I’ve frequently remarked that I know nothing about science. It’s not my ‘thing’. But, once you consider the everyday actions of a curious human — asking questions, making discoveries, or applying a somewhat methodical process to the most basic of activities — you realise that science is our entire experience.
And, what is more scientific than becoming a parent for the first time?
If science is, “the practical attainment of knowledge, through practice”, as well as “the study of nature, and behaviour of natural things”.
Then parenting is constant experimentation. As you apply the methods you learnt the day before, with the willingness to change and expand your definitions and understanding based on new knowledge (once you get used to the behaviour of your little one, they will change tacks. Usually overnight!). You are given the perfect platform to perform controlled investigations with a complex number of applied daily variables.
Mama-hood also brings an incredible opportunity for really fundamental learning. There are hours spent on the couch, nap-trapped by a tiny — surprisingly heavy — human, where you suddenly have fields of free time. Time for podcasts and books. Midnight feeds turn into research sessions. I spend my days listening to the dulcet tones of Josh and Chuck of Stuff You Should Know. Evenings reading picture books about mammals. Every fifteen minutes, I search the Internet for something else on biology, or humanity, or the digestive system of a five-month-old.
But mostly, in becoming a mama, what science really taught me was how to do the washing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done washing before, but I naively believed I was walking around in clean clothes. Sure, there’s never a time that
I’m not covered in dog hair, but I assumed my clothes were still CLEAN. I washed, dried and put them away (eventually). I was a slave to the laundry system, with the belief that the washing is never done because we never stop using sheets, towels or socks.
So when my partner, Tristan, eagerly insisted he wanted us to use cloth nappies for our first-and only-born, I was confident. As our pregnancy progressed and I experienced an extremely appliance-focussed nesting phase, I began to worry about the capability of our old washing machine and about my own cleaning abilities. I needed help. Again, I turned to the Internet.
For years, cloth nappies were a square of single towelling or flannelette, manipulated into a triangle shape and fastened around a baby. These simple, mono-layered fabrics were easy to unfold and clean. The evolution of nappies has led to the top-tier modern cloth nappy or MCN — a multipart, multilayer magnificence, commonly compiled of PUL (polyurethane laminate fabric), microsuede and press snaps, with microfibre or bamboo inserts for absorption.
With the progression of nappies to MCNs, the washing routine also needed a shake-up. No more were the days of ‘soak in a bucket of Napisan and throw in the top loader’. I now follow a scientifically-proven, laboriously-tested, peer-reviewed wash routine, where I employ chemistry more than I ever expected.
Nappies are very dirty laundry (or ‘toilet-pants’, as we affectionately refer to them at home), and, as such, need a few things to be properly clean: the correct detergent, temperature and agitation. When combined with water, this magic quartet will get anything sparkling.
Modern-day detergents are designed to work in conjunction with these counterparts, consisting of water conditioners, surfactants, and other helpful chemicals, such as enzymes.
Water conditioners — the most common of which is sodium carbonate — attract and bind metals that you may find in your tap water, keeping them out of the way. The harder your water, the more detergent is needed to ensure the bulk of these metals is removed.
The surfactants in your detergent work like a team of little cleaners; imagine tadpole-shaped molecules that actively remove dirt and such from fabrics. These molecules possess a conflicting nature — very simply put, the benzosulfate bit is hydrophilic (water-loving), where the dodecane chain is hydrophobic (water-hating). Luckily, they are able to reach a compromise, with the dodecane chain attaching to the things it does like, such as fat or oil, and the benzosulfate chain happy to swim about with the water. This process enables stains to be lifted from the fabric during agitation inside your washing machine. You need plenty of surfactants to penetrate the poo particles.
Additions, like enzymes, are necessary to assist with catalysing the chemical reactions. A biological molecule, enzymes are targeted, only breaking down other certain molecules. Due to the varying nature of stains, a range of enzymes are required: amylases break down starches, lipases break down fats and grease, and proteases break down proteins.
Whew. Have you ever thought this hard about what goes on inside your washing machine?! I certainly hadn’t. And we aren’t finished!
Washing in warm or hot water (40–60°C) is markedly more effective (especially over time) than cold water. Using hot water enables the fibres in the fabric to relax, and is more effective at dissolving soiling. Heat is also a prompt for many components in your detergent to activate, like the sodium carbonates and enzymes introduced above.
The most economical washing machine is a front-loader that can heat its own water, but they are pickier in terms of agitation. You need to make sure the loading is correct to aid the cleaning process. The longer cycles ensure that steps like wash, soak, rinse and spin are sufficient.
Harnessing the power of movement to clean, as well as to coax your detergent of choice into working.
I follow a nappy-washing routine I can stick to, massaged by spending a LOT of time sheepishly skulking around an online nappy-washing forum. Daily, I run a short (one hour) wash cycle with the previous day and night’s nappies, with half the recommended amount of detergent for a heavily soiled wash. I then remove these from the machine, damp, sit them aside, and carry on with my day of baby-rearing. Every three days these pre-washed items are added back into the washing machine, along with tiny human clothes, bibs, flannels, and grown-up socks and underwear, to ensure we can harness the magical power of agitation to remove the stubbornest stains.
Three hours later, the fresh, clean nappies are pulled from my machine ready to be hung, dried and assembled within the pockets of time stolen from my always-awake five-month-old. Sadly, my scientific knowledge ends there, and I will have to leave an explanation of how drying works for you another time.
Most surprisingly, what the science of washing gave me, more than anything, was a scientific community. A place of rationalisation to retreat to in the middle of the night, while feeding my endlessly hungry babe by the glow of my phone screen. I’ll admit I took it too far, troubleshooting other mama’s washing routines and eagerly adding my input from what I had learned myself that day. I had access to a bounty of knowledge, and a virtual room full of people just as excited as I was about cloth-bums, washing, nappy stashes and stain removal.
It was weird and wonderful. The most succinct parallel of parenthood itself.
If you would like to know more, my foray into the land of cloth nappy washing knowledge began with the Clean Cloth Nappies website (cleanclothnappies.com). I encourage you to check it out!
3. Napisan itself has also changed in effectiveness due to the exclusion of bleach