Alternatives to diapers
This topic requires looking at parenting, cultural values, and even history, from a new perspective. That’s because diapers are relatively new on the scene of human history—less than a few hundreds years at best. And the best diapers invented have been in the last decade.
Let’s start with long ago
Long ago, when human beings were running around, pretty much naked, their babies were naked, too. Everyone squatted to urinate or defecate (sorry for not using the word “poop” but my 89-year-old mother, who is still alive, would be appalled if I did and I’m still trying to please her in ways that are easy to please her). This includes babies, toddlers and anyone else. On the other hand, people started wearing clothes (and embellishing their bodies, too), about 10,000 years ago. Indeed, that’s when “civilization” began, and when some cultures, such as the Intuits, a Eskimo tribe living in a cold climate, started using materials to catch their infant’s urine and especially, their bowel movements. The Intuits, for example, placed moss under sealskin to make “diapers” for their infants. Others, such as certain Native American mothers and Inca mothers in South America, packed grass under diaper covers made of rabbit skin. Still other cultures relied on Milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins and other natural materials. Some, such as those in Europe, swaddled an infant in strips of linen or wool.
People didn’t just dress for function, however. In fact, they often wore particular clothes to show their status—or lack of status—in the community. Or they dressed, as many still do, to show they belonged to one group or tribe of people and didn’t, therefore, belong to another group or tribe of people. Children’s attire reflected these same perspectives.
At the same time, for thousands of years, other cultures, mainly those raising infants and children in warm or even tropical climates, let children go naked or at least bottomless. For example, in China, many rural families had the children wear clothing—that had no crotches to cover their genitals, which in turn, allowed the children to get potty trained without the hassle of diapers or soiled anything.
Fast forward to last few centuries
In the last few centuries, mainly since the beginning of the 19th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when modesty took hold, when the germ theory was discovered, when cloth could be manufactured—by the bolt—in factories, when childbirth and child-rearing increasingly came under the auspices of “experts,” physicians and medicine, the forerunner of today’s diapers came into being.
The first diapers tended to be natural fiber diapers made of linen and cotton and sometimes wool, often held in place with the newly mass-manufactured safety pin. By the mid-20th century, however, the first disposable absorbent pads to be used as a diaper were invented. It was made of unbleached creped cellulose tissue that was held in place with rubber pants. And in 1946, Marion Donovan invented the “boater,” which was a waterproof covering for cloth diapers. Other diapers inventions followed, especially in the latter part of the century and into the 21st century. By 2003, cloth diapers were featuring pockets that allowed for extra absorption and both disposable and cloth diaper covers were taking on adorable and designer-like trends. New developments in fabric and disposable materials made diapers more absorbable, easier to use, and more accessible than ever. The choice widened—and the debate over which was better to use, especially for the environment—cloth versus disposable reached new peaks.
Back to nature and to a natural paradigm
Okay, let’s face it: some cultures never gave up on the natural potty training way of life. Like those rural Chinese, for example, who relied on cues from children that they were ready to urinate or eliminate, modern mothers using no diapers also have to rely on “reading cues” from their children—or their own intuition—to know when a child needs to urinate or have a bowel movement. Children allowed to go diaper-free, even clothing free, or at least, as in many of those rural Chinese villages, crotch-free (meaning the children being potty-trained had openings in order to eliminate more easily), learn to recognize their own cues, or take cures from their mothers, who make noises as the child is eliminating over a suitable receptacle. Still others learn the modern sign language needing to eliminate or use a toilet, well before they can verbally articulate it.
So, welcome to the contemporary, diaper-free movement, where infants and children, some from birth, some older, some fulltime, some part-time, learn to get through life the way their elders do—without diapers, with signals to know when it is time to urinate or have a bowel movement.
Diaper-free, or “elimination communication” (known as EC)
Despite its growing popularity in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, the diaper-free movement, or “elimination communication (ED), as it is commonly referred to, remains a minority movement, much the way breast-feeding or natural childbirth used to be, back in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s when only about one in five U.S. mothers chose to breastfeed their infants and babies, even for just six weeks. Today, of course, more than 80 percent nurse, many for as long as a year or more. Still, the EC movement is growing, mostly among mothers attracted to it for environmental reasons or for the “naturalness” of it, as well as the fact that it relies so heavily on good communication between child and parent or caretaker.
As for the environmental reason, EC can be justified when you consider that the typical disposable-diapered child will have put 6,500 diapers into landfills, which is a third of the detritus going into landfills (newspapers – on the wane! – and beverage containers beat out diapers). And in those landfills, the majority of diapers will take centuries to disintegrate—as much as five centuries according to some experts!
The cloth diapered baby will have the same number of diaper changes, and given that they are less absorbent, maybe even more. But the number of diapers needed per child is minimal—no more than a few dozen—plus some changing pads. Yes, they will each need to be washed and dried frequently, which uses electricity. Plus, manufacturing the fabric, snaps, protective sheeting and other products also uses resources. However, when you consider the monetary savings of even going diaper-free half the time—the difference is remarkable. Going diaper-free even half the time or half a baby’s diaper period can be and they can be $1200 or more if it is replacing disposables or diaper service diapers.
Some mothers, since they have to read “cues” from their children, praise them when they defecate in the appropriate places and at appropriate times, and, in general, communicate quite closely with their children, love diaper-free parenting, whether they do it full-time or part-time. Since babies go diaper-free, they will also be rash-free, and perhaps even be less likely to pick up a urinary tract infection. Those children encouraged to squat earlier on will suffer less constipation. And of course, the entire process does away with any diaper change battles, though admittedly, it can create other battles.
Some proponents of EC think it fosters earlier potty training, because it helps babies strengthen their pelvic floor, and maybe it does, though not everyone, including experts like Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who introduced the idea of potty readiness, believes it is appropriate or suitable for Western style society. And hey, still others think they are back-to-nature for doing EC, the way organic food, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and other habits feel more in tune with what is natural. (But note that the same parents are often tuned into their Smart phones, iPads, and Kindle readers and Skype their parents whenever their child does something new.)
Some parents try EC, only to abandon it, regarding it as too much of a hassle, too gross (when a child urinates or defecates in inappropriate places—or on them!). Many parents, if not most, never try it, regarding it as too back-to-nature, too hippie-dippy, or worse, disgusting. They—and many experts on the subject of potty training, such as Dr. Brazelton, who was already mentioned, regard EC as too out of sync with the rest of our culture, a culture that frowns on defecating in public places, including parks and between parked cars, and a culture with almost a fetish for cleanliness, and well, one that clearly favors diapered babies and toddlers.
If you are open to the idea
If you are still open to the idea, Google “diaper-free,” “elimination communication,” or just “EC” and visit any number of websites devoted to both the concept and the products you may need to try it. Read some of the books about going diaper-free, including books by one of the North American diaper-free pioneers, Laurie Boucke,: who based her training technique on diaper free cultures in Africa, Asia, and South America, and wrote (in 2000) Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living. Ms. Bouke also co-produced a DVD, which explains the technique, and is titled, Potty Whispering: The Gentle Practice of Infant Potty Training. She has also coauthored numerous articles for medical journals, outlining the technique.
In 2001, Ingrid Bauer wrote Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygine, in which she coined the two terms, “elimination communication” and “natural infant hygiene.” She wrote her book after visiting both India and Africa and seeing how mothers were carrying diaperless babies around but rarely with any elimination accidents.
Clearly, diaper-free is not for everyone, nor is it for every culture or climate, even though many of its adherents may insist it is. Still, given the savings on both landfill disposable diapers or the savings on diaper service cloth diapers, as well as the close communication with your child, and the other advantages, from freedom from diaper rashes to the feeling of being on the vanguard, it may be worth trying. What is certainly worth trying, even if you don’t succeed at this or don’t want to even attempt it, is to give your infant and child the freedom of diaper-free time, on a large pad you can place on the floor or bed, or running around the backyard. Hey, sometimes being naked “when you aren’t normally naked” feels, well, both a bit defiant and a bit liberating. And after all, it’s not the worse thing to do occasionally, when it is in your own backyard. Skinny dipping sometime? Personally, I would hope so!