Diaper Free Babies: Why Babies Are Born “Ready”

by Julia Deak Sandler, PhD - Sustainability Blogger at Re-ThinkGreen.com

Maybe you have heard of people who help their infants use potties and receptacles and stay dry without diapers. Perhaps, like Ingrid Bauer, author of Diaper Free Baby, you have traveled to India, Africa, or the Arctic and have seen small babies being hygienically cared for by their parents under parkas, in family beds, or on bouncy buses, all without diapers and messes. How do they do it?

More importantly, how does the truth of this practice reconcile with what Americans are told by pediatricians and parenting books? Why would we get advised that kids may not be “ready” before age 2 or even 3 years of age, or that there may be negative consequences to “forcing” potty training on kids of any given age?

How Diapers Prevent Learning

The answer is that we have to see our Western practices for the bizarre, unnatural cultural artifacts that they are. The only reason potty training is so hard for us is that we first spend more than a year un-training our babies’ natural awareness of their elimination sensations. We pin them on their backs, despite their protests, and force them into diapers. We block those nether regions from any direct touch (by clothing, surfaces, the child’s other body parts, etc.) with the use of tight-fitting and sometimes quite thick diapers. While infants develop better and better use of their hands by manipulating toys and Cheerios, as they learn where the edges of their mouths are and how to coordinate them with incoming spoons, they do no learning whatsoever about elimination.

If they whimper or squirm or even cry because they feel the urge to eliminate waste away from their bodies, we ignore them, offer food or bounces, maybe check their diaper, but otherwise do nothing until they have soiled themselves. This video about identifying newborn cues shows poop queues at around the 7 minute mark.

Disposable diapers wick away all moisture, removing the feedback that tells a baby’s body that it has just urinated. Kids who are in disposable diapers from birth really can become quite clueless about this aspect of their bodies by age 2.If we spend those first two years doing the most solid, consistent training imaginable to teach children to soil themselves, of course it stands to reason that the process of suddenly reversing and undoing that training could be a challenge.

The concept of “readiness”

We know from what humans in pre-Pampers societies have done and are still doing that there is no physiological reason why infants can’t use potties or receptacles. Yes, you’ll need to hold them up if they can’t yet sit. You’ll have to carry them to the receptacle if they’re not mobile, and you’ll need to manipulate their clothes. But wouldn’t you rather manipulate clean clothes than change a diaper full of squashed poop? Wouldn’t the baby be happier being held upright with their back against your belly while they eliminate away from their bodies, rather than being pinned flat on their backs while puddles and smears of waste are wiped off their sensitive skin?

Babies are born ready to eliminate into receptacles instead of diapers: that much is clear. Now whether caregivers can tune into their needs and cues well enough to get them there at the right times is another question. If an infant is raised lightly clothed at home and closely attended to, their mother or primary caregiver will be quite in tune with their needs and movements. Not everyone makes the choice to raise babies this way, for various reasons of economics, convenience, disability or whatever it may be. This video shows infant potty training in practice.

Maybe we can’t all quit our lifestyles of carseats, cribs, and strollers. Illness or stress may stop some from EC-ing from birth. But there is low-hanging fruit that everyone can harvest when it comes to potty-learning opportunities. A few of these are:

  • Upon waking in the morning and after naps. If we position infants and toddlers above receptacles when they wake up, they will often eliminate, which gives us a chance to teach cues and let them at least do their #2s outside of a diaper. This video shows how.
  • Other transition times. After a stroll, after a car ride, or 10-30 minutes after meals, babies may be ready to relieve themselves. Give them the chance to do so outside a diaper, and you’ll probably be rewarded with one fewer diaper to wash or toss!
  • Summer outdoor time. The weather is hot, the grass needs watering, and there is no reason not to allow kids to spend considerable time diaper free outdoors in the summer. The caveat is that this diaper free time will serve our potty learning goals much better if we tune into what kids are doing, cueing them with sounds when they eliminate and working to move them towards potties whenever possible.

It Doesn’t Hurt to Try

Even part-time EC-ing will give babies a clue about elimination and teach them how we should respond to the urge to go. It prevents that total diaper dependency that turns later potty-training into such an emotionally fraught process for many American families.

Before Pampers developed the disposable diaper in 1962, the vast majority of infants and toddlers were potty trained by 18 months. Of course, mothers were home – really HOME – with their kids. The older ones walked to the neighborhood school or played in the woods or played kids-only baseball in the nearest park instead of being driven to option schools and soccer practice. In this video, a mother of five who has potty trained her kids at 17 months, 15 months, and even 10 months shows some quick tips.

Learn More

Ditch the Diapers Zero Waste Initiative by Diaper Stork and Re-ThinkGreen are providing free classes to regain the lost skill of pottying infants and babies. Learn more about the 6 Seattle families participating in our EC challenge group.