Elimination Communication

An article created with the help of Rachel Correa and Jessica Hinkley

Elimination Communication

Elimination communication (EC), also known as infant potty learning/training, is about communication between you and your baby and learning to respond to your baby’s needs. It’s learning the signals your baby uses to tell you that they need to relieve themselves and then assisting them to go in an appropriate place. By keeping your baby as clean and dry as possible, you help strengthen their awareness of their own body. As a result, most babies complete potty learning before the age of two years.

EC is a normal part of parenting in many cultures, although it is a skill which seems to have been largely forgotten in the Western world. For the most part, in our society, our current cultural practice is to train our babies to relieve themselves in a nappy and then retrain them to use the toilet or potty when they are “ready”. We are told that babies have no awareness or control over their elimination needs. But this is simply not the case.  Babies are especially receptive to potty learning from birth until about 6 months – this time is called ‘the window of opportunity’. After this age, it’s still possible, but not as easy, to have success with EC, partly because your baby has learned to use a nappy as their toilet and has to unlearn this behaviour.

Just as a parent learns to recognise their baby’s signs of hunger or tiredness, they can also learn the signs that their baby needs to pee or poo. In the beginning, recognising their signs and knowing when to offer your baby the opportunity to use the potty (or to be held over the toilet) is simply about trial and error, the same with learning the particular cries they make when they have wind or want to be held.

EC is something which can be a bit hard to get your head around as we’re not used to it. When Jess first heard of it in the Wellington Home Birth Association newsletter about five years ago she thought “what a load of ….” However, after re-reading the article a few times, she thought perhaps it did make some sense, so when her four month old woke from her sleep she took her to the bathroom and “cued” her and she peed! She was amazed that it worked! It worked the next time and the next as well! Jess very quickly realised that the short, sharp cry, almost hiccup like sound that she had heard many times before meant that her daughter needed to pee. It amazed her that for four months her daughter had been trying to tell her something. And despite being ignored, her daughter hadn’t given up!

In many cultures, it is normal for a sound and/or positioning to be used to “cue” the baby to let them know that now is an appropriate time and place to go. A water sound such as “sssss” is common. No matter what age your baby is when you both start EC, there should be a watching time, learning your baby’s patterns and rhythm, discovering how often they go and what signs they give just beforehand.  Signs a baby may give when they are doing a pee or poo included wiggling a bit and making a particular kind of short, sharp cry. Other signs to look out for include grunting, going red in the face or falling silent just before eliminating.

After about three months of age, your baby can be held out more easily as they are not as floppy. Make sure your baby is fully supported when being held over, as feeling secure is vital. A good hold uses both hands, one under each thigh, so your baby is in a seated position, facing outwards. This way your baby can lean against your arms or stomach for added support. If you are using the toilet for EC a potential position maybe, you sitting on the toilet facing the cistern and holding your baby in front of you. Other people carry a small bowl, bucket or potty with them, for baby to go in.

For parents starting EC after baby is 3 months old a period of observation is still necessary. If baby’s signals aren’t always obvious, you should have a rough idea of when they would usually need to go, for example, upon waking, straight after a feed and then again 20 minutes later.

Of course, it’s full on caring for a baby and it’s not always easy to do EC. Many people do EC part-time, for example, in the mornings or when someone else is at home to help out with older children.  Baby’s efforts to communicate with you are still positively reinforced and they have opportunities to control and release their muscles and also to associate eliminating with a potty rather than only ever with a nappy.

It can be hard to ignore your baby giving you a sign when you know exactly what it means. It can result in you waking several times during the night to hold your baby over the potty. This can be tiring and its okay to give yourself permission to use a nappy at night. It may need to be a disposable nappy as some babies can become adversed to that wet cotton-nappy feeling, even for a minute! A good nights sleep allows more enthusiasm for EC during the day.

Nevertheless, elimination communication, like all communication, is better when we are really committed and give our babies our full attention.

Having good resources and a support group is invaluable. In the Wellington region there is Potty Babies, a group of mums and their families who meet up to twice a month at members’ homes for morning tea. The group welcomes anyone interested to come along and learn about EC. While EC is what brings the group together, many other aspects of gentle and attachment parenting are discussed and supported, as much of this parenting style goes hand-in-hand with EC.  Dates of the meetings are sent to an email group and are also posted on the website www.diaperfreebaby.org under the “Find a local group” option.  The same website is home to an online support community of over 900 members.  There are several books available on the subject. Infant Potty Training by Laurie Boucke is full of relevant information and styled in a realistic question and answer format.

As baby grows, the EC journey continues and changes along with you both. Their rhythm is affected by teething, solids being introduced into their diet, their increasing mobility, and their ability to hold on for longer as their bladder grows. Awareness of these issues is enhanced by EC, which helps you to understand your baby better. From around 12 months, Rachel’s children started telling her to take them to the toilet, in fact “caca” or “potty” was one of the first words they used. Others parents have taught their children a sign for potty which enables children who can’t yet talk indicate that they need to go.

It is good to remember that EC is not ultimately about being “toilet trained” earlier. Like everything else your baby is experiencing and learning, such as eating, sleeping and moving, it is not a competition or a race. Everything will happen in its own good time and as a parent you are there to assist and nurture.

Some wise words on EC from the Tribal Baby website (www.tribalbaby.org)

  • It is about helping your baby to go ‘to the toilet’ somewhere other than a nappy, some of the time, then more of the time as they grow.
  • It is about learning to observe baby’s bodily rhythms, body language and practicing responding in such a way that your connection is enhanced, benefiting your whole relationship.
  • It is about sometimes anticipating the needs of a pre-verbal human being and experiencing their joy that you understand them. We strive to improve our bond.
  • It is about gently supporting their instinctual awareness of their body and attempting to understand them, and helping them feel ‘relieved’.
  • It is about using nappies as a tool rather than a necessity.
  • It is about reducing the ‘ecological footprint’ of waste generated by a brand new human.
  • It is about enhancing your connection and understanding of your baby’s needs – often into other areas of their care, and this is really empowering!
  • The secret love of ‘EC’ing’ parents is the amazing enhancement of bonding and communication experienced as you fine tune your awareness of baby over time.

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