There are a few things you can count on from a baby: crying, naps and diaper changes. But what if all the work of changing pads and wipes was actually optional?
For most parents in the U.S., where disposable diapers are the norm, such a scenario is almost unimaginable. But before there were diapers, parents had to make do, and there are still parts of the world where it’s common to see babies out and about without diapers on.
All about “elimination communication”
In parts of China, particularly more rural ones, it’s not uncommon to see babies crawling or toddling around in open-crotch pants, called kaidangku. This garment makes going to the bathroom without soiling your clothes as easy as dropping into a squat.
In an essay published on the website of the National Association For Child Development, writer Fay Chou recalled: “All the toddlers in my family ran around and played in the yard in crotch-less pants, and just squatted on the ground when the need came. Grandma would clean up after us by sprinkling ashes on the poop and sweeping it away.”
But even before they were walking, babies in Chou’s family we taught to use the toilet. As soon as a child could hold up their own head, she writes, caregivers would hold them over a toilet and encourage them to go by making either a whistling sound (for pee) or a grunting sound (for poop).
Some families today still follow similar practices, as they have for generations. In the U.S. and Europe, the practice of potty training very young babies has been rediscovered in the past few decades and given a new name: elimination communication. The name refers to the practice of parents learning to read an infant’s signals that they need to relieve themselves.
Angela Harders is a mother and an educator who was introduced to EC while working with families living in poverty in Guatemala. Harders told HuffPost: “The mothers would often carry their babies in slings on their backs, and when their baby had to pee or poop, they would take them off of their backs and allow them to pee or poop in a particular area near their homes. I was surprised that they never had any ‘accidents,’ and so I started asking them questions about how they knew when their baby had to pee or poop. The mothers said that their babies would communicate with them when they had to pee or poop — just like how they communicate when they are tired or hungry.”
When Harders had her daughter, “I started experimenting with EC from birth,” she said. The process looked different with her son, who spent his first weeks of life in the NICU. While she had to return to work and couldn’t practice EC full time, she counts her family’s experience as a success. Her daughter was fully potty trained by 12 months of age, and she stopped having to change her son’s poopy diapers when he was five months old.
Roma Norriss, a parenting consultant in the U.K., learned how to use EC with her own child by reading the book “Diaper Free” by Ingrid Bauer. Years later, when she was visiting her mother’s native Sri Lanka, she said she noticed “people hold babies there and are therefore more responsive to their cues. I believe in previous generations and probably still in some places it’s common there to take babies outside to pee on the ground.”
The fact that doing so is not common in the U.K. wasn’t something Norriss let deter her. “I can remember her peeing into a paper cup when we were at a large event when she was a couple of months old. You get a mixture of dirty looks and looks of absolute awe when people realize what you’re doing. I guess you have to be a little bit thick-skinned to pull this off in public within Western culture.”
How it works
The idea of interpreting an infant’s grunts and squirms into communication about bathroom needs is daunting to many parents. But families who practice EC report that they are able to learn their baby’s signals. Harders found that, just as the Guatemalan mothers had explained, she could get her babies to the toilet in time “by simply paying attention to my baby’s cues: grunting, kicking and retracting legs, facial expressions, squirming.”
A challenge is the frequency at which babies pee: according to Andrea Olson, a mother of six and the founder of Go Diaper Free, for newborns it’s as often as every 10 to 15 minutes. (When it comes to babies’ bowel habits, there is a huge amount of variation in what is considered normal.)
But you don’t need to catch every drop of urine to practice EC. Most parents begin by trying to interpret their babies’ signs and aiming for what Olson refers to as the “easy catches,” and over time they find a system that works for them. Some practice EC all day, others only when inside their homes. Olson sends her kids to daycare in diapers, and has her babies wearing diapers at home as well.
“I want everybody to know we totally use diapers — but they’re a backup instead of a toilet… I would not do EC without diapers, but [the diapers are] not just like, ‘Here’s a toilet to sit in all day,’ which is what we’re taught,” Olson told HuffPost.
She explained that parents who sit their babies on the potty every once in a while, at random times, will usually get frustrated at the lack of progress and give up. There does need to be some pattern and consistency to the practice. One way to begin is by going for the four “easy catches”:
1) Upon waking. “With a newborn baby, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll catch a pee in the potty right when they wake up,” Olson said, explaining that this is caused by a shift in hormones. The need to pee upon waking is something most people of all ages experience.
2) Poops. These are attainable because they are often preceded by grunting, squirming or gas.
3) Diaper changes. Changes in temperature are known to make them go, and a cool breeze on their skin will often do it.
4) Getting in or out of something, like a baby carrier. “When I arrive somewhere, inside my car I would offer the potty because they’ve been in the car seat for a little while and usually they hold it in the car seat so it’s a good opportunity,” Olson said.
EC parents usually offer the potty by holding baby over the toilet, sink, bowl (or lawn!) and making a “hss” sound (for pee) or “uh-uh” sound (for poop).
“It’s not a linear process,” Olson said. Because the U.K. is a “diapering culture,” EC is a skill that you have to commit yourself to learning and practicing. In her family, she explained, there was agreement that they would always aim for the four “easy catches” at a minimum.
In addition to the satisfaction of a successful “catch,” every time baby uses the potty, it’s one less diaper that you have to go through and clean up. Parents who practice EC say they feel that it strengthens their communication with their children.
“It involves a level of responsiveness to babies’ cues that sets the foundation for attunement and communication,” Norriss said. “She makes a sound or gesture and I respond. And we do that over and over again and it builds trust that I can see what she needs and I’m available to respond.”
Learning to respond to your child’s cues is one opportunity to strengthen your bond. “I was amazed to feel such a profound connection to my babies and to truly get their communication — long before they could utter a single word. I believe that meeting our children’s needs is a fundamental part of great parenting, and EC is one way that we can practically do that,” Harders said.
There is no one “right” way to practice EC. You can begin as early as birth or as late as 12-18 months. You can use diapers rarely, some or all of the time.
One guarantee is that you will get some raised eyebrows and looks of disbelief from people when they catch you holding your baby over a toilet or learn what you are doing.
Norriss is convinced that teaching babies to pee and poop in diapers, however, is just as “weird” when it comes down to it.
“They are telling us all the time that they need help with elimination and we just ignore it, or maybe shush or jiggle them. Then they soil themselves … They are communicating and we don’t respond, which is a shame. It’s not a disaster, just a missed opportunity.”