapers Disposables aren’t an option because he’s allergic & I REALLY didn’t want to have to fly with a bunch of dirty diapers. :)

    Heather A on
  • Really helpful. Want to try it as I feel machine wash destroys the diaper quickly.

    grace Thomas on
  • Thank you so much for a posting on hand washing! Such great information, I’m adding this to my list of great stuff to come back to when it’s time!

    Sarah Wagner on
  • Thank you for posting about this!! We are about to have our first baby in a tiny apartment without a washer. I’ve been dying to find something on how to wash cloth diapers without a washer!

    Emily on
  • I am so happy to see this article. I live in an apartment, and washing at the laundromat gets expensive! (Not to mention the build-up on the machines. Yuck) I didn’t know how to wash diapers by hand. I might just try this next time.

    Rachel on

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