Elimination Communication: The Key is Humor!

Elimination Communication is a way of parenting, it goes beyond "potty training" and allows us to approach our babies in a loving way, that says, "I want to understand and meet all your needs the best I can." We have an interview with Jamie, a mother of Elea, now 21 months old. She shares with us her experiences delving into first-time motherhood and remembering back to her experiences in practicing elimination communication since birth. They have found that humor and community are the two biggest keys to the process! Thank you Jamie, for your time and your experience, it is an honor to learn from others experiences!

Ashley: I’m so excited to talk to you about elimination communication! I’ve wanted to talk with someone with elimination communication experience. I had only heard of it not too long ago, and I was like, that’s amazing! So, tell me about your experience with elimination communication.

Jamie: Well, when I was pregnant I found this book called Diaper Free: The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene by this woman named Ingrid Bauer, who was sort of “the mother” of bringing back this idea to our society from ancient society. So, when I read the book, I thought, “wow, this is it! This is what I want to do! I’m never going to have my baby in diapers, and I loved this idea of communicating, starting when they are pre-verbal.” So, I had planned a home birth, so I was already in that mindset anyways, the all-natural, do it as if you were in a tribe! So, I had a home birth and didn’t even buy diapers, I was so sure it was going to work beautifully. And I called my mother two days later (after birth) and said, “get me some disposable diapers!” Not even the cloth ones, so it taught me a lot. Practicing it taught me about letting go of what my expectations are and that’s been a huge lesson for all areas of parenting for me!

Ashley: So, you had this magical idea, “elimination communication going to go perfectly! And we’re going to communicate right off the bat, I’m going to really watch!” And it wasn’t like you planned; you were watching and then missing?!

Jamie: Yeah! I was watching and I was missing, and there were so many other parts of being a mother for the first time that her elimination needs felt so secondary! You know, I had to get nursing down! But it also has taught me the lesson that I needed community. I also thought 1. I don’t need anybody there at my birth, I’ll have a midwife there in the background, maybe my husband, but I’m going to do it all myself. 2. I’m going to do this elimination communication all by myself because I’m going to have this magical connection. So, I ended up needing community, when my daughter Elea was about three months old, I found a woman who said she would be a mentor if I wanted to work with her. And so we started this group of parents, women and men who joined our group and we’ve had this group going since August of 2007, and we still meet once a month and I found community as well! In my lack, everything is a gift!

Ashley: Great! So, it wasn’t just you and your baby! So what did you learn through mentoring and through the community about elimination communication that’s helped you so much?

Jamie: I learned that sense of humor is absolutely the most important thing in any aspect of parenting, of course. And I learned incredibly specific, wonderful ideas from other people, and seeing them in person with other people, seeing other babies develop and change every month. Another really important aspect to the elimination communication is how quickly the babies change. So, just when you think you’ve got a nice rhythm and you understand when they are needing to go, and you are responding, they learn to walk, so the musculature changes and their brains start to change, and the style of communication changes and you feel like you are starting over, in some senses. Which again, it’s just like parenting!

Ashley: So it’s always on going. Did you try elimination communication, even from birth, did you continue to try it all the time, or was there a period where you set it aside and said, “no”. I know you said you used diapers at first, but did you go full-steam diapers and then three months later say, “Okay, I’m going to try it again.” Or how did that work?

Jamie: That’s a good question. Every day, I at least attempted some kind of communication around her elimination and there were always the pretty reliable pees that you can catch, or poos. You know when they first wake up in the morning, or they first wake up after a nap, that tends to be when go as adults, and those were reliable. Throughout the difficult periods, there were always some that I could catch. And throughout her 21 months of life, now I’ve had just a few days where we completely caught everything.

Ashley: Really?

Jamie: Yeah, there were just a few days. I know with others there are just a few days that they missed things, and that’s what I found was that everyone’s experience was incredibly different. But I don’t regret it. There were lessons of course, but …I’ve met people that have done elimination communication completely in diapers. They would just take the diaper off every time they would pee or poo their baby, and I tried to go without diapers a lot of the time, luckily I had hardwood floors! But that was my sort of style. To answer your question, when we have a “potty pause” as they are sometimes called, if it’s not working on either side, one or both sides of the communication, then I would go back to using diapers. Or just accept that I’m cleaning up after you today! And then start again the next day. And the phases always passed. The really difficult time between 12 months and 15 months, when I was getting really frustrated and doubting myself as a parent and thinking, “what am I not hearing?” Because there were so many communication problems during that period, and she was getting her independence! You know, learning to walk and not wanting to hold her all the time, it was so easy when I could hold her all the time. I could offer these opportunities where she could either say yes or no. When she became mobile, I would first have to get you in my arms! And she wasn’t interesting in climbing onto the potty herself at that time, so it was a tough phase, and it seemed like a lot of parents in our support group had similar experiences, though some of them didn’t last that long, or some of them they were just a few communication gaps during the day. Other people it was complete lack of communication, like they went back to diapers.

Ashley: So, did you feel like when you were not communicating well, it was mainly about the elimination communication or was it really about other stuff as well?

Jamie: Yeah, great question, there was always a different reason for elimination communication not to work, if we were going through a major developmental change, that would effect it, what happened more than once was I think my daughter sensed I was basing my self-esteem as a mother, on how many catches I got, she was aware, and astute, as children are and she wasn’t going to play that game. Like, “no mom, I’m not responsible for how you feel about yourself, and I’m not going to go there, we’ll do other things.” So, wow, it was incredibly humbling through this entire thing.

Ashley: That’s one way to be humbled. And yet, through all the frustrations, you are still happy you did elimination communication, so what about elimination communication really, what makes you say that?

Jamie: Well, the thrill of communicating with your baby, it’s kind of bonding, looking in your child’s eyes, making eye contact and that first smile, and anytime you make a connection, or I made a connection with my daughter it’s a high, a thrill! It makes you feel so alive and human. Can you repeat the question again?

Ashley: Let me see, since it was so frustrating at some points, what was it that makes you so glad you did it?

Jamie: One of my main reasons for doing it, before I even had my daughter when I was reading through the book were all the environmental implications. You read about how all the landfills are just saturated with...

Ashley: Our dirty diapers?

Jamie: Exactly! And no way of decomposing since they are in these plastic, paper things and stuffed in a landfill. And even the cloth diapers have an environmental implication, in that you have to wash them, and it’s less, but anyways, so that if I could just catch 2-3 pees a day, then that would save 2-3 diapers, either disposable or cloth. That was a big reason for me. Though the communication was the paramount. But if the communication part wasn’t going well, then I could say, well, at least I’m saving some trees and some water and energy. And also, preventing diaper rash. My daughter got a rash for another reason, in her genital area, but all the time you see these really severe diaper rashes where they have to go diaper free to have naked time to heal it. So, if you aren’t using diapers in the first place, then that can only eliminate that problem.

Ashley: So, when you were going out to a restaurant, or going out into town, would you normally put a diaper or would you leave her without?

Jamie: It would depend, especially in the beginning for outings, I would use diapers more, but then as she got older, around 7 months, when she started getting mobile, it was easier when we were out in public. It was actually a shock to me, though my mentor told me this was the case with her and I kind of didn’t believe her, but when we got to that phase, it was easier to communicate. It was almost like I was a little more aware and my daughter was a little more connected with me because we were around a foreign environment. So, she would come more readily into my arms. We would go into public bathrooms and we would hold her into position, and she would almost always go. Except if she was afraid of the bathroom, which when she was younger it was sometimes the case. And I almost look forward to the outings because I was like, “okay, maybe we can get some catches!” I had some public misses, but I, people didn’t think anything of it. You know I’ve seen kids in diapers and a strong elimination goes through the diaper and then it’s permeated. People didn’t think anything of it.

Ashley: So, when do you most, though I know it varies from child to child, but when do a lot of children graduate to you’re not really missing with elimination communication?

Jamie: You know we’re still not there. She’s 21-months, you hear about people at a year and a half, they say their child is toilet independent. They will go to the potty on their own, particularly if they aren’t wearing pants, although some of them can pull their pants down and up. But we’re still navigating the path of independence at 21 months. And some don’t really get there until typical potty-training age, which is about 2 1/2. Perhaps even 3. It is definitely different for everybody. And the communication level, they might still respond to your cue to pee, though they might be harder to hold because they are bigger. But they won’t go do it on their own until their older, well, it varies. And my daughter has done this where if there’s a potty on the ground she’ll go up and use it and pick it up and say pee pee and dump it in and flush it. And that’s fairly independent!

Ashley: Right, that’s very independent.

Jamie: And it’s her elimination needs, but it’s not yet consistent. And I’m fine with that. One thing I’ve definitely learned is to let go of control! And she will do it when she’s ready, and I want and need to trust that.

Ashley: Right. Elimination communication sounds like its an interesting and at times frustrating process.

Jamie: Definitely the two.

Ashley: With elimination communication, how do you think it made your communication stronger?

Jamie: When she was younger in her first year, before she was using words, the cueing sound, the “psss” sound, seemed to be really effective. And now that she’s older we talk about pee and poo poo and where it goes. So your question is what enhances the communication?

Ashley: Yeah, what benefit did you really feel like it gave you with the communication that you felt like you wouldn’t have had?

Jamie: If I hadn’t done it, well another benefit physiologically to doing elimination communication that I’m glad about is she understands what it means to go, to release the pelvic floor muscles. Oftentimes, I will hold her over the, or even when she was younger and I held her over some receptacle I would give her the cue to go and she would go, whatever she had in her bladder. So, sometimes she would have these tiny little pees, like “okay mom, I’ll go for you, but I don’t have much!” Whereas, often times kids, if they don’t have those opportunities, they’ll go when they’re bladder is often completely full, and it’s almost too late. So, now I feel like since we’re communicating more verbally, I can tell her okay, you can try and go pee pee now, because we are going out the door or before a long car trip or something, so I can tell her to release those muscles and try and go and she will understand what I mean. Whereas a child that didn’t have that response, it will be a different experience for them to relearn, “oh, yeah. I can let go, even though I don’t have to go!”

Ashley: That is interesting. It’s interesting how if you go with diapers, the idea of retraining. You know, well, I’ve said this for so long, just go in your diaper, but now, let’s do something different. It seems also to be an interesting process. So, with elimination communication, your community helps you along the way, humor helps you along the way, what else was really helpful along the way?

Jamie: Those were the big ones for sure, maybe some creative ways to catch misses, like making we sleep in a family bed, so my daughter sleeps in between her father and me, so having a really nice wool, water-resistant pad that she sleeps on. Just those little practicalities make it easier. Having a bunch of extra pants going out. A nice laundry system, if it’s a big miss day so the house doesn’t have a urine smell. Another big helpful practical thing is this spray-bottle that I always have with me of: 1/2 water and 1/2 vinegar, which completely neutralizes the odor of urine!

Ashley: Really?

Jamie: Yeah! At least so far, it hasn’t shown itself in things I’ve sprayed it on.

Ashley: So, do you spray it on like, clothes, or furniture, or what are you talking?

Jamie: Everything! Even the hardwood floor, or the couch, or my clothes if she peed on me, you know especially if I didn’t bring a change of clothes, I can spray that and it will dry and it won’t smell bad until I can wash it!

Ashley: That’s amazing!

Jamie: Yeah.

Ashley: What else?

Jamie: Support from my community and other families. And the support of my husband, who at first thought elimination communication was another one of my crazy New Age ideas!

Ashley: How was his transition?

Jamie: Well, once, and this seems fairly universal with other families that practice elimination communication, but once you get your first catch, you’re really hooked. And I remember at 2-3 weeks when my husband caught her, he was like, “wow”! And so, he’s felt the frustrations along the way as I have, but because he was in it, and not separate from it, he really supported me, or sympathized, or be involved in it. So, having a partner or family members, if you’re living with family members, or roommates. My parents were also helpful, because they also peed her. And her caregivers, like other friends who don’t practice, if they watched her, I would say, “you know you can hold her over a sink and ask her if you don’t want to change a diaper or something” and I’d come back from being a way for a couple of hours and they’d say, “wow, Elea peed for me!”

Ashley: That must be quite novel, the first time experiencing it!

Jamie: So novel, and then it becomes well, of course, this is how most of the world does it!

Ashley: Yeah, those who can’t afford the diapers don’t have their children sitting in their waste all-day.

Jamie: Yeah. It was funny, this is how culturally programmed I was. I lived in Africa for 2 years, in a village, and it never dawned on me how they took care of their baby, because they didn’t have diapers, not even cloth diapers. They might have had some cloth that they would wrap their baby in, but it wasn’t until years later when I’m having my own baby and investigating and reading these books that I realized! Yeah, this is what they were doing! When I was living in Africa, what they were doing right under my nose, but it was so matter-of-fact, it was just so part of it. You know they’d leave with their babies behind the house and go into the jungle and that’s what they were doing! And they’d be right back.

Ashley: That’s amazing.

Jamie: Really amazing, and I didn’t notice!

Ashley: So, do you have in your group anyone who has done elimination communication with twins, or have you ever heard of that?

Jamie: Ooh, what a great question, I’ve read about it, in the same book I think they had some pictures of special situations, like how to do it with twins. And I guess just responding as best you can to all of their needs may be a challenge, but this is just another need.

Ashley: So, at night, when you would sleep, you said you have a wool pad that is very absorbent, I know some people with elimination communication put them in diapers, and some wouldn’t, so what was your experience with that?

Jamie: I did a little bit of both. When she was really young, because sleep was so important and so rare, we would keep her in the paper, disposable diaper that had the gel in it. So that I could just leave her in the diaper all night and nurse her when she would wake up. And then I started learning more about the diapers that have the gel in them, they aren’t sure what the dangers are, and then as she got older, she peed less. She’d be dry at 5 am and then at 5:30 she’d be hugely wet. So I was figuring it out, and I thought that if I was consistently responding to her needs during the day, I was sending an inconsistent message if I didn’t do it at night. So I was really nervous, I was going to go diaper-free at night, I think she was about 5 months or 6 months old. And I remember not getting any sleep, watching her and if she even stirred a little bit, I would get up and hold her over a nice big bowl I had at the side of the bed, and she wouldn’t pee, so I’d think, oh she didn’t need to pee!

Ashley: How long did that go on for?

Jamie: Oh, like one night! So, I put her back in the disposable, and then I went with cloth because I was more aware of it, and then I told myself, I will pee her the first time she wakes up and then we’ll just sleep and then in the morning I’d try and pee her before the big morning pee. So then I tried it that way. Then I realized, or it was my experience that the inconsistency at night wasn’t a big deal during the day. It didn’t affect how we communicated during the day at all! And I also noticed that if she had certain foods, or if I had certain foods in my breast milk, then she was apt to pee more frequently at night.

Ashley: What foods were that?

Jamie: I think some babies have an allergy, or there’s a lot of nutritional philosophy around it, but wheat or dairy, in the mother’s breast milk or directly can sometimes, if they have a sensitive system, make the baby pee more. And I don’t know the science behind it, but I just read it in Ingrid Bauer’s book. So, I tried to play with that a bit.

Ashley: So, then you eventually went back to diapers at night?

Jamie: Yes, and then I ended up using a cloth diaper with no cover and we’re still doing that, and I don’t pee her at night anymore because it was just so, well, actually occasionally I will pee her at night, like hold her over the receptacle. And very often she wakes up dry and we go pee together, to the toilet. Because as they get older, they stop peeing at night.

Ashley: Very interesting. So, it sounds like elimination communication has been a big practice of daily, every day is kind of different?

Jamie: It’s different every day, but it becomes a routine that I don’t notice I am doing anything out of the ordinary.

Ashley: So, it just feels like a way of life?

Jamie: Yeah, it’s just what we do in our family and it doesn’t feel like extra effort, so much. But then the changes will come and you have to readjust, and go okay, and this is our routine now.

Ashley: So you find another rhythm.

Jamie: You know it’s kind of like napping, when they reduce the number of naps they have in the day.

Ashley: Interesting. So, what else would you like moms to know about elimination communication?

Jamie: That you can make elimination communication work for your family, doing what works for your family. There’s not a “way” to do it, and that was what sort of I think my impression was initially, but then finding my mentor and then talking with the community, there are so many different ways of doing it and degrees of doing it. My friend of mine says she doesn’t do elimination communication, but she has her daughter in a cloth diaper, or no diaper and they talk about peeing and everything. She just calmly told her where she could pee if she wanted and now she’s 19 months, and just goes and sits on the potty. So, she never practiced “elimination communication” or said she’s “ECing”. But she cultivated an awareness around elimination with her daughter and a comfortability and made it so she didn’t have any, I don’t want to use the term shame, because I don’t think parents really consciously create shame around the body, but it was like, this is what your body naturally does, so I think her daughter had that space. And that’s another reason I did this, because I didn’t want my daughter to have the stigma around elimination that I had. When I was maybe 10 years old or so, I went to this overnight camp and I didn’t poo for a whole week, because I was so embarrassed by the fact that I eliminated.

Ashley: Really?

Jamie: Yeah, and I just didn’t want my daughter to feel that so, this was a way to get off on the right start. So you can practice elimination communication to any degree you want and find community, you can take breaks if you need to, don’t feel guilty about misses, because they are a great part of the process because you are communicating! They’re communicating something to you, like “hey, I’m peeing!”

Ashley: I know there’s www.diaperfreebaby.org which is the organization that you go with, do you know of any others?

Jamie: There is a yahoo group, I believe, that is international. And then I know there are several yahoo groups for elimination communication and other cities that have their group for Internet discussion boards. And for me personally I didn’t find the Internet support so helpful, but being around another person, or group of people, who were doing it to some degree, I found that incredibly helpful. But I think the Internet is a nice way, for me anyways, to meet people locally and hang out a bit. Diaperfreebaby.org I think is the only non-profit dedicated to this practice and supporting people. But that’s all I know.Ashley: And then there are different names, it’s called diaper free and…

Jamie: Elimination communication was the original term that Ingrid Bauer coined, though she felt it was more accurate to call it Natural Infant Hygiene. NIH, I guess. And some people use that, or EC. And then diaper free. Which isn’t quite accurate, because you can still communicate about it and use diapers.

Ashley: So, it’s more about the process of, not necessarily catching it and going to the toilet, but the process of being comfortable talking and teaching your baby about it.

Jamie: Teaching your baby about it and avoiding looks of disgust at poo, or elimination. That is a really good question I think the goal is to encourage your baby to eliminate in a receptacle so that they can stay dry and comfortable and that that’s a part of it. If they miss, or if you make the sound, that’s actually a big way that families start with their babies, is if they see their baby peeing, they start to make that sound, so they start to associate that sound with elimination. So when they hear that sound they might respond with peeing.

Ashley: Well, is there anything else that you’d like to share about elimination communication that I haven’t asked you?

Jamie: Wow, you asked such thorough questions, I feel like I’ve told most of my story!

Ashley: I really do appreciate it, when I head of it, I’d never heard of it before, and I was so intrigued, like that makes so much sense! So I felt like, why haven’t I heard of this before? But it’s something that I’m sure it takes effort and a great sense of relaxation! Like, this is life, and it’s not life or death!

Jamie: Exactly! And when I thought it was life or death, I caused myself a lot of misery about it!

Ashley: Exactly, you have to re-find your “okay!” But you know when you are the mother, you aren’t getting much sleep, we have to remind ourselves to relax. Just like any part of parenthood, we don’t have to be upset, it’s just you have to remind yourself you don’t have to be upset. Oh yeah, it’s not really a big deal.

Jamie: Right, it is just elimination.

Ashley: Well, thank you so much for your time Jamie I really appreciate it. I really appreciate your story, and I’m glad you’re willing to share your experiences.

Jamie: You’re so welcome.