By Julie Austin
Baby poo. The Arrogant Worms have written odes to it; diaper companies post huge profits thanks to the never-ending production of it.
But while baby poo may provide inspiration to (some) songwriters and CEOs, for most moms and dads it's the motivation to have their child use a potty sooner rather than later. Now a new-old approach to toilet training is not only making the process more hygienic, but also encouraging greater communication between infant and parent.
The diaper-free method, otherwise known as Natural Infant Hygiene (NIH) or "Elimination Communication," teaches your child to eliminate wastes, on cue, over a bowl, potty, or in the great outdoors, at a surprisingly young age. It's not exactly revolutionary; some cultures have been using it for as long as mothers can remember. In North America, however, many are discovering it for the first time.
"I didn't believe it could work," says Kirstin Vogel, a vibrant mother of five, "until I saw a friend put her tiny son, only two months old, over the toilet. She made a funny sound and away he went."
It's "the seeing is believing" component that convinces a lot of parents that babies are smarter than we may think. Ingrid Bauer, author of Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, made the discovery on her first trip to India, where she noticed all the babies in the villages went sans diaper. Rather than sending little streams of urine down the street as they followed their mothers, the infants would wait until given the "cue" – maybe a pssh-pshh sound for pee or a raspberry for poo – then eliminate in an appropriate spot. According to Bauer, many people in these cultures think that diapering babies is unhealthy and can't imagine why anyone would cover up tiny bums. On top of that, diapering can be a major cause of diaper rash and urinary infections. Bauer, who originated the terms "Elimination Communication" and "Natural Infant Hygiene," soon ignited smouldering support among North Americans, and diaper-free babies came into their own.
"I didn't start until my third child," explains Vogel, "but I was always aware of my babies' pee in their cloth diapers. Friends thought I was crazy changing their diaper every half-hour, but the idea of them sitting in their pee freaked me out."
Vogel started by timing her child's elimination needs. Newborns urinate about every 10 minutes, older infants around every 15. It takes a great deal of commitment to remember to hold the baby over a potty so frequently. In many cases, however, it becomes a family project and a way for siblings to bond with their new brother or sister. Even if they aren't old enough to hold the baby over a potty, they can help watch for cues and let their parents know.
"You begin to see the signs when your baby is about to go," says Vogel. "She'd start to fuss and didn't want to nurse, so I'd hold her over the potty, make some sounds and sure enough, something almost always came out." Kirstin stops and thinks for a minute. "It's like a lost form of communication – something primitive – a wonderful secret between you and your baby, the baby telling you what she needs. You just have to be open to listen."
You also have to hone your observational skills and be prepared to misinterpret and make mistakes. The signals a baby gives vary greatly depending on the child. They can be loud, insistent yowls, small mewls, or just wriggling and making funny faces. When nursing, the baby may unlatch and latch several times to signal the need to go. Just how your baby will communicate with you is all part of the fun and learning curve.
Vogel remembers a time when she was in the library and saw an infant fussing beside her mother. "The cues looked familiar to me, but I didn't know if I should say anything." After a little deliberation over her dilemma, she finally walked over and said, "I think your baby might need to pee or poo." Fortunately, this new mom was open to listening, and after Vogel explained her experiences, agreed to see how it was done. All three went to the bathroom where Vogel showed the young mom how to hold her infant over the toilet. "And that baby had a very long and satisfying pee!" laughs Vogel. "The mom's jaw was open in amazement." And, voilà, another convert was born.
Ana Jamieson started using the diaper-free baby techniques with her sixth child, Richard. "I did it the lazy way," she says. "He would be in diapers most of the time, but I would take the diaper off every half hour and hold him over the toilet. It wasn't long, just a few months, when he realized he'd rather be in a dry diaper and he would wait until he was held over a toilet to go." Jamieson stopped diapering him at eight months, but says she could have stopped sooner.
Following her success with Richard, Jamieson knew she would diaper-free her last child, Samuel, as well. Samuel, who is developmentally delayed due to Down syndrome, figured the process out very quickly and was out of diapers before he walked and before most people even begin to think about potty training. "He only slept with a diaper at night because he sleeps with us in our bed," she says. "With Samuel having Down syndrome, people would go "wow," and realize that anyone could do this. It might even help with their development." Jamieson has shared her positive experiences with her local group of Down syndrome parents.
Accidents are inevitable. "My babies have peed on all my friends' floors," laughs Vogel. While most moms and dads show up at baby groups struggling with over-loaded diaper bags, diaper-free parents bring cloths along with the bucket they'll use as a potty. (Ice cream buckets with lids work well.) Many caregivers diaper their baby when going somewhere that an accident might be less than favourably looked upon, but still take their child to the bathroom at regular intervals.
Eventually, of course, the child takes over. By 13 months, Vogel's daughter was crawling out of her little bed at night and sitting on the bucket that was always left by the side of her bed. Then she would crawl back up into bed and go back to sleep.
A happy byproduct of the diaper-free method is the break it gives to our beleaguered environment. By the age of two-and-a-half, one baby will have used over 6000 disposable diapers. Disposable diapers are the third largest consumer product in our landfills, exceeded only by beverage containers and newspapers. To feed industry's needs, over one billion trees are cut down around the world per year. Then there's the bleaching process that produces dioxins and furans, among the most toxic substances known, which, in turn, has major effects on human health and on the levels of toxins in breast milk, all of which affect an over-burdened health care system.
Cloth diapers are infinitely more sustainable than those used only once, but they, too, have serious effects on the environment. Most cotton grown today is full of residual pesticides and insecticides, and the bleaching process has severe health effects, not only on workers, but on the end consumer of the cotton – in this case, a baby. Happily, unbleached organic cotton is making inroads into the marketplace and becoming more widely available. But these diapers still need to be washed, requiring an average 10-to-20 thousand gallons of water for a single baby. Then there's the electricity consumed.
The diaper-free approach avoids all of that. Plus, it's economical. Mother-of-seven Jamieson is also a recent grandmother. "I really tried to encourage my daughter-in-law to try diaper-free," she says. "it's so much easier and you save so much more money."
But the real reward may be increased connection between parent and child. "One night, when my last little girl was six weeks old," she recalls, "she woke up and was fussing. She didn't want to nurse and I was so tired, I wasn't paying attention to her cues. Finally, after a few hours of on-and-off sleep, I got up and held her over the potty, where she had the biggest pee ever. She held it so long. All the bedding was dry. It was then I realized what a responsibility this was. She trusts me to take her to the potty. She just trusts me to respect her and her intelligence."
As Jamieson says, "It's another level of awareness."