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Personal Experience

By Catherine Cummings

My investigation into the unorthodox practice of early potty learning, or Elimination Communication, started one evening after having dinner out with friends of my husband, Tom, and my then five-month-old daughter, Noelle. Tom's friend Jane had graduated alongside Tom at UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry, New Jersey). She was then completing her residency in pediatric endocrinology, and Tom was in the middle of his residency in psychiatry. Back at our Hoboken apartment, Jane brought up something incredibly interesting to me: there had been an article in the New York Times about a mother who was attempting to teach her infant how to use a potty. Jane scoffed through the re-telling, but I asked her to tell me more. She explained a little of what she'd read, and commented on how absurd it was. Tom may have rolled his eyes, but was reserved, probably taking note of my reaction.

At that time, I was pretty frustrated by both cloth diapering and disposables. I had never thought there would be any way to go but cloth, as my mother had cloth-diapered all five of her kids. For the last two, she used a diaper service, and I still remember the van that came to pick up and drop off my little brother's diapers. I was ten when he was born, so I am an old hand at pins and those old vinyl covers. However, our budget was tight when Noelle was born, so after a few months of diaper service, we were feeling priced out of that option. In addition, we had no laundry machine in our building, and I had to wash cloth diapers by hand or at the laundromat. I sometimes used disposable diapers, but was bothered by the environmental impact and the design. Even the supposedly eco-friendly Seventh Generation disposables contain polyacrylate gel, which I reject. I simply deny that any kind of high-tech gel is necessary to diaper an infant or toddler. It removes the sensation of wetness, which is imperative to learning bodily functions, especially in a toddler. Tushies, the environmentally friendly disposable, was an affordable option, so we alternated these with cloth throughout the week. Still, I wanted another solution. 

I know many people who claim to be environmentalists who diaper their children in conventional disposables. That, to me, is a sign of the NIMBY ("Not In My Backyard") problem. Conventional disposable diapers last for about 400 years before possibly decomposing. Why should our convenience come at such a high price? 

I decided to investigate on-line and I found diaperfreebaby.org. I signed up and "listened" as mothers discussed what they were doing to introduce pottying to their babies. I gleaned that a few things were important: patience, consistency, cues, tuning-in, and the Baby Bjorn Little Potty. I ordered the potty in pink, and it came a few days later. I sat Noelle on the little potty, said, "psssss" and out came a stream of pee. 

That day, Tom came home from work to find that his six-month old was using a potty! He found it strange, but having almost no previous experience with children, I don't think he really knew whether it was "normal" or not. This was just another example of Noelle demonstrating that babies are smarter, more perceptive, more clued in to their environment than Tom and I had thought. 

Although there is plenty of literature on early potty learning, I generally trusted my own instincts in our decision to go diaper-free. Noelle and I were so connected at that point through being constantly together, that I felt I could tell what to do and when to do it. A few traits made it easy to teach Noelle about using the potty. She was always very obvious when she was about to poop. She never let me leave her alone, not even to use the bathroom—and I consented to her accompanying me. She is a keen observer, like most babies, and a great imitator. She loves to pee outside. She never liked to have a bowel movement in a public place, such as the park, or a restaurant. Finally, she is a very light sleeper, and has always woken up before letting out a stream of pee. All these characteristics made teaching her how to relieve herself in a potty easier. 

I never had to clean up soiled underwear, but I would occasionally have to run the four blocks home from the park to accomplish number two. She rarely wet our bed or hers, but I would have to get up and potty her at night, sometimes three times. I used a felted wool puddle pad on her crib mattress, which she wet no more than once. The pee simply formed a neat puddle on top of the pad. I continued to use Tushies and cloth until, when Noelle was one, we moved into an apartment with laundry machines in the building. At this point, I used cloth exclusively. When we traveled, she sometimes wore conventional disposables (as I could fit many in one flap of the suitcase). I reused them until either she wet them or the closures wore out from repeated use. The timeline of her potty learning went something like this: 

At 6 months, she was using the little potty at home. 
At 8 months, she had her last soiled diaper, ever. 
At 16 months, she was out of daytime diapers for good. 
At 18 months, she was out of nighttime diapers for good. 

Noelle has never had a serious diaper rash. We used very few wipes. And best of all, Noelle's existence has not contributed untold amounts of soiled diapers to a landfill near you. 

I kept one other image in my mind as I practiced EC. I pictured a group of people living hundreds of years ago in a pastoral society, without diapers. I imagined how their children must have learned to relieve themselves in the proper place. I felt grateful for the diapering options available to me, but I understood that I could also rely on traditional wisdom to guide me. Despite my husband's concerns that we were focusing too heavily, too early, on a function she possibly had minimal control over, I was assured by this image of parents who came before us. They managed to get their kids to pee in a receptacle other than bleached paper pulp and polyacrylate gel. 

We certainly had our own challenges with potty learning. For example, in the winter, when it was chilly indoors, I never felt great about pulling down Noelle's pajamas to put her on a cold potty when she awoke. Also, we had to keep our EC'ing largely a secret because I did not want her to be the object of exclamations at the park, skepticism, or jealousy. I could have said that I was unilaterally against disposable diapers, which propelled me to investigate other options, but I never wanted to offend anyone else. Whenever she was constipated, I tended to blame myself and felt guilty because she didn't feel like she could just crawl under someone's coffee table and poop in a diaper. 

Those rough times are when I focused on my image of the mother in a society before disposables, who accomplished so much without a single bottle of "Simple Green" or a brilliant little potty. It was actually less work for her to show her child how to squat and relieve herself than it would be to continue washing and wringing and drying cloth diapers. Today, when I see Noelle's three-year-old contemporaries in diapers, I think: a stitch in time saves nine.

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