In Laos, where Christa Niravong was born, babies rarely wear diapers. “It’s just considered normal to take your baby to pee,” she says. When her daughter Atarah was three weeks old, Niravong’s older sister helped her get started in going diaper-free, also called “elimination communication.”
Big sister had used this approach with her own child, and Niravong says it was easy to get going.
But it doesn’t seem so easy to most Canadian parents. In fact, some think it’s a pretty strange — maybe even a little gross — idea: We’re used to having our babies in diapers. “I read about elimination communication online when I was pregnant. I thought it was a crazy idea,” recalls Rachael Ward. But a little more reading and thought convinced her to give it a try. “I figured we had nothing to lose and could go back to normal diapering at any time,” she explains. Two children later, she’s an enthusiastic fan.
Here’s the concept behind elimination communication: Babies will give signals when they need to pee or poop, just as they give signals when they are hungry. They might fuss, squirm in a particular way, hold their breath — every baby is different. If you respond by taking them to a place where they can “go” (a potty, a toilet, a bowl, outside, even a folded diaper) and holding them in a semi-sitting or seated position, they are encouraged to continue giving those signals and making them clearer as they get older.
The name “diaper-free” is not entirely accurate, as most parents do use diapers between potty trips “just in case” or when there is nowhere to easily take the baby.
The big question: Does it work? Emma Kwasnica, a mother of three, says it’s been great for her. Her first daughter, now six, was conventionally diapered as a baby, but the midwife she saw while she was expecting now three-year-old Sophie encouraged her to learn more about the process. “I started when Sophie was a newborn, but then we had to move and I couldn’t keep up while I was packing, so we only did it part-time,” Kwasnica says. “At three months, I started again in earnest, and it was fantastic.”
When baby number three, Chloe, arrived, Kwasnica began doing elimination communication right from birth. “I feel very entwined with this baby — when she needs to go, I just know. She’s a year old now, and I haven’t missed a poop since she was 12 days old. ”
Clearly, some effort is required in learning your baby’s cues and getting him to a suitable place in time, so this may not be the right choice for every parent. You also need to be willing to put up with the inevitable accidents. However, it doesn’t really take more time than changing the baby’s diapers, which you’d be doing anyway.
When one parent does most of the caregiving, it may be easier for that person to learn baby’s cues, but that doesn’t mean the other parent can’t participate. What may be harder is finding a daycare provider who will give it a try. Kwasnica says some parents do diaper-free part-time (say, evenings and weekends) and find it works for them.
Olena Russell got off to a slow start with her first diaper-free baby because she was focused on breastfeeding challenges. “At about a month, I started taking Kasian to the bathroom,” Russell says. “At first, I was kind of guessing. I’d take him when he woke up or if he hadn’t gone for a while. Then I noticed that if he started popping on and off the breast, it meant he was going to pee. As I responded to his cues, he’d make them more obvious.” She kept him in cloth diapers without a cover at first, but found that by the time he was two months old, she could leave him with a bare bottom.
The crawling and early walking stages often bring new challenges. “When Atarah started to crawl, we had a harder time because she didn’t want to stop what she was doing,” Niravong says. “But we got past that, and by the time she was 16 months, she just wore underwear.”
While saving money on diapers and preventing rashes sound like good practical reasons for going diaper-free, that’s not what most parents who do it get excited about. “It’s the connection,” says Niravong. “You feel very in tune with your child’s needs.”
Tools for going diaper-free
• A small potty or bowl with a handle can be very helpful with a newborn because you can hold it under the baby even while you’re nursing (it’s easier than it sounds).
• A cloth diaper with a wool “soaker” or no cover at all can protect your furniture in case you miss the signals, but still lets you know the baby is wet so you can change her quickly.
• Use elimination-friendly baby clothes: long tops with leg warmers or leggings, two-piece outfits, split-crotch pants, etc. “If you have to undo a lot of snaps, or pull the pants off one leg at a time, you’ll probably get peed on,” says Russell.
• A waterproof pad with an absorbent towel or diaper on top can help keep things dry at night with a baby who doesn’t move around much. Many parents doing elimination communication sleep next to their babies and find they are woken when the baby signals. (Because baby boys can create little fountains at night, a diaper may help until you’re confident you can get him to the potty on time.)