When you're a new parent, the modern diaper--whether a Huggies Little Snuggler or an organic cotton cloth laundered by a local delivery service--seems like the world's greatest invention. You happily wrap your baby's dimpled bottom in one to contain the continuous stream of messes. You put him down in his crib or strap him into his car seat, and while he sleeps soundly the miraculous diaper keeps everything tidy for hours.
But what if someone told you that you didn't need diapers--at all?
Willow Lune (right) talks to San Francisco moms Wendy Cown (left) and Thais Derich about going diaper free.
Berkeley mom Willow Lune tells parents just this in the Intro to Diaper Free Babies classes she teaches around the Bay Area. She explains that babies are born with awareness and control of their bodily functions and the ability to communicate when they want to eliminate. She talks about babies offering up cues (grunts, wiggles, cries) to signal their parents to hold their bare bottoms over a toilet, a sink, a grassy field. And she shares how cultures all over the world never use diapers. In fact, Lune originally got the idea to skip the diaper stage with her own daughter after visiting Tibet, where young children sported crotchless pants and simply squatted and peed outside.
Lune is part of a growing number of parents who potty train their babies from birth and see it as a way to save thousands of dollars, reduce landfill waste (single-use disposable diapers are responsible for one third of the nonbiodegradable waste), avoid diaper rash, and to strengthen the bond with their children. While many parents find it convenient to keep their kids in diapers until age 2, 3, even 4 or 5, mothers like Lune find it easier to never deal with the hassle of changing a diaper--and then finding a place to dump it.
"If you go diaper free you'll be cleaning up a mess sometimes," says Lune, who is also a certified practitioner of Medical Qigong (Chinese energy healing). "If you're using diapers, you'll be cleaning up messes all the time."
Thousands of parents across the United States have joined Internet groups in search of tips on going diaper-free, often referred to as "elimination communication" or "natural infant hygiene." Through a nonprofit group, Diaper Free Baby, 50 local groups have formed in 35 states to encourage the practice. The San Francisco/East Bay chapter has 263 members and the San Francisco/Peninsula group 290 members. There are even a few books to guide parents through the process, from Ingrid Bauer's Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene to Christine Gross-loh's The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative.
Potty training a child before he can even crawl might seem extreme, especially in America where 95 to 99 percent of parents use disposable diapers, according to Procter & Gamble, maker of Pampers and Luvs. Most of our mothers followed the recommendations of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who discouraged potty-training in the first year. Or maybe your parents took the advice of pediatrician and author T. Berry Brazelton who surfaced in the 1960s and believed in allowing children to proceed at their own pace. But now some parents are questioning this approach.
Willow Lune uses a baby doll to show parents how to hold their infants over a Tupperware container, which makes a great potty.
On a recent Sunday afternoon in San Francisco's Mission District, a group of parents and their babies gather in new mom Wendy Cown's apartment where Lune is teaching a diaper-free class. The moms and dads settling down into Cown's living room are weary eyed, but their eyes brighten as they begin to talk about the regularity of their children's poops and pees.
One mom shares that her baby only goes poop once a week while another says her son releases a constant drizzle. This information is important because these parents all hope to stop using diapers.
Lune is there to tell parents exactly how to make that happen and she begins to go over the process for infant potty training. Parents need to observe their babies closely, looking and listening for cues that might be a sign the child needs to go potty, she explains. Many infants have a pee or poo cry; some babies start grimacing, wiggling, kicking, or fussing, or stop nursing. Once you notice the cue, you take the child to a potty, a sink, a tree, wherever is convenient, and then you give him a signal, such as making a "sss" sound, to alert him that it's OK to eliminate. Eventually, the child will learn to make the same "sss" sound to tell you when he needs to go.
While Lune thinks it's easiest to start before a child is 6 months old, she says you can start at any time.
The babies in the group are various ages, a few weeks old to 18 months, but Lune encourages their parents to go for it.
"Anyone can do it," Lune says. "You just have to tune closely into your child. It's about knowing your baby."
The parents have lots of questions. "What do you do at night?" Lune encourages co-sleeping. "What should my child wear?" Lune says its OK to use a diaper but she encourages parents to go without and put their kids in crotchless pants. And then the group jumps into a discussion about all the products that are available for parents going diaper free.
"There's a Web site where you can buy special potties and crotchless pants and onesies that read 'I'm diaper free,'" Lune says. "But I think that's missing the point. By going diaper free we're trying to eliminate the amount of stuff in the world."
The parents talk about making their children crotchless pants by hand. Apparently, you can find directions and patterns online.
Lune leaves everyone with a final thought. "This should be fun," she advises. "This is about connecting with your baby and tuning into your child's cues. It's not about perfection. You don't need to make it to the potty every time. There will be accidents. This shouldn't stress you out."
Cown and the parents gathered in her living room seem ready to ditch the diapers. "I guess we'll just try it and see what happens," Cown says. Going diaper free: Is it as easy as it seems? "I think it's the hardest thing I've done as a new mom," says Nicole Gitcho of her efforts to help her son, Paise, go diaper free.
When Paise was two months, the Redwood city mom tried early potty training but she found it inconvenient and stressful. "I was overwhelmed by being a mom," says Gitcho. "There were so many new things like breast-feeding and napping and I couldn't fit in the potty training too." Gitcho's efforts were particularly stalled when she stayed with her parents for a month over the holidays. Relatives were holding and watching Paise and they weren't accustomed to his cues. And then he got diarrhea.
Gitcho eventually settled into motherhood and when her son was nine months and walking she tried again. This time everything went smoothly. She clued into his cues--her son grabs his crotch, pinches his hips, and stops playing--and encouraged him to walk to the potty. She started singing the same song whenever he showed signs of needing to go (this was her signal). At night, Gitcho kept him in bed and carried him to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Now, at 13 months Paise is diaper free.
"He feels a sense of accomplishment when he uses the potty," Gitcho says. "He claps his hands when he finishes. He enjoys flushing the toilet and washing his hands. He is able to use the toilet and to communicate when he needs to go. He is more comfortable now that he is using the toilet and not diapers. His pants are not wet or messy. There really is no need for kids to wear diapers."
Willow Lune's upcoming Intro to Diaper Free Babies classes
Classes held at BirthWays in North Berkeley; $35; register at diaperfree.eventbrite.com. You can also hire Lune to teach a class in your home).
•August 17, Monday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
•October 1, Thursday, 10 a.m.-noon
•January 26, 2010, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
•March 11, 2010, Thursday, 10 a.m.-noon
•May 13, 2010, Thursday, 10 a.m.-noon