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.




Nothing To Fear… But Fear Itself

Almost invariably, if I tell a parent that my son has been in underpants since he turned one, they look horrified and ask: “But… What if he has an ACCIDENT???”

Uh, I change him and wipe the floor?

I get the same horrified look when I say that he’s been drinking from a real glass and using porcelain plates and glass bowls since he was six months old: “But… What if he BREAKS ONE???”

Uh, I sweep up the pieces and throw them away?

And don’t even get me started on using forks with sharp tines or potato peelers without “safety guards”…

We all want our children to grow up to be responsible, self-aware, and self-disciplined.  Yet, for fear of a little puddle, a tiny nick on the finger, or a couple of smashed $3 plates, we are denying them the very experiences that will help them get there.

What are we afraid of?  A Biblical flood of urine overtaking our homes?  The destruction of our heirloom Limoges glassware and porcelain china?  A severed artery or amputated limb?

Or are we just afraid of the inconvenience of wet underwear, broken plates, and finger scrapes?

In my view, you can either deal with the hassles of letting your child experience real consequences now… Or later.   If you avoid the messes now, they’ll just get bigger and harder to clean up the older your child gets.  And guess who’ll still be doing the clean-up?




A Place for the Potty

We have two of the world’s tiniest bathrooms, so when I decided 7 months ago that I would help Zach develop toileting awareness, I had to find a way to incorporate potties and clean & dirty underwear bins into pretty tight spaces.   Our arrangement has worked out beautifully, which is great because I spend a big chunk of my day kneeling by the potty!  We use the Baby Bjorn high backed potty, and I got the underwear bins at the Container Store.  We keep a couple of books on rotation between the potty and the bin… And that’s it!  Proof that you can ALWAYS find effective ways to modify the environment to accommodate your child’s changing needs.






Whew… My head has been spinning since November, and I’m not really sure where to begin.

Out of the blue, I was offered the amazing opportunity to head up the creation of the Elementary program at the Montessori Institute Of San Diego’s model school.  A dream come true, for sure, but one that has required me to spin a few more plates than the ones I already had going.  I’m working part-time right now, mostly from home while Zach naps, but I start work full-time in September as the head guide in our brand-new Elementary classroom!

Throughout the day, I shift my focus from caring for a toddler to ordering materials; from planning meals to creating a PowerPoint presentation.  I rarely have a moment to myself, but I do miss this little blog of mine and hope to write more often…

With the year-end craziness, I took a step back from our toileting efforts.  I had Zach mostly in disposable diapers (gasp!) throughout December because we had relatives visiting and then went on a short road trip.  I would sit him on the potty when I had an opportunity, but it wasn’t often or consistent.

I was really afraid that all his progress would be for naught, so in January I resolved to make Zach’s toileting independence a priority – regardless of my hectic schedule!  I started taking him to the potty again on a regular schedule (upon waking, before and after naps, before leaving the house and upon returning, and before bedtime).  For the first few days he seemed uninterested, and then a new awareness set in!

He now repeats the sign for “bathroom” when I make it, feels between his legs when he’s peeing, and then stands up to look at what he accomplished!  His favorite moment is when I pour the contents of the potty into the toilet and flush – he watches every moment with rapt attention.

He is mostly in padded underwear now, even during naps and short car trips (he wears a PUL cover when we’re in the car, to prevent wet spots).  Some days are better than others, but in the mornings he almost always stays dry from the time he wakes up, through his morning nap, and into noon, as long as I take him to the bathroom at regular intervals.  The padded underwear have also been great for his mobility; around the same time I stopped putting him in cloth diapers he started walking with increased stability.  It’s pretty cool… 🙂

I am beginning to appreciate the importance of the choices I made during his first 12 months of life, and I am so grateful to understand Montessori and be able to apply it.  I see the effects of the Montessori approach in Zach’s ability to play independently and creatively, repeat activities with focus, solve problems and work through challenges, and express his desires.  I think he feels respected by how we speak and act towards him, and he feels safe by the consistency and limits we offer him.

It certainly hasn’t been easy!  Many times I think: “It would be so much easier if I fed him from pouches/used disposable diapers until he turned 3/rocked or nursed him to sleep/put him in front of a TV, etc.”  And then there are the times when I just give up, like when we’re at a restaurant and he LOUDLY refuses to eat anything except french fries and white bread, despite my repeated offerings of healthy food.

What I’ve learned is that sometimes you have to lower your standards to make it through a particular day (or week, or even month).  When this happens, and the band-aid starts becoming a crutch, I force myself to ask two questions: 1) Am I doing this for the baby’s benefit or for mine? And, 2) If I continue doing this long-term, will it have developmental implications in the future?

As I told a dear friend who recently had a baby: The first three months, anything goes.  Do what you need to do to survive.  But after those first three brutal months, start asking yourself those two questions.  Making positive changes can be hard at first, but like any healthy habit, after several days of making a conscious effort the new behavior takes hold and it becomes part of your daily life!

Happy belated 2013!  🙂


Potty Post

It’s been two weeks since we introduced Zach to the potty.  I only have one word to describe our experience:


Our brief journey has been hassle-free and has become a daily reminder of the respect we should have towards the youngest members of our species.  I keep asking myself why I waited so long to introduce this process, even though we’re starting a lot earlier than most families.  He seems so content every time he relieves himself on the potty, and his discomfort when his cloth diaper is wet or soiled is more evident now.

We are approaching toilet education with the view that, from Zach’s perspective, using the potty is not a big deal since elimination is a natural bodily function.  Therefore, we don’t make a huge celebration out of every pee, nor do we pressure him if he’s not willing to use the potty.  We have just included sitting on the potty for 2-5 minutes as part of our daily rhythm and routine – first thing in the morning, last thing before bedtime, and before and after each nap.  Zach eliminates on the potty on average about three out of the six opportunities he gets every day.  Some days he’s happy to sit on the potty for 5 minutes, and other days he wriggles out of it as soon as his bottom touches the plastic.  We respect his wishes every time.  His awareness is definitely growing; at first it seemed he peed by chance, after several minutes of sitting, but now he’ll go as soon as he sits down.

We’re not the only ones having success with early toilet education: a close friend decided to keep her 11-month old son diaper-free for a couple of days to determine his urination patterns.  Based on her observations, she started taking him to the bathroom at certain intervals and now the little boy is successfully using the potty!

Yesterday, my husband, Zach and I went to a gathering with several French and Belgian families.  Upon finding out I was a Montessori teacher, a French woman asked how I practiced Montessori at home. I told her we did some things a little differently than most American families, and gave her the example of the floor bed and early toilet education.  While she was surprised by the floor bed, she told me that potty training during the first year of life made perfect sense from her cultural viewpoint.  And then a Belgian mom told me that her child had regular bowel movements in the potty by 12 months of age and was completely dry by 18 months.

“Difference is of the essence of humanity… [and] should never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”John Hume 

P.S.: Remember my plans to travel to Mexico with our potty?  Well, my mother – the most awesome Montessori mother/grandmother alive – just bought him his very own potty to use during our visit!  Hurray for supportive grandparents!!!


Give Me a Pee!!!

I’m currently reading Diaper Free Before Three, a fabulous book about early toilet training that supports several tenets of the Montessori philosophy (and even quotes Dr. Montessori). It reviews the history of American toilet training from the 1800’s to the present and gives logical, scientific, and thoroughly convincing arguments for helping young children achieve toileting independence at a young age (note: it’s not a guide for practicing elimination communication).

I considered doing elimination communication (EC) before Zach was born, but once he came into our lives I had my plate full just figuring out the breastfeeding, crying (his and mine!) and sleeping (or lack thereof). I had no time or energy to be worrying about catching pees or poops! We use cloth diapers, but that’s been the extent of my efforts in the toileting department.

About a month ago (when Zach turned 7 months) I realized that he had started having bowel movements on a regular schedule. He is also starting to fight diaper changes, a major indicator (at least to me) that he’s ready to move on from diapers.

I started reading Diaper Free Before Three, which a friend from my Bergamo training recommended (thanks Sarah!). I also spent some time at Babies R Us checking out the potties – seriously, singing potties with frog eyes? How on earth did human beings ever learn to use the toilet before the advent of singing potties with frog eyes? And would that not scare the crap out of you (pun intended) if you were a baby? Hmm… Maybe they’re onto something… But I digress… 

After some research (yes, I researched potties), I settled on the Baby Bjorn. I chose that potty based on many positive reviews, which praised its high back rest and clean design (no crevices from which to dig out poop). No poop-digging? Sign me up!

This morning, I placed the potties in our two bathrooms to get Zach used to the idea of them being there. I really wasn’t thinking of sitting him on the potty until the end of October, after we return from a trip to Mexico. It seemed wrong to toilet train him for three weeks and then stop for a week during our trip.

I did, however, decide that I would not use diaper covers when we are home, so that I can start to understand his urination patterns. Today, before his noon nap, I changed his diaper and only used the prefold (no cover). When he woke up, I noticed he had had a bowel movement. I took him to the bathroom to change him and when I was taking off the diaper I realized that the front was dry. I wiped his bottom clean but instead of putting on a clean diaper I told him to try to pee on the potty. I put him on the potty and he seemed quite at ease. He looked around, and not ten seconds later started to pee!! He finished and smiled, clearly satisfied with his new experience!

I couldn’t believe my eyes! It works! And the best part was that it was so natural for both of us… No praise, no stickers, no confusion. Just a baby boy following his body’s urges and a first-time momma following her child.

Except now I’m going to have to travel to Mexico with the potty…

Update: I’ve been sitting Zach on the potty daily for the past three days, every time he wakes up and after every meal. I’ve yet to catch a poop but he pees just about every time! I love how natural and matter-of-fact the process is when you introduce your child to toileting at an early age. By starting now, I’m setting the expectation that pee and poo belong in the toilet. Therefore, when he’s old enough to walk and become conscious of his body’s elimination needs, he’ll know where to go! To me, this makes more sense than letting your child get used to eliminating in a diaper and then one day letting him know that it’s wrong.