My guest today is Christine Gross-Loh, a mother of four, an international traveler, a Harvard Ph.D., and—if that’s not already enough!—the author of an excellent book about infant pottying called, The Diaper Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative.
JM: I really enjoyed reading your book and I learned so much about elimination communication (EC) and how to go diaper free.
Can you tell me a bit of the backstory about how you found out about EC and why you decided to write an entire book about it?
CGL: I first saw EC when I was a student living in Japan. The family I was living with had twin baby granddaughters, and one day I saw their grandmother hold them over a potty one by one after they woke up from a nap. I was really surprised—in fact, I was skeptical, as it seemed counter to everything I’d ever heard about toilet training.
When I eventually had my own baby and started using cloth diapers, I learned about EC and remembered what I’d seen in Japan.
My mother, who was raised in Korea, also encouraged me in this by buying my son a potty when he had just turned one.
I was opposed to doing anything that would seem like pressuring my child, but once we got started, I realized that there was nothing pressured about it—it truly was about supporting him in a natural process, following his cues and engaging in a mutual conversation. It was so joyful and fun!
I was always frustrated by all the misconceptions about EC out there, especially after I had my second child, met many other EC’ing parents, and truly knew that this was not a fluke, but rather, a knowledge that our society had somehow lost.
There was a huge surge of media interest in diaper free babies in the fall of 2005, but many misconceptions remained, so although there were two wonderful infant pottying books out there already, it felt like the right time to write a new book aimed at modern parents who wanted practical tips on how to do EC in a way that would fit their lifestyles.
JM: I’m not as intuitive as I wish I were with our 3-month-old baby. What I mean is, I can’t tell exactly when she needs to pee. I find it’s MUCH easier to tell when she needs to poop. So I offer her what you call “pottytunities” throughout the day. We have a little “chamber pot” (it’s a plastic mixing bowl with a handle and a spout and a rubber ring on the bottom that I bought for $1 at the Dollar Store) and when it’s been awhile I hold her over it and make a cueing sound. “PSSS.” She often pees when I do that! It’s amazing. But I can’t help wondering if I’m doing it wrong or if, somehow, I should be more in tune with her signals?
CGL: First of all, it sounds like you are very much in tune with your baby, Jennifer! I know that it may not feel that way at times, but this all sounds well within the range of normal when pottying a three month old. There’s a learning curve and in a way, it never ends—we continue to learn more about our babies the older they get—but that’s what parenting is all about.
There are three basic ways that parents figure out when to offer a pottytunity: cues, timing (awareness of baby’s patterns), and intuition (a feeling that your baby just has to go).
Some parents do find it hard to read a young baby’s cues and feel that they work better via timing or intuition, but generally you’ll find it’s a combination of all three, or different methods at different times of day. For instance, I always take my baby to pee after she wakes up, even though she’s not showing any signals, because I know this is her pattern (as it is for many babies).
Things will continue to evolve. I love EC because I feel that it keeps parents in close communication with their babies, allows them to observe them, and encourages them to keep up with all their changes.
One thing that really helps (which I know you do) is babywearing. When I wear my baby close to me—especially if she is wearing underwear or training pants—I’m much more able to recognize the subtlest signals. For instance, as a very new newborn she would stretch her legs and body whenever she had to pee or poop. Babies also clearly signal by squirming when they have to pee if they are being babyworn. So if you aren’t doing this already, increasing diaper-free, babywearing time would be a great first step.
Also, remember that this communication is a two-way thing. Sometimes my baby gives out no clear signals for pee, but I’m the one who realizes, oh, it’s been awhile since I took her, or I look for a chance to take her after she’s nursed, etc.
Your baby responds to you when you hold her over a potty, and this means that she understands what you are helping her with.
The fact that your baby usually pees when you take her means that you have a good understanding of her patterns, even if you don’t consciously think about it.
Believe me, if you took your baby to the toilet when she didn’t have to pee, she wouldn’t pee.
The final thing I’d emphasize is to remember to value the process, rather than focusing on results. The important thing is to stay present and aware and open to your baby, rather than stress about catching everything in a potty.
JM: How do you know when the baby is done pooping? I almost always catch the first poop. Leone grunts and fidgets and it’s really obvious that she needs to go. But I make the mistake, sometimes, of taking her off the chamber pot when she isn’t finished. This morning she pooped FOUR times in a row. I caught all of them but that hasn’t always been the case (eh hem). My fear is holding her over the chamber pot too long and making her uncomfortable so I think I take her off too soon. Do you have advice about this?
CGL: This is a great question! I think, as with all else pertaining to EC, it has to do with patterns, intuition, and cues. Each baby is an individual, so I can’t tell you specifically how to tell when your own little baby is completely done, but I’m betting you know more about her than you give yourself credit for, and each time she goes to the bathroom, you learn more about her. Also, I find that often there is a change at around 3-4 months, and babies’ patterns become much more predictable, bowel movements become more consolidated, and EC overall feels easier.
Try to take note of her patterns—for instance, does she eliminate for a longer period of time in the morning?—and go from there (but keep in mind that patterns do change). Before taking her off the potty, try to observe whether she’s still grunting or breathing or restless at all or whether she seems calm and content.
Also, misses are par for the course—if you find you miss a poop you can still talk to her. Babies understand and take in so much!
If you’re worried she’s uncomfortable, check the position you’re using. You might want to start to use a low potty if you can. I usually start using one around three months. This gives babies more support. Or start using a toilet insert or just hold her on the toilet facing you. The thing I like about these positions is that my baby and I can look into each other’s eyes. It’s just lovely and babies often calm down and start to coo and smile at you. Conversely, babies also do love the “in arms” position (where they are held closely, but facing away), because they love that feeling of being nestled close to you. It’s good to have a variety of things in your toolbox.
JM: For moms and dads new to elimination communication (EC), what advice do you have to get them started?
CGL: I usually suggest that parents give it a try at a time when the diaper would usually be off, like at a diaper change, and then observe what kind of body language their baby does right before or while eliminating. The only thing about that, though, is that if the baby is used to eliminating exclusively in a diaper, she might just have peed and would actually hold it while the diaper is off. So if that seems to be happening, try a longer stretch of diaper-free time.
Mornings are a good time if you have time then, because a classic elimination pattern is more pees in the morning (and fewer in the afternoon), thus more chances to try to get in tune.
Many parents are already aware of when their baby is just about to have a bowel movement, so I would suggest that as another ideal time to put baby on the potty.
JM: I’ve heard a lot of people—including some readers of this blog—say, “Oh, I tried that and it didn’t work.” What advice do you have to people who feel like it’s impossible? Is EC not for everyone?
CGL: I think that EC resonates with certain people. I don’t think it’s for people who aren’t interested in it, but it *is* possible for most every baby. It does require a change in mindset, but the actual change in your daily routine doesn’t need to be significant.
You have to believe that your baby wants to communicate with you, and have faith in your ability to understand her. Most parents become adept at figuring out when their babies are hungry or sleepy—this is just an extension of that.
Next, you have to believe that babies are physically capable of this. Just practicing it successfully once or twice is usually enough to convince parents of that.
Finally, you have to accept that when it comes to helping our children become toilet independent, we have a choice. We either transition our babies at birth to becoming used to eliminating in a diaper (a feeling which I’d argue doesn’t feel completely natural to them at first), and then transition them from that later on when they are older, or we help them remain used to the natural, instinctive, inborn desire to feel clean and dry by helping them eliminate in a toilet or potty (even part time) from the time they are infants.
You also have to be a parent who can let go of a results-oriented mindset, and just be willing to go along on this journey.
Most EC’ed babies are completely out of diapers earlier than children who are conventionally toilet-trained, but this shouldn’t be the primary goal.
Sometimes there are practical reasons why EC doesn’t seem to work. Little changes like setting up your home to be EC-friendly with potties within easy reach, or dressing your baby in easy-change clothing, or preparing some supplies for you to take with you when you are out and about (such as a container with a lid that you can quickly potty your baby in if you aren’t near a bathroom), can make the difference between continuing with EC or not.
Remember, too, that this doesn’t have to be done full-time. Your baby and you will still retain a lot of benefits even if you’re EC’ing part time. If your circumstances make it hard for you to catch in a potty at times, then hold her in the position you would normally hold her in and cue her in a diaper, then change her as soon as you can.
If people have specific questions about how to practice this, for every issue, there are EC’ing parents who have been there, done that. The vast support network out there—via DiaperFreeBaby meetings (http://www.diaperfreebaby.org) and various Internet support groups is quite incredible.
JM: A few nights ago Leone was dry for five hours in a row. I couldn’t believe it! Is it true that if you practice EC a baby stops wetting at night? Do we have any idea why this is so?
CGL: That’s great, and not surprising! Lots of EC’ed babies are dry at night quite early on and also dry during the day for longer stretches of time than an exclusively diapered baby is.
It makes sense since they have retained an awareness of the muscles which control elimination. It feels natural for them to eliminate in a toilet or potty.
Many EC’ing parents who find their babies eliminating rather frequently look at it as a sign that their baby may have food intolerances, and so this becomes another helpful way to monitor their health.
JM: What do you do about nighttime diapering, or maybe I should say, nighttime communicating?
CGL: The nighttime approach to EC is very individual. There are lots of families who EC at night right from the start, and some of their strategies include having a potty by the bed (sometimes with a pre-fold in it to prevent accidental spills), waterproofing a bed with a wool puddle pad, and dressing baby in a particular way at nighttime. Some people love pocket diapers, and others like to put a baby to bed with nothing on at all, simply laying her on a few pre-folds, so that they can quickly potty her.
I usually put my babies to bed in a kind of long wool bunting or skirt which is open at the bottom so the bed is waterproofed and they stay warm but I can quickly change or potty them. This is how we do it but everyone does it in the way that fits them best. Many parents find that their babies wake less at night if they potty them—in fact, they discover that what they thought was night waking to nurse was really restlessness from having to pee.
If your baby wakes up restless, bicycling her legs, breathing heavily, etc. then that might mean she needs to pee and would get back to sleep faster after a pottytunity.
I myself don’t usually do much nighttime EC until my children are in mid-infancy. It works better for our family if I minimize the amount of times I have to actually get up out of bed to hold baby over a potty until she is peeing less at night anyway. Also, after baby #2, there was always at least one extra older child in bed with us, on my side of the bed, so it made taking baby to the bathroom challenging. If my baby was very restless I would offer to her to pee in an open diaper and then quickly change her.
JM: You mentioned to me when we talked awhile ago that people who have been exposed to other cultures are more open to EC. Why is that?
CGL: EC is practiced in many other cultures, especially those where disposable diapers are uncommon or unavailable, and where babies are closely held, nurtured, and responded to. There are benefits to witnessing it in action rather than reading about it or hearing about it. Also, living or traveling abroad opens up your mind to the idea that there is more than one set way of doing things (this goes for all sorts of things, not just infant pottying).
It’s a lot easier to challenge mainstream conventions when you have support, so even just knowing that there are other people out there in the world who practice EC can make it seem a lot less daunting.
JM: You have four children, including a brand new baby who’s just a few weeks older than mine. How can you possibly manage to do EC with the newborn AND respond to your other three kids at the same time?!
CGL: You know, I’m surprised by this myself, but I actually find it easier this time around, both because by now I don’t even have to think about the logistics anymore, and because I have older kids who are more self-sufficient and also are able to help if I need something. Also, it’s a huge time saver for me to simply take my baby to the bathroom rather than change and wash lots of cloth diapers or buy and dispose of disposable diapers. We did go through more diapers at the start, because I was changing after each miss, but after Anna grew older and we got in sync, the amount of laundry dramatically decreased.
I think that two things that helped were having baskets of supplies (small diapers, covers, a potty, toilet paper, and pre-folds for lying the baby on) around when Anna was a newborn, and being more proactive about asking other people to help potty her at the beginning.
I’m also relaxed about catches and misses. I know that there are new opportunities for getting in tune with my baby every single day and I also know that catches and misses can vary day to day (or hour to hour), and that this is normal. I think the most important goal for me right now is to help her maintain her bodily awareness.
Now, I feel like my baby and I are in a good rhythm. She’s three and a half months, she and I have a favorite babywearing carrier (I’m using a Baby Hawk mei tai), and she eliminates much less frequently than she did as a newborn, so if we go on shorter outings I don’t even usually waterproof her. If there’s a miss—and they do happen!—it’s no big deal, we’ll just change clothes.
The thing I love about doing EC with my new baby is that it really allows me to see her as an individual even though she’s part of such a large family. You know how they say babies have different nursing personalities—EC is the same, and her cues, body language, communication are all her own. I also have to say that even though I’d been through this before, I was just as astounded and moved as any brand-new mother would be by the clarity of my baby’s communication from her first few hours of life.
EC’ing a newborn is incredible.
JM: Do you use cloth or disposable diapers when you are not doing EC? Why do you think cloth is a better option? What brands of cloth have you liked the best?
CGL: I do use diaper backup from time to time and I encourage parents to use as much as they need to until they feel comfortable or when life gets really hectic.
I usually use cloth, although I use disposables on long international plane trips (our family travels back and forth to Japan a lot).
My very favorite setup right now is actually training pants or underwear, which my friend Melinda encouraged me to switch to when my baby was just about to turn three months old. Underwear makes such a difference because 1) It heightens your awareness and responsiveness 2) It is vastly easier to take a baby to the bathroom without fiddling with covers, velcro, snaps, etc.—thus it increases your catches and gets you and baby in a rhythm sooner and 3) It’s just so nice to hold a baby without a diaper on! I really recommend it. You can expect that you might have more misses at first, but I really think it’s worth it, ultimately.
I also find that just using Size 2 training pants or underwear works okay for a baby because they are easy to pull on and take off since they are a bit loose, and they are usually not too expensive.
When I do use cloth diapers, my favorite setup is a thin Japanese woolen cover and then a thin cotton hourglass-shaped insert (also Japanese, but any doubler would do), which holds just one pee. I also sometimes use coverless fitteds made from recycled pre-folds, which are the right thinness—anything bulkier is overkill.
Unfortunately, the Japanese items I use are only available in Japan, but the wool covers are similar to Nikky’s, available at BabyWorks and the fitteds made from recycled pre-folds can be found at TinkleTraps.
You can even use a washcloth for a diaper—they are less bulky than pre-folds. There are so many wonderful WAHM-made cloth diapering products—inserts or doublers and wool covers or pants made from recycled wool would be particularly useful for EC’ers.
The advantage of switching to cloth, even part time, is that babies remain aware of the feeling of eliminating, even if it’s in their diaper.
Disposables are designed for babies not to feel wetness, which dulls their awareness, and it becomes harder for parents, too, to stay aware of their baby’s patterns—but I do know many parents who have successfully EC’ed while using disposables.
JM: Anything else you want to add about EC or infant pottying that I haven’t already asked you?
CGL: I know that if you are new to it, the whole idea of EC can be a stretch. It certainly felt that way to me when I first started doing it nine years ago. But now that I am doing it for the fourth time, I just can’t imagine not doing it.
Nothing warms my heart more than knowing I am understanding and helping my baby in this way. I really feel EC has enriched my relationship with each of my children and taught me so much, and it’s great that more and more families are experiencing this too.