Jeffrey Bender and his wife, Rosemary She, already felt ashamed about sending two children’s worth of disposable diapers to landfills. They didn’t want to do it with their third. But, cloth diapers were not a guilt-free option, since they devour their own share of energy and water.
So they decided to abandon diapers altogether.
“We feel that so much of what we do, which may not be good for the environment, is because everyone else is doing it, whether it is using disposable plates and cups, driving gas-guzzling vehicles or buying produce from halfway around the world,” She said. “Disposable diapers are just one example where we felt we had a choice to do better.”
Americans contribute about 20 billion disposable diapers to landfills annually, by one estimate, and these can take up to 500 years to degrade. They release greenhouse gases in the process, like methane, which contribute to climate change.
While the couple’s diaper-free approach may seem new or radical, the method is actually generations old and likely still being used in countries where resources are limited. The practice, called “elimination communication,” or EC, relies on understanding an infant’s natural cycles. Most babies go at predictable times, such as upon waking and after eating. Parents can use audible cue, a whistle, for example, to prompt their baby to pee or poop when held over a toilet. A 2012 study conducted by Swedish researchers described its efficacy among Vietnamese babies.
“A lot of it is intuition, the same as with knowing when the baby might be hungry, in pain, tired, wanted to be held or burped,” She said. “A more concrete example, in our experience, would be when we have her in a baby carrier and she goes from being content and snuggly to wiggling and shifting. Then we would know she needed to… have a potty break.”
In addition to being environmentally friendly, EC helps children more easily learn to walk — “having a large padded diaper between your legs would make walking difficult for anyone,” Bender said — and improves infant health. Babies who go without diapers suffer fewer infections, such as staphylococcus aureus, which thrives in warm, moist environments. Ditching diapers also saves money, as disposables and cloth diaper laundering services can be expensive.
Bender, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, and She, a pathologist and medical microbiologist at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, wrote about their experiences in a recent article published in the journal Pediatrics.
Initially, they carried cloth diapers with them as a backup when they went out, and at home trained their infant daughter on a tiny baby toilet. “When she was really little, we would sit her on it but support her with our hands and arms so her head wouldn’t go unsupported,” She explained. “Another option was to hold her with her back towards us, and we would place one hand under each thigh and support her back and head against our torso and arms. [That way] we could have her go into something below, such as the toilet, the great outdoors, sink or any other receptacle.”
Mostly, the child’s natural routine, coupled with the whistle, worked well, with one exception. “Our family loves watermelon, but we quickly learned that EC and watermelon did not mix well with our daughter,” Bender said. “She had been doing great with few misses, until she tried that first piece of summer watermelon…We made sure to prepare in advance for any watermelon eating after the first few times.”
There also was an occasional embarrassing public encounter. “One time I was ‘caught’ holding our daughter over the toilet in a public restroom at Costco when a toddler and his mother pushed opened the door to our stall, thinking no one was there,” She recalled. “The look on the mother’s face was one of utter shock and incredulity. She seemed frozen and wouldn’t move until I asked her to please close the door.”
The couple’s two older children, both boys, tried to support their baby sister’s efforts — sort of. “As we typically gave a short two note whistle when our daughter peed, they desperately wanted to learn how to whistle so they could get her to pee on command,” Bender said. “They would blow madly through their lips in an effort to have her pee in the car seat… [or] at the grocery store. They thought it was funny. We were glad they did not learn how to whistle until she was older.”
Bender and She acknowledge that EC isn’t for everyone, especially when both parents work outside the home, with children in daycare. They point out that parents still can try EC part-time, which is what they did when they went back to work and their first nanny didn’t like using EC. When their daughter was eight months old, they got a new nanny who was very enthusiastic about the practice — not surprising, since her grandparents trained her with EC in Taiwan when she was an infant.
They never considered giving it up “since it was part of our bonding with our daughter,” She said. “Being able to help her not soil herself, while saving money and helping the environment in the process was worth it, misses and all.”
They wrote the journal article with the hope that others might give it a try. “I think younger generations are definitely cognizant of environmental issues and open-minded to ways to make a difference,” She said. “So getting the word out there now, that there are indeed environmentally-friendly options… for potty training, could spark change for future generations.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.