Going Diaperless

by Scott Noelle

Author's Note: This article was written for readers of The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff. If you haven't read that book you won't know what is meant by terms like continuum expectations, continuum culture, continuum sense, and Yequana; and you may not understand the anti-Western angst — a stage that many parents go through after reading the book — that energized me and my wife to think outside the box about diapering. (I no longer feel such angst, but I remain clear that our culture's conventional views of human nature are highly distorted.) To the uninitiated, I recommend reading about the book and about the concept before reading this article.

March, 1999

When my wife Beth gave birth to our first child, 23 months ago, we hadn't put a lot of thought into the diapering issue other than our decision to use cloth diapers instead of disposables. Our daughter didn't seem to object to the diapers at first, but I had a bad feeling about them. It just didn't seem right to make a human being (or any mammal, for that matter) sit in her own waste. But our passage into parenthood was quite stressful as our own childhood emotional wounds resurfaced. I couldn't handle the additional stress I felt when I imagined having a house that smelled like an outhouse. I work and see clients at home, and I was afraid of offending them and losing our livelihood. That or diapers — we didn't see another choice.

As our baby grew, so did her objections to being diapered, as well as my feelings of guilt. I worried that diapering her could cause sexual hang-ups, impede her natural diaphragmatic breathing, and even interfere with the proper development of her bones as she walked in the bulky abominations. Maybe some of my worries were irrational, but certainly, I thought, the practice of diapering must be at odds with a human infant's innate, continuum expectations.

Nevertheless, we believed it had to be done, so we became masters of distraction, tricking her into letting us replace her "wearable toilet" again and again. When she did object (read: "cry bloody murder"), I felt like a monster and a fraud. In my mind, diapers became the symbol of the Evil Empire Of Western Parenting in which babies must suffer to accommodate the needs of their parents' broken-continuum culture: a controlled, sterile, odorless, wall-to-wall carpeted fortress in which to live with the illusion of dominion over nature. I envied the Yequana family living in a simple, dirt-floored, baby-friendly hut.

Around the time she entered toddlerhood (12-18 months), we were inspired by a friend whose toddler enjoyed indoor nudity and whose house didn't smell bad at all, despite her boy's occasional peeing and pooping on the carpet. We started letting her go naked and diaperless as often as we could let go of our control issues, usually right after removing a wet diaper, when she was unlikely to pee again for a while. She really loved the freedom and (I imagine) the feeling of nothing between her and the rest of her world. But there were many "accidents" which exacerbated my inner conflict. Whenever she was naked, I worried about her peeing on the couch or in my office.

We bought a white plastic potty that looks just like a miniature toilet, thinking that she might mimic our behavior. (Yes, we let her see us peeing and pooping, and didn't make a big deal out of it.) One day I set her down on the little potty and she peed! We thought the diaper wars would soon be over, but the next time I tried it, she just sat there and we looked at each other, awkwardly. I became aware that I was attached to the outcome (no pun intended) and that this could give her a kind of "performance anxiety," so we stopped putting her on the potty. We left it in the bathroom, but she used it for a toy instead of a toilet. After a while, we gave up and put the potty away until... we didn't know when.

Our initial failure was, however, a blessing in disguise. As she began objecting even more adamantly to being diapered, we learned something very important: She was more likely to object if we did it to her instead of with her. If she could have verbalized her feelings, she might have said, "I was perfectly content to go on doing what I was doing, and now you come along with complete disregard for me and start forcing me into that diaper!" I discovered that when I was patient and made an effort to tune in to her "flow" of activity, I could flow with it and find the right moment to sit her on my lap and offer the diaper. With her flow undisturbed, and being innately social, she would actually stick out each leg for me to put the diaper on. (We had switched to waterproof "absorbent training pants" — Dappi brand "Early Trainers" — but they were, in effect, no different than diapers other than how they were put on and taken off.) This skill of "tuning in" to her would soon become very useful, and not just for dressing her.

About a month ago, I got a copy of a booklet called Elimination Timing (ET) by a woman named Natec. The subtitle is How to care for your baby without using diapers. This 30-page booklet is wonderful! It totally resonated with our "continuum sense." Unfortunately, it only describes how to use ET from infancy; she doesn't offer a method for beginning ET after your baby is about six months old and conditioned to eliminate in diapers. Nevertheless, it caused a beneficial shift in our awareness. Briefly, ET works like this:

  1. You learn to focus your awareness and tune in to your infant's subtle signals that tell you he/she is about to eliminate.
  2. When you read a signal, you hold the infant in a sort of suspended squatting position over a sink or other convenient receptacle — with your hands under the baby's thighs and the back of the baby's head leaning against your tummy. (There is a picture of this.)
  3. You talk to the baby in a natural tone "about the here and now of what is going on," optionally making "psss" peeing sounds.

There is much more detail in the booklet, describing not only techniques, but also how to alter your state of consciousness to facilitate both ET and better parent-infant communication in general.

Soon after reading about ET, the three of us woke up one morning (in our family bed) when I noticed that the little one had not wet her diaper as usual. I figured her bladder must be pretty full, so I found the mini toilet and placed it next to the bed. I took off her dry diaper, pointed to the potty, and said very matter-of-factly: "If you have to pee, use the toilet." Then I left the room. I intuitively knew that my presence would interfere and decided that I would accept whatever the outcome, even if it was a urine-drenched carpet. I wasn't even sure she knew what I had suggested as she is still mostly pre-verbal. A few seconds later, she came out of the bedroom, happily diaperless. I went back in and saw that she had indeed peed in the potty! I was thrilled, but of course I said nothing as I emptied the potty into the big toilet. Praise or celebration would send entirely the wrong message — that using a toilet is "special" rather than normal.

The next morning it worked again. I didn't leave the room but turned my attention to something else when she sat down on the potty; we felt it was important that she not get used to having an "audience." When she stood up, I casually asked, "Did you pee?" She nodded; I emptied the urine into the big toilet. With this, we decided to try a whole day without diapers (except when going out in public, shopping, etc.).

We placed the potty in the living room where she plays and nurses, near the kitchen where she helps Beth cook, so that she wouldn't have to go far to use it. By paying attention to the amount of time since her last peeing, the amount of liquids she consumed, and our intuition, we had a fairly good idea of when to point to the potty and repeat our new motto: "If you have to pee, use the toilet." Always with the tone of a casual suggestion, not a command. Always continuing with our business, not watching to see what she did. It worked most of the time, and she soon began using the potty for pooping as well.

I should also add that she was not merely diaperless, but totally naked most of the time, as is her preference. She could go immediately to the potty, without having to stop and remove clothing. I believe that was a major factor in the ease of the transition.

After a few days of this success, Beth (who spends a lot more time with our daughter than I do) began to identify the timing patterns and subtle changes in behavior prior to elimination. The irony is that, with diapers on, it's nearly impossible to learn these patterns and signals because you rarely know when the toddler is eliminating. We streamlined our diaperless motto to "Here's the toilet," which we only needed to repeat when we moved the potty into whatever room she was occupying. We just casually let her know that it's there for her to use when she needs it.

Within a week or so, her daytime diaperlessness was becoming the norm, but we were still putting her in diapers at night. She began to object to this, so we took it as a cue to begin going diaperless at night. We placed an absorbent pad on the bottom sheet of our queen-size bed, where she sleeps in between us. The "pad" we use is just a towel or a small flannel blanket over a piece of waterproof fabric (Ultrex brand, a breathable nylon fabric that's used to make ski jackets).

It's a good thing we used the pads, because she does occasionally urinate in her sleep. However, most of the time she uses the toilet before we go to bed, once in the middle of the night, and first thing in the morning. The mid-night potty breaks are easy because she wakes up to nurse, then Beth maneuvers her over to the potty while she's nursing. (Before going to sleep, we place the potty next to the bed, on Beth's side. It also helps that our mattress is only a few inches off the floor, about a foot lower than conventional beds.) Beth has to really get in tune with her in order to do this without it being coercive. The nursing provides security while our daughter navigates the disorienting transition from the sleep to semi-wakefulness, then she senses her full bladder and uses the potty of her own accord.

As in the waking hours, our daughter prefers to sleep naked and often kicks off the covers, too. A couple of times, she sat up in bed, climbed over her sleeping mother, and peed in the potty. Eventually, I imagine, she will wake up and go potty on her own when she needs to — the way we do.

Maybe I seem overly excited about all this. After all, potty training at 22 months isn't that unusual, even though today's pediatric experts (some of whom are paid by diaper manufacturers) now recommend "letting" children use diapers for up to four years — as if long-term diapering or giving your child a complex through coercive potty training are the only two choices available. Our daughter's transition into toilet competence is not yet complete, but stress and conflict around diapering have been mostly eliminated.

October, 1999 (7 months later)

I intended to publish this story right away, "as soon as the process is complete." I had naively assumed, based on the speed and ease with which the process began, that it would be only two or three weeks before our child would never again eliminate in her pants, on the floor or in our bed.

It hasn't quite turned out that way: at 2-1/2 years old, she still pees in her clothing when she's dressed (which isn't very often) and in the bed when Beth is really tired and doesn't awaken to guide her to the bedside potty. Fortunately, our daughter has the ability and desire to use the potty for all bowel movements as we have seen virtually no poopy diapers for about six months.

Perhaps our continued use of waterproof training pants for her when she's outside the home — "just in case" — conveys an expectation that that she will pee in her pants. She doesn't see that as a less attractive option because all she has to do is say, "I peed," and we will take the wet pants off of her without complaint. In contrast, if she is naked and starts to pee on the floor (which rarely happens anymore unless she is distracted, overstimulated, etc.) we see it, react swiftly and decisively (but not punitively) and guide her to the potty.

If and when we have another child, we intend to go diaperless from the start. In addition to Natec's Elimination Timing booklet, I know of two other helpful resources. Trickle Treat (TT) by Laurie Boucke, is very similar to ET except that it is longer, with more pictures and practical details. TT is written for a more mainstream audience and is not as much in synch with the continuum concept as ET is, so I recommend getting both of them. (Laurie is a supporter of the continuum concept and is currently revising TT to include supplemental information about it.) The other resource is Ingrid Bauer, who is a member of the Continuum Concept forum and is currently writing a comprehensive book on this topic. Based on Ingrid's contributions to the forum, I expect that her book will become the definitive reference work for "continuum parents" who choose not to use diapers. [2001 Update: Ingrid's book is now available! See below...]

I'm very happy that we have found a balance of new skills and changed attitudes through which our family (mostly myself) has become more relaxed around the issue of diapering. That, I believe, is even more important than whether or not we use diapers.

Copyright ©1999 by Scott Noelle. All Rights Reserved.