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diaper-free elimination communication

Diaper Free: There Is Another Choice
by Rashel Tremblay

When I first became pregnant over ten years ago, I read everything I could about attachment parenting and how other cultures care for their infants. One of the first books I read was The Continuum Concept by Jean Leidloff. In this book, I read accounts of how women in non-Western countries deal with the elimination needs of their infants. Parents from countries including India, China, Kenya, Guatemala and some Inuit in northern Canada carry their babies naked from birth, in slings. This closeness and intimacy allows the parents to feel and to be aware of their infants’ need to eliminate. Then they simply take them out when the need arises and hold them over a receptacle or, more commonly, into nearby bushes. In North America, this is alternately called Elimination Communication (EC), Infant Potty Training (IPT), Natural Infant Hygiene (NIH) or simply, Diaper-Free.

I am embarrassed to say that as an environmentally aware person, I did not realize that there was an alternative to the large ecological footprint that comes from any diapering method. Just think of the impact of parents changing diapers an average of sixty times each week for three-and-a-half years (or two hundred and fifty weeks) and even more often during the early weeks. When I found out I was pregnant with my third child and I contemplated caring for two children under the age of two, I became more receptive to the idea of an alternative to the time-consuming drudgery of changing and laundering more than twenty dirty diapers a day. I wondered – in spite of my exposure, through literature, to the stories of parents from all over the world who easily and hygienically care for their children without the use of diapers – why I hadn’t more thoroughly considered this third option before. The only answer I could come up with is how deeply ingrained diapering is in Western countries. Even animals are used to advertise diaper use.

As Cornell University anthropologist Meredith F. Small wrote in her article “Dare To Bare” in The New York Times in 2005, “American houses these days usually have several bathrooms, sometimes one for each person. And they are often lavishly decorated shrines to washing up and eliminating waste where everyone would like to spend a lot of time. With so much cultural baggage behind the bathroom door, no wonder it never occurred to me that elimination might be a much easier business.”

In India, it’s a different story. Despite TV ads for disposable diapers that shout “holds like the Hoover dam,” diapers are still met with disgust by the rich and poor, the old and young. There, they are marketed only as a status symbol (much like formula, cribs and strollers are). To Indians, the idea of using a cloth as a toilet, where urine and feces collect and sit on a baby’s bottom all day and night, sounds unhygienic. In addition, when I considered this in-depth, I thought, “How would parents from extremely poor countries, with no running water and not enough money for food afford diapers? Where would they purchase them? Where would they go? How would they wash them?” It makes sense that there are parents who can care for their babies’ elimination needs without diapers and without getting soiled themselves.

Proponents of EC will tell you what all parents from traditional cultures already know: All humans are born toilet trained. It’s hard for us to imagine that such a small, helpless being could not only be aware of elimination but also have some control over this natural function. Because of this preconceived idea, we encourage and teach our babies to be unconcerned about eliminating on themselves; we train them to use their diapers as a toilet. Later, the child must unlearn this training through what we call “potty training.” In the past century, the average age at which children are ready to ditch diapers has gone from one-and-a-half years to beyond the age of three.

Laurie Boucke, author of Infant Potty Training, writes, “An infant does his best to communicate his awareness to you, but if you don’t listen, he will stop communicating and gradually lose touch with the elimination functions.” Dr. Sarah Buckley concurs, writing in Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, “Just as our babies know their own bodies, and their needs for food and breast, they also know the bodily sensations that go with the need to pee and poop, and they usually do communicate these needs.”

To many parents in the West, having a diaper-free baby sounds like a lot of work, not unlike the amount of “work” it takes to breastfeed a new baby. But EC is a different kind of work, one that requires a different frame of reference. Just as a newborn needs to eat every two or three hours regardless of being fed breast milk or formula, a newborn also needs a diaper change twelve or more times a day. These diaper changes are not quick and most parents do not enjoy trying to clean feces off a squirming, screaming baby’s bottom – no matter how cute that bottom may be!

Ingrid Bauer, author of the book Diaper Free!, says, “… it [EC] seemed to me a lot less work (and more enjoyable) than changing a baby and washing wet or poopy diapers for years … parents who waited until their child was older and ‘ready’ to toilet train still seemed to spend a tremendous amount of energy for a much longer time, focusing on helping their children learn as well as avoiding or cleaning up accidents …[diaper free] is about not disturbing the natural rhythm in the first place, so nothing need be done to fix it later.” The beauty of a diaper-free baby is in the simplicity.

What if your child is already six months or a year old? While it is ideal to start right from birth, or to research and connect with other diaper-free parents before birth, you can start EC at any time. Some parents go diaper-free full-time and others only part of the time.

Begin by taking a day or two to observe your baby’s patterns and rhythms as well as their body language and signals before and during elimination. Common patterns include urinating when waking up or soon after and at regular intervals after (or during) breastfeeding. You may find that your newborn urinates every fifteen to twenty minutes but the frequency will decrease as your child ages. Common signals include squirming and fussing, a pause in activity, grunting or grimacing (for bowel movements) “popping” on and off the breast or waking from sleep.

If your baby starts to pee while you are observing, make a “ssss” sound immediately (or other word/sound/sign you will use consistently). After a few days, your newborn will associate this sound with urination, although it may take longer for older children to make this association. After you have spent time observing your baby and you have a good idea of their patterns and rhythms, you can then begin to hold baby over whatever receptacle you choose and make the “ssss” sound to cue her to urinate. For bowel movements, parents usually make a grunting noise and push their abdomen against the child’s back. Receptacles include a sink, a large mixing bowl, the toilet, a potty, the bathtub or some bushes.

The basics of Elimination Communication are:

  • Timing (by the clock)

  • Signals and Cues (your child’s body language)

  • Patterns of elimination (your child’s unique rhythms)

  • Intuition and Instinct

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When I first read that Intuition included feeling warmth coming from my baby’s genitals, I didn’t believe it – until I noticed, quite often, that it felt like my child had peed when he hadn’t. This is when having a child in a sling is very useful. You will feel the squirms and the subtle movements (Signs) and you will feel a warmth telling you to take your baby for a pee. When you get a thought that your baby might need to eliminate, it is almost always right. And you lose nothing if they don’t have to go. In my own experience, my newborn would not sleep if he needed to urinate so every time he woke up I held him over a bowl I kept by the bed.

A tip from an EC Yahoo group helped explain my baby’s fussiness when breastfeeding: He wouldn’t nurse if he needed to pee. It also helped me tremendously to have cloth diapers as a back-up but not to put a cover on top. This way, I knew right away if baby had peed and it was also much easier to take off when I knew it was time for him to go. I also found that the traditional onesies were not at all practical. Long gowns, dresses or elastic pants worked best. I even cut the bottoms off of some warm socks and used those as leg warmers. Some parents order special EC clothes online, usually traditional Chinese pants with the crotch cut-out, or they sew their own crotch-less pants.

The three big winners in Elimination Communication are babies, parents and the environment. Some of the benefits of EC include:

  • Enhanced bonding and security from both parents through closeness, communication and respect of babies’ abilities to communicate their needs and have them responded to appropriately. Teaches parents how to trust their intuitions.

  • Helps a breastfeeding mother’s confidence by allowing her to better assess how much milk her baby is receiving because she can more precisely see how often her baby is urinating.

  • Eliminates or drastically reduces diaper use, producing big savings on diapers and/or laundry costs and enables parents to travel lightly with baby. Prevents diaper rash and reduces the likelihood of having two children in diapers or the stress of potty training an older child before a new baby is born.

  • Is more enjoyable and less messy than diapering. Bowel movements are in a toilet or potty, not on baby, and poopy diapers will be almost eliminated. Contrary to diaper ads, diapers don’t keep the baby clean and dry, only their clothes and environment.

  • Avoids or eliminates bed wetting in older children.

  • Helps the environment by conserving and saving trees, water, petroleum and space in our landfills.

I hope these ideas have whet your curiosity and I highly recommend reading one or several of the books listed below and checking out some websites as well. Joining a group, either online or in person, will also be a tremendous help to you on your diaper-free journey!

Learn More

Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene by Ingrid Bauer (Plume, 2006)

Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living by Laurie Boucke (White-Boucke Publishing, 2008)

The Continuum Concept by Jean Leidloff (Da Capo Press, 1986)

Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Dr. Sarah J. Buckley (Celestial Arts, 2008)

Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce (Plume, 1992)

Rashel Tremblay is a single mother to three children, ages nine, four and two-and-a-half at the time of writing. They spend their time life learning and growing food on the shores on Lake Erie.


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