Can you potty train a baby? We investigate elimination communication


We all want to get rid of those expensive nappies as quickly as possible – it’s cheaper, less messy, and is far better for the environment. But just how early can you start potty training and is it even possible before the toddler years?

ALSO SEE: 5 signs that your toddler is ready for the potty

The theory

It might be common practice in South Africa to start potty training at around 18 months, but in rural areas and some Eastern countries, this process, known as elimination communication, starts as early as three months.

Just how do these parents do it? It starts with learning to recognise your baby’s expressions or gestures when she needs the toilet. Once you spot a telltale sign, you whisk baby away, remove the nappy (if she’s wearing one) and hover her over the toilet while making a sound she will eventually come to associate with going to the toilet – for example, “psst”.

The benefits are that babies are less prone to urinary tract infections or nappy rash, and they gain independence quickly. There’s also big savings on nappies.

The practise

Alision Myburgh is mom to one-year-old Ariel. She started elimination communication to give Ariel a chance to learn about her body, and to stop her from having to sit in her own waste.

She dresses Ariel in clothes that leave her bottom bear – legwarmers instead of trousers, for instance (she points out that, in rural areas, babies frequently go without any clothes at all while learning elimination communication). Science shows that it’s a baby’s instinct to urinate or defecate if they’re not covered with a nappy (if you’ve been using nappies prior to this, you’ll have noticed that your baby seems to wee as soon as you open that nappy).

Alison advises using online resources (like the blog Little Bunny Bear, which provides a free guide) to learn hacks and tips for perfecting your EC hold’, so your little one doesn’t fall into the toilet or potty. You can also find plenty of patterns for suitable clothes on Pinterest, she says.

As with any potty training, elimination communication takes time, patience and practice. You have to be prepared for regression (a “potty pause”), especially when your baby is on a nursing strike, teething or experiencing sleep issues. Alison says that, when this happens, she checks in with her Facebook support groups for advice and tips. She also switches to “part-time EC”, using more nappies – cloth rather than disposable, because disposables make it harder to tell when your baby needs a change) and concentrating more on catching the essentials like morning wees and bowel movements so Ariel doesn’t forget what she has already learnt. “When a potty pause happens, you need to accept that you won’t catch every single wee, so don’t put yourself under pressure.

“Nappy-free time is fun, and your baby gets to learn so much more about her body. Cleaning up a few puddles is also no more trouble than changing a nappy,” Alison says.

ALSO SEE: 4 steps to handle potty training regression

What the experts say

Dr Natasha Padayachee-Govender of Prana Kids Paediatrics observes that advocates of elimination communication say that not using nappies is less expensive for parents and better for the environment. They also claim that babies are more comfortable without nappies, because there’s no risk of nappy rash, and being tuned-in to their children’s needs creates a deeper parent/child bond.

On the other hand, Natasha says most new parents experience the first few months of their baby’s life as a mountain of challenges – you’re grappling with questions around breastfeeding, sleep deprivation, establishing routines, optimising nutrition, weaning onto solids and neurodevelopmental stimulation. “At this point, the technical planning and preparation required for elimination communication might bring added stress to the family dynamics. The practise requires a significant, ongoing investment of time and consistent observation from parents, and this may be difficult for parents who have to return to work.”

She adds that there have not been enough studies to assess the long-term impact of elimination communication. “We don’t know, for instance, if teaching babies to hold in urine and stools may lead to further complications. We do know, though, that their bodies are not developmentally ready for this, and so it may well result in problems in later life, such as constipation or urinary tract infections.”

ALSO SEE: The one thing I wish I knew before potty training my child

The situation is often different in rural communities and the eastern countries where elimination communication is a common practice and there is a village of support. Children in these areas eat a diet that is markedly higher in fibre than our urban diets, which are based largely on processed foods with a high sugar content. “This well-balanced, nutritious diet aids optimal digestion and prevents constipation,” she notes.

“I wouldn’t routinely recommend elimination communication to all families, because evidence-based research shows that toilet training is a developmental progression. Toilet training should be started when both the child and parent are willing and able to participate. However, if families choose the elimination communication approach, I would monitor and support on an individual basis and ensure the baby’s diet is appropriate, so there’s no constipation or urinary tract infections and the developmental milestones are attained.

“A positive, consistent approach to toilet training is unlikely to cause long-term harm. Toddlers need to show physical, emotional and behavioural readiness before they progress,” concludes Natasha.

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