Grow Ages & Stages Toddler

Elimination Communication

Orange toddler potty on white background
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Written by Guggie Daly

When it comes to topics such as sleeping arrangements and breastfeeding, gentle or attached parents know that respect is key for healthy, deep connections with their children. But have you stopped to consider how to respectfully potty?

We acknowledge that a baby knows when he is hungry and that he communicates this clearly in small ways that eventually escalate to get our attention. Similarly, we know that children show cues when they are tired and that things will escalate if they miss a nap or don’t have a stable bedtime routine.

Believe it or not, babies know when they need to go and they tell you in many different ways. The method of watching for these cues and responding to them is called elimination communication. It’s important to remember that this method is not the same as baby toilet training, which is a fairly rigid and sometimes abusive technique, perhaps comparable to scheduled feedings or cry-it-out. Elimination communication is not focused on training the baby to meet an arbitrary schedule or parental need.

It is about listening, responding and affirming the child’s communication attempts.

The interesting thing about elimination communication is how we in the developed world have made it into a method. In earlier times and in many other parts of the world, this is simply how life works with a baby. Just as when your baby fusses, you latch her onto the breast, in other homes, when a baby fusses the mother holds her baby over a toilet, pot or other bathroom receptacle to pee or poop.

Elimination communication is a stuffy sounding term and since the process involves a baby, pee, and poop, parents are quick to feel hesitant about this option. But as a mother who has incorporated elimination communication into my parenting with four children now, I really encourage you to explore this option. It does not have to be a full or permanent commitment. You can also practice the spirit of the method even while diapering.

What do you need? All you need is a designated place for pee and poo. That could be the toilet, sink, tub, baby potties, bowls, cups or the great outdoors. You might also want waterproof pads for your bed or the baby’s sleeping space and play areas to reduce clean up efforts when learning this method. Some people also make or buy split pants so the child can stay clothed while pottying but this isn’t a requirement. You might know that cloth diapers save you a lot of money compared to disposables, but elimination communication is the cheapest of all.

How do you get started? If you are preparing for a newborn, starting with many little bowls or cups around the house is ideal. That way you can have a little potty on hand everywhere in the house, ready at any moment while you and the baby are learning about each other and getting used to your unique relationship in all things from sleeping to eating to eliminating. Just as you need to spend time skin to skin, learning your newborn’s cues for hunger and sleep, you will spend time watching for elimination cues.

If you are starting with an older infant but under age 1, you will find some things are easier while other things might need more patience. It’s tricky to undo learned behaviors and develop a new routine. It’s easier when the child is several months old because you’ve begun to understand your little one’s routines. You know roughly when your baby poops during the day and might even recognize grunts or movements that indicate elimination.

Sometimes, however, older babies and toddlers become diaper trained. By this I mean they lose the ability to recognize their needs or they lose the desire to communicate this to their caregivers. They might also develop a desire to eliminate into the diapers only and feel awkward without a diaper on, whether they need to go or not. Responding to elimination needs later in the game can require a lot of patience as you establish a new level of trust and communication. For some older babies and toddlers, they might never fully recover clear cues and elimination habits, so only part time elimination communication is possible.

Which brings me to the next frequently asked questions: Do you have to use this method exclusively? Do you have to use this method from birth onwards? Can you change your mind? Can you take a break? Can you do a combination? Elimination communication is a mindset and a method. You can acknowledge your baby’s elimination needs and respond quickly whether you are diaper free 100% of the time or 10% of the time.

For example, if you need to use cloth diapers while at a holiday function, you can still notice your baby’s grunt and respond quickly, changing the diaper immediately and affirming him. “Oh, a poopy! Let’s change your diaper!” Some parents only go diaper free at home and then use diapers while traveling. Some parents are diaper free during the day but put on a diaper at night. Finding out what works for you and your baby is part of the process.

You will also notice a natural ebb and flow with milestones, the same as with breastfeeding. Some weeks you will breastfeed smoothly but then hit a choppy period, such as teething or a growth spurt. Your baby might go on a nursing strike as they call it and reject the breast. Some complications can be hurdles to breastfeeding, such as illness, infection and injury. This is the same with elimination communication. Babies will have smooth periods with clear cues, but then they might go on a potty strike or change their body cycles. Complications such as food allergies, antibiotic usage or neurological conditions can be hurdles to elimination communication. These stages and hurdles will pass or can be overcome with research and perseverance.

So what specifically do you do? Here’s an example. Anna is 5 months old and breastfeeding every 2-3 hours. Her mom knows that Anna tends to pee after each breastfeeding session. When Anna is breastfeeding and arches her back and kicks her legs, her mom takes her over to the toilet and asks, “Anna, do you need to go potty?” Anna then pees into the toilet.

You can develop your own terms and keywords. Some people use sign language and some people add sounds such as grunts or hissing. This mimicry is seen in many other aspects of interacting with a baby, by responding to their babbles, repeating their questions and mirroring their cute noises. It encourages development of the relationship, lets the baby know you are listening, and expands verbal skills.

Finally, you might be asking, why should I do this? The better question is: why not? Even if you decide to fully diaper, the spirit of elimination communication can still be incorporated into a diapering method. Raising a child who has been supported in self-awareness and who has practiced communicating with you about bodily functions means a simpler transition for toddler pottying. And knowing the cues and routines of your baby gives you more confidence in recognizing potential problems that need intervention. At the core of responsive, respectful parenting is the realization that our children are unique, aware, sensing humans who want to communicate with us and have their needs met. Elimination communication does all of this and is an excellent option to add to your parenting toolbox.

For more information about elimination communication, be sure to review the many videos on youtube both showing examples of this method and providing tutorials. You can also visit Diaperfreebaby.org to get started.

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Guggie Daly