Non-Diapering 101: Elimination Communication

When someone asks what kind of diapers to use, the debate is usually between cloth or disposables.  But what if a viable answer to the question were ‘none’?

Have you come across this idea?  It’s called elimination communication, or EC for short, or natural infant hygiene or infant potty training.  Whatever the moniker, the basic idea is that caregivers use timing, cues, and intuition to recognize a baby’s need to eliminate waste and then the caregiver helps the baby relieve itself in an appropriate place.

I first heard of this at a mothers group meeting 5 years ago.  A dozen brand new mothers sat in a circle with our infants and someone circulated an editorial piece that I think was printed in Today’s Parent (I can’t find reference to the article now).  It featured an Indian woman’s skepticism around her mother’s claim that all her children were toilet trained at 11 months, and that this was common in India.  One new mother in our group confirmed that when travelling in rural China, where poverty tended to preclude diapers, she saw diaper-less children who had barely learned to walk squat by the side of the road to relieve themselves.

Personally I was too busy reeling from having my first child to pay much heed to EC, although I believed such things were possible, especially in countries where inter-generational families are the norm and mentors for child-rearing would be prevalent.

I would only witness EC firsthand once, though, and this was at a work lunch for a colleague who was on maternity leave.  Midway through the meal, she discreetly withdrew to a dark corner behind the table with her 6 month old daughter, and emerged a minute later with a little pink potty that she emptied in the restroom.  It was such a casual occurrence, I might have doubted it happened except that I had seen it myself.  Or maybe, less charitably, I might assumed a certain extremism in any mother who would practice EC.  But there she was, my girlfriend, in all her lovely, normal splendour, holding what looked like a very normal IKEA potty.

I made a little more effort to educate myself when baby two arrived.  I called my mother-in-law’s Portuguese seamstress, who had toilet trained her babies by one, but she didn’t return my calls.  Then I perused some websites on EC and basically got discouraged.  Looking at your baby for signs for when to go?  I looked into my second son’s face for cues and saw precisely none, except when he was already relieving himself – that is, too late.  And the holy tone of some EC proponents kind of put me off.  Also, practically speaking, my second son was a prolific pooer, and so I gave up on EC before trying.

And then…  I went and had another baby.  And had zero plans for ECing this baby, just the same as the other two.  But a couple of things happened.  First, I chanced upon a documentary called My Toxic Baby.  In it is a blurb about EC, including a video clip of a a woman taking her baby to the toilet  by sitting on it (in reverse position, facing the toilet lid) with a baby cradled in her arms.  I didn’t think about it at the time, but I think hearing about EC again and seeing a visual of it in action made an impression on me.

The second thing that happened, and it just kept happening, and that was that whenever I took my baby out of his diaper and let him have some air time on the diaper table, he would pee.  Not infallibly, not always immediately, but entirely consistently.  Enough to make me say a couple of months ago to my mother that “someone who knew what she was doing could toilet train this baby”.

Then the Sunday after my mom’s annual Chinese New Year party, my older boys were taking a rare nap to recover from the late night celebrations.  The house was quiet; it was just me and baby.  With no forethought, I found myself taking my baby’s diaper off and wandering upstairs to the bathroom.  I faced the toilet and sat on its edge and cradled my baby like I’d seen in the video.  He played with his toes for a second, and I was going to wonder how long you’re supposed to wait for your baby to pee when I was interrupted by the sound of tinkling.

I kid you not.  My baby peed!  In the toilet!  Just like in the movie!

It’s hard to describe the rush this gave me (see exclamation marks above) but rush it was.  My baby boy is five months old, it was my first try, and I hadn’t read a stitch about EC for years.  But there we were.  Baby was perfectly at ease over the toilet, and seemed to know precisely what we were doing.  I took him to the toilet five times that day, and he peed four of those times.

The next day, I took him to the toilet six times, and he peed six times.  Ben was working, but my mom was over, and she took him two or three more times, with success.  And on the fifth of my six times, my baby pooed.  Poo!  In the toilet!  I was so crazy with excitement that I didn’t flush so my mother could bear witness.  And crazy tree that I didn’t drop far from that she is, she went to see it and was, in my view, suitably aglow afterwards.

And that’s how I became an accidental elimination communicator.

What’s the fine print?  Well, while I often give baby diaper-free time, we still use diapers, and sometimes our diapers are wet.  But far fewer of them are wet, and they’re on my baby for much less time, meaning a much more comfortable baby.  And since I use cloth, it’s very nice to have less laundry to do.  Another thing is that I still can’t really read cues on my baby, so I have to rely on intuition and habit, trying by trial and error to notice what his patterns of elimination are.   I think I’m slowly getting better.  Finally, I haven’t attempted anything at night.

Probably the biggest thing to note is that I check baby’s diaper a lot more often.  He’s sometimes dry for a couple of hours, but I may be taking him to the toilet up to twice an hour after he has nursed.  So EC requires a lot more attention from the caregiver and isn’t feasible in settings like a daycare, and sometimes isn’t very practical in settings where it’s usually feasible.  I went to Cleveland last weekend, but I didn’t make special stops for baby to pee on a toilet.

But as anyone who has done it knows, diapering a child for years and then trying to untrain that habit requires a good hunk of work too.  So it’s not really accurate to dismiss EC on the basis of workload; it’s more a question of whether you’re choosing to front end or back end the work.  Satisfaction ranks in there too:  I never would have thought that helping a tiny baby pee and poo could be so satisfying but, for me, it really is.

I’m pretty sure that some babies are easier to EC with than others, and my newborn kept showing signs of readiness until I couldn’t ignore them anymore.  But my other babies also peed when their diapers were off, and although they were not out of diapers late, and I also remember thinking for both of them that someone who knew how could have helped them learn to use the toilet earlier.  Definitely part of what has made the process so accessible this time around is a simple willingness to try.  The proverbial open mind.  Having heard about EC through enough different channels, it’s like I finally reached my EC tipping point.

One more note:  although I’ve used the word “train” throughout this post, I’m not really interested in how my baby “performs”.   It’s fun to see the surprised looks and share the laughter when people see I’m practicing EC, but that’s not nearly enough to have me make this choice.  And while I think early toileting abilities is a likely and welcome consequence of EC, I’m not banking on it.  I feel less like I’m training my baby than allowing his natural abilities to express themselves through EC.  He was showing some obvious innate body awareness, and it’s a pleasure to encourage and work with that awareness.  I love knowing him just that much better, recognizing just a little bit more the fullness of who he is and what he can do.

Virtually all parents are delighted when their children start using the toilet; I guess I’m just feeling that flush (tee hee) early with my third baby.

How old are you?  Were you alive in the 80s, and do you remember the show The Greatest American Hero?  It’s about a man who gets superpowers when he wears a certain suit, although he doesn’t really know how to use them.  My stumble into EC has the opening lines of its theme song on repeat in my head: Look at what’s happened to me/ I can’t believe it myself / Suddenly I’m up on top of the world / Should it have been someone else?

Rather histrionic, I know.  I don’t care.  We all take our lumps as moms; why not enjoy its surprises and pleasures to the fullest too?