All diapers can leak – both disposable and reusable cloth. It’s most useful to look at the big picture first to help understand leaks.
What is a cloth diaper?
A cloth diaper is essentially two parts – an absorbent part that absorbs pee and poop, and a water-resistant part that prevents the absorbent part from getting baby’s clothes wet. In some cases, those two parts are sewn together, like in an all in one (AIO). In other diaper styles, those two parts are separate, like a pocket diaper or a prefold or flat paired with a cover.
Types of cloth diapers. From left to right: all in one (AIO), pocket, fitted with cover, prefold with cover.
The most common reason for leaks is too little absorbency. You can witness this with other fabrics too. Ever try to clean up a spilled drink with too small a towel? At some point the towel won’t absorb any more liquid, and you need to get another towel. It’s the same with cloth diapers. Eventually the absorbent part of the diaper will become saturated and won’t hold any more liquid, so the liquid starts to transfer outside of the diaper.
Wicking vs. true leaking
Wicking happens when the absorbency gets saturated and the moisture will wick (or pull) onto the cover first, usually around the leg openings. You may be able to feel this around the leg gussets. They will feel damp. Once the leg openings get saturated, the liquid will then wick onto baby’s pants, or around the leg openings on their clothing or onesie or onto any other fabric the diaper encounters. Wicking can also happen at the front or back of the diaper.
In most cases, the solution is using more absorbency. The more absorbency you have, the more fabric there is to catch all the liquid. You can add another insert to a pocket diaper or an AIO. You can size up to the next size prefold since it has more fabric. You can pair a small booster/insert with any of these styles for an extra layer of absorbency.
With cloth diapers, be prepared to change every two hours, maybe even more often. Compared to disposables, cloth will start wicking sooner.
True leaking (meaning baby pees and the pee goes straight out of the diaper and isn’t absorbed at all into the absorbency part of the diaper) can happen if the fit of the diaper is too loose. The pee doesn’t even hit the absorbency and instead rolls right out an opening. Check the diaper fit to ensure it is snug to baby.
To check for a good fit, first make sure the diaper isn't too tight at the waist by making sure two fingers fit between the belly and the front of the diaper. Next, move to the legs, lifting one at a time to make sure there are no gaps at the leg elastics. If using a cover over a fitted, flat, or a prefold, or if using a diaper with rolled elastics, check to make sure that no absorbent parts are sticking out of the elastics.
A great fit will prevent leaks!
Another type of leak issue can happen when your absorbent material is repelling liquid. New natural fiber diapers (cotton and and hemp, for example) have natural oils that are removed through initial washes. Wash at least twice before using, and know that the diapers may continue to gain absorbency after a few more washes.
Sometimes your wash routine or products you use can impact absorbency. Fabric softeners can build up in your cloth diapers and cause them to repel liquids. A poor wash routine can also cause buildup, leading to repelling. To learn more, check out our post on a solid wash routine! Some diaper creams can adhere to the diaper's fibers and causing a repelling layer. Petroleum products are the biggest culprit. Be sure to use a liner with synthetic fiber diapers and wash on hot if you choose a petroleum based cream. Here's a great resource about diaper creams from our friends over at Fluff Love.
A fully cleaned and prepped diaper is the best defense against repelling leaks.
Leaks are fixable!
In the end, leaks and wicking happen, but you can fix it! You can find the absorbency, diaper style, and fabrics that work for you and your baby and change them up as your baby grows.
AIO with two layers of absorbency inserts sewn into the diaper. Add another insert between or behind these layers for a boost of absorbency.
Different types of additional inserts for added absorbency (from left to right, a cloth wipe; a small cotton insert; a large cotton/hemp blend insert).
A prefold diaper (red edge) with a small cotton insert as a booster (yellow edge) for more absorbency. All to be placed inside a water-resistant diaper cover (blue cover).
Elizabeth Austin is a TCO Advocate in West Virginia.