This post is about peeing and pooping. You’ve been warned.
JC and I practice elimination communication (also called infant potty training) with Silas, and have since he was about a month old. I mentioned in a recent post that one thing that drives me crazy is when people imply that EC ” functionally requires women to hold their babies over a toilet all day,” as Amanda Marcotte wrote in a Slate article. I hear this all the time, and it’s patently ridiculous. It’s like saying that mothers who breastfeed sit around topless all day waiting for their babies to get hungry and latch on.
I should start out by saying that I think “elimination communication” isn’t a great way to describe how we handle Silas’ elimination needs. For one thing, it ascribes a deliberateness to the more or less involuntary actions of a tiny baby. People get fixated on the idea that a newborn could be deliberately communicating anything, let alone that he needs to pee. Maybe a better term would be, “The way 75% of the human population handles their babies’ waste.” Because that’s true. It’s not some trendy yuppie thing. This is how people handle their babies’ needs in countries where water is too precious to waste on washing diapers, and disposables are prohibitively expensive.
I think a better analogy is the way you know a baby needs to nurse. It’s not just random fussing. The baby does some specific motions, like rooting his face into the nearest person, regardless if that person is equipped to feed him. That’s how we know to try nursing first, rather than checking his diaper or jiggling and bouncing him. In the same way, if you just pay attention for an hour, a baby has specific things he does when he needs to pee. Each baby has his own little signals, but it doesn’t take long to learn them–no longer than learning his nursing signals.
So, why do EC? I have a lot of reasons.
- Treat other people the way you want to be treated. When I’m an old lady and no longer able to take care of myself, I hope someone has the decency to change my Depends pretty frequently. I wouldn’t want to sit around in my own waste, so why should my baby?
- Environmental and financial benefits. Sometimes, we don’t do so well with EC. We’re out of sync with Silas, or he just is busy with something else. Even at those worst times, though, we manage a couple of “catches” each day. Even if we only manage to get him to the potty twice a day (even when he was very, very little, that would be a minimum), we save ourselves the trouble of washing or buying over 700 diapers every year. As I said, we normally do much better than that.
- Maintaining awareness. When we put a kid in a diaper and let him eliminate there, he eventually loses the awareness of that feeling of needing to go, as well as the muscle control that allows him to hold it for long enough to get to the potty. Then, he turns two, and we start trying to reward him for getting to the potty on time, not realizing that he has to relearn that muscle control and attention to that feeling.
- Avoiding power struggles. We sure have our share of power struggles with Silas, but rarely over using the potty. He’s been doing it so long that he doesn’t quite understand that it might be something he could refuse to do. Sometimes we have a fight over whether he will use the little potty or the big toilet. What we have not had is him deliberately peeing on the carpet just to tick us off. He pees on the carpet sometimes, because he doesn’t make it to the potty, but he’s clearly distressed by it. He doesn’t give us that mischievous grin that we see when he’s trying to annoy us.
- Earlier potty-learning completion. Not every kid whose parents practice EC will be entirely potty-independent very early. Silas still doesn’t have the ability to pull his own pants down, for one thing. Still, most of them, from what I’ve heard, have an easier time with transitioning to really using the potty all the time, just like normal human people.
- One more thing to try. You know when baby is fussy and you’ve tried nursing, re-swaddling, rocking, cooing, singing, screaming back, and nothing is working? Well, if you do EC, then the potty is one more thing in your toolbox. If we hadn’t done EC with Silas, we would have thought he was an incredibly high-needs and fussy guy. It turns out, he just hated pooping in his diaper, and I can’t blame him.
- Little or no diaper rash. Have you ever read one of those articles about the causes of diaper rash? They all talk about how a baby’s diaper is a “warm, moist environment,” and how the top layer of skin breaks down in that kind of situation. Is it just me, or is that completely disgusting, when you think about it? If your baby doesn’t sit in a wet diaper, or doesn’t do it much…no diaper rash. Miraculous!
Where do you start?
The first step is observation. In Silas’ case, we put him in a cloth diaper with no cover, so we would be sure to see as soon as he wet himself, and set him on a vinyl-backed flannel on the floor or on our laps. And then we just did whatever we were doing–nursing or talking or playing–and paid attention. It literally took an hour for us to realize that what we had been thinking of as the “I wet my diaper” wriggle really meant, “I’m going to wet my diaper in five minutes.” We called this the “escape my pants dance.” We don’t have any video of this, although he is doing it in the photo below.
You know when you go to change the baby’s diaper and it’s not wet, or only a little bit, and then he pees on you? That stopped happening as soon as we began responding to the “escape my pants dance” by putting him on the potty.
Once we figured out his signals, we started talking about it. “You look like you need to use the potty,” we said. “Hang on while I get your diaper off.” Then we put him on the potty. We tried to make a certain noise, a little sssss sound, to indicate that it was okay to go, but he didn’t seem to care much about that one way or another.
We usually tried to make the ASL sign for potty (it’s a letter T that you shake) when we put him on the potty. At eight months, he made it, unprompted, to tell me that he needed to use the potty. His use of infant sign was always spotty at best, but “potty” was probably his most consistent and frequent sign.
Right, but you have to be a stay-at-home parent to do this, don’t you?
Not really. Babies are smarter than we give them credit for. Silas went to daycare a few afternoons a week from the time he was about four months old. While he was there, he just peed in his diaper like everyone else. With me and JC, though, he definitely always expected us to put him on the potty. The few times when we were in a place where we just couldn’t do it, he was clearly ticked off at us.
Even if you work full time, you can do EC a couple of times every day–right when the baby wakes up, for example, and maybe after dinner or before a bath. Just this little bit will help the baby maintain awareness of his body’s signals and will make the potty familiar enough that it’s not a big event whenever you decide to start real potty training.
So, does it really help them be for-real potty trained earlier?
Yes and no. Silas still has occasional accidents, although, thankfully, #2 almost always goes in the potty. He just turned two a week ago. I don’t know many other kids his age who have quite that level of potty skill, and I don’t think it’s because he’s extra smart, I just think it is because he has always used the potty.
I know one boy who was pretty completely potty trained by about 14 months. Other than him, I don’t know many children whose parents did EC, in real life. From comments on the message boards, it seems like 18-24 months is more or less average.
Of course, a two-year-old being “potty trained” is not the same as a four-year-old reaching that milestone. He’s potty trained in the sense that he tells us when he needs to go, and can even “hold it” for a little bit, like if we’re in the car. However, he’s not independent. He can’t take his own pants off, wipe himself, etc. He still requires some parental involvement to manage his potty needs.
But really, it takes a lot of time, right?
Yes and no. Nursing, again, is a good analogy. The first six weeks or so, babies do nothing but nurse and poop, as far as I can gather. As a new mom, I felt like I only had a handful of fifteen-minute breaks between nursing sessions. EC was the same. Newborns eliminate about 20 times every day! By the time they’re a couple of months old, though, their little bodies start to even out. Their stomachs and their bladders both grow, so they don’t have to nurse or pee nearly as frequently. Many people wait to start EC after three months, because then you don’t have to hold the baby over the potty every ten minutes.
We started doing EC because we had heard about it and thought it was worth a try. We felt like it was unlikely to hurt Silas, and we agreed to do it for a month and then reevaluate. It turns out, we all love it. It’s much less gross than diapers. One mom who did EC with her daughter told me, before Silas was born, that it was “kind of fun.” I found it hard to believe at the time, but it is. More fun than changing diapers, anyway. We let potty time be a fun play time, and so Silas really likes it, too.
If you’re thinking about it, give it a try. It can’t hurt, and maybe you’ll learn something new about your baby. Here is a really helpful page on how to get started. Happy pottying!