Like most new parents, when our daughter was born we thought about diapers. Cloth. Disposable. Compostable. There was a lot of stuff on the market at a range of costs and environmental impacts, giving us the impression we had a choice. We even had a friend, a professor of environmental politics, who tasked one of his research assistants with determining the diapering method of least impact. The result: it depends.
We fumbled through a variety of brands and methods for about six months. Meanwhile, we grew increasingly unsatisfied. It wasn’t that the diapers weren’t working — they worked great! — it was that our daughter spent three-quarters of her life with a giant encumbrance on her crotch. It just seemed kind of weird. We let her go naked as often as possible, but we were as yet not able to see outside the baby-equals-diapers box.
Then my wife heard about a diaperless method from, you guessed it, a book. Diaperless diapering? Tell me more. The subject gets immediately tricky, because for most of us the entire issue of baby poop is wrapped up in how to diaper it. How can you diaper without a diaper? What exactly are you doing?
The common name is elimination communication, or EC. But to men and women raised within the diaper box, this is a meaningless phrase. Most of us have to come to the concept via the negation of what we thought we knew: it is not diapers.
In many books, elimination communication is portrayed as the “earthy” or “natural” solution to the cost of diapers, both financial and environmental, usually with pictures of cute babies in fields of wildflowers. Cool. But, as we learned, it’s more than just a fringe subject for hippie parents. It’s relevant to everyone, because it’s not just about diapers — and what to do about them. It’s also, more importantly, about a child’s developing sense of bodily awareness. That’s good for everyone.
Before I get too far, let me start by acknowledging that there are a million ways to raise a child. It’s interesting to talk about some of these things, but parenting can quickly turn into a weird competition where everyone loses. F that. If what you’re doing is working, good. I’m not here sharing our experience because I want to convince you that we did anything right. It was just cool for me, and I gained a lot of perspective. Plus, most men don’t hear about it because this sort of lingo tends to run through women.
As a father, EC turned out to be particularly interesting. I like learning about stuff, especially with my daughter. And I like messy things, because they’re real. Since I couldn’t nurse her, EC turned out to be a pretty cool way for me to engage with my daughter’s developing needs. In tandem with other nurturing activities, it helped set the stage for a very meaningful relationship with my daughter, now 7.
Like any skill, including changing diapers, it took a little practice. But within a week we mostly had it down. There are a lot of books and resources out there for interested parents: Ingrid Bauer’s book Diaper Free is a good place to start. But it doesn’t require a book so much as practice.
Here are the basics: There are two primary things to look for: 1) schedule and 2) weird potty faces. That makes it sort of fun. You will also need to practice and refine the position in which you hold your child.
One of the principle advantages of a child not wearing diapers is that both of you instantly recognize the second she starts peeing. It’s uncomfortable, or at least strange. A toddler will turn and look at you, or maybe get anxious, but even an infant will usually make a face, as if saying, “Oh, wow, something’s getting wet.”
This subtle communication can be hindered by ultra-absorbent diapers, which send the sensory message that it’s okay to pee in your clothes. Later, that message has to be corrected during potty training. In a sense, potty training is just undoing diaper training, so why not just start with a clear message?
If you pay attention, you’ll find the schedule is fairly predictable. Our daughter ended up peeing about once an hour. So, if she hadn’t peed for 45 minutes, or slightly sooner after nursing or drinking, we’d give her the chance to go. If she didn’t go, we’d know to give her another chance in a few minutes. The position, which I’ll explain in a second, helped prompt her to pee, sort of like Pavlov’s dogs, so that it eventually became an easy rhythm.
Of course, we had accidents. But pee isn’t all that bad. It’s sterile, and at that age her bladder wasn’t that big. A quick change of pants, wash the hands, and we were fine. Within a week’s time, our 6-month-old daughter was able to pee outside or in the toilet 8 out of 10 times. That’s really only one or two accidents a day, at about four tablespoons apiece.
Here’s the position. You pull the child’s pants down, or off. With your child’s back leaning comfortably against your chest, you hold her thighs a little bit apart and to her belly, so that she is in a squatting position. If you’re strong, you can squat, too, so you’re both close to the ground, or you can simply hold her at waist height. It’s essentially the same for boys. You can also “sit” with your child on the toilet. This position allows the urine to flow freely away from both of you. Once the business is done, you set your child down and pull up her pants. That’s it. Slight adjustments on your positioning and method will come naturally. Why? Because people have been doing this for 60,000 years.
Infants are brilliant. They’re highly motivated and very quick learners. They just can’t talk.
This position puts mild pressure on your child’s bladder and becomes a gentle reminder to your child that it’s time to go. Conversely, the wet, soggy pants she gets with an accident is reminder enough that this is a less pleasant option. No big deal. Done lovingly, EC gives them a chance to learn. Diapers, on the other hand, especially if they’re very absorbent, don’t allow a child to feel wet. In many cases, you won’t even know that they peed. Thus, there’s no cycle or rhythm to learn. It’s just pee or not pee, with few consequences.
What we especially liked about this method was the respect it gave to our daughter. Infants are brilliant. They’re highly motivated and very quick learners. They just can’t talk. That’s why this method is called elimination communication. It’s about communicating with your infant. Once you afford her the chance to be the bright and adaptive creature she is, she’ll take it, and you will quickly develop real and meaningful communication, well before she has words. If you doubt this, just think of the cues your child has for food or pain. Not so ambiguous, really. It’s similar to baby sign language, and you can easily incorporate hand signals and even gentle sounds into your routine to indicate that it’s time to go.
With diapers, a child’s cues often go unnoticed. She’s doing her thing, but if we’ve patched the problem with a bulky diaper, then we don’t have the chance to close the feedback loop for her. In time, she’ll just drop it. No one seems to really care. Then you have to teach this language at 3 years old or whatever age you potty train.
But what about poop? This is the best part, actually. If you haven’t already clued into the facial expressions of your infant when she or he is pooping, prepare for the most entertaining period of your life. Even a 1-month-old makes exquisitely hilarious sneers and grimaces that will light up your day. There’s just nothing like that poop face.
Fortunately, poop gives us a little more time than urine does. As soon as you see that face, you can remove your child’s pants as before and arrange yourselves in the same position, either over the toilet, a bowl, a child’s potty, or wherever you’d like your child to poop. This position, as before, exerts mild pressure on the bowels and aligns the rectum for free and easy passage. Ahoy! Not surprisingly, more and more doctors are recommending that adults defecate in a squatting position, something humans have evolved to do, which helps alleviate some of the problems associated with waste removal as we age.
Poop also follows a schedule, but less predictably than urine. By six months, however, an infant shows some signs of regularity. Our daughter usually pooped in the morning and the afternoon, then probably again in the evening. But the easiest thing was simply paying attention after she ate. Bowel movements are stimulated by eating. By tending to our daughter’s schedule, particularly after meal times, and looking for that telltale expression, we caught it most of the time.
There were moments, of course, when we did not. In many ways, EC is less messy than diapering (you don’t have poop smeared all over a child’s butt, which you also have to clean up), but you still have messes. Life is real. We get frustrated. Kids are kids. But in the end, you have a child with an increasing level of awareness, and who is grateful for the adults in her life who recognize her nonverbal cues. This is the meat of the matter, a method that is more about developing a relationship, or communication, than it is about solving a sanitary problem.
How about some numbers? According to a recent article in CNN, 60% of children were potty trained by 18 months in 1947. Disposable diapers were patented in 1955. In 1974, it took the average child 33 months to be potty trained. In 2003, the average age was 36.8 months. Is there a correlation here? Maybe. Maybe not.
I don’t believe there are any modern studies about folks using the EC method. It’s too new. It’s too retro. But you can find tons of anecdotes out there. Our daughter potty trained herself, without any suggestion from us, before her 2nd birthday. Since we used a little potty for EC, the transition to her walking and sitting on it was seamless. But the thing that stands out most is that, since that day, I cannot recall a single accident she has had. She knows when she has to go, and she takes responsibility for it. There’s no anxiety or weirdness. That alone is worth the handful of accidents we had to deal with between 0 and 2.
Parenting isn’t a competition. Our daughter faces challenges and weaknesses that other kids don’t. Nothing is perfect. I want to reiterate that this is not about finding the one and only solution. EC will not work for everyone, and it’s especially hard to pull off if your child is regularly in the care of others. We were fortunate enough to have work and a lifestyle that allowed one or the other of us to be with our daughter all day, but not everyone has that luxury. EC works well within the family, but it can be too strange for daycare or usually even grandma or grandpa.
However, using EC doesn’t mean you have to give up on diapers. It’s not easy to half-ass it, because then the rhythm doesn’t set in, but if you’re able to be with your child most of the time, you can let him roll with a diaper in settings you know will be socially awkward. We used an absorbent pad, or just a towel, on the bed at night to catch pee. Poop wasn’t an issue at night. If we went to town, or had a babysitter, we put on a diaper. We could still pull the diaper off and give her a chance to pee. As she began to walk and speak, the communication, already established, just became clearer and easier. It just got better and better.
In writing this, I came upon a recent article titled How to Save Money and Build a Diaper Stockpile. I love the Cold War imagery of that phrasing. I relate to parents who are staring blank-faced at the cost, financial and otherwise, of 6,000–7,000 diapers over the course of three years. Diapers add 3.4 million tons of trash to landfills in the US each year, and apparently they have a disproportionately large presence in the Pacific Ocean Trash Vortex. Damn. On average, they cost parents about $1,000 year. EC costs zero dollars, builds awareness and intimacy, requires no stockpiling, and has little environmental impact outside of the human waste involved. It’s not a no-brainer, but it’s worth a little braining.
Still, the environmental impact alone is not reason enough for me. It’s what EC did for me and my daughter, not what it didn’t do, that compels me to write this. Strange as it sounds, going to the bathroom was an important aspect of our earliest attempts at communication, and particularly as a father. It was messy, but it built a lot of intimacy and helped set the stage for what is today a very meaningful relationship for both of us. I wouldn’t give that up for a cleaner house.
Joseph Sarosy is the author of A Father’s Life: True Tales from the Frontiers of Fatherhood and the forthcoming How to Tell Stories to Children. A father and teacher in northern New Mexico, he spends most of his days outside with children. You can read more of his work at offgridkids.org.