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.





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.