What’s
with this whole diaper thing?  Who wants to potty train
early?  Dude, I don’t remember when the lil bro was being
potty-trained.  I think it was too traumatic for me.

Babies without diapers? No thanks.
By Emily Bazelon
Posted Friday, Oct. 14, 2005, at 11:27 AM PT

They
smell and cause rashes. The disposable kind is expensive,
mass-produced, commercially packaged, and filled with clingy little
polymer pellets. Who wants to defend the diaper in light of all its
sins? It’s a wrinkled-nose stance that’s hard to get excited about,
especially when the imagined au naturel alternative is “a baby’s bare
bottom bouncing through the house,” as anthropologist Meredith Small
fondly put it in a New York Times op-ed this week.

Small was celebrating the diaper-free baby
movement, which promises that you can teach your months-old or even
weeks-old infant to use the potty, all the while “promoting strong
baby-parent bonds, fulfilling natural human instincts.” Unlike their
predecessors in the long-running debates on toileting, the latest
proponents of early potty training mercifully refrain from
remonstrating that you’ll turn your child into a mess of an adult if
you wait too long to introduce her to the toilet (or make her anal if
you start too soon). Still, however gently, the diaper-free gurus are
preaching a dogma. And before parents sign on to it—or, far more
likely, feel guilty for being too exhausted to try—it’s worth
remembering why diapers became indispensable in the first place, and
what parents give up if they jettison the little sinners.

Until the 19th
century, American mothers wrapped their babies in swaddling. Then they
began putting infants in some version of cloth diapers or pads, giving
their wearers a greater range of movement and ensuring they didn’t have
to be held all the time. Pampers began marketing the first disposable
diaper in 1961. The early versions were leaky, bulky, and generally
inferior to cloth diapers. (In the 1970s, my mother scorned them.) But
when the technology improved, thanks to those polymer pellets—which
allow today’s diapers to absorb up to 500 milliliters of water—the
disposable diaper achieved “something like perfection,” in the words of
Malcolm Gladwell in a 2001 New Yorker article.

Like
the washing machine and the dishwasher, disposable diapers brought
energy-intensive industrial production into the home. In a story about early toilet-training last weekend (which followed recent articles on the topic in the Boston Globe, the Toronto Star, the Oregonian, the Tampa Tribune, Newsweek, and the Providence Journal), the New York Times
reported that diapers fill landfills at a rate of 22 billion a year and
cost families up to $3,000 per child. All of which makes them a good
symbol of American waste and excess.

But also like washing
machines and dishwashers, diapers are crucial labor-savers. They save
time—chiefly women’s time. A child who wears disposable diapers is a
child whose diapers need not be washed, rinsed, or soaked. More
radically, she is a child who can be easily handed off to someone else.
Changing diapers is no one’s favorite thing, but it’s fast, unfussy,
and part of the job description of most nannies and many day-care
teachers.

Taking off a baby’s diapers, on the other hand, means
taking a giant step in the opposite direction. The mantra of the
diaper-free gurus is “elimination communication,” or EC, which means
picking up on the little signals your baby makes before, well,
eliminating. “Elimination Communication can be practiced full-time or
part-time, by stay-at-home parents or by working parents,” promises the
mission and philosophies page
of the Web site for the nonprofit DiaperFreeBaby. This smacks of false
inclusivity. Learning to read your baby’s elimination signals correctly
involves watching them closely. It requires divining an infant’s
“timing patterns and rhythms”—zero, five, 10, 15 minutes after nursing;
in the morning; in the afternoon; in the evening—and her “body language
and signals”—frowning, squirming, fussing, tensing. Once you’ve keyed
into the right cues, you hold the baby over a potty at the appropriate
moment, go “hss-hss,” or “wss-wss” to trigger the desired association,
and then repeat 10 or 15 or 20 times a day. All of which sounds like
the sort of incremental, intimate process that requires near
round-the-clock contact. And who is likely to be so devotedly
attentive? I wonder.

In fact, elimination communication sounds
a lot like another name for ever-present mothering: attachment
parenting, the theory of child rearing that holds that kids are best
off emotionally and cognitively if they’re always with a single
caregiver in their early years. Here’s how babies become toilet trained
by the age of 6 months among the Digo people of East Africa, according
to the American Family Physician: “The child spends the first
few months of life exclusively in the company of the mother.” Here’s
the modern-day Manhattan version as reported by the Times:
“Some parents sleep next to their children and keep a potty at arm’s
reach.” So much for an evening away. And forget about a day at the
office.

Perhaps all this vigilance is short-term? EC can be “as easy as 1, 2, Pee!” the diaper-free baby Web site promises.
This conjures up a vision that could appeal even to the feckless
parent: Master EC during your three-month maternity leave (OK, or
paternity leave), acclimate your baby to the toilet, and hand her over
to a loving nanny or day-care center sleekly panty-clad. But
communication goes both ways, and EC is as much about training the
parent as about training the baby. That point was made by the mid-20th-century
experts who refuted the claims of the last wave of early-training
advocates. Keeping babies on a toilet-using routine into their toddler
years isn’t so easy—even when a parent closely watches them. One
mother, the wife of Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, the early 20th-century
baby expert who championed early training, commented dryly on the
subject in a diary she kept of her 14-month-old son: “He positively
declined to conform to some of the habits in which he has been drilled
since he was two months old.” (The quote comes from Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children, by my Slate colleague Ann Hulbert.)

The
diaper-free devotees love to point out that in much of the world,
babies don’t need drills—toilet training comes to them naturally. “Most
babies and toddlers around the world, and throughout human history,
have never worn diapers,” Small writes. In China, India, and Kenya, she
continues, “children wear split pants or run around naked from the
waist down. When it’s clear they have to go, they can squat or be held
over the right hole in a matter of seconds.” Right, because presumably
those babies live in rural villages or in cities where peeing down a
hole or in the gutter isn’t viewed as unsanitary or unseemly. That’s
not the sort of diaper-free culture likely to catch on in the United
States in 2005. “Babies without diapers” in this country sounds to me a
lot like “mothers without lives.” Maybe America would be better off
without diapers. Maybe we’d be better off without dishwashers and
washing machines, too. But before we get too taken with that
all-natural vision, let’s remember who did all the work before the
hardware came along—a lot of very tired women.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor.

Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2128061/

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4 responses to “

  • Anonymous

    I never had to potty-train. I was too intelligent to poop in my diapers, I always held it. That’s why you don’t remember me being potty-trained! I came out the womb knowing what the deal was! I said, “Point me to the W.C. and I’m good!!!” That’s me. Real from my first breath. Ask about ME!! lol. -Y

  • elsbro

    Oh wow… a friend of mine is expecting in a month and she’s seriously thinking about going diaper-free!
    We’ve been debating this for weeks, it’s funny that you posted this today.

    • ladylord

      Actually, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about this new “phenom” that is slowly making headway into the maternal lore so when I saw the article I thought it would be a good idea to bring it up. I suppose I always thought of potty-training as more or less an “established” time that was best for the development of the child, but perhaps not. Who knows?

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