For many parents, the absence of a changing table in a restroom is reason to grumble. But when nature calls her 11-month-old, Vivienne Palmer doesn't have to find the cleanest spot on a grubby floor for a quickie change -- or worse, make her son sit in a poopy diaper all the way home. She simply takes her tyke to the toilet, unsnaps his pants, and encouragingly whispers "pssss, pssss" until little Casey does his business.
While some experts object to the practice, parents who support infant potty training say it's cheaper, more sanitary, and more environmentally friendly than traditional training, in which toddlers typically rely on diapers until age 3. It also builds bonds between parent and child, as they learn to communicate about baby's bathroom needs, proponents say.
"When you catch a good pee or poop, you feel great -- I'm communicating with my child and I save one more diaper from landfill," says Palmer, who's from Boulder, Colorado.
Infant potty training -- or elimination communication, as supporters call it -- has long been practiced in other countries. Laurie Boucke, a mother of three and author of Trickle Treat, one of the first primers on the subject (the 1991 book is now out of print), was looking for a better way to potty train her youngest child 26 years ago when a houseguest from India mentioned that she could get the boy, then 3 months old, to pee on command. The infant emptied his bladder in the toilet with just a few whispered "psss"es from the guest, who readily showed Boucke her methods.
Boucke was then hooked. "I found it much better than the way most Americans potty trained," says Boucke, who lives in Lafayette, Colorado, and has also written Infant Potty Basics: With or Without Diapers...the Natural Way (White-Boucke Publishing) and runs pottywhisperer.com. She says her son used the toilet independently by age 2 -- a year and a half earlier than his brothers.
While most American parents today don't begin toilet training a child until age 2, the typical starting age in the United States before the advent of disposable diapers was 12 to 18 months, according to Contemporary Pediatrics. Yet even that's old according to the new advocates of infant training, which recommends "catching" a baby's deposits as early as just a few days after birth. Babies 6 months or older are considered late starters.
"Anyone who has conventionally toilet trained a child knows how difficult it can be," says Ingrid Bauer, author of Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene (Natural Wisdom Press). "[Infant potty training] is about comfort for the child and responding to the child's needs in the moment, rather than having them sit in their waste."
While some moms have found success with early potty training, many child development experts criticize the trend. The late Dr. Benjamin Spock, among the foremost respected voices on child-rearing, warned that toilet training in the first year could backfire. Early "training" is really conditioning, and not learning, and could lead to later rebellion through bed-wetting, he writes in his landmark Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (Pocket Books).
Infant training also robs the child of the sense of pride older children derive when they accomplish the skill on their own, says T. Berry Brazelton, MD, a renowned pediatrician and the author of Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way (Da Capo Press). "When you start that early, you train a reflex, something that isn't conscious in a child," Dr. Brazelton says. "When it works, I'm sure it's rewarding. But when it doesn't, it could increase the parents' tension to the point where they say: 'Oh, my God, I put so much into this, why are they not getting it?' It's a parent-oriented kind of approach, and not a child-oriented approach."
Early training is also unrealistic for parents who work full-time or don't have enough time to monitor their child's every facial expression, Dr. Brazelton says. He recommends waiting until age 2. That's typically when a child expresses interest in potty training and shows signs of readiness, such as being able to model adult behavior.
While some practitioners of infant potty training claim their babies are independent at the toilet as young as 10 months, most say true independence comes closer to 25 months -- around the time most parents think about training anyway. To Sue Sutton, having a child become a potty pro early isn't worth those two years of constant vigilance. Sutton, a mother of two and daycare director in Croydon, Pennsylvania, typifies most American mothers in that she started training son Jackson, 6, and daughter Grace, 4, around their second birthdays. She posted a chart, giving her kids stickers to paste on it each time they went to the bathroom successfully. When the chart was full, they earned a toy, she says. Both tots were trained within about two months. "If infant potty training works for some moms, more power to them," Sutton says. "But I don't know how you would ever leave the house."
Still, about 2,000 parents have joined an Internet chat group that's hosted on diaperfreebaby.org, based on a group two Boston-area moms formed in 2003. The group now has chapters in 38 states and 14 countries. To Palmer, the appeal is evident: "It's wonderfully freeing when you realize that all your baby really needs to be potty trained is you."
Dana DiFilippo, mom of two kids, lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2006.
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