Monday, March 28, 2011

Elimination Communication Myths

Now that we have been practicing elimination communication (EC) for nearly 9 months, it's hard for me to remember a time when we didn't do it. It's hard to imagine what our lives would be like without it, and hard to fathom how different our relationship would be if we'd never started at all. 

I think back upon those first impressions I had about the practice and can't help but wonder why it took us so long to get on board.  I've come to realize that my reluctance to even read more about the practice until that epic diaper rash of 2010 had a lot to do with the myths in our culture about infant elimination. 

Without ever digging any deeper than a preliminary explanation of what EC was, I dismissed it out of hand because of the myths and commonly held believes that I was holding myself. I want to explore these myths in the hopes that any other parents contemplating the process will discover the fun, joy, and bonding that come along with it a lot sooner than I did! 

When I think back upon our journey to EC I feel almost cheated out of those first 10 months of my son's life by my own inability to let go of these myths!  

1) Infants do not possess any awareness or control of their eliminations until they are 2-4 years old.

Many parents who hear about EC have the same first reaction. I know I did, and nearly every parent I've introduced to the idea has said the same thing: What is the point of pottying your child when they don't have control until 2 -3 years of age?

I am not sure where the myth of 2-3 years came from. (Probably Huggies and Pampers.) But the truth is that only a few short generations ago, the idea of a walking talking 3 year old toddler or even 4 year old preschooler in diapers was unheard of. 

In cultures where diapering is not commonly practiced, and  even 50 years ago in North America, children are completely potty independent between 18 months and 2 years of age if not sooner. 

So what's so different about toddlers now from 50 years ago? I'd say it's the diapers. 

Babies are born with awareness, and even a small amount of control over their eliminations. This is plainly evident in the first few weeks of life where, especially if you have a boy, every diaper change is accompanied by a little pee shower. An infant's instinct is to eliminate away from themselves, and so when the diaper is removed and cool air hits the baby's bare bottom he takes it as a cue to eliminate. 

But after a few weeks this phenomenon starts to dissipate because the diapers available to parents these days are so good. Almost too good! They wick the moisture away from baby`s skin so fast that within a few short weeks they have learned that eliminating in the diaper is no more or less comfortable then eliminating anywhere else, and because they cannot feel any wetness they quickly loose the awareness they already possessed at birth.

Thinking about it this way, it`s not at all hard to imagine why it takes so long for toddlers to regain that awareness and control after years of eliminating into a diaper and having no awareness of it at all. 

At some point every child will `potty train` almost by themselves, but the age that this happens `naturally` seems to be getting higher and higher.

Before anyone goes racing for that comment button: This absolutely does not mean that I am against the use of diapers. Many families who practice EC, including my own, still use diapers on a part time basis. I am simply pointing out that they are a parenting tool, one that can interfere with the ability of parent and child alike to recognize elimination cues and establish communication. Many of us heavily rely on their use without a second thought, when we do this, we miss out on an amazing opportunity. 

2) Introduction the potty 'too early' will psychologically harm your child.

Once you accept that our culture`s views of awareness and control are flawed. The myth about potty `readiness`starts to fade pretty quickly as well. 

According to the `potty training gurus` of the today, your child needs the following to be `ready`for the potty:
  •  Awareness of their need to use the potty
    •  see above
  • The ability to communicate their need for the potty.
    • Many babies squirm, shiver, cry, or experience changes in breathing and movement when they need to eliminate, and babies as young as 5-6 months can start learning to sign for the potty. 
  • The ability to sit on the potty
    • There are many in-arms options for very small infants and a few different potty options for when an infant starts to sit up.
  •  Motivation or interest in using the potty 
    • According to many, this requires the use of sticker charts and treats, but for babies the desire and instinct to stay clean and dry is enough. 
To my mind, every one of these signs of readiness is present from day one. Ignoring these signs and `training`a child to use a diaper then bribing, shaming, or in some cases punishing them into using a potty later in life sounds a lot more damaging then the practice of establishing mutual communication around elimination needs with an infant. 
Once again, I am not against the use of diapers, I am only pointing out that the logic behind these myths is greatly flawed.

3) Parents who practice elimination communication are forcing their babies to grow up too fast.

There is no force used in the practice of elimination communication. If you come across any infant hygiene practice that says otherwise see point 5!

EC is about communication, it is about recognizing and acknowledging an infants need to eliminate. This communication enriches parent/child attachment and respects the needs of the child.  This is not forcing an infant to grow up, or do anything out of the ordinary, but rather recognizing the natural coarse of an infant`s development. 

Diapers are not a necessity to babyhood, they are a tool, one option out of many. The diaper does not make the baby a baby any more than a pacifier, swaddling blanket, or baby booties do. 

4) EC is unclean/unsanitary.

When comparing infant hygiene practices, sanitation is definitely a concern. With EC the question becomes where does the elimination go if it is not contained in a diaper?

Well, when the elimination is a `miss`, meaning that the parent or caregiver failed to catch the elimination in a potty or other container, the elimination goes pretty much wherever the infant happens to be. With infants who are not yet mobile, the use of a wool pee pad, or a prefold diaper placed open beneath the baby`s bottom keeps a miss better contained. In the case of a mobile baby, it`s still a relatively easy job to wipe away. 
All I can say is that these messes are MUCH easier to clean up with an infant. their bladders are tiny and they don`t eat much other than formula or breast milk. A potty training 2, 3 or 4 year old will likely have misses as well, and.... Well, I can`t even stomach to finish that point, but you get the idea. 

For me, the biggest sanitation concern isn`t about where the elimination goes when it happens. It`s about where it goes after you have changed the diaper and thrown it away or put aside to wash. 

Billions of diapers are thrown away every year only to end up in land fills. I wonder how many tons of human waist that equates to just sitting around, being rained on, and then seeping into the ground? If not open to the elements, they are sealed within specially made garbage bags that take longer to decompose, lingering until well after your child has started using the toilet. That doesn`t sound very sanitary or clean either. 

Cloth diapers though more sustainable, come with their own health concerns. including ammonia build up resulting in diaper rash. 

Every form of infant hygiene comes with it`s pros and cons. Elimination is messy by definition, and no practice of dealing with that is 100% fool proof.  Elimination communication is just as clean and sanitary as any other hygiene option. 

5) Elimination communication is the same as infant potty training. 

The desired result of EC and natural infant hygiene is not necessarily potty independence. Though that does tend to happen much sooner in ECed infants.

It is not about potty training. It is about communication, as this communications grows and develops, potty independence happens gradually and usually without any 'training' at all. Elimination communication is a natural process that fits in with an attachment style of parenting very nicely. I do not believe the same can be said of any method that involves 'training' an infant or child. 

'Training' is a word often associated with methods of teaching that are drastically one sided. Elimination communication is two sided communication. It is about parent and child working together, and there is a balance in the relationship that is in no way represented by the word 'training'.  

Any infant hygiene, or potty learning method that promises specific results within specific time frames, or otherwise puts the end goal over the needs of the child is not in line with attachment parenting or elimination communication philosophies. 

It took me 10 months to come to this point. I look back and feel like I missed out on something very special in those first 10 months of my son's life. I plan to start elimination communication from day one when we have another baby and I can't wait to see how the practice will change my experience, perceptions, and relationship with the next child. 

For now I can only hope to reestablish that communication between my son and I as best I can. At 18 months old I feel like we've fallen into a comfortable rhythm and our confidence and his independence is growing daily. I see potty independence in our very near future, and the pride and sense of accomplishment I feel about having come this far without ever feeling like we were at odds or in any kind of power struggle is amazing. 

Elimination communication may not be for everyone. But in order to know whether or not it's right for you and your family, you need to really know what it is. That includes letting go of the myths surrounding infant elimination and truly opening your mind to other possibilities.  


Amber said... [Reply to comment]

Well written! Thank you for this informative post. As a parent of two attached children, I can honestly say that I hav never considered elimination communication as part of attachment parenting. It makes perfect sense! Thank you!

Kayce Pearson said... [Reply to comment]

I love this! I had the same misconceptions when I had my daughter, and now I can't wait to EC/cloth diaper our next. How much easier it all seems than just assuming babies have no rational thought and have to stay near their own waste.

Love this post, Julian!

Mandi Spencer said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for sharing this. All of my kids have been diapered, and I really wish I had done EC with them--especially the 3- and 4-year-olds. They still do not use the potty consistently. It does not feel right to bribe or force them, and I wish I had opened up those lines of communication sooner.

Julian@connectedmom said... [Reply to comment]

@amber - I thought the same thing at first. Once you really look at elimination as a need that can be anticipated and met just like any other it just kind of clicks!

@Kayce - Yay! a convert! lol. jk

@Mandi You can start EC at any time! They may have an easier time recognising and anticipating their oun elimination needs if you are learning right a long with them! The book 'diaper free baby' had a lot of good info about using EC as potty learning for older children as well! Let me know if you are interested and I can send you some links!

Law Mama said... [Reply to comment]

I do cloth diapers with a bit of EC - mostly poops... I have the hardest time catching his pees, but I'm hopeful that we'll be diaper free on the early side. I didn't really start EC until 6 months, I think it definitely would have been easier to try when he was a newborn.

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