The Truth About Elimination Communication

Warning: This post uses the word “poop”.  A lot.  It’s a post about toddlers and Montessori and early toileting awareness.  You’ve been warned.

There’s been some press lately about elimination communication (aka, early toileting awareness): the practice of identifying your baby’s signals for pooping and peeing and taking them to the potty to eliminate.  The moms that are interviewed for these pieces (or at least the way the articles and videos are edited) make it sound like it’s a walk in the park: Your baby makes a funny sound, you put them over the potty, and they pee or poo quickly and peacefully.  You soon develop a routine, and life becomes a crunchy diaper-free dream.

I don’t doubt that some babies take to eliminating on the potty with ease, just like I don’t doubt that some infants start sleeping through the night at 8 weeks old.  But for most of us, the path to our child’s toileting independence (just like the road to a full night’s sleep) is bumpy, winding, and often discouraging.

The only way you and your child will develop a successful relationship around toileting is if your expectations are in line with reality.  And the reality is that, in most cases, early toileting awareness requires A LOT of hard work, dedication, and patience.

The first time I put Zach on the potty, at 7 months old, he peed.  I was so excited, I took a picture of the potty and its contents and sent it to my husband.  (Oddly, he was not amused.)  I continued to “catch” a few pees here and there, but it took Three. Long. Months. before my son realized that poop also goes in the potty (which coincided with his ability to pull up to a standing position).

And just because he understood where poop went didn’t mean it always made it there.  He often waited until I helped him off the potty and then decided it was the perfect time to poop – on my hands, my pants, his pants, the floor, my shoes, his shoes, his blanket, a book… You name it, and chances are it has been covered in poop at some point.

And the whole “communication” thing?  Well, I was never able to identify a special cry, grumble or grunt, so I just set up a schedule around his naps and meals.  Zach started communicating his elimination needs at around 14 months old (using sign language), but most of the time he would let us know AFTER the fact.  As if the puddle around his feet wasn’t a clear enough sign.

We used a combination of cloth diapers when we were at home and disposables for going out, until he turned one.  At that point I sucked it up and replaced the cloth diapers with cotton training pants.  And at around 15 months we dropped the disposables completely (for daytime).

“You’ve saved so much in diapers,” my friends coo enviously.  Yeah, um, no.  What I’ve saved in diapers I’ve spent in pants (and detergent, and water, and electricity), because sometimes he’d go through seven pairs of pants in one day.  Changing wet underwear?  Not fun.  Changing poopy underwear?  MAJORLY not fun.

Then comes the challenge of getting your child to sit – and stay – on the potty.  The first few weeks were easy, but then the novelty wore off and Zach realized he could arch his back and refuse to sit.  We tried books, singing, and toys.  When he wanted to sit, he would stay on the potty for-freaking-ever.  And when he was feeling willful, there was no power on earth that would change his mind.  And then he’d pee and poop on me for good measure, before I had a chance to put his underwear back on!

Then there’s traveling with the potty.  And the dog who ate the poop from the potty.  And hours on your knees singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” next to the potty.  And ALL the people who think you’re nuts because your life revolves around a darn potty.

But then one day, before your child is even two years old, it hits you.  There’s rarely a wet pair of pants anymore.  And when you’re stuck in traffic and your toddler needs to poop and you tell him to hold it until you get home… He holds it.  And you see the quiet self-confidence that develops within your child when he is allowed to exercise his free will, experience consequences, and learn from them, all the while knowing that there’s a loving adult by his side, never judging, just waiting.

And you realize it’s ALL been worth it.  Every single stinky, poopy, knee-busting, back-breaking moment.

Will I do it again if I have another child?  In a heartbeat.

Am I looking forward to it?  Not so much.

And there you have it: The truth about early toileting awareness.  When it’s good, it’s very very good.  And when it’s bad… It’s still worth it.



6 thoughts on “The Truth About Elimination Communication”

  1. I definitely agree about the “bumpy, winding, and often discouraging” road. We actually started at 3 weeks old because my son had digestive trouble that made it very obvious when he needed to have a bowel movement. We hoped holding him in the “potty position” would help make his tummy feel better. Once he realized he didn’t have to poop in his diaper, he would let us know by whining when he needed to poop at only 3 weeks old. Sometimes we were in the car and couldn’t take him (it was winter, so outside was out of the question), and we would tell him it was o.k. to go in his diaper because we didn’t want him to get constipated from holding.
    But urination is another story. We weren’t very consistent about having him in diapers that allowed him to feel the wetness. At first I did, but then he was up every 15 min at night wanting to potty, so we switched to stay-dry diapers part-time. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference anyway. At almost 2 years, we’re still working on staying dry during the day, but he’s progressing. It helps if I pay attention to the clock and take him at least every two hours when he’s between activities. Sometimes he doesn’t want to take of the wet underwear. It helps if I touch the dry pair and say “dry,” and touch the ones he’s wearing and say “wet.” He usually copies and takes off the wet pair.
    I often got comments about taking my infant to the toilet. But I agree, I will definitely do it again with the next one.

  2. Thank you for this piece of reality. I’ve been trying my hand at this since my boy was 4 months old. We progress and then we regress. I often wonder if it’s me, like I’m too intense about the process. Or maybe I’m not following his lead and being patient in his process. It does feel like my butt has left an indent on the tile floor of the bathroom some days. So glad I came across your post on your experiences!

  3. I’ve done EC with both of my girls from birth. My first was the poster child for EC and was easily potty trained, day and night by 14 months. My second has been a bit more like your son 🙂 She’s 16 months and mostly wearing undies all the time, but we have a few more misses with her. I think it actually makes a big difference when you start doing it with them from birth… maybe something to try with that next one. If you have a read about ‘Dunstun’s baby language’, she doesn’t actually talk about EC, but she does mention that babies have a certain way they communicate and then they loose that communication if it’s not responded to by about three months old. Very interesting stuff. I like what you said about how all of a sudden it all works out and you start noticing that they are capable of holding a while. It’s been happening for me the past couple weeks… and YES, EC is hard work, but totally worth it to me 🙂

  4. Very real, but my son is 3 and a half years old and we´ve tried everything. At 2 everyone said it was time to leave the diapers so we started. It was a mess, he did not want to leave them and it was a yelling time, fighting time, when we wanted him “just to go” walking to the bathroom. So we tried one summer, two months and I got tired, stressed so as my husband and my parents too as we were on vacation. My son realized when he wanted to go, so physically he was prepared, mentally, we did not think so. Therefore we waited until he was 2, 1/2 years old, same old thing, we tried, got tyred of washing poop underpants, 5 or 6 a day wet in pi and so on. So, we went back to diapers again. Nowadays he is 3 and a half and does not want to leave the diapers, so we are just waiting…. some day he will leave them we say. IT IS NOT A MATTER OF LEAVING THE DIAPPERS WHEN YOU CHILD IS 4 MONTHS OLD, HE IS SO MUCH TOO YOUNG! BUT LIKE ME, 3 AND A HALF IS SOOOO MUCH, BUT WHAT CAN WE DO, TIE HIM AND PUT HIM IN THE POT? So, can montessori help me with this? I would love an answer to my email, thank you

  5. I could have written this! I played with EC on and off from when my daughter was four months old or so, but without a w/d connection, a few days of having a bathroom that looked like a laundromat and hands dried from constant soaking in detergent would deter me for a while. When she was about 15 months old, I started working with her actively. By 19 months, she was almost fool-proof, going all by herself, letting me know when she was done! Until I took her on vacation. Once the two week vacation was over, we moved to a bigger house. It was like we never started. Now at almost 24 months, I’ve figured out our house is probably too big for her to have her potty anywhere besides the living room, and after adjusting to that, she seems to be improving quickly. Hopefully she stays that way! The gap between the 19 and 24 months was super depressing, though, especially since I’d gotten out of the habit of putting her in diapers at all. All I can say is, “buy a shampooer”

  6. Just found this great blog and this article. I think it’s really important to treat EC in a realistical way and for me it is still convincing. It’s just like with most things: Kids differ and development comes in waves.
    I was very sceptcal when my wife came up with the idea of EC, but said to myself: “why not try it”. And it was a really etnhusiastic feeling when I suddenly realised that it works and the stuff really ends up in the potty. But of course, the wet and even worse pants also happened. In that cases it helped me saying to myself that changing a full diaper with that in it would also be no fun and that these accidents would also happen changing from diapers to potty when the kid is older- so we just get done with it earlier and invest into a brighter future … 🙂

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