You're probably dreaming of the diaper-free days ahead. If you were raising a child two generations ago, however, that dream might already be a reality. In the late 1950s, 92 percent of children in the U.S. were potty trained by 18 months. Kids today, though, typically stay in diapers until around their third birthday. This is largely due to the use of disposable diapers. When cloth was king, the constant washing pushed parents to finish training ASAP. But disposables, used by up to 95 percent of parents in this country, have taken away this incentive. Attitudes have also changed: Many pediatricians now believe that kids shouldn't be trained until they're emotionally ready – somewhere between ages 2 and 3.
Yet in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, parents potty train soon after their baby is born. A study of Vietnamese mothers and their newborns found that by 9 months, all the babies were using the potty, and by 2 years they were fully trained, thanks to a method known as elimination communication (EC) or diaperless toilet training. While it isn't likely to become the norm here, a growing number of eco-conscious moms and dads are giving it a try.
The EC potty training technique is based on the idea that babies naturally signal when they need to go. Once you've figured out your child's cues, you can position him over a potty and make a sound (like a whistle or a hiss) that he'll eventually respond to by peeing or pooping on demand. A baby trained this way needs to be physically supported because he's not strong enough to sit upright. In China, where elimination communication has been the preferred potty-training method for centuries, parents hold their child by the hips over the toilet, facing away from them. To simplify the process, they may dress their kid in split-crotch pants and let him go commando underneath. Moms adopting the method in the U.S. tend to sit facing the toilet as they hold their naked toddler in front of them.
Elimination communication works better for moms with a sense of humor who can make adjustments on the fly, says Christine Gross-Loh, author of The Diaper-Free Baby. Stateside, parents often modify the technique to suit their lifestyle – for example, by using diapers when they're away from home and finding a potty may be difficult.
Adriane Stare, a mom in Brooklyn, New York, used EC with both her sons, Damien and Loren. She'd hold them over the potty right before putting on a fresh diaper. "If they had to go, they'd go, and if they didn't, they wouldn't," she says. The upside: She used a lot fewer diapers while reinforcing the connection between the potty and the need to go. Both kids were diaper-free around age 2, with the exception of naps, nighttime, and long road trips.
While all kids send signals that nature is calling – typically grunting and turning red for poop, and squirming, crying, and crotch-grabbing for pee – it may take a while to figure out your child's specific cues and to establish a consistent response that she understands. The good news is that a toddler's cues tend to be easier to read than an infant's, says Andrea Olson, author of Go Diaper Free. Kristen Burgess, of Fife Lake, Michigan, is currently EC-training her seventh child. When Burgess picks up on Sadie's signs, she takes her to the bathroom, asks, "Do you need to go potty?" and makes a pfff noise as Sadie goes.
Don't be surprised if family, friends, and your pediatrician question your potty-training approach. Denise Padilla de Font, a pregnancy and postpartum mentor in Durham, North Carolina, says her decision to use EC with her daughter was met with a mix of fascination, awe, and outright rejection. "People have the misconception that I was pressuring my daughter to perform, which wasn't the case at all," she adds. (In fact, EC proponents advise parents to ignore accidents and stay positive throughout the process.) You'll increase your odds of success if you join a support group, such as the one at diaperfreebaby.org, and keep the focus on getting in sync with your toddler.