I first heard the term “Elimination Communication” (EC) after talking with others about the lack of diapers in countries like Ethiopia, and how parents and caregivers in developing countries handle potty training. It left me wanting to talk with parents who use this method in their parenting here in North America. In this fourth installment of my series Parenting Against the Grain, I talk with Indira Flores, a Canadian mom who agreed to share her experience using EC with her daughter. Hope you find it as interesting as I did!
Zoe Saint-Paul: Welcome, Indira! Please tell us a little bit about you and your family.
Indira Flores: Our family currently comprises my husband Shawn, our 14-month-old daughter Aurora, and me. We live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, where Shawn works as a civil engineer and I’m on (extended) maternity leave from my federal government job. It’s very “Ottawa” of us, as a huge chunk of Canada’s public servants are housed here. Shawn and I met through mutual friends about seven years ago near the end of university. Our favorite hobby is eating out — in fact, at this moment I’m in Syracuse visiting a waffle restaurant that was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives!
ZSP: Elimination Communication (EC) isn’t something most people have heard of. Can you explain what it is?
IF: In short, it’s giving your baby the opportunity to go in the potty instead of in his or her diaper, right from infancy. At the beginning, you observe your baby to learn what signals he gives when he needs to go (some babies cry, others squirm, for example) and as he grows, you try to work with that so that you take him to the potty in time to catch his pees and poos.
The aim is to make your baby aware that you’re trying to meet his need to potty so that he doesn’t have to soil himself. For example, newborns cry when they have a need, and parents react by feeding them, holding them, or changing their diapers. As a result, babies learn that, when they cry, mommy or daddy will come to their aid. What if, before putting on a new diaper, you held your baby over a receptacle/sink/toilet and gave her a chance to pee or poo, with an encouraging “pssss” sound or grunt to boot? It’s an EC parent’s hope that, by repeating this behavior, the baby will eventually hold on for a bit and, instead, communicate (a.k.a. fuss) until they’re taken to the potty. As the child grows and their communication skills improve, so will the process.
ZSP: How did you discover EC, and why did you choose to practice it in your parenting?
IF: I was early to an appointment with my midwife and began perusing her group’s lending library. As a first-time parent-to-be, the words “Diaper-Free Baby” jumped out at me. I borrowed the book and also did some googling. EC really made sense to me. Prior to that, I hadn’t given this aspect of baby care much thought; I saw myself stocking up on disposable diapers, and that was it. But discovering that little humans do have some control over their systems, I couldn’t stand the idea of my baby basically resigning herself to going in her diaper all the time simply because mom and dad weren’t responding to her. So that’s what triggered it: The idea that, from birth to around two years old, a child is conditioned to go in his diaper. Then “potty-training” is started, where you try to reverse what you’ve been teaching your child his entire life.
In addition, as a Canadian mom, I was afforded a year of (almost fully) paid maternity leave. As such, I had to make the most of it. Not in the sense of martyring myself, but exploring motherhood and trying out different things with my little one. So basically, I had all the time in the world to take my infant daughter to her little potty every 15 minutes as we tried out this EC thing.
ZSP: What does EC look like on a daily basis in your home? Are there set times you place your daughter on the potty? Or are you just trying to notice her need to go and respond from day to day?
IF: It’s a combination, really. As soon as Aurora wakes up, we take her to the bathroom. Now that she’s 14 months, we don’t always have to take her immediately. Like clockwork, she tends to starts fussing halfway through her breakfast, so then I take her to the bathroom. Then we go back to the kitchen and finish eating.
If we have anywhere to go, like the library or a coffee shop, I take her to the bathroom just before leaving the house. Depending on the travel time, I’ll take her again upon arrival or about 40 minutes since she last went. I seem more aware of her needs when we are out and about. Throughout the day, if I hear the slightest grunt — we quickly learned that this was the signal for her — I take her to the bathroom and she poops. Sometimes I’m on the money; sometimes not.
Finally, we take her right before bed. If she takes more than 20 minutes to fall asleep or she starts babbling a lot, we either take her to the bathroom again or find ourselves with another wet diaper. Once she’s asleep, we’re good until the following morning. On occasion, we might feel her moving a lot in her sleep. When that happens, either Shawn or I take a sleepy little girl to the bathroom. She pees and then we bring her back to bed, put her diaper on and she continues to sleep peacefully.
ZSP: How about when you’re traveling? Does practicing EC curtail your plans?
IF: Our first long-distance trip was to Montreal when she was eight months old. I found it a bit stressful: On the way there, she started shrieking at one point, and I had a feeling it was because she had to potty. The next pit stop was a long way off, so we ended up pulling over to the side of the road so that she could go in a little potty we packed. Our next trip was a four-hour road trip, but by then she was almost a year old, and I was more confident. We also gave ourselves more time, stopping at nearly every Tim Horton’s along the way. Remarkably, Aurora seems to be able to hold it better when we’re out, whereas at home she has no problems peeing in her diaper. It might be a combination of her being more relaxed at home and me tending to be more alert to her when we are out.
ZSP: Does EC look different from family to family? You mention your daughter wears diapers… does she wear them all the time? Are there EC-practicing parents whose children don’t wear diapers, or only wear them at certain times?
IF: Yes, families practice EC differently. I have Aurora in cloth diapers most of the day and night. I’d read that cloth was a great option because babies feel when they go, so it helps condition them to avoid going in their diapers. We live in an apartment and have a thick rug in the living room, so if there was an accident, it would limit our roaming possibilities. We also co-sleep and don’t have another bed for the three of us, so the inherent risk of going diaper-free at night is not appealing.
Some parents do some diaper-free time at home and even have their baby pants-less at home. (If we had a backyard, I’m sure I would have tried it out with Aurora this past summer.) Especially when they’re newborns, you can lay them on a few towels and observe their reactions just before they pee or poo. As they get mobile, this does come with its share of accidents, so it’s not something I chose to do. I do notice a lot of parents looking for suggestions on where to purchase tiny underwear to use on their young toddlers (12- or 15-month-olds).
I’d like to add that Elimination Communication is something that can be done on a very part-time basis, especially for parents who work outside of the home full-time and/or have other children to juggle. EC can seem extreme, but the goal isn’t to potty-train, and you’re not judged on your catches and misses; it’s the communication between caregiver and child that matters. So whatever time you can dedicate to this is great, be it a few hours a week or a weekend day.
ZSP: How has EC affected your relationship with your daughter? With your spouse? What have you learned as a parent from practicing it?
IF: It’s hard to say, since I don’t know anything different. I thought it was amazing that she would sleep all night as an infant without wetting her diaper, and as soon as she was up, I would take her to the potty and she would pee. As I mentioned earlier, occasionally there are nights when she starts tossing and turning so one of us gets up, takes her to the potty, and then she pees and falls right back asleep. So she communicates her needs one way or another, which I find fascinating.
I lovingly heckle my husband because although he never opposed it, he thought EC was a bit odd when I brought it up. During my pregnancy, he would joke that he wouldn’t be changing diapers. I was surprised that he didn’t object to it and he won my heart over (again!) by simply adding a trip to the potty to the diaper-changing routine.
ZSP: What kind of reaction have you received from extended family members and friends? How have you responded to any critics?
IF: We are the first in our group of friends to become parents, so they had no preconceived notions about EC; not to mention that they’re great friends who don’t cast judgment on such things. Our parents were supportive, too — the grandmas especially. We’ve been lucky, as the Facebook forum to which I subscribe has a few moms who have spouses who don’t cooperate and family members who even ridicule the process. Not cool.
Others think we’re potty-training her and are very impressed, so I make sure to clarify that I continue to change at lot of wet diapers during the day. She’s not quite potty-trained yet, and moreover, that isn’t the point of EC. The goal is to try and meet your child’s need to relieve himself, outside of his diaper.
ZSP: What’s the toughest part of practicing EC? Do you recommend it to everyone, or is it very much an individual thing?
IF: EC-ing an infant is time-consuming. Shawn and I would get frustrated (and still do sometimes) when Aurora would wet another diaper after just taking her to the potty six minutes earlier. But then your baby grows, your trips are less frequent, and you suddenly realize you haven’t changed a poopy diaper in months. I’m very happy that we took this route, especially since I’ve only changed a few dirty diapers since we started practicing EC.
One thing I have on my mind is Aurora’s future transition from EC to being potty-trained. Currently, the onus is on us to take her to the potty. She isn’t signaling as strongly as we expected by this point. But parents of 18-month-olds say there can be setbacks due to teething, growth spurts, you name it. Even kids over two can “regress.” I try to take it all in stride, as sooner or later she will do it all, much like we did, much like everyone does.
ZSP: Why would a parent want to practice EC if they feel they’re otherwise attentive to their child’s needs? Are there specific advantages to it, in your opinion?
IF: Simply because it’s one of a child’s needs — like his need to eat and sleep. Babies going in diapers is such a norm now that parents will watch their babies make their “poop face,” and then proceed to change their diapers. It’s kind of face-palm inducing. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy diapers are so readily available, and I have depended on their convenience. Sometimes it’s simply not possible to take your little one to the bathroom in time and they can’t hold it for hours like adults can. But the reliance we have on diapers has gone overboard. Twelve-hour absorbency protection? Shudder. When an adult needs to go, he pulls himself out of bed and goes to the bathroom, but a baby’s nighttime fussing goes ignored, letting him soil himself and sleep in it. I know parents need their sleep, but it’s not a shortcut I’m comfortable with.
EC has many advantages besides building the communication between parents and children: It helps babies familiarize themselves with going to the bathroom so they see it as a normal part of life. It’s also hygienic: They go, you wipe them, and because they’re small enough, you can even wash their bum over the sink and dry it off with a towel. It’s environmentally friendly, because you either send less disposable diapers to the landfill or you reduce your cloth diaper laundry. It’s a great health indicator, because you’re very aware of how much your child has pooped, whether the consistency is normal, or if they’re having any issues. In our case, there is no need for a swim diaper during lessons because we’re confident that she won’t poop all of a sudden. There are so many advantages to EC, whether you practice full-time or on occasion. I encourage all parents to give it a try!
ZSP: Do you think EC will be the next big trend in “natural” parenting?
IF: I don’t see it happening anytime soon. It’s a big commitment and not for everyone. I couldn’t picture myself attempting this with child number three during a much shorter maternity leave, but my daughter has never had a case of diaper rash on her bum or a urinary tract infection — and so, for health reasons alone, I will do my best to follow through with future children. I hope the next big trend in parenting will be to take your baby to the potty first thing in the morning and before putting them in a new diaper. That would definitely be a game-changer!
A big thanks to Indira for sharing her experience with Elimination Communication! I”m so glad to know more about it. Friends, have you practiced EC or would you ever consider it?
PS — If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out the first three in this series:The Modern Nomads, Going Furniture-Free, and Taking a Family Sabbatical.
Images: Indira Flores