Our story of mess-free potty learning from birth, using part-time EC (Elimination Communication)
Potty training doesn’t have to begin with older toddlers. EC is a gentle, child-led method of infant potty learning, suitable from birth to 18 months.
If this is the first you’ve heard of Elimination Communication, it probably sounds a bit weird! But once you get used to the idea and consider the benefits for baby, parents and the environment, you might never look at nappies the same way again!
There can be a misconception that EC only works alongside attachment parenting, and that it takes constant attention and work. I pottied my two little boys from 4 months and from newborn. I absolutely love EC, it made our life easier and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I wanted to share a brief introduction to the basics of EC, along with a more in-depth personal account of our experience of part-time mess-free EC.
If you’d prefer, you can also listen to this blog via podcast or video courtesy of Go Diaper Free in their guest posts. If you’re already familiar with EC, you can skip over the basics and read our potty story here.
*Disclaimer* I’m not a healthcare professional (although you will find medical professionals among the active advocates of EC). If you have any medical concerns about your child you should always seek professional advice.
As new parents these basic functions will quickly seem to become your whole world. While most parents become very attuned to cues for hunger or tiredness, the cues for toileting are mostly overlooked. It’s something parents can be instinctively aware of (how many times have you heard parents point out a baby’s ‘poop face’?!), but it’s not acted on until after the deed. Instead the focus is on dealing with the aftermath (sometimes with catastrophic results, and a once adorable onesie going straight into the outside bin!). Most parents probably aren’t even aware that there is another option.
Potty habits vary historically and across the world – and have been massively influenced by the introduction of disposable nappies. In other societies around the world, parents will notice a toilet cue and act on it. When you think about it, this makes more sense. Instead of waiting then cleaning up the aftermath, why not help babies eliminate more comfortably with less mess? If you’ve ever changed a newborn’s nappy (particularly boys), you probably know the jeopardy of timing it right so you aren’t in the line of fire! This is an instinct babies have from birth to avoid soiling themselves. It’s not unique or remarkable, it’s a fact of nature that many animals have.
In a nutshell, EC is giving babies the opportunity to ‘eliminate’ outside of their nappy, usually in a potty or toilet. To help figure out when baby will most likely need to go, carers can use a combination of cues, common timings, and natural timings by observing baby’s own rhythms. For example, on waking and after a milk feed are good times to offer the potty. If baby pees or poops in the potty, it’s often called a ‘catch.’ A newborn baby can be cradled snuggly over the toilet, a baby that’s sitting confidently can sit on the potty or seat reducer. Go Diaper Free offers loads of information and resources to find out more and to help you get started, including an easy to follow EC handbook.
There are so many fantastic advantages, this barely scratches the surface. You can find more benefits here.
One of the top reasons that makes me want to share EC is the easier transition to potty training. It’s something that a lot of parents dread, and I know many families who’ve had stress and tears all round. Waiting for signs of readiness, failed attempts, waiting longer, worrying it’s been too long. If a child has only ever experienced ‘going’ in a nappy, no wonder it can be confusing and scary. Of course some kids aren’t phased at all, but for others it can be genuinely distressing.
Early potty training isn’t necessarily the goal in EC, there’s no rush and no pressure, all children will be ready at different times. That said, potty training is very different for children who’ve used a potty from infancy and who are used to peeing and pooping without a nappy. EC helps to avoid the confusion and fear of introducing something brand new and scary. Children should already have a positive relationship with the potty/toilet, it’s just a case of building on skills they already have.
The Potty Training Spectrum
‘Waiting for readiness’ is the most common method currently in the UK. This usually means nappies being used for 100% of waste up to around 2 or 3+ years, with little emphasis on building any familiarity or skills before starting the process.
EC approaches vary widely and can be flexible to suit your circumstances. At one end of the spectrum, some families practice full time EC. This can involve little (or no) use of nappies, and using the potty whenever possible. It takes a firm commitment, and is best suited to parents who are laid back about accidents!
Part-time EC usually means using a combination of potty and nappy, with various tools at your disposal to help – such as using cloth nappies instead of disposables, regular nappy-free time, baby wearing, co-sleeping and special clothing for quick easy removal. While these tools can work well to tip the balance from nappy to potty, it’s important to know yourself and what you’re comfortable with, and to be realistic and relaxed to help make it a positive experience for your baby and family. Again, accidents are to be expected!
Within the spectrum of part-time EC many families choose to potty less regularly, but with enough consistency to bring many of the benefits. This could involve using disposable nappies, limited nappy-free time, more reliance on common timings over natural, perhaps pottying during the day at home but not when out and about or during the night. Even if the potty is used just a few times a day, children become familiar with the process. This can develop into naturally building up more potty visits over time, or can continue part-time until ready to potty train – without fear of the unknown.
Before the introduction of disposable nappies in the 1960s there was more of an incentive to keep babies clean, due to the workload involved in washing cloth nappies. Ask an older relative or friend and they might be able to share their experience of pottying young babies. Methods varied and throughout history there were practices that were rigid or even punitive. The concept of waiting for readiness was introduced as a more gentle child-led alternative by pediatrician Dr Brazelton (who worked with Pampers – the study was used as the cornerstone of their marketing campaign. If you find this conflict of interest disconcerting, read more here).
The readiness method is the only one currently endorsed by the NHS. At the outset of my EC journey I got in touch to find out their position on EC. The response was that they would take it under consideration if new guidance was published by the Institute of Health Visitors or ERIC. ERIC has recently launched a new campaign Let’s Go Potty, to provide guidance and support and to tackle reversing the trend of delayed toilet training. This includes encouraging parents to be more proactive with familiarising children with the basics at a younger age. Watch this space for new developments in ERIC’s exciting new campaign, and to see if the NHS follow suit!
EC-style methods are still the norm in many other parts of the world, and EC is increasing in popularity in Western Society as more people become aware of the benefits. Celebrity parents Mayim Bialik, Alicia Silverstone and Gisele Bundchen all practiced EC. There are many thousands of members of EC Facebook support groups, including from Yorkshire based Little Bunny Bear (25.7k), Born Ready EC UK (5.9k) and Go Diaper Free (3.3k – previously restricted to book owners, recently opened to all).
Like most things with kids, there will be obstacles. Like when your sweet little angel suddenly hates the pram and/or car seat, or starts throwing their favourite food on the floor, etc etc. Most people will experience resistance at some point with EC. A ‘potty pause’ may come along when you least expect, when things have been going fine then all of sudden it goes downhill. There are ways to try to get back on track, or it’s fine to scale it back to just the easiest catches, or to even take a break to reset then try again later.
Bear in mind that if your early experience of EC doesn’t go well, it doesn’t mean it won’t ever work. Children change so much over a short time, it could be a different experience a few weeks or months later. It isn’t any sort of failure, and nobody should feel undue pressure to make EC work. However, it doesn’t mean being restricted to the readiness method. By keeping an open mind you may find that over time EC (or a different alternative approach) works for your family and circumstances.
Our EC Journey
This is a personal account of part-time mess-free EC with two boys from starting out to potty training, including the practicalities and the nitty-gritty of toileting (apologies to anyone squeamish about poop!). This is just one example, there’s no right or wrong. Every family and child is different and so is their EC story.
When my first little boy came along, it was in the back of my mind that when the ‘time was right’ I’d definitely try EC. Fast forward 4 months, he’d started sitting unsupported so it seemed a good time to find out more. I read the research, ‘how to’ guides, arguments for and against. I’d missed the newborn stage, but was excited to start straight away. I knew I wasn’t comfortable with nappy-free time (our carpets were fairly new at the time, although after 2 kids and various illnesses it’s not at it’s best!!). I used disposable nappies, we didn’t co-sleep, and I didn’t use a sling much (until later when he developed a vendetta against the buggy).
We started with ‘easy catches’ based on common timings. When he woke up I’d sit him on the potty or hold him comfortably over the toilet, and was pretty much guaranteed a decent wee. The next step was to figure out natural timings. Nappies with indicator strips were fantastic for this. I did a few observations and noted the time from the start of a milk feed until the next wee. We usually got a result by visiting the potty around half an hour after a feed. We didn’t use any special clothing as he mostly wore stretchy jogging pants anyway, rather than dungarees or anything with poppers.
It wasn’t long before we were confident doing this out of the house as well. We would usually have a milk feed before heading out for a baby group, so I knew he should be due a wee when we arrived. Some places have great facilities with a changing table and toilet together, so it was a quick easy job. A few places had a separate toilet with no changing table, but with practice it wasn’t too tricky getting dressed again standing. I found wee cues really hard to pick up (this can work better for younger babies), so I just stuck to what worked, catching at least half a dozen pees per day with zero mess and stress. This was our routine until he turned 6 months.
Introducing solid foods was a complete game changer. Before that point we didn’t get any poop catches, we were just focussing on wees. Poops were infrequent with no obvious warning, and mostly explosive🙈 After starting solids, this became multiple times a day and was much more controlled. I was completely taken aback when on our usual pee visits, the first few solid poops went straight into the toilet. From that point on, I literally only had to deal with a soiled nappy a couple of times. My 6 month old had enough awareness and control to choose the potty. He wasn’t ‘potty trained’ and would happily pee in a nappy, but quickly got into a routine of pooping on the potty every morning (this was such a habit that on the rare occasions he didn’t, it felt like I was going out with a loaded weapon!!). We’d also been using the baby signing ‘chest slap’ for potty, which he would use himself to show he needed to poop.
This made my life sooo much easier. Since learning to roll he wouldn’t stay on his back for more than a few seconds, making nappy changes difficult (that’s an understatement… it sounded like murder being committed on a regular basis!). With the help of EC he was going long stretches in a clean dry nappy, with just a quick post-wee tissue dab and minimal time on the changing mat. If any extra cleaning was required it was like wrestling an angry octopus. I tried every trick in the book, the novelty always wore off leaving us with Little Mr Furious. Once poops were taken care of on the potty, wiping was usually just a one minute pit stop. Yes, you often have to be patient (sometimes very patient!) when waiting for potty time to wrap up, but we enjoyed books, songs and games and it made for a much happier boy and less stress all round. We were lucky to have his grandparents helping out with childcare, they were 100% on board with EC and unprompted bought their own potty – I’m sure it made life a lot easier for them as well.
We did have a brief ‘potty pause,’ where I’d offer the potty and he’d refuse. I was conscious to not encourage ‘holding.’ The time between pees naturally lengthens with age, but it’s worth looking up normal boundaries and encouraging a healthy routine (plus being aware of the risks and signs of chronic constipation, which is covered really well by Born Ready). If it had been a long time or there were other signs I’d just try somewhere different (potty vs seat reducer, upstairs vs downstairs bathroom). It usually turned out he was ready for a decent wee, just on his terms! We switched from disposable to cloth nappies for a while at around 9 months, but Mr Fussy decided he didn’t like them so we stopped. My main priorities were making EC child-led and stress free.
We’d added a few more common ‘transition times’ to our repertoire – times when it’s good to get into the habit of going for comfort or convenience, like before bed and before a bath. At this point I hadn’t felt it necessary to have nappy-free time for the sake of EC, but from being around 1 year old one of my toddler’s all time favourite things was to come out of a bath and have a wild half hour in his birthday suit, running, dancing, jumping. Because he always had a pre-bath pee and I was aware of his natural rhythms, I never questioned letting him have fun and go for it, without any accidents.
We potty trained at 21 months. There was no fuss and no tears, just no more nappies. We started with a pants free day at home, then went on to underpants at home and garden with short walks, then on to car rides and long walks. He loved his Peppa Pig underpants and was excited about being a Big Boy. After 5 days and no major accidents we were done, and confident to go back to our usual toddler groups and soft plays. To be honest, he was probably ready a good few months before then. The delay was more about me being nervous (and also waiting for enough time off work). Even though we were very well prepared, it felt like a big step. As soon as we started, I stopped worrying. He started nursery when he turned 2 years, fully potty trained with zero accidents, he would take himself along to use the nursery toilet confidently.
When baby number 2 came along, things were very different. I had a toddler wreaking havoc (age 2 years 1 month), and although I was keen to potty from birth this time I was expecting it to be more challenging. I was ready to roll with it and not stress if it didn’t go to plan. I’d packed a small potty in my hospital bag for labour, as many ECers successfully potty the first poop and don’t have sticky meconium mess to deal with. It was not a good labour. It started well but ended very traumatically, I was in a lot of pain and was basically an emotional and physical wreck afterwards. I told myself that I’d forget about EC for a few weeks until I’d started to recover. I lasted 2 days with ‘regular’ nappy changing, then I cracked and went back to EC. It just didn’t make sense, it was more messy and time consuming. I would stand at the changing mat knowing my baby was about to pee (because that’s what boys do when you take off their nappy), playing the game of ‘guess where’ and ‘guess when,’ which begins with waft… wait… cover… wait… clean, then a split second before the new nappy goes on… bingo, pee everywhere. I chose the easy option and started pointing him at the loo instead.
For the first 6 weeks, almost every pee and poop (including meconium) went straight in the loo. Nappies would usually stay clean and dry for 24 hours – a bag of nappies lasted a very long time. There were some compromises ECing with a toddler in tow. I didn’t do much observation of natural timings, and I didn’t EC out and about (having a toddler ‘helping’ in a changing room was too much for me!). This time around we ECed during the night right from the beginning. We had an oversized plant pot in the corner of our bedroom (I didn’t trust my target skills in the night in dim light!), so that it was handy for a quick try on waking, then straight into a cosy feed.
After a few months we gradually started to get more wet nappies, he had longer stretches of being awake and was less predictable, and I was really only focussing on easy catches, which we were still getting plenty of. At 6 months after starting solids, I was hoping that we could say goodbye to poopy nappies again, but of course no two kids are the same. It wasn’t the same revolutionary change the second time round, but I still count it as a success. He would usually start to go in his nappy with obvious signals, and had no objection to being transferred to the bathroom to finish up on the potty/toilet. There was only ever a little bit in the nappy so cleanup was easy (and unlike big brother, he was very chill on the changing mat!). I can’t really imagine dealing with a full nappy being squished all over his lovely bum.
I planned to potty train just before he turned two, as he was reliably telling me when he needed to go and keeping mainly clean. I was much more confident this time, I expected a few more accidents compared to big brother, but the second time around this didn’t phase me. Plans for our first attempt went out the window as he had a heavy cold and wasn’t himself when the school holiday came around and I had the time off work. I decided to wait a couple of months until the next holiday instead. We didn’t wait quite as long as expected, before the start of the first Covid-19 lockdown in March. We switched straight to underwear (at 25 months) and obviously were spending all of our time in the house and garden anyway. Again, he was very pleased with his big boy pants and excited to be just like his big brother. In the early stages there were a few small accidents, but after about a week poops were completely taken care of.
Another change in my attitude compared to first time around, was that we ditched night-time nappies at the same time as well. With big brother, although he was always dry overnight it took longer for me to make peace with not having nappies as a backup. The second time around, as soon as my toddler told me he didn’t want nappies at night, that was it. We’re now 9 months on and not 100% perfect, but close enough. The most we have to deal with is a very occasional dot of wee in the pants, never a full wee and no nighttime accidents.
I’d urge every parent to consider the options available. Waiting for readiness isn’t the only gentle child-led approach, and can cause distress in the long run for some children. Just because something is common practice, doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way. Take the time to read up and find out more from all sides, so that whatever your decision is, it’s an informed one. Ask yourself where the information is coming from and why. If you’re interested in trying EC, take advantage of tried-and-tested information from trusted sources (links below) to help it go smoothly and overcome common issues and pitfalls. Be realistic and find a balance that’s right for you and your family to make it a positive experience, and be ready to be flexible as EC will change over time!
And please help to spread the word about EC to expectant and new parents, as it may just help make someone’s life that bit easier💜
I’d love to hear your thoughts over on Instagram – had you already heard of EC? Would you consider it? Are there any barriers to trying it? If you practice EC, how has your experience been?
All opinions expressed are my own – I’m really passionate about EC and believe it can benefit parents and children. This article contains affiliate links, if used to make a purchase I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.