Monday, January 28, 2013

Can Potty-Training Be Part of a Healthy Relationship?

When I began searching for potty training methods that worked with my healthy relationship parenting model, I was immediately drawn to the something called "elimination communication." From the name alone I suspected that a style of "communication" rather than a style of "training" would be more likely to use healthy relationship psychology. For the most part, I was right.

A Quick Background on Potty Training Practices

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "before children are twelve months of age, they have no control over bladder or bowel movements. While many children start to show signs of being ready between eighteen and twenty-four months of age, some children may not be ready until thirty months or older. This is normal." (

Most people in the rest of the world and most Americans prior to 1980 would not agree with any part of that statement.

In non-western societies, babies begin learning to control their bowel movements from birth. Mothers in traditional societies never put their babies in diapers. Because the mothers are in close physical contact with their babies all night and for a good portion of the day, they learn quickly when their babies need to go. Whether their babies squirm, make a noise or freeze, by the time their babies are three-months-old, most "native" mothers can tell when their babies need to go and put their babies in a desired location or position for them to do so. By the time these babies are six-months-old, they are capable of going on command (when their mothers tell them to).

This style of potty training is called "elimination communication" because rather than training a child where to poop and pee, the mother is communicating with her child about poop and pee--there is nothing punitive or coercive about it. It's very matter-of-fact. "You're peeing. I'm going to hold you over this bowl." Whereas the mother initially learns her infant's "cue", the child soon learns that the mother likes to have him in a certain position when he is going to pee or poop and starts to communicate with her when he has to go.

In western societies, diapers have been around for quite some time. I have not found clear evidence of when they became common but things mentioned in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life lead me to believe that the switch to major diaper use happened after the middle ages (poop and pee were not that private of a matter until that time--I assume that if it was socially acceptable for adults to poop and pee in public, it was definitely acceptable for babies). However, it was pretty cold in the northern climates so I wonder if diapers weren't part of a dressing scheme that simply had to happen there.

Regardless of when or why diapers became common, wearing them for years was not common until recently. In 1914 American babies sat on the potty starting at three months. In 1921 a paphlet entitled Infant Care said, "Almost any child can be trained so there are no more soiled diapers to wash after he is six to eight months old." In the 1970's the average age of completion of potty training was eighteen months. Even in 1996, children over thirty-five pounds (around three-years-old) needed a prescription for disposable diapers--diapers for children that old were considered to be medical supplies and the child was thought of as disabled.

So why do we keep our children in diapers for three to four years today when it is totally unnecessary? Because our potty training methods were not based around communication or anything matter-of-fact. Our potty training methods, since the 1700's, were harsh, rigid and punitive. Potty-training was a very destructive part of the parent-child relationship.

In the 1960's Dr. T. Berry Brazelton drew people's attention to the damaging psychological effects of how children were being potty trained. Unfortunately, he concluded that this was due to the age at which children were being trained, not the potty training methods being used. By 1997, Brazelton's error was corrected: Dr. Charles Schaefer wrote, "We know now that the age at which a child is trained is not the cause of later emotional and psychological problems; rather, it is the parental attitude that is used during the training period that will determine the long-term effects of toilet training" but the AAP has yet to update their recommendations and their statements regarding the readiness of children are simply inaccurate.

Moreover, the disposable diaper industry has an enourmous interest in keeping the "delayed training is better" message prominently reinforced. All current potty training recommendations handed out by doctors are provided by the disposable diaper industry and, according to Dr. Lekovic, author of Diaper Free Before 3: The Healthier Way to Toilet Train and Help Your Child Out of Diapers Sooner, based on well-publicized opinions not medical research.

Potty training after the age of three is new in human history. The little research that has been done about the physical effects of such late potty training, according to Dr. Lekovic, shows that the delayed training has led to increased rates of voiding disorders, lasting wetting problems and an increase in children suffering from UTI's.

*It is interesting to me that the Standard American Parent knows that coercive, reward-punish potty training methods are psychologically damaging but they have made the leap that all forms of coercive, reward-punish relationships are damaging including school and government.

Do We Have a Healthy Relationship with Poop?

Because it was healthier for my child to potty train earlier rather than later and would save me thousands of dollars in diapers, I did a lot of research on elimination communication and found it to be a major turn off for me because I could not conceive of letting my baby poop and pee on me for a few months until I learned his "cue" nor could I conceive of "wearing" my baby naked against my body as the E.C. books recommended.

This led me to reexamine my (culturally inherited) ideas about the human body and its functions, ideas like: poop is gross and dirty, I would throw up if my baby poops on me, letting my baby watch me go to the bathroom is just going too far--there have to be boundaries, poop and pee anywhere but in a toilet is disgusting, poop and pee should be flushed immediately and not thought about afterward, I should put a fan on and spray something pleasant to hide the smell of my poop, I should not talk about my poop or my experience pooping in polite company, etc.

How weird that we have taken such a normal part of life and made it so negative!

According to Joseph Campbell, some religions accept the reality of life as it is and create a mythology that supports it and helps us deal with it--the reality of life being that all life eats other life to survive, that life isn't fair, that life is often brutal and ugly. "Justice and beauty are human values," Campbell said, "the Universe doesn't care about those things."

Other religions deny reality. They don't accept life as it is. They create a mythology in which there was a perfect world or justice, beauty, harmony, etc and somehow that perfect world got messed up. These religions judge reality as bad, unjust and ugly--life as it is can never be truly enjoyed by good people. Good people live for the afterlife which takes place in a "perfect" world where everything is right.

Accepting reality is much more conducive to leading a happy life. Three hundred years ago we discussed poop a lot more than we do today. Talking about our common human experience of pooping didn't go out of style until the Victorians. The hippies were right: it's natural.

I have largely accepted the reality of poop on a philosophical level, but I doubt I will start telling my girlfriends about my more dramatic bowel movements or farting as loud-and-satisfyingly in company as I do when I am alone. Those cultural changes are not my goal. My goal is having a healthy relationship with my son and perhaps enabling him to have a healthy relationship with his body and its functions.

So I don't wrinkle my nose and tell him how gross his poop is. I don't feel like vomiting when I get some on my hand. I don't mind when he peers curiously into the toilet as I go. And though I opted out of elimination communication when he was a tiny baby, now that he is walking, I am perfectly happy to let him walk around naked and learn all about his bowel movements. My comfort level has increased so rapidly and effortlessly that by the time baby number two comes, I just may try e.c. from the get go!

Further Reading on This Subject:

Infant Potty Basics and Diaper Free both focus on elimination communication with infants. The Diaper Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative by Christine Gross-Loh has great information for "late starters" which was exactly what I was looking for. Reading this book was a wonderful affirmation that whatever the parenting challenge, there is always a healthy way to do it. There is no need to start a power struggle, no need to manipulate, coerce or reward and punish--any experience can deepen your relationship with your baby, even talking about poop :)

It should be noted that elimination communication isn't necessarily part of my healthy relationship parenting model--even e.c. can be done in an unhealthy way with praise and rewards.

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