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Diapers are on almost every list of baby essentials you’ll find. In fact, by some estimates, a whopping 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used in the United States each year.
Some parents, however, are choosing to ditch diapers in favor of an infant toileting practice called elimination communication.
That’s right — elimination, as in pee and poo, and communication, wherein you listen to your baby’s cues to discover when they need to go.
Picture this familiar scenario: You feed your newborn baby. A few minutes later, you notice grunting and straining. It doesn’t take long for new parents to learn these signs mean a dirty diaper is in the works.
You wait. The baby goes. Then you change the diaper to a fresh one. And the process happens again and again (and again) until your child is a toddler and you choose to potty train.
Parents who practice elimination communication (EC) cut out the middleman. They observe the signs and immediately act, getting their child to a potty or other designated waste receptacle.
The idea is that, over time, baby becomes accustomed to this process and, as a result, is more empowered and independent with toileting from a very young age.
That said, there’s an important difference between EC and actual potty training.
With EC, the baby is simply communicating their need to urinate or defecate and immediately doing so with a parent’s support. There’s no holding their waste like with conventional potty training.
Depending on the source, you may also hear this method called infant potty training or natural infant hygiene.
Some experts, like author Laurie Boucke of Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living, consider EC a part of attachment parenting.
Why? It involves an intimate connection and communication with baby.
Related: Attachment parenting: Is it healthy?
If this idea sounds overwhelming to you, or even ridiculous, it’s important to note that it isn’t some new trend or fad.
In fact, Ingrid Bauer first coined the term “elimination communication” back in 2001. She wrote a book titled Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene.
Even then, the idea of infant pottying wasn’t new.
There are civilizations throughout the world that practice natural infant hygiene as early as between 1 and 3 months old.
These are places where diapers aren’t the norm, either because they aren’t readily available or they just aren’t a part of the culture.
You may also be surprised to learn that just 3 or 4 generations ago, babies in the United States often used the potty as infants. What happened? The disposable diaper was invented in 1955.
A few years later, a child development expert named Dr. T. Berry Brazelton published guidelines on toilet training that encouraged parents to wait to train until children reached between the ages of 2 and 3 years.
In the most simple form, EC is about learning when baby is about to go and helping them get to an appropriate spot. This means paying close attention to baby.
Once you see a signal, like straining, remove the baby’s clothing and hold them securely over a toilet or other waste container. The container can be in one central location, like a bathroom, or set up in several rooms of your home.
The position you’ll hold your baby in to go depends on the container, but Lisa Bobrow of nonprofit EC site DiaperFreeBaby.org describes it as a “deep squat” with your baby’s back at your stomach.
Broken down further, EC involves:
- Timing. Some babies may pee upon waking from naps or nighttime sleep. Others may need to release 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes after eating. Keeping a log of when your baby uses the potty can be helpful in discovering their unique patterns. You may also choose to visit the toilet at regular intervals throughout the morning and afternoon.
- Signals. Other babies are great at showing they need to go in other ways. Whether through crying or fussing, becoming still or pausing from activities, squirming or waking up from sleep. Again, your baby’s signals will be unique but hopefully consistent. Bobrow explains that your baby may eventually even look for their designated pottying place when they need to go.
- Intuition. Pay attention to your inner voice. Eventually, you may become attuned to your baby and you may just know when they need to go. Bauer said she could even “feel” when her son needed to potty, even if her back was turned to him.
- Cues. Another way to communicate with baby is by cueing. As the parent, you can use a sound, like “shhh” or “sss” each time your baby is urinating. After a while they may associate this sound with going to the bathroom and you can use the sound to encourage your child to pee. Or you might try using a certain position or holding your baby in a specific way when you want them to try toileting. Actions and sounds are a language that baby can understand and then associate with using the toilet. They might even start using some of this language to help signal it’s go-time.
When and how to start
Once you understand the basics, you then need to decide how and when you’ll start. Some parents choose full-time EC soon after birth. Others approach it with more compromise. This is considered part-time.
It can mean anything from only using a toilet after feeds and doing diapers during naps and nights to always using a toilet at home and diapers while out.
Alternatively, some families may choose to use the toilet just once before bed each night.
And if you didn’t begin EC with your newborn, it’s not too late. You can really begin using this method whenever you like or whenever you feel your baby may be receptive to it.
Related: Average age for potty training boys and girls?
While the idea is that you won’t need diapers (at least, not many) with EC, there are certain supplies that can make life easier and cleaner.
The things you’ll need may be different from what somebody else uses.
So, before heading out and buying everything, stop and consider:
- your lifestyle
- Potty chair. Genevieve Howland at the popular natural parenting site MamaNatural specifically recommends the Baby Bjorn Potty because it’s small and includes an insert that can be used alone (for tiny babies) or inside the potty (for older ones). If you’re on a budget or want to have a potty receptacle in each room, you may even just use a sink or small plastic container.
- Clothing. Choose clothing items that are either crotchless or easy to remove. Doing so may help ease the transition from dressed to pottying. Try stocking up on items. Shop online for items like baby leg warmers and nightgowns that open at the bottom.
- Backup diapers. You can use whatever you’re comfortable with using or whatever agrees with your baby’s bum. That said, browse online for cloth diapers, which may help baby tune in better with being wet. Other parents choose to use cloth underwear specifically designed for babies.
- Books. There are several books about elimination communication you may want to read. You can shop online for these books, which include: The Diaper Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative by Christine Gross-Loh; Go Diaper Free: A Simple Handbook for Elimination Communication by Andrea Olson; Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living by Laurie Boucke; and Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene by Ingrid Bauer.
- Notebook. To jot down any notes you have about your baby’s cues or toileting habits.
- Other supplies. Some on-the-go parents may want to get a special bag or tote to carry around supplies when out and about. Others may find keeping a good stock of waterproof bed pads is helpful, especially at night.
Supporters of elimination communication share that there are a number of benefits for both parents and babies based on their anecdotal evidence.
- Happy skin. You may experience fewer diaper rashes and other infections, like urinary tract infections. This isn’t specifically studied related to EC, but when baby isn’t sitting in their own waste products, the skin is able to stay dry and breathe better.
- Reduced waste. Whether you prefer full-time or part-time EC, you’ll likely use fewer diapers and — in turn — create less waste that you drag to the curb (and, later, the landfill). Even if you use cloth, you’ll likely have fewer diapers to wash and, therefore, use less water and energy.
- Fatter wallet. Yup. And with using fewer diapers, you’ll be shelling out much less cash on disposables and related supplies.
- Stronger bond. The act of responding to your vulnerable baby and their needs can help strengthen the connection you have with one another. This goes back to attachment parenting.
- Better understanding. Babies cry for all sorts of reasons, but going to the bathroom is one of the big ones that makes them fuss. Once you get in tune with why they’re crying, you may gain a better understanding and empathy for those cries.
- Easier transition to toilet training. Again, EC isn’t full potty training because it doesn’t involve the baby actively holding their urine or feces. With all the practice and knowing where to go, though, your little one may catch onto this process much more quickly than their peers.
Related: How to recognize and treat different types of diaper rash
Of course, there are also some things you may want to consider before diving head-first into this method.
- Time. As you can imagine, it does take much more time to pay attention to your baby’s signals than it does to simply let them poop in a diaper. It may even feel overwhelming to brand new parents who are still just getting used to caring for another living being.
- Logistics. Other parents may not have the ability to regularly be with their infant long enough to practice full-time EC. And caregivers, like nannies or daycare providers, may not be familiar or otherwise into the idea.
- Isolation. Elimina-whaaaa? You may raise a few eyebrows from your friends and family. People may flat out tell you you’re crazy, which could be hurtful if this is something that’s important to you. Or it could make you feel like you’re living on some alien planet because nobody else seems to be doing it.
- Convenience. If you want to be out of the house, you may find it difficult — at least at first. After all, when’s the last time you saw a new mom rush her newborn to a toilet at Target?
- Mess. And the thing you’re probably worried about the most is messy accidents. You’ll likely experience a good number of those, especially in the beginning. But once you get a system going, it may not be so bad.
As a new parent, you’ve got plenty to think about in the first year. If the idea of connecting with your infant (and using fewer diapers) is appealing to you, consider giving elimination communication a try.
Remember that it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach. Some families find that part-time is a good fit, while others embrace it fully from the beginning.
Also, as with most things parenting, there’s really no right or wrong way. You may feel frustrated at times, and it may take some time before you fully understand how your baby communicates and what their communications mean.
Keep in mind that the best method is what works for your family’s goals, circumstances, and resources.