Whenever the topic of “potty training” or cloth diapering comes up I can’t help myself from suggesting people consider looking into “elimination communication”. A few years ago people had no idea what I was talking about but now, more and more I’m finding that people have at least heard of it. Although they still think it sounds pretty strange.
It does sound strange. And it did to me too. Having been living within a culture where “diaper training” (I’ll get to that in a minute… lol) is the norm, it seems like an impossible idea to imagine that babies could actually be telling us that they need to pee or poop. Or that we could somehow know that they need to go!?!? But I ask you, how do we know that our babies need to be fed? Or that they are tired? Sometimes we know, other times we make an educated guess, or a desperate stab in the dark as to why this little being won’t stop crying. So it’s really not much different!
Elimination Communication, or EC, is a practice that has been done since the beginning of time all around the world. In nations where they don’t have easy access to disposable diapers such as India, or some parts of China it is quite common. My husband’s grandmother who was raised in Ireland did it with her kids. But she didn’t call it EC. She just called it, figuring out how to raise four children. It’s how her parents raised her and the generations before. Why hand wash and line dry cloth diapers for years when you can help your baby to stay aware of their bodily functions and learn to use the potty years earlier? His grandmother claims her kids were all potty trained by a year old!
The basic premise is that humans are born not wanting to soil themselves or others. If we give them opportunities for elimination outside of their diaper they will often take it. When we put a baby in a diaper 100% of the time we are teaching them that diapers are where they should pee and poop. We are “diaper training” them essentially. Then a few years later we are frustrated when they don’t want to switch to going in a potty. In order for elimination to happen a human needs to be relaxed and comfortable. Would you be able to relax and let go in diaper? Probably not because at this point you we are conditioned to only do that at the toilet. So EC keeps the options of where acceptable places to eliminate are. Why not help them to realize that they can pee in both their diapers AND a potty? It just makes sense, right?
So how do you start doing this magic I speak of? The best time to start is between birth and 6 months, but you can really start anytime. You can even use EC methods as part of traditional “potty training”. The first step is to start to get an idea of what your babies “cues” are. For some babies it’s quite obvious that they have a special cry when they need to go, or maybe they wiggle in a certain way? Or they pop on and off the breast while nursing, stare off into space,grunt or just make a strange face?
A great way to tune into the cues is to have some diaper free time for your baby when you are together paying attention. Perhaps lay them down on a towel naked for a while and then observe what they do immediately before peeing. Then, when you see them pee make a shhhh sound, basically mimic a river. It helps them to associate peeing with that sound. I also think as you move forward with it the sound helps them to relax and release. They make a connection between the sound and peeing. The same way that we often feel a need to pee when near running water. It’s just in our biology. So later, you can “cue” them with the shhh sound when you are offering them a “potty-tunity”. I love that word! Haha.
The other way to start is based on timing. Which, to be honest is much easier than learning cues for most babies. My daughter was very clear in her cues, and my son occasionally gave out some pretty clear signs, but timing can be more consistent and easier for the parent to start getting catches. The time when a baby is most likely to need to go are upon waking from a nap or in the morning. This is especially true in the morning as they have been holding it while sleeping. Many people do EC only in the morning. There have been times when this was our only catch of the day. And I’m totally fine with that. It keeps baby aware of their bodily movements and helps avoid what can be a pretty messy diaper! Other good times are after being in a carrier or car seat for a while. If they start to squirm that can be a sign.
One big thing to keep in mind when doing EC is that it’s about communication more than anything else. If baby is telling you that they really don’t want to go now, or go where you are offering it’s important to listen to that. I also recommend not getting into using praise or bribes to encourage your baby to use the toilet. It should just be a normal thing. I do verbalize what is happening and often say, “what a relief! You had a lot of pee in you!” which just helps them make the connection to what’s happening in their body. You really want to avoid toileting becoming a power struggle. This can also be avoided by experimenting with different locations for pottying. Some babies prefer a seat reducer, a tiny potty on the floor, the sink, being held over a toilet or even outside! And like everything else with babies, their preferences can change without notice. Or based on a particular mood one day. You have to just take a relaxed and flexible attitude towards it.
Which brings me to the “learning curve” of EC. There really isn’t one. You can have weeks without misses followed by weeks without catches. How many catches you have is completely dependent on the many seen and unseen changes going on with baby and with life. Getting caught up in tracking or seeing “improvement” will lead to frustration and stress for you and baby.
There is also no promise that this will lead to early potty independence. It often does though! My daughter was in underwear around the clock by 17 months with very few misses! It was pretty awesome! My son is currently 16 months and has days when he walks to and points at the potty for most of his pees. But you never know. Regression is part of the process.
A common misconception is that doing EC means that your baby has to be “diaper free”. It’s 100% untrue. I kept my babies in cloth diapers, and occasionally paper diapers, except for the times when they were actually pottying. Some people can handle full on “diaper free”, but that’s too much for me. I like having the freedom that a diaper offers me in that I don’t always have to be paying attention to cues. I use diaper free time as a tool to help me to hone in to cues when we have lost that connection. It can also be great for older babies who want to use the potty on their own. But it doesn’t have to be a part of your EC if the thought of it is stressful to you.
The thing to always keep in mind with EC is that you need to be enjoying the process and enjoy the premise. I love the idea that my children are staying aware of their bodily functions. I love that we are using less diapers. I love that it’s good for the environment and my wallet. I love that potty learning was a fluid and stress free process. For me, those things kept me motivated even on days when we weren’t getting many catches. Or when it was just too much for me to focus on trying to get catches! And if it’s too much, we let it go for the day.
People often ask about EC at night. Many people who use EC find that their babies are dry all night, even when night nursing! The most important thing to always focus on in getting enough sleep. Really. EC is all well and good but sleep deprivation is a very real problem that affects many parents. When we are sleep deprived our bodies and minds just can’t function fully. So don’t get caught up in trying to make catches in the night if it’s too much. That being said, many people find that if baby wakes up and is having trouble falling back to sleep, bringing them to potty can help them to settle down much more quickly. So you really need to just figure out what works for you and your baby.
Lastly, make sure the focus is always on communication first. If you are changing a poop diaper and verbalize that they just pooped, you are doing EC! If you can tell your baby is peeing in their diaper and you verbalize that to them, you are doing EC and you just had a catch! The journey is the destination with EC and it should be something that you and baby are enjoying. You can sing songs together while on the potty, read books, play games, whatever! Keep it fun and keep it light. Don’t take it all too seriously. The attitude and experiences we share with our baby will benefit them more than anything. Even more than catching pees. Although, that’s fun too!