Friday, December 11, 2009

Using elimination communication techniques with potty training a toddler

I had a question from a reader named Sarah who's in the midst of potty training her toddler and was curious about how potty learning can avoid using rewards (not to mention punishments) as incentives, and how elimination communication might interact with that, if at all.

This came about as she was reading Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn, and considering how the precepts there might apply to potty training.

I have been so slow about answering her email that I figured it deserved a whole blog post as compensation!

(And if you're someone who's also waiting for me to return an email, now you know...I'm terrible about responding to emails, promptly or at all! I'll keep trying, though.)

I'm going to organize this blog post the same way I was going to write the email, which is to throw out my two cents and then link to a bunch of people who have more experience than I do!

All right, first the two cents:

I think that elimination communication perspectives and techniques could be your friend with potty learning. When you first hear about elimination communication, it can sound a little out-there at first, but it's basically allowing your child to eliminate in something other than a diaper. It's much more common in some other cultures, and at some point in the past was common in ours as well, but it's fallen out of favor due to current cultural taboos about hygiene, mistaken beliefs about the child's physical development (babies can control their bladders and bowels much earlier than many people think), and also the perceived difficulty of having close communication with a baby, close enough to read the cues of elimination and to provide a convenient place (like a bowl, sink, or potty) to go.

Ok, that was just a little intro. A lot of folks start at birth or shortly thereafter, but there are plenty of people who learn about elimination communication, or EC as it's usually abbreviated (easier to say, eh?), when their babies are older, and even when they're potty-learning toddlers. And there are plenty of just such folks who have been wise enough to realize that some of the EC principles can still be applied, even if EC hasn't been followed from birth.

The foundation of EC is the C part: communication. The idea is that you listen to your child's cues of when he needs to go, and you respond with an opportunity to do so (or, as it's cutely called, a pottytunity). Some parent-baby pairs are really good at signaling each other, and some are not.

So, there are two possibilities here for how you might apply this to potty training: If your child has specific sounds or actions that he makes when he needs to pee or poop (or actions he doesn't make, such as stopping playing), you might start noting those so you can use that information to offer a trip to the toilet.

On the other hand, if your child is pretty random about when she's going, then you might rely on another method that EC parents use: timing. This can mean literally setting a timer and offering a pee break when it dings. Again, you'll have to observe your child to see how often she typically goes. We started annoying Mikko by offering too frequently once he was past the baby stage of peeing every five minutes! He now holds it in and goes only three or so times a day, so it was a bit of trial and error on our part to figure out that that was the new normal for him. Another way timing works is in the sense of tying pottying to the daily routine: offering a pee upon, for instance, waking up, going to sleep for a nap or the night, going out or coming back home, or at other obvious times. This is the "at least go try" method that you remember from childhood car trips!

All right, so far this has just been technique and not really delved into how that works with no rewards. One salient feature of EC, considering that it starts with little babies, is that there is no expectation and no judgment involved. In EC-land, even accidents are given the benign term of "misses," which throws the responsibility back on the parent instead of on the child, as in, "Oops, I see I missed a pee; I'll remember next time that you probably need a pottytunity before your nap." In this system, there's no reason to reward a baby for going to the bathroom, because the baby's just doing what the baby does. The rest is the parent's finagling of the circumstances. The baby wants to eliminate in a place other than right next to his skin, but he is unable to transport himself away from his own waste without help. This is where the parent steps in and offers that opportunity.

Ideally, there should be no self-judgment on the parent's part, either. Misses are cleaned up without comment or regret. They can be learning experiences on one or both sides, but they're not considered bad.

When I write this, I just want to say that what I'm describing above is beautiful, lovely, ideal EC world, and sometimes I did fall into self- and, to my shame, Mikko-recriminations. It seems so silly after the fact, now that he's potty trained. I knew he would get there eventually, and there's really no rush needed.

One practical tip I would give is, if you're using diapers or pull-ups as a backup, use cloth (either in diaper or training-pants form). They help so much at signaling to the child when she's wet, a sensation that can be lost with high-wicking disposables. Having used some of the so-called wetness-alert variety when we were traveling, even those are really poor at conveying when a miss has occurred, to the child or the parent!

Another option popular among ECers is to have diaper-free/pants-free (also called nakey-butt) time, either hours or days, maybe even a full weekend if you want to really go for it! It sort of depends on your setup and your comfort level. If you have hardwood floors and wool rugs, for instance, it's easier than if you rent in a place with wall-to-wall beige carpeting. It's a great way for both you and your child to get in touch with how often and when elimination happens. Scatter potties everywhere, and use the time to look for signals. I mean, you don't need to be obsessive, but if you're a little nervous, that can actually make you more observant!

You might also consider incorporating another technique of ECing, which is to cue your child. With a baby, many people use a particular sound to accompany peeing (like a Pssss... for instance) or pooping (often a grunting), but with an older child, you could launch right into consistent potty terms or baby sign language. This can help associate the potty or toilet in your child's mind with the elimination you're expecting.

Other than that, I would say to approach potty learning from a different perspective if you want to let go of the praise. If your child uses the potty when you offer, accept that as normal and just make simple statements about it if you want to say anything at all: "Oh, look, you've gone pee in the potty." I don't think there's anything wrong about being enthusiastic and conveying pleasure. I think the praise aspect becomes harmful when it's used to manipulate your child into performing for you to earn your pleasure and love. So the flip side is, if he has an accident, just deal with any miss calmly, reminding yourself that this, too, shall pass. A stale saying, but it's still kicking around for a reason! You could ask him to help you clean it up or to remove his clothing if he's old enough. You can be just as matter-of-fact about the miss as you were about the hit: "It looks like you've peed in your pants. Pee goes in the potty. I'll try to help you remember next time to try before we go out."

I'm going to go link-loving now, but I'll just put out a call for any comments from people who have more advice on the topic of potty learning and toddlers. Were you a late or early or non-starter with EC? How did the transition to potty learning go for you?

     • Elimination Communication forum at, where you can ask detailed questions and receive lots of responses in a supportive environment. There's even a Late Starters Support Thread, but feel free to start your own thread if you have a topic you want to address. There's also a general Toddlers Forum, if you'd feel more comfortable conversing there. You'll for sure find other helpful mothers who are potty training from toddler age in that group.

     • There is a Yahoo! Group for IPT Late Starters. (IPT = Infant Potty Training, which is another term for EC)

     • Here is Laurie Boucke's page of tips for late-starting EC. Her main tip is to be gentle (with yourself!).

     • Laurie Boucke wrote an excellent book called Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living, and two other good ones are The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative, by Christine Gross-Loh, and Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, by Ingrid Bauer. Fair warning: Amazon links are affiliate links, so don't click on them and then order something if you don't want me to earn money! The good news is I was able to find all these books at my library, so it's possible yours will have them or could order them for you. I can't remember now what information each had on late starting or toddlers — does anyone else remember or have the books at hand to check? They were comprehensive, so I'm imagining they would be of value even at this stage.

     • I found this post on Tribal Baby helpful, about ECing with a toddler and transitioning to a potty and the big toilet.

     • Hannah at Free to EC! (scroll down to the second story) tells of her journey starting EC with a one-year-old.

     • Here's my post about doing part-time EC with a toddler, from when Mikko was 23 months old. I mention some more EC-specific resources there.

I hope that this all made some relevant sense to you and can be a start of learning a new way of connecting with your toddler during potty learning! It sounded from your email that you haven't been coercive or shaming, so you've probably already got some of these mindsets down. I hope throwing a bunch of lingo at you doesn't scare you off! It's really not about the terms or doing it all "right," but just about going with the flow (get it??) and trusting children to learn potty independence at the best rate for them.

Actually, that's a lesson I'm finding applies to so many other aspects of parenting, as well!

Please, do, anyone, comment if you have more or better advice for potty learning without using praise, which was the actual question, not "Please, Hobo Mama, assault me with a huge long blog post about some weird-sounding diaper-free thing." All right, begin!

[Editor's note: I wrote this in November just before posting Lisa's guest post on Reasons to get behind elimination communication, so I've saved it till now so it wouldn't be EC overload. I did in fact email it to Sarah and heard back from her, too, because she is not as slow about emailing as I am! Sarah is someone who recently heard about and is interested in attachment parenting, but more as a way of defining and refining the thoughtful parenting she's already instinctively doing. For instance, she already had a lot of this philosophy going on with her son's potty training. I keep hoping she'll start a blog...]

Photo of pottying Superman courtesy valentinapowers on flickr (cc)


Lisa C said...

Several months ago someone asked me advice on starting EC with a toddler, and I gave her a few tips, but wasn't sure if I knew what I was talking about! But I pretty much said what you said, so that makes me feel better. I know that Laurie Boucke's Infant Potty training has a larger section on late EC than the other books, but I haven't read it yet.

I have this book call "Outwitting Toddlers" that I read years ago and it mentions allowing the child to go around without a diaper or training pants (the idea is that they will hold it in because they don't have a diaper to go in (since they are diaper-trained), until finally they just have to go, and then they hate the sensation of the pee going down their legs so it encourages them to go in the potty). The diaper-free time also gives the child some bio-feedback.

I second the cloth diapers. Regardless of how you potty-train your child, cloth diapers will help. I read that cloth-diapered children are, on average, potty-trained two years sooner than children in disposables. Just be aware that there are some cloth diapers that are designed to wick moisture away, so don't get those.

I also don't think there is anything wrong with being enthusiastic--it's not the same as praise or rewards. I would just gage your child's need for the enthusiasm and don't overdo it. One of my favorite things to say is "Do you feel better now?"

I've noticed that a simple "Uh-oh!" when he pees on the floor shows him that he's not supposed to do it, but that he isn't in trouble, either. We also say "Pee goes in the potty." I've also said, "Wow, look at that poop!" a few times.

Also, let's not forget about modelling the behavior!

I have a lot to say, I should just write my own post, ha ha.

Lauren Wayne said...

I love your input. Thanks, Lisa!

Thanks for the info about the section in Laurie Boucke's book. I like your ways of saying things, too: "Do you feel better now?" And "Wow, look at that poop!" is cracking me up. :)

Susana la Banana said...

Too rushed to actually make a helpful comment, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to say I'm so glad I learned from your post that nakey-butt-time is a universal term, and not just something weird that we made up. ;)
Great post!

Dionna said...

I wish I was brave enough to do some nekkie time. I feel like I missed a big window of opportunity with Kieran this last summer, but our house is full of carpet and the thought of cleaning up messes is not appealing.
Love this post though, and you've given me a lot of food for thought. I think I just got frustrated b/c he showed obvious signs of being ready months ago and we didn't do enough to work with him.

Leigh Anne DuChene said...

This is how we worked with our son at learning to use the potty. He self-potty trained at 2 1/2 y/o and never had any issues! We did not use rewards or punishment, just constantly offered him the opportunity to do it himself and learn how to communicate with us! It was so simple, easy, and rewarding to me, as I was 6 months pregnant with baby #2 when he self-potty trained and now baby is 3 weeks old and no set backs at all!!

Mom on the Go said...

When my daughter was 9 months old, she started to crawl. I needed to keep her with me when I used the bathroom and so I sat her in a potty chair and read to her when I used the toilet. We were predictable - when waking, before lunch, etc. By the time she was 11 months old, she was dry. She started daycare at 11.5 months and they had no mini-toilets in the infant room and so she was dry at home and in diapers until 18 months when she went into the toddler room. I didn't know it was EC at the time but now I think it fits your "tying to routine". It was a natural evolution more than "training".But my 4 siblings and I were all dry by a year because my mom didn't want two in diapers and I thought I could do it if she had.

Rambling Rachel said...

Since Anna turned 18 months two months ago I've recognized her signs. In the last two weeks, we've been doing more potty and she seems to be holding it to go on the potty.

I've been using positive praise and actually had to affirm her peeing like mommy since she has tried to pee standing up like her brother. I'll be more thoughtful about my responses and see if there's any change.

Lauren Wayne said...

Rachel: I just had to chime in and say that it's so funny that your girl is trying to pee like a boy! We've been doing the opposite and trying to demonstrate to Mikko that he can pee standing up like his dad. He's not convinced.

Leigh Anne & Mom on the Go: It's cool how you both did the potty transition instinctively, gently, and naturally.

Dionna: When we did nekkie time, we had old hardwood floors. Now we're in wall-to-wall off-white, so I might rethink it. Or not. Our carpets are quickly being ruined even if not by pee now! One thing that we found that works well is wool. Wool rugs (we got one at Ikea), wool blankets, keeping the blankets well lanolized. There are also some specific products out there you can buy, like the Nekkie Blankie. The usefulness depends on how mobile the baby is, though. And then there's always outdoors, though obviously that's more a summer thing for most!

Susana La Banana: I was surprised to learn that, too, but I have definitely heard it around! So you're either not weird, or you're weird in community. ;)

Unknown said...

So glad I found this post ~ 2.5 year old wants to use the potty, and I'm looking for the gentlest and least 'reward' oriented way to help her make the transition. Some really great tips in here, thank you

Amira Helmy أميرة حلمي said...

Hi there!
Thanks a lot for this informative article I have been searching for days and barely find something truely informative as yours. I know this is around 8 years ago :D but if you see this & can help please let me know.
I occasionaly Ec-ed my baby since he was 7 monthes old, targetting poop only. he surprise me by 14 monthes at telling me that he wants to go, and actually hold it sometimes when we are out and close to hime! But sadly I didnt use this time well and instead I was overstressed at the time, and 2 monthes later we returned back to point zero where he poops in his diaper! we used disposables because cloth is not really available where I live.
anyways now at 18 months, when I worked on our relationship and things are great, I decided to potty train him. this is our third day, and still he doesn't say before peeing, the good thing he says the moment it starts! is that a good sign? will he eventually learn to hold it and tell me before? how long will we pee on the floor? when I work on his timings he poops and pees in the potty and that is great. he loved the potty, we read and play for more than 20 mins sometimes when i sit him at certain predictable timings.
I need your help and advice pls?! we are only in disposables at sleep time, and all day he is in normal panties.

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