July 6, 2005

I Know That Face! Elimination Communication

And all this time, I had it backwards. The Fulani tribe of Mali has a saying: "You're lucky if you've got someone who will shit on you."

Lucky, perhaps, but not as well-versed as you should be in the art of elimination communication. That's the annoyingly delicate name given by western advocates of traditional diaper-less methods for dealing with an infant's poo and pee. It's still popular in Africa, China and other parts of Asia, wherever the Diaper Industrial Complex hasn't managed to enlighten the simple-minded natives about their hopelessly backward parenting superstitions.

As numerous websites--and now the Boston Globe--attest, EC does best when it's started early and when it's integrated with Attachment Parenting. It involves closely reading your kid's actions and expressions and getting very familiar with their input-output routines, to the point that you're able to know in advance when the kid's gonna blow, and you can hustle him to a toilet [Or, sub-optimally, to a sink. Or to the curb. Or behind a tree. Or if you're at the park--oh, forget it. One parent sees you dangling your kid's ass over the grass, they'll all be talking about it behind your back, so why strain yourself?] Training your kid to recognize these sphincter-related signs himself is the next step, and it helps move them along to ESS (Elimination Self-Sufficiency? I just made that up) much sooner.

Of course, the money you save on diapers, you'll spend on dry cleaning. One of the founders of DiaperFreeBaby tries to spin it in the Globe like this: "It's not all about catching it. It's more about communicating with your baby." [Translation: you're not gonna catch it all, but that's something any Fulani could've told you.]

But back to the Diaper Industrial Complex for a minute. In arguing for delaying potty training until whenever the kid feels like it, our own favorite guru, Dr Terry Brazelton, makes this gratuitous Old White Man slam about EC: "It's a regression to an earlier stage in our civilization. I don't see it as progression. It seems like an unnecessary hovering of a parent over a child. I think there are more productive ways to interact with a child -- like play." And now I'm forced to reconcile these two opposing notions of parenting--Brazelton-sanctioned, diaper-enabled free range, and Aka Pygmy-style bonding--and I don't know what to do. Hold that thought; I gotta take a leak.


Look Ma, No Diapers! [boston.com, via DT reader Todd]
Check out DiaperFreeBaby.org, Natural Wisdom [enough with the names, already] or the EC Yahoo! Group [warning: lots of mail, so opt out]. Keith at Blogging Baby started EC [so far, so-so].
Blow your diaper money at The EC Store [theecstore.com], but save enough for these sweet crotchless pants [above], homemade by a WAHM, no less.

Previously: Not for all the pee in China


I think the diaper industrial complex has infiltrated China (there are lots of articles about it) and it's not because the Chinese are necessarily eager to give up EC, I think it's because the urban populations especially are eager to embrace anything that is perceived as western or modern, and the big diaper companies are eager to exploit the gigantic Chinese market. All that eagerness is going to add up to mountains and mountains of diapers.

It's sad, really. When I first went to China, seeing kids in the split pants was one of those little joys you get traveling overseas and you see people living in such wonderful different ways. I remember being in a busy, modern supermarket on a hot day and there was this kid who must have been 5 or 6 years old standing there buck naked except for tennis shoes and socks. Man, did he look happy. EC still has a hold in rural china though (where it makes the most sense).

I also suspect that the move away from EC in Beijing may be inspired by the efforts to "clean up" Beijing in preparation for the 2008 olympics. The gov't is trying hard to get old men to stop hocking up loogies and spitting them all over the sidewalks (good luck with that dear leaders) and I'm sure they would also like to stop mamas from holding all the babies' asses out over the sidewalks while they do their thing.

Hang on a minute, Dutch. If you look at the trendlines for life expectancy and improvements in sanitation over time you will see that they have a nearly identical slope. If you look deeper in to the data you will also see a causal relationship.

Fecal matter in the gutter (and on the sidewalk, street, under a tree and every other public non-toilet place in a densely populated city) causes lots of problems, most of which lead to an increased risk of disease. The same goes for spit, which is why the Chinese governments has made efforts to discourage the common practice of spitting in public. Moral of the story - pooping on the street isn't a quaint local custom that should be preserved against the onslaught of western sanitation practices. It's a public health risk that should be dealt with.

Fair enough, and to Brazelton's defense, it's possible he was talking specifically about the Mayan mothers he saw. But I doubt EC is advocating poo in the streets, any more than they're saying we should all move to the forest and live off of duiker meat.

My problem is with the fundamental, philosophical implications of Brazelton's disdain. It's only a coincidence on DT becuase the Aka thing actually came out a few weeks ago, but to have one group of UK experts tout the Aka Pygmies' Attachment Parenting model [sic] one day as Best Dads In The World, then to have Brazelton dismiss it as "primitive" and "hovering" is confusing (to me) and contradictory.

I can see that the time/attention/proximity required by EC is probably at odds with the work/schedule demands of working parents; and can you imagine running an EC day care center?

Disposable diapers are like TiVo for poo: a time-shifting convenience which remove the imperative for parents to plan their day around poo and hoping they don't miss it.

But you can't convince me that TiVo is a sign of a more enlightened civilization; it's just a fix for a problem that arises from the specific situation and culture people put themselves in.

In the 19th c. people used to drug their kids with opium all day so they could go work in factories. I wonder where Brazelton plots that on his civilization scale.

In our most clueless, wigged out, early days especially, Brazelton's reassuring definitiveness probably saved our sanity many times. But after a year+ of firsthand parenting and after being bombarded by mixed messages and differing expectations by "experts," I guess I'm starting to be a little more circumspect when presented with authoritative advice. I'll listen, but I'll weigh it against my own experience and judgment, too.

[Oh, and as for the "Dutch," I don't consider myself worthy of such a nickname, since I don't sleep through meetings, cut-and-run from terrorist attacks, and don't have armies of Koolaid-drinking conservative groupies trying to get my face on Mt Rushmore. But thanks. I think.]

I meant to respond to the first comment by the guy who called himself "dutch" (not that I don't think you're worthy of having your image carved into the side of a mountain) about diaper-free babies in chinese cities.

Now that our kid is 6 months old and poops maybe once a day, I can understand the TiVo analogy. But for the first 4 months of our DD's life let's just say we'd have been recording a LOT of episodes - the kid pooped every time we turned around (it wasn't always contained in the diaper, so maybe I've already had my first experience with EC).

As for Brazelton, I didn't really understand his comments either - it doesn't require hovering to start picking up on signals that your baby's going to poop (the strained red face and the grunting are usually good signs that something's brewing). My issue was really with dutch's comments on China, most of whose cities are hardly paragons of modern sanitation. In my clean little world of Arlington, VA EC wouldn't be any less hygienic than the diaper option. But in a very densely populated city like Beijing or Mexico city (or even Paris - if you think the dog poop problem is bad, imagine if you added baby poop to the mix), you could be guaranteed that not everyone would be motivated to clean up after their baby in public spaces and that's never good for public sanitation.

I might advocate a middle ground - EC at home, hapless victim of the Diaper-Industrial Complex while out of the house. Either that or I'll have to start doing more grocery shopping - the dog's using up all the Whole Foods bags.

As a mom who EC's (or has nearly finished EC'ing), I'm finding all these comments interesting.

In particular, the bit about your very young infant pooping all the time, and sometimes outside of the diaper. Could it be that he was waiting for an opportunity not to poop in his pants, but sometimes just couldn't hold it anymore? By 6 weeks, my son would wait until he was over a potty place (usually over the potty or the toilet) to go. One time I didn't realize that he had to go poop and we were out grocery shopping with him in a disposable diaper. He was fussing and I just thought he wanted to go home. Well, as soon as he started going, he upgraded to screaming angrily at the top of his lungs and he didn't stop until he was all cleaned up. He was about 2 months old. Even babies don't want poop smushed against their butts!

And most parents who EC do use cloth (and sometimes disposable) diapers at least part-time, especially in the early months. Some parents stop using diapers only when they stop seeing "mustard" stains in most diapers. We've used diapers pretty much full-time, but without waterproof covers, so that we could tell right away if we missed a pee. We gave up diapers around 18 months, when there were no more poop accidents and maybe 3 pee accidents a day.

My favourite thing about EC: you know those really gross messy baby poops that smush all over and leak out the back of the diaper and all the way up baby's back? My sister once had to use an entire box of baby wipes for one of those ones! When baby poops directly into a potty or toilet, you only have to use 2 squares of toilet paper (ok maybe 4 if it's a really messy one) for poops.

And I would never allow baby poop anywhere that poop shouldn't go. I've been known to allow him to poop held over a diaper when I couldn't get to an appropriate place. Pee however can go anywhere a dog might pee.

And as for Brazelton and the whole "toilet-training readiness theory", well it really is just a theory and has never been tested. My personal parenting guru is Dr. Bill and Nurse Martha Sears. They have 7 kids. They're not particularly pro-EC but they've seen the benefit for those parents who can manage it.

Just thought you might be interested in checking out my EC blog. It's actually a whole lot of fun and invaluable for helping me track down my son's multiple food allergies!

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