When you're trying to potty train a child, you'll notice there are countless books, gadgets, and more intended to help. And everyone shares their potty training tips. Sifting through it all may seem overwhelming, especially with your first child. But proponents of the technique known as elimination communication believe you can cut through the chaos by starting early, in infancy. They say it's a much more natural approach that requires nothing more than a little parental intuition, a potty receptacle, and, occasionally, some carpet cleaning supplies. So what is this increasingly popular—though controversial—technique, and is it the right choice for your family?
Elimination communication (EC), also known as natural infant hygiene and infant potty training, is a process in which parents observe their infant's sounds, facial expressions, body movements, and other cues in order to learn to recognize when their babies are signaling that they need to relieve themselves. The parents, in turn, help the babies become aware of these cues and achieve toilet independence, often at a much earlier age than traditional potty training.
This diaper-free method, which has been around far longer than modern diapering and is widely practiced in other cultures, is often met with giggles, confusion, blank stares, rolled eyes, or even disgust in our Western society. Many parents have never heard of it, perhaps because it is largely absent from most parenting manuals and potty training books. Certainly, EC is not for every parent—or baby, for that matter—but it is a hot topic in potty training right now and a path more parents are choosing to take.
How does it work?
The philosophies, nuances, and tricks parents use in EC could fill many books, but the short and sweet version is: EC is not considered potty training by those who practice it. It is the process of parents and children learning to communicate regarding the child's natural need to eliminate waste. Parents must learn to read their child's signals. Though it may seem subtle at first, many parents learn their child's "poop face" or recognize their squirming when they have to use the potty. When the baby signals that it's "time," the parent holds the child over a waste receptacle, which could be the toilet, a potty chair, a bucket or even a small bowl. This action is then paired with a verbal cue, such as the words "go potty" or a sound like "psss." Eventually the child's cues are reinforced and paired, so when the parent makes the cue sound, the baby will eliminate on cue. To make the process easier, EC babies are left undiapered or placed in less-absorbent undergarments most of the time so parents can easily learn when the child is wet while learning the cues. Eventually, the child will be able to consciously make a sign to his caretaker and hold his bowels until he is held over the receptacle, assuming that happens in a timely manner. With consistent action, children younger than 1 have been able to use sign language or other cues to communicate their need to use the bathroom, even if they cannot walk to the toilet themselves. Successful EC is the product of patience, consistency, good humor, persistence, observation and excellent timing.
Trying EC doesn't mean making an ironclad commitment. Parents can start EC and decide it's not for them and stop. EC can also be tailored to each family's needs. A family could use diapers part time, never, or only on trips out of the house. Parents who opt to give EC a try need to do so with an open mind and flexible expectations. Expecting themselves or their children to master EC in a matter of days or weeks is unrealistic and creates pressure that will certainly be met with frustration.
Parents say they use EC for a number of reasons:
- Dramatically reduced environmental impact, since fewer disposable diapers go to landfills and no cloth diapers need to be laundered
- No diaper rash because the baby's bottom is not exposed to waste
- Improved baby-parent bonding and communication
- Saving money by not buying diapers or numerous potty aids
- Less stress, when practiced properly
- Flexibility that allows the technique to be practiced full or part time, depending on parental work schedule, and allows for the process to start at any age.
- Reduced exposure to chemicals found in disposable diapers
Some of the concerns and criticisms include:
- Infants younger than 12 months do not have the muscle control to voluntarily hold their bladder or bowels
- It takes a great deal of observation and dedication on the parent's part to be successful
- It is difficult to get grandparents, babysitters or other caretakers on board with practicing EC; if your child is in a daycare, he will most certainly be diapered during the day
- Messes to clean up
For additional information or support from other EC parents, including a list of 75 EC advantages, check out diaperfreebaby.org, a non-profit organization connecting EC parents with resources and one another.