How to wash cloth diapers with an HE top-loader

When Anselm was a baby, we happily used cloth diapers until he was around a year and a half old. I was pregnant with Perpetua then, and knew we were moving into a shared-laundry situation, so I gave my cloth stash away to an expecting friend and we used disposables. Now with Tertia we’re back to cloth diapers — with one major change. Instead of the old-fashioned top-loading washing machine I had when Anselm was little, we now have a high-efficiency machine. And while that’s a good choice overall, surprisingly, it makes washing cloth diapers a lot more complicated. There’s a lot of information out there about how to wash cloth diapers in a front-loading HE machine, but not so much for top-loaders. So, after considerable trial and error, here’s what I’ve found works best.


I use what are called pocket diapers: there’s an outer cover (pictured above — surely the world’s cutest laundry) and an inner pocket which gets stuffed with an absorbent liner. I found that when I followed my previous washing routine, the liners would get clean no problem, but a lot of the poopy covers would stay dirty. Which¬† is gross. The trouble with the covers is that they’re waterproof — and while ordinarily this is a very good thing (!) it means that the water is only really getting at them from one side. They need a lot more agitation than the liners do, and the HE machine just doesn’t agitate enough. At least not without some tricks.

1. Bulk up the load by adding other laundry

I seem to get the best results when there’s more laundry in the tub, not less — about 1/2 to 2/3rds full seems ideal. It’s best to bulk up the load with items that are the same size or smaller than the diapers, so that they won’t wrap around or capture the diapers and keep them from getting washed. Good choices are wash cloths, kitchen towels, burp rags, and baby clothes. These items will help to rub and scrub everything clean, and also add to the overall weight of the load — this is important with an HE machine since load weight determines water usage.

2. Trick the washer into using more water (but not too much more)

Before I wash the diapers, I do a short cold-water soak, just long enough to get everything really sopping wet. Then I turn the machine off, which allows it to drain out the excess water without spinning the laundry. Since the liners are super absorbent, this makes the load very heavy, which means that the machine will use more water when I do the proper wash.

Just doing a deep-water wash (as opposed to a sensor-driven auto-fill wash) actually doesn’t help, because a full tub has too much water in it: the diapers have too much room to move around in that case and so don’t rub against each other enough. But if the laundry is artificially heavy, it adds just enough extra water to get things moving against each other without totally swimming.

3. Move the laundry to the outer edges of the tub before washing

This was suggested to me by someone on reddit: move the laundry to the outer edges of the tub so that there’s a hole in the middle. I have to move the laundry anyway after soaking so that I can pour in my detergent, so it’s not much extra work to give everything a good shove out from the centre. I’m not sure why it works — something something physics — but it seems to help.

4. Use your washer settings wisely

Ok, time to wash! Moving from left to right on my washer, this is how I set my… settings:

  • Soil level: heavy (duh, it’s full of pee and poop)
  • Water temperature: hot (ditto)
  • Cycle: power wash (on my machine, this is the cycle that gives me the most agitation. It might be “whites” or something else on yours.)
  • Rinse: 1 rinse (I haven’t found more than one rinse necessary)
  • Water level: auto-sense

I don’t go crazy with the detergent. Some cloth diaper guides recommend using a full capful which is, frankly, kind of insane. As long as you’re using actual detergent, following the instructions on the side of the bottle should be fine. I use Arm & Hammer and fill the cap to line 3, which is about halfway, and that’s plenty. If things are sudsy after the rinse, you’re using too much.


And there you have it. I still occasionally have a cover or two that needs to go through a second time, but this is the best way I’ve yet found to get things going with my HE machine. I’ve also ordered some agitator balls (not to be confused with the woo-woo laundry balls that are supposed to magically clean your laundry without soap, because… magnets?) which I hope will provide the last piece of this particular laundry puzzle. But in the mean time, this is working well.