Should Your Baby be Diaper Free?

One of the questions I constantly ask myself, as a parent, is “How can I make my job harder?”

One of the least appealing traits of babies is their perpetual incontinence. Yes, they are very cute and cuddly but there’s no getting around the fact that they pee and poop everywhere without consideration. They all do it, even the perfect-looking ones. Baby excrement is a problem that affects everyone.

Parents are constantly trying to find a way to deal with this better. It’s tough. Disposable diapers make things simpler for many people, but they definitely create a lot of waste. Cloth diapers can cut down on the landfill space but they still require a good deal of water for washing. Also, they gross some people out. I’ll spare you the details and just point out that you already know what diapers are supposed to catch.

Behold, a group of people have stepped up to the plate and found a way to avoid diapers all together. After all, there are cultures throughout the world that don’t use diapers at all. Some of these places don’t have running water either but that is beside the point.

There is a theory that is popular among a particular group of parents called Elimination Communication (EC). According to one prominent EC site, babies are born potty-trained. They don’t want to sit around in poop or pee. Parents train them to sit in their own waste by using diapers. Then, later, we have to untrain them. This cycle does sound inefficient. There’s no question that EC is a better environmental option than any sort of diapering. Many, many parents struggle with potty training.

How, exactly, do you do EC? You can start EC with a fresh out-of-the-oven newborn. Take the baby to the potty and make a “ssss” sound. You can also carry around a bowl or some other sort of portable potty so that you can “catch” pees and poops. Experienced EC parents say that they’ve learned to read the baby’s expression and can tell when the baby needs to go. Then, they take the baby to the potty. It takes constant vigilance and communication but it can be done.

It helps a lot if you wear the baby in a sling. That will foster closer contact. If you use diapers at all, you should use cloth. They make the baby more conscious of wetness and therefore the baby will be less likely to wet the diaper.

If you practice EC, there will be accidents. If you practice it full-time, you’ll be better at it then if you only do it part-time.  EC is based on constantly monitoring and responding to your baby’s needs so it meshes well with the practice of Attachment Parenting.

I’ve read the EC advice on many sites and I even read a book. My question is: How did diapers even come to be if EC is this easy? Why did disposable diapers ever become popular?

The problem lies in manual labor, specifically women’s labor. There was an excellent discussion about an early version of disposable diapers on Mad Men. One executive felt that the disposable diapers would never catch on because they were so much more expensive than cloth diapers. Disposables have dropped in price but there’s still a cost difference, especially if you have more than one child and reuse the cloth diapers. They have to be soaked and washed and disposables just go in the trash. I’m not defending or promoting either one but the time investment and labor involved in cloth-diapering is a reality.

EC is practiced in many hunter-gatherer cultures so it should work for us, right? Well, keep in mind that in these societies, the baby is exclusively with mom 24/7 for at least the first six months of life. There are no Mom’s night’s out, romantic couples’ dinners or even a nice long bath on your own. The baby is always present. A mother this attached to her baby can probably read its mind but at what expense? As Emily Bazelon from Slate put it, “Babies without diapers in this country sounds to me a lot like mothers without lives.”

EC requires constant vigilance from the primary care provider. How, exactly, is a working mother supposed to pull this off? Or a mother with more than one child? I’ve had a newborn and it was exhausting. I simply can’t imagine trying to monitor the baby for elimination cues on top of everything else. I was so sleep-deprived that my IQ dropped at least 40 points. I had a great time trying to imagine asking a daycare provider to practice EC. It’s extremely difficult to find a daycare provider that will get on board with cloth diapers.

Here’s a great store for buying “EC” stuff. They sell sippy cups so the little one will be sure to keep eliminating. There are many helpful forums including one on ECing in cold weather (cold butts cause trouble?) You can find many online support groups and local groups that meet on waterproof tarps. has an online group dedicated to elimination communication.

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