PAMELA ANDREWS does not seem like a lunatic, but the facts are indisputable: on this sunny fall day in Toronto, she is encouraging toddlers to climb on her couch and run around her living room—her wall-to-wall carpeted living room—with no diapers, or, in some cases, anything at all on their bottoms. Her own son, 23-month-old Aidan, disposed of diapers about a year and a half ago. “He never liked being wet,” shrugs Andrews, a preternaturally calm woman with a shock of white hair.
And Andrews herself never liked diapers. She and the other members in her diaper-free support group believe that diapers, even cloth ones, are unhygienic, expensive, environmentally unfriendly and for the most part unnecessary. Even at a few months of age, they say, babies should be afforded the dignity of being held over the toilet. Or the sink. “A lot of people recognize the signals that their baby has to go,” says Andrews. “This is just about responding differently to those signals.”
“This” is elimination communication, a phrase coined by Ingrid Bauer, a B.C. writer whose self-published book Diaper-Free! is the bible of a growing global movement. The diaper-free diaspora includes nine chapters in Canada, all led by women who subscribe to Bauer’s notion that the ideal time to start potty training is in the first weeks of life. “Difficulties increase,” Bauer cautions, as the baby nears five months.
EC works like this: you sense the baby needs to go, then hold him over a receptacle while cuing him with a sound. Soon enough, the baby will begin to use that same sound to indicate he needs to go—and when he doesn’t, maternal intuition will kick in. “My son didn’t poop in a diaper after four months,” says Bauer, a little starchily, “and my daughter never pooped in one.”
Nevertheless, EC devotees stress that diaper-free doesn’t mean giving up diapers altogether. Carol Niravong, a member of the Toronto group, uses them on outings, “just in case.” But, she says, her 20-monthold son rarely soils them. “I started ECing Noah when he was four months old, and in all this time we’ve had less than a dozen mishaps.” She glances proudly at Noah, who is playing with a large purple ball, then scoops him up and hustles to the bathroom. “Excuse me, that’s his pooh face.”
The idea that parents should intuit and respond to a baby’s elimination needs is heretical in North America, where the prevailing wisdom is that children should use the toilet of their own volition, when they are “ready.” Over the past 50 years, the presumed age of readiness has climbed steadily, creating a boom—and ever larger sizes—in the multi-billion-dollar disposable diaper market. Child development gurus such as T. Berry Brazelton issue dark warnings about the psychological perils of rushing kids out of diapers; the redoubtable Penelope Leach briskly dismisses any attempt to toilet train in the first year of life as “a mistake” made by parents who put their own desires ahead of their child’s needs.
“That simply doesn’t jibe with the experience of millions of women around the world,” says Bauer, noting that EC is common practice in China, India and parts of Africa. “It’s a Western reaction to coercive early toilet training, which EC is not.” In fact, its devotees say, EC is more respectful to children than “training them to go in their diapers and sit in their waste,” says Niravong. Not only is the baby kept cleaner and therefore happier—EC promotes bonding and is fun for the whole family. Yes, fun. “It feels good to be able to respond to your child’s needs in this way,” says Andrews. “Most people are converted when they catch their first pooh.” Niravong disagrees: “For me, it was catching the first pee.”
Christine Rustecki, another member of the Toronto group, ticks off the benefits: EC empowers the baby, is easier on the parent . . . Whoa. Easier? “It’s more work to change a baby,” says Rustecki, who looks like a less dewy-eyed Dorothy Hamill. “And very rarely has my daughter peed on me.”
“I had pooh on me twice,” Andrews says, ruminatively. “It was in summer, on my bare leg. That was kind of gross, I have to say.”
“But at least with EC you never have to deal with a pooh-plastered butt,” points out Niravong. “In China, what we’re doing is totally normal. No one gets upset if a little baby pee goes on the floor.”
Of course, EC is more than a little impractical for parents who work outside the home. But is it the latest salvo in the mommy wars? “Just because I think this is better for my family doesn’t mean I think everyone should do it,” says Niravong.
It’s clear, though, that these women believe EC promotes mother-child attachment. Whether they are right, it should be noted that during their meeting, all their children happily used the toilet—and at the end, Andrews’carpet was still dry.
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