When moms first tell friends and family they plan to start potty training before their babies have outgrown their first onesie, people usually say the scheme is crazy.
Not so with Winnie Cheung, an instructor at the Music Institute of Chicago, who lives in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood.
At six weeks, her son Rowan had a bad bout of constipation. It wasn't until they lifted him by the thighs over a newspaper that he finally was able to let loose.
For Rowan's grandma, it brought back memories of bringing up babies back in Hong Kong. Her babysitter, from the Philippines, saw diapers as a newfangled indulgence of Western culture.
"It was no big news for my folks," says Cheung, 33. "That's how everybody did it in Hong Kong and the Philippines."
Long before Pampers, parents have been facing potty problems. The natural practice of tuning in to baby's elimination needs and holding them over a receptacle still is protocol in Asia, Africa and parts of South America.
Cheung is among a growing community of Chicago moms who are dissing diapers in favor of "pssss"ing infants, cuing them to go in the sink or potty at just a few weeks old. It's called "elimination communication," EC for short.
A covey of about 80 Illinois EC believers congregate online at groups.yahoo.com/group/diaperfreebabyofIL. That's nearly tripled from just three years ago, organizers say.
EC on the rise
The group reflects the resurgence of diaper-free parenting among North American and European families. It appeals to parents not only because they can bank the $2,000 they'd otherwise spend on disposable didies. There's also an environmental component. Earth lovers feel good about not piling on to the 3.4 million tons of used diapers and raw feces dumped in U.S. landfills every year.
"It goes where it belongs, in the toilet," Cheung says. "Not in the landfill."
Going diaper-free is better for baby because it bypasses diaper rash and relieves digestive problems, believers say. It's more comfortable to go in an upright position than prone. Diaperless parenting fosters the baby's body awareness, developing bladder and bowl control. At the same time it spurs early independence and eliminates later toilet-training battles, say local parents who practice EC.
Elimination experimentation has yielded outcomes that astound parents and their nay-saying social networks. The last time Rowan, just 10 months old, had an accident was in March. Arielle and Rob Bywater's daughter Willa, now 4, first used the potty at 4 weeks old and never messed her pants past 18 months, says this Evanston couple. They've already started EC with 5-week-old Jem. Vanessa Filley's daughter Moxie, too, is almost fully potty trained by 15 months.
Listen and learn
Just how does this unlikely sounding training process work?
Filley and her husband, Zachary Zises, skipped diapers altogether. They just laid layers of absorbent materials beneath Moxie from birth. About three weeks later, they began to hold the baby over the sink at regular intervals, about once an hour. They made the verbal cue "psssss." The Cheungs used the cue "Mmmmm. Mmmmmm." Soon the infants were parroting back the noise while they went and, later, to let Mom or Dad know it was time.
Many families begin at birth or shortly after, and many more between one and six months. EC is not coercive or punitive like potty training, advocates at Diaper Free Baby say. The focus is more on communicating with babies than about getting them to go in a specific spot.
It doesn't take long to learn to read baby's body language to know when it's time to go. They'll show a certain facial expression. They wiggle and grow agitated. Maybe they pass gas.
"A lot of it is training the parents," says Filley, 33, who works at home designing clothes made from recycled fabric.
But EC is not only feasible for stay-at-home moms. Some moms who do diaper-free find the structured potty break schedules in day care settings make a complementary framework for giving even the youngest customers a chance to go. Of course, they're going to wear a diaper in day care between breaks just in case.
Mixed mess of messages
The traditional cycle of diapering followed by toilet training is a bag of mixed messages, says Bywater, 36, a poetry professor at Columbia College. Parents spend the first two years conditioning their kids to go in their pants with diapers that keep them in the dark about being dirty. Then, suddenly, the memo comes down that going in your pants is a big deal and it's bad news.
"Diapers train babies just to sit around in it a long time and not to notice," she says. "Then at 2 or 3, you reverse yourself and want them to control something you've taught them for years to ignore."
Many parents notice their child shows a marked preference for not eliminating in a diaper. Most parents tell tales of their baby letting loose just as soon as the diaper is off for a change. That may be chalked up to temperature change, but also might reflect baby's desire to get it out when it won't stay next to him, EC moms say.
Elimination communication does take a lot of extra effort at the outset but becomes easier than diapering over the long run, those who use it say.
Vanessa Filley recently was delighted when Moxie, not yet 1½, stopped playing in the yard and came in on her own for a potty break.
The Bywaters were confident enough that they took Willa, diaper commando, on evening outings to upscale restaurants.
"She's peed in the sinks of many of the finest restaurants in Chicago," Arielle says.
Simple ways to get started with your baby
• Offer a "pottytunity" right after baby wakes up. Most babies have to urinate when they first wake up for the day or from a nap. This is another great time to offer the potty.
• Hold your baby over a toilet, potty or other receptacle and make a cue sound such as "psss psss." www.diaperfreebaby.org shows pictures of various potty positions.
• Offer a "pottytunity" at every diaper change. Since you have your baby's diaper off anyway, this is an easy time to offer the potty.
• Talk to your baby. Ask questions like "Do you have to go potty?" or "Did you just go pee pee?" so that he hears the words associated with going to the bathroom.
• Make note of any signs that your baby is eliminating. After awhile you may be able to catch your baby as she first starts to make these signs and offer the potty then.
• Stay relaxed. This is a process. You are simply laying the foundation for future toilet independence. Babies won't be able to relax if you're not relaxed.
• Get information and support. While this is the traditional way babies are cared for in many parts of the world and throughout history, it is really a lost art here and now.
Starting with a baby over six months
• Switch to cloth diapers. Your baby will be better able to feel the sensation of wetness in cloth diapers.
• Be patient. Your baby has grown accustomed to diapers; it will take time to unlearn that and begin to associate eliminating with the potty or toilet.
• Try having your child sit on the potty with a diaper on or open the diaper up and place it inside the potty if it helps your child feel more comfortable.
• Have an "open door" policy to the bathroom. Modeling is such an important way kids learn, so it really helps to see the toilet being used.
• Do what works for your family. There are different ways to EC, not one right way. You might find that you and your baby's EC needs change over time, even day to day.
• Stay focused on the communication and not the outcome. Use words or sign language to talk about using the toilet or potty and remember this is a cooperative, not a coercive, process.
Common elimination signs
• Squirming or fussing. Many people only think of these as a sign of hunger or sleepiness, but you can try offering the potty as well.
• Change in activity level. Some babies might get really active while others might pause in activity and even stare.
• Facial expression. This might be a grimace or a straining or just a certain look.
• Vocalization. This could be a grunting or a certain sound or it could be an increase in the speed and volume of sounds. It could even be a quieting down.
• A "shiver."
• Passing gas. This is a really obvious sign that your baby needs the potty. Even if they don't have a bowel movement, some babies feel more comfortable passing gas sitting on a toilet or potty.
Robyn Monaghan is a mom and long-time freelance writer.