Q&A: early toilet training

Emily writes:

"I'm pregnant with my first child, and have been reading a bit about the early toilet training/diaperless baby movement.  It's hard to get a read on it because people either think it's crazy or genius.  I don't think that early toilet training warps a child psychologically, and I think the environmental arguments for it are compelling.  Also, I'd rather start early than be frantically trying to toilet train the two months before preschool, like my niece.  But I do wonder if it's doable, or more work than it's worth.  What do you and your readers think?  I'd be particularly interested in those who tried it and gave up, or those who combined it with daycare."

I think when you call it "early toilet training" people do think it's nuts, because "training" implies control, and babies just can't control when they poop or pee.

But when you think of it as "elimination communication" or early toilet learning, it makes a ton more sense, because babies can absolutely communicate. In both directions. If you think about it in terms of the way babies get themselves fed, the process starts to become even more clear: A baby gives little signals--smacking the lips, rooting, eventually escalating to fussing, then crying--to indicate hunger. The adult responds with food, so the next time the baby uses those same signals, and the adult responds and it starts a beautiful cycle that goes on happily until the next thing you know the kid's saying, "Mo-om, do we have any juice boxes?"

But you can also change the course of that communication to make things more clear if you'd like. From the time my second baby was a few hours old, every time I fed him I'd say "nurse" very clearly just as I put him on. After about 5-6 days, when he'd fuss to eat I'd say "nurse" and he knew I understood and was coming and he'd calm down for the few seconds it took. Some people introduce a hand sign for food when their babies are a few months old, and it has the same effect, and then the child can use the sign to ask for food long before they can use words.

Bodily functions are bodily functions, so you can do the same thing and create a big feedback loop with peeing and pooping. Basically, you just try to notice the teeny little signals your newborn gives when prepping to pee or poop, and then respond to that by changing the diaper immediately or holding the baby over the sink/toilet/receptacle. Eventually the feedback loop will let the child know that you're going to help them eliminate when they give the signal. But you can also change the course of that communication by introducing noises or hand signals that the child can make long before they can talk. Some cultures do a little "shh-shh" noise when the baby pees, and when the baby is old enough to say "shh-shh" they can tell the adult when they need to pee.

It doesn't mean that a baby or toddler can actually hold it and wait for long periods of time, but it does mean you're communicating, and the baby can tell you when s/he needs to go.

Now, in theory it works well, and it also works well in cultures in which parents are with their babies all day and night, everyone in the culture is familiar with it, and people aren't too picky about what happens to their floor coverings. In practice, it's hard for most of us in "developed" countries to do a full-on elimination communication without some compromises. There are some  times you just can't stop and hold your baby over a bowl to pee (on the subway, riding in the car, while doing preschool pick-up with an older child, etc.), or even change a diaper immediately. Which is why the focus should be on the communication aspect of it, instead of the "I have to catch every pee every time" sense that some parents can fall victim to.

Going back to what we were saying in the email from the woman who was smacking her child to sleep, parenting is a long conversation with your child. You don't have to understand everything perfectly, and say the right thing each time, as long as you're generally tuned in and you're able to focus when your child really needs you to. Pottying is the same thing, so you don't have to catch every single pee to have your child be able to tell you when s/he needs to go. And kids eliminate differently from each other, just as kids eat differently from each other, so you could catch every single drop from birth and have a kid who still wore diapers until age 3 (but was great at communicating with you) or do it part-time when the child wasn't in daycare and have a kid who was out of diapers at home from the time s/he could walk.

So my advice is to try it, have fun with it, enjoy the extra communication it gives you with your baby, but don't feel like it's something that you pass or fail.

Now, comments from anyone who's done it or grown up in a culture in which it is/was done?