Learning From Our Infants

How babies can participate in their own toilet training.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

One of the tightest interpersonal connections in the world is between new parents and their infants. Although tightening this connection seems unlikely, it is possible to enrich and expand it—in ways that go beyond the connection itself. One way to accomplish this is with elimination communication.

Babies instinctually resist soiling themselves, their caregivers, and their sleeping area. They also communicate about their need to eliminate waste, starting shortly after birth. By using elimination communication, parents take advantage of the infant’s natural desire to urinate and defecate away from themselves and important people and places in their young lives. To do this, parents pay close attention to the rhythms of the infant’s elimination and to the infant’s expressions and behaviors before eliminating waste.   

Personal collection of Robert Kraft
Source: Personal collection of Robert Kraft

Parents know approximately when their baby will urinate or defecate, and the baby gives them signals—which the parents need to learn. The parents then take the baby to an appropriate area for eliminating waste and make cueing sounds letting the baby know she should go. The baby, in turn, associates these sounds and gestures with urinating or defecating. With more parents working at home these days, this procedure may become even more suitable for modern life.

To begin, parents attend to the amount of time between their baby awakening or eating and then eliminating—and also the interval after that. A young baby may urinate about two minutes after waking in the morning and then every eight minutes during the morning. The afternoon may have different intervals. Recording these intervals helps parents learn the patterns.

Transitions in daily activities should be specially attended to—waking in the morning or from a nap, before being placed in a high chair or a car seat, before and after a bath, before, during, or right after nursing, before leaving the house, upon arriving at any destination, and before leaving that location. 

This approach is actually more natural and more friendly to the baby than what many people consider the standard procedure—using diapers for at least two years, which is then followed by an often protracted and frustrating period of toilet training. In effect, this standard modern procedure for toilet training actually unconditions the infant’s natural response and then reconditions the infant to soil herself. Elimination communication is a natural way to respond to a baby’s hygiene needs, from as early as birth. It is only relatively recently in modern humanity that diapers were pinned and then taped on babies.

Andrea Olson of Go Diaper Free asks, “What did humans do before diapers? And what do humans do in regions where diapers are not commercially available?” She has found that when a baby won’t stop crying, chances are the baby is responding to a soiled diaper. 

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before that, the baby most likely gave signals that she was going to eliminate waste. Being attentive to these signals allows this whole process to work by tapping into the natural tendencies of the infant. Diapers can still be used as a back-up on the way to reliable non-diapered elimination.

Even if parents don’t begin right away and start after the first year, elimination communication still works. It is simply another form of communication, but one that yields less stress and fewer diapers. Elimination communication is sustainable not only in the sense of maintaining itself in the baby’s behavior, but also more broadly in reducing the amounts of diapers that go into landfills.  

Ingrid Bauer introduced these ideas to western society more than 50 years ago and has a thorough book describing the procedure, Diaper Free. Laurie Boucke also detailed the procedure in Infant Potty Training. For specific information about elimination communication, refer to the web pages for Andrea Olson, Laurie Boucke, and Ingrid Bauer.  

We all live within concentric circles of daily concerns, moving outward from our own self-maintenance to relationships with others to challenges with work and out to larger social and environmental issues. For new parents, one way to move through all these circles of concern is through elimination communication, connecting with your baby, learning your baby’s specific ways of expressing, reducing what goes into landfills, and nurturing the life of your family.