Potty Signs

On January 29, The New York Observer ran a little piece on our son, and men- tioned that at three months (barely) he was already beginning 'potty training.' Several friends who are mothers had similar reactions on reading those words. The unspoken message was clear: 'Hey - are you bragging, deluded, competitive, or what?'

Well, none of those, I hope. We don't call it potty training, but Julian does use a potty. What we're doing goes by various names - diaper-free, infant potty training, natural infant hygiene, and (probably the most accurate, if not pithy) elimination communication. I call it potty signs.

This is a very old practice. (They must've done something before diapers!) It's also traditional in many contemporary cultures. Mothers and others watch and listen for the baby to signal that he has to go, and then help him go - in the dirt, the grass, in a pot of some kind.

Julian uses his potty ten or more times a day. He wears diapers, too - chlorine- free disposables - and, when we're at home, he often wears leggings instead of pants so we can take his diaper off quickly. When he signals - that could be a loud cry on waking, squirming, grunting, getting red-faced, or a kind of fussing, among other signs - I put him on a little potty and make my own cue sound (psssssssss) for him to go. Most of the time he knows he needs to go (that's why he told me) and goes. Sitting on the potty itself is often signal enough, without an extra cue.

How did we start? Since he was a newborn, I've used the cue when he wet or soiled his diaper to let him know I was paying attention. In the very early weeks, we often nursed diaper-free - he was lying on a cloth diaper - so I could learn his patterns. In addition to signals, timing helps, too - noting that he needs to pee after nursing, say, or on waking up.

Our other early move was to change his diaper the moment it was dirty, so he knew he didn't have to sit in a dirty diaper. (Environmentalists note: we did use a lot of diapers this way, and I know that 22 billion single-use diapers end up in landfills, but we're using fewer every week.) Lots of parents change diapers promptly, of course, and then go on to use the modern potty training methods, often two years later. It really helped us get going. Early on, Julian cried out when he had a dirty diaper, so the habit of communication between us - and my mother, who was here when he was tiny - came quickly.

Then, a couple of times, Julian would cry out, I'd rush to change his diaper, and it would be dry! He was letting me know he had to pee. For a while, he peed on a napkin if I cued him while changing his diaper. (Many babies like to pee during changes, perhaps because it's more comfortable than peeing in a diaper.) Then I realized he was getting the habit of peeing lying on his back, and so I started to use the sink or potty - even though at first I was lazy about the change of position - and he'd go.

Why do all this? I hope that Julian will be toilet independent sooner than, say, at two or three years old (which is typical) or four or five years old - with 'pull-up' diapers, some parents and kids are waiting that long. I'd also like to avoid the abrupt introduction of the idea: 'Now you're not to use your diaper anymore,' a concept which marks a major change for children. I'd like it to be more gradual.

But mostly we do it because it's what the term says, 'communication.' This is one more way of talking to our little guy. We want to know his needs and respond to them, and we want to encourage him to let us know. If possible, we want to do the thing he needs. When he's crying (and we're asking, 'What's wrong?') we now have another thing to check. Is he hungry, tired, lonely for a cuddle? Does he need a clean diaper? Does he have to go? Pretty often, he has to pee.

Mostly we use this at home. But the other day we were in a Chinese restaurant, Julian was sleeping in his sling (the Gypsy Mama water wrap, if you want to know), and I was eating when he cried out. It sounded like a pee, so I got up and went to the loo. Sure enough, he was happy to pee right there. He'll pee in the sink or a bowl at the farm, recently in the loo at The Palm - anywhere he has to go. He'll pee with us, his baby sitter, my mother - anytime he has to go. He'll even wait when we're in the sling, until we get home, and he'll pee before we go out, even when he hasn't signaled that he has to go.

One thing amazes me: Julian has yet to pee on us. I mean that once he's signalled and we've responded, and we are getting undressed, moving toward the potty, or getting comfortable on it, he waits to pee. That doesn't mean it will never happen, only that a baby is capable of holding his pee, and relaxing to pee when it's time.

As I write, Julian is using the potty a few feet away with his friend Emilie. He gave a big yelp - we hadn't heard that one before - and Emilie guessed he might need to pee. I'm typing away, and I hear Emilie saying, 'Good job!'

There is much more to say about potty signs. What do we do when we're out walking in the sling? What about nights? What about 'missing' pees and messing up the nice wool rug? Such topics could fill a book and a hundred chat rooms, and they do.

There are as many diaper and potty stories as there are mothers and babies. This works for us. (Or it's mostly working now, anyway. It helps to know that set backs, and potty pauses are common.) If potty signs interest you, check out the books and links below.

Update on April 1st: Julian is five months old. We are still having fun with potty signs and using his potty for both poops and pees. He loves to check out every bathroom we visit, and he's also happy to pee outside on the beach or the grass. He did pee on me once. I took him to the potty in a house we were visiting and he didn't have to pee. A few minutes later (and before I put his diaper back on) he peed in my lap. After that, I learned to give him more time in strange places. Sometimes there is too much to look at and he can't concentrate or relax enough to pee. At home, Julian is getting more comfortable on the potty. He likes to play with something - a toy, a cloth, his feet - while sitting on it. I would say that he 'loves his potty' except that I suspect it would be projection; I am happy for him to use the potty instead of a diaper (as often as he can and cares to) but he doesn't know any different. He uses the potty to poop, too.

Update in June: Julian is inching toward 8 months old and using one of his three little potties (or sinks or bidets or toilets) continues to be a regular, uneventful part of the day. We don't use the cue sounds anymore. We've been in cars more often, so when he has to go, sometimes we pull over and he uses the potty right in the car. He has used his potty to pee or poop on the train

and on park benches. At two months we were using about 14 diapers daily; now it might be as few as four or five. We've started using the ASL sign for 'potty' or 'toilet' but I'm not sure he knows it. (He does recognize the signs for 'fan' and 'light,' so perhaps it will come.) The other day, a mother at a book signing said she was sorry she hadn't done potty signs with her baby. How old was her baby? Only four months! It's not too late to start.

Born Potty Trained A good starting point
Diaper Free Baby A non-profit support network
The EC Store For potties, clothes, tiny knickers & more
Diaper Free! A book by Ingrid Bauer
Infant Potty Training, a book by Laurie Boucke
The Diaper Free Baby, a book by Christine Gross-Loh

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