I normally avoid talking about toilet-training and elimination communication on my blog — not because it is not interesting and worthwhile, but because it has become so much part of our everyday lives that I don’t even think about it much any more.
Until it all grinds to a halt, that is.
We have practiced elimination communication or ‘EC‘ with all our three kids, and I’ve also spent a fair amount of time researching it. Two chapters of my PhD are exclusively about EC, and I’ve also written a few academic papers about it too.
I’ve never consciously equated EC with early toilet-independence — it is about communication after all, not toilet training — but I never realised how much I expected it until my son avoided early toilet-independence and began to actually prefer eliminating in a nappy or pants over ‘open air’ or a potty. What is different? Many people have put it down to his being a boy, but I know plenty of boys in my research who have managed to avoid nappies much earlier than two. I think there are a number of reasons why we have ended up where we are — 26 months with a fear of ‘open air’ elimination.
1. We stopped ‘holding him out’ early, and relied on him voluntarily sitting on the potty. In China, babies are held out in position
like this picture, and gently cued to wee. It is comfortable, and if they really don’t need (or want) to go they stretch their legs out and arch their backs in the universal ‘no’ signal. With our girls, we used this position well past the time of toilet independence even. If caught short at a park or something when they were three, we would still use it to help them relax and go and not wet their feet! With our son, however, I found he was much heavier and I was not as strong and we gave up this important ‘cue’ too early. Because once he started to walk, there was no way you could keep him on the potty!
2. He is much more active, and less inclined to read a book or sit and relate to you. He constantly needs to move, and the potty is just not interesting enough. We have limited success with using board games that he is normally not allowed to touch set out right next to the potty! He is just not on there long enough to relax and let it out!
3. We live in a colder climate, with carpet in a rental, and no cultural tolerance for split-crotch-pants. We lived in a cold climate with our eldest, but it was in China, so she wore split-crotch-pants and we had tiled floors. Accidents were not a biggie, and we never had her in nappies unless we were going on a long trip. Even then we often used training pants. But she was used to the air down there and never developed a preference for peeing in her pants or nappy — she actively avoided it! Our second daughter was a baby in Australia, and rarely wore any clothes (the rule was, they had to put undies on to eat dinner. That’s our high-class dress code 🙂 ). She liked to go in the toilet, and also developed a cue related to running the bath, so if she really couldn’t relax we could run the bath and she’d go. But with our son, we live in the South Island of NZ in an uninsulated rental house with carpet. We also had better modern cloth nappies with a feel dry layer, so he wasn’t as uncomfortable with a wet nappy as the girls were. We didn’t get him peeing without nappies nearly as much as we did with the older two. We rarely had him nappy-free at all over the long winter.
4. Boys. MAYBE there is something here. He does seem to prefer standing up to pee, and there must be some biological difference to the particular anatomy used. But I am not willing to use this as an excuse for him developing a preference for going in a nappy rather than open air. That was our fault.
I don’t think we can fix a potty pause, but we can definitely keep the lines of communication open. I have recently been around some much older kids who cannot deal with open-air poo and will ask for a nappy to do it in quite consciously. It was a kick in the pants for me to remove my son’s nappies while we are in summertime and on holiday. Even if he doesn’t ever get it in the potty, I want him to lose the fear of open-air pooing and peeing! So last week when we returned from our Christmas holiday, we removed his nappies and he has not gone back. When he gets stressed about pooing or peeing and asks for a nappy, we spend *a lot* of time gently talking to him about his feelings (“Your bum is really wiggly — seems like something needs to come out. It feels so good to get it out doesn’t it…” etc.) and his fears too (“Are you feeling a bit nervous or scared? It’s OK, we are here with you, you can just let it go wherever you need to. The garden is a good place isn’t it, let’s try here” etc). Because he is a bit nervous about going, he is holding on much longer and signalling quite clearly when he needs to go, as well as talking about it consciously.
So far, in a few days, he has managed one potty poo, two potty wees (sit down), two potty wees (I catch it while he stands), a garden poo, a bathroom floor poo, and lots of carpet wees. I took him out to the library in training pants and he did his poo and pee there (of course!) so now we are just staying at home for a few more days until he is feeling more normal about it. He is also nakey-bum at night on a brolly sheet, which needs changing at 1am if he doesn’t manage to wee before bed. If he has any pants on, he will wee more frequently. I’ve asked if he wants a nappy at night, but after a few days he is totally on board and doesn’t want to wear nappies any more (except at the exact moment of wanting to wee — and even then he is asking for trackpants!).
It is pretty exhausting, consciously negotiating with a two-year-old, recognising his signs and feelings and putting words to them. But I am aware that with our climate, our window to make a new habit of open air elimination is only a few months, and that it will become harder when I go back to work and husband has to keep an eye on it while renovating the house. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this with my oldest — if I had faced any difficulties I think I would have given up and allowed her to toilet-train ‘when she was ready’. But from all my research, I now know how culturally situated these ‘readiness’ signs are, and I have also seen how many children develop phobias to open air elimination. I want to help my son to gently change his association between pants and elimination.
And I also now appreciate the tradition of toilet-training in NZ during ‘the summer closest to turning two’!