Emergency Cloth Diapering

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Maybe your last clean diaper just went into the wetbag and you’re out of detergent until payday. Maybe the storm of the century just wiped out your power for the next week. Maybe you want to be ready just in case Walking Dead turns into the Daily Show. Whatever the situation, here’s how to survive a diaper emergency.

Help! I’ve run out of diapers!

 It happens to everyone: you go to change a diaper and realize you forgot to start the washer. So you reach for an emergency disposable and discover you also forgot to pick up another package at the store. Now what? Or perhaps you live on a tight budget and have run out of money for detergent. You need more diapers, but don’t know what to do.

Step 1: Wash if you can

If you can start a load of diapers immediately, do that before moving on so that you only need to find a short-term solution. Look for alternate ways to clean dirty diapers. For example, can you hand wash, borrow a scoop of detergent from a neighbor, or visit a laundromat? Finding a way to clean the diapers you already have will be easier in most cases than creating an alternative way to diaper your baby.

Note: We don’t recommend creating homemade detergents out of soap and water softeners. Homemade detergents aren’t strong enough to properly clean diapers, and bar or liquid soap isn’t meant to go into modern washing machines.

Step 2: Evaluate the situation

Determine how long you will need to diaper your baby before you can return to your normal routine. Do you need a stopgap fix for a few hours or do you need to diaper your baby for several days? Do you need an overnight solution?

Step 3: DIY some diapers

Look around your home for items that you can repurpose into diapers. You want to find anything that will have absorbency. Mostly you will want cotton-based materials: washcloths, t-shirts, receiving blankets, muslin swaddling blankets, sheets. For covers, look for fleece blankets or pajama pants. Maybe you have disposable bed liners leftover from the hospital or disposable menstrual pads. Gather everything together in order to decide how you want to use each item. This step is especially important if you have to plan for multiple changes.

Sample daytime diapers:

Sample nighttime diaper:

      • Two receiving blankets stacked and then kite folded with an added trifolded burp cloth: 23 layers in the wet zone
      • Muslin blanket airplane folded with two burp cloth boosters: 16 layers in the wet zone
      • Waterproof pad to place under your child

Sample cover options:

      • Cut a triangle (think tying a bandana on your head) or diaper shape with elongated tabs out of a fleece blanket to make a no-sew cover
      • Fleece pants that fit your child
      • Hand wash diaper covers

You may need to get creative to find solutions. Using two “flats” on top of each other, stacked prior to folding, will increase absorbency for nighttime or older children. You can add in smaller cloths, like washcloths or burp rags, for boosters. Menstrual pads can hold a large amount of liquid and can be used as inserts. Don’t be afraid to use what will work. Your unique situation should guide how zealously you tear up your belongings!

For a short-term need, you can make many items work without permanently modification. For longer-term needs, you may need enough diapers that you will have to cut up some older or non-favorite items. You can rip old sheets into flats, turn towels into prefolds, or cut up old clothing.

How can I wash diapers without a washing machine?

Maybe your machine is on the fritz and there’s not a laundromat for miles. Maybe you’re out of quarters for the coin op machine. It takes some elbow grease, but hand-washing is an option. It’s pretty easy to make a simple camp washer out of a five gallon bucket and a (clean) toilet plunger. Check out these instructions for handwashing cloth diapers with a camp washer or a washboard.

How can I wash diapers without running water or electricity?

What if you need to wash diapers but can’t access running water and electricity? Weather and geography will play a large role in how easily you can accomplish this, but almost everyone can find some way to wash.

Step 1: Find clean water

If you have access to a natural source of water, you can use that water to clean your diapers. If your water source is stagnant, however, you will need to filter and purify it before using it to clean diapers.

Some filtration methods include:

  • Making a filter out of materials such as charcoal and an old tee shirt. See how to make a survival water filter.
  • Allowing the water to sit in a container so the sediment sinks or floats, and carefully scooping out clean water

Some purification methods include:

  • Adding six drops of chlorine bleach to a gallon of water and letting stand for 30 minutes (source: Clorox)
  • Boiling for at least five minutes

If you are fortunate enough to have a fast running stream or river available to you, that is in a rural or remote location, and you don’t find anything upstream contaminating the water (like a dead animal carcass), you can wash your diapers directly in this water.

Step 2: Wash diapers

Once you have reasonably clean water, you can wash your diapers with either a plunger or a washboard (see videos in links for instructions). In a plunger agitating system, you can use commercial detergent. With a washboard, you can use a soap product. If you don’t have a washboard, you can use a large flat stone in a similar fashion. This will be very harsh on your diapers, so it should be the last option.

Before handwashing, allow the water to cool down; it should be no warmer than bath water to avoid burns to you and damage to your diapers.

Emergency preparation

Planning ahead for an emergency isn’t just for hard-core preppers. If disaster strikes, you’ll be glad you’re prepared.

Short-term emergency kits (for natural disasters, brief financial hardship, etc) might include:

  • Inexpensive diapering options such as flour sack towels, receiving blankets, covers, and snappis or diaper pins
  • A roll of quarters for the laundromat
  • Travel sized boxes of detergent
  • A package of disposable diapers
  • A five gallon bucket and clean toilet plunger to make a camp washer
  • Cloth or disposable wipes
  • Bleach (replace every 6 months)

Long-term emergency kits (for apocalypse, peak oil, or the earth being overrun by hordes of brain-eating zombies) might include:

  • Flat diapers, covers, snappis or diaper pins, and cloth wipes
  • A washboard, camp washer, or power free portable washer
  • Bar soap such as Zote or bags of Foca
  • Bleach (replace every 6 months)
  • Water purifiers and filtration systems

For more information on disaster planning, check out www.ready.gov.

For information comparing laundry systems that don’t require electricity or running water, check out this article on the best powerless laundry option.