Here is a bit of history as outlined by Emily Bazelon in her article Diaper Genie: “Until the 19th century, American mothers wrapped their babies in swaddling. Then they began putting infants in some version of cloth diapers or pads, giving their wearers a greater range of movement and ensuring they didn’t have to be held all the time. Pampers began marketing the first disposable diaper in 1961. The early versions were leaky, bulky, and generally inferior to cloth diapers. (In the 1970s, my mother scorned them.) But when the technology improved, thanks to those polymer pellets—which allow today’s diapers to absorb up to 500 milliliters of water—the disposable diaper achieved “something like perfection,” in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in a 2001 New Yorker article.”
Most Americans use disposables, however there are those who would rather wash stinky cloth diapers for two or more years than be personally responsible for a portion of the 22 billion disposable diapers that clog American landfills each year!
3. Elimination Communication
There’s a third option some might not have heard about — a growing movement of parents is singing the praises of not using diapers at all. Yes! No diapers. Advocates of elimination communication, which is also known as infant potty training, natural infant hygiene and “potty whispering”, say that you can start training your baby to use the toilet almost from birth. I read this in an article while researching this topic “Erinn Klatt began toilet training her son at birth and said he has not wet his bed at night since he was six months old.” I was first introduced to this concept in 2005 when a family came in with their diaper free baby for a photo shoot related to Nourishing Our Children. They assured me there would be no “accidents” on my new couch and that they would know when to put their baby over the toilet. I was skeptical however, by golly, it played out exactly as they promised!
The terms elimination communication and natural infant hygiene were coined by Ingrid Bauer and are used interchangeably in her book, Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene , published in 2001. When Bauer had traveled to India and Africa, she noticed that most mothers would carry their diaperless babies constantly, yet she saw no elimination “accidents”. Can you imagine her surprise? She came from an industrialized society whereby babies wear diapers almost continuously from birth. Subsequently, she raised her own children with minimal use of diapers, and eventually began to share her approach with other mothers and caregivers — initially through Internet-based parenting support groups and eventually through her book and website.
Radical Concept with Ancient Roots
Meredith F. Small explains in her article Dare to Bare published in the New York Times, “child-rearing traditions are culturally entrenched. The use of diapers in particular is so engrained in Western culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine life without them.” Yet, while we take diapers for granted now, throughout human existence, parents have cared for their babies hygienically without diapers. In many cultures around the world, mothers still know how to tune in, understand, and respond to their infants’ elimination needs in order to keep them clean and content. This practice is common in Asia, Africa, and parts of South America, and was traditionally practiced among the Inuit and some Native North American peoples. I wonder if Dr. Weston A. Price observed this during his travels!? It is reported that for mothers following this traditional practice, knowing when their baby “needs to go,” and holding them over an appropriate place, is (or was) second nature.
The following reasons are sited for the small but steadily growing resurgence of interest in this practice among North American and European parents today:
- “It’s natural”
- Baby’s physical comfort – namely to avoid diaper rash and digestive problems
- Supports the baby’s body awareness
- Environmental reasons
- Prevents diapering and toilet training struggles
- Reduces diaper use
- Unlike some methods of toilet training, there are no rewards or punishment associated with it
Bauer asserts however that “The greatest reason and benefit, however, is that parents feel they are responding to their baby’s needs in the present moment, enhancing their bond, and developing a deep and close communication and trust.” Read more about why some resonate with this practice from Hobo Mama.
How does it work?
In an article posted on The Natural Child Project’s website, Bauer explains:
When the mother knows or feels that her baby needs to go, she can remove the diaper or clothing and hold the baby in a secure, close position over an appropriate receptacle. There are several facets to communicating with a pre-verbal baby about elimination. They are:
Timing and elimination patterns
Watching closely, the mother learns when the baby usually goes and how this relates to other bodily functions, such as sleeping or nursing. For example, many babies pee as soon as they awaken, and at regular intervals after nursing.
Baby’s signals and body language
Once they begin watching for it, many parents are amazed to notice that their babies are actually signaling when they need to go, just as a nursing mother learns to recognize her baby’s need to nurse before s/he cries. Though every baby is different, some common signals include: fussing, squirming, grunting or vocalizing, pausing and becoming still, waking from sleep, a certain frown, etc.
Many mothers who have a close nurturing relationship with their babies find they simply “know” when their babies need to relieve themselves, especially once they’ve been using this approach for a while. For example, I could “feel” this need even when I had my back turned to my child.
Cueing the baby
Natural infant hygiene is a two-way communication. Around the world, parents may use a specific sound (such as “shhh” or “sss”) and a specific position to hold their baby when they eliminate. This serves as a kind of preliminary language that the baby comes to associate with the act, and a way for the parents to offer an opportunity to go. However, it is always the baby who decides whether they need to go or not. Sometimes the baby also begins to use this sound as a signal to the parent.
When parents first hear about this practice, they may wonder if this means forcing or rushing a child to grow up before they are ready. This is a valid concern, but one that is easily allayed when you’ve seen this gentle approach in action. Unlike conventional toilet training, the focus in natural infant hygiene is not on the baby contracting and retaining or “holding in” body functions. Rather, the baby communicates a need and relaxes and releases at will with the parent’s support. The ability to retain develops at the baby’s pace, as a natural consequence of his or her awareness. Millions of mothers worldwide can attest to the fact that babies can voluntarily regulate their elimination without any coercion or negative effects whatsoever. In fact, parents often feel an increased closeness and respect for their baby.
Tuning in to your baby in this way does require commitment and effort, as does being a responsive parent in general. Most parents prefer to use diapers, at least part-time, during the early learning process, on outings, and sometimes at night if they don’t waken in time to respond to their baby’s need to go. Most children become reliably toilet-independent with this practice between about 10 to 20 months of age. Yet many of the parents I’ve interviewed say they would choose this approach again, even if it were to take just as long as conventional training, because they value the closeness and communication.
I think the real work of natural infant hygiene is that of being in the present moment. There are days when it can seem like the most difficult thing in the world to do. And there are days when you have glimpses of enlightenment: the feeling of being in the present moment, being in the flow, having that peaceful experience of synchronicity and symbiotic relationship that can develop between mother and child when they are in tune.
Melinda Rothstein, an MIT business school graduate who co-founded Diaper Free Babies says “finding a supportive daycare center is the biggest challenge for parents who choose not to use diapers. Other problems include finding tiny underwear for diaper-free infants.” I envision one of the biggest challenges would be the learning curve involved!
What is your experience of Communication Elimination? Had you heard about it? Have you done it?
Quite a few answered in a public discussion on Facebook.