Elimination Communication: Why We Use Infant Potty Training

CC BY 2.0. lkonstanski

Practicing elimination communication, or infant potty training, with babies isn't the same as toilet training for older children, but it sure does make that process much easier.

To cut back on both the cost and the environmental impact of diapering (especially the waste it generates), we've used cloth diapers Instead of disposable diapers with our kids, and we also avoided having to buy and use disposable wipes by using reusable wash cloths for cleanups.

It's a bit more work to wash and dry diapers than it is to just chuck them in the trash, but considering how many times per day an infant needs their diaper changed (newborns can wet their diaper as often as every 20 to 30 minutes), using disposable diapers is not only expensive, but also contributes to a huge waste problem (estimated at 27.4 billion disposable diapers per year in the US alone).

The decision to use cloth diapers or conventional disposable diapers or biodegradable disposables is a personal one, and while I understand that there's a certain amount of eco-smugness that sometimes appears when the discussion comes up, using cloth diapers or disposable diapers doesn't make people better or worse parents (or TreeHuggers). However, I do think that everyone ought to at least learn about and consider the waste and resources involved in their daily choices, and because of the sheer volume of diapers required for a baby, some thought should be put into the decision.

One way to cut back on both the amount of diapers used every day, as well as the amount of time that kids spend in diapers before being fully potty trained (reducing the overall number of diapers needed), is to use a method called elimination communication, also referred to as 'infant potty training'. We've used it with each of our children, including our youngest, who is about 4 months old, and have found that it worked well for us and our situation. In addition to enabling our children to go diaper-free much earlier than many of their peers, it's also helped us to move quite easily into traditional potty training when they're old enough.

This style of parenting isn't something new, but is rather a return to a method that people used long before disposable diapers existed, before the age of mass produced cloth diapers and washing machines, and which is in fact still in use in many areas around the world, where access to diapers and the means to wash them just isn't available.

When referred to as infant potty training, it can seem as if we're trying to 'train' our kids to hold their bladder or bowels at an age before they have true bladder or bowel control. Just for giggles, I almost titled this piece "Why we teach our kids to pee on command," but I changed it, as I didn't want to perpetuate the myth that EC is Pavlovian in nature. One criticism of the method shows a distinct misunderstanding of what elimination communication really is, and instead relates it to potty training methods or timing that can cause children stress, which can be implicated in constipation and/or bedwetting issues, especially for kids that go to day care or preschool.

Elimination communication (EC) has less to do with actually 'training' a baby to hold it or release it on demand than it does with learning the cues that babies display when voiding their bowels or bladder, as well as the timing and frequency of those moments. Along with infant sign language (another of those practices that you might not believe works until you see it for yourself), EC gives babies and their parents another way to communicate with each other, and I believe (based on my experience) that when babies can communicate using something other than just crying, so they are able to clearly signal their needs and then have those needs met, it makes for calmer, happier, babies.

Just the one simple fact of learning when your baby pees can lead to a huge reduction in the number of diapers used every day. For example, most babies do not pee in their sleep, or when they're actively breastfeeding. Instead, they pee a short time after they wake from sleeping, and they tend to pull off the breast, or at least change their expression and stop sucking for a moment to go pee. If you know that pattern in your baby, then every time the baby wakes up, or gives a cue that they're about to go, you can hold them over a container and catch the pee in it instead of letting them pee in their diaper. Many babies also don't like being in a soggy diaper, and will be fussy until they get changed, so if they don't have to spend as much time being uncomfortable in a wet diaper, they may be happier.

Learning the timing by itself isn't really elimination communication, but it is helpful in general, and is necessary if you're going to use EC, as no matter what type of 'toilet training' is used, babies aren't going to pee on demand if they don't already have a full bladder, so it needs to be practiced when the baby needs to go.

There are a ton of free resources on the web for learning more about how and why elimination communication works, with Diaper Free Baby being a great place to start. There are a number of books about it (we liked Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living, by Laure Boucke), and if you're interested, I'd recommend reading up on it before just jumping in and trying it out for yourself.

Elimination communication, while it could work for anyone, is not for everyone. It certainly takes a good bit of patience and effort, especially at first, and it may not fit into everyone's lifestyle or schedule, as it requires a lot more time and attention from the parents than just changing a dirty diaper when it's obvious. Depending on the particular family situation, it may not be possible to use EC at all, but it is possible to practice it part of the time, using it when it makes the most sense for the parents to do so.

If you're curious about more of the facts and background of the practice the EC Wikipedia page provides a good overview.