Part time pottying or part-time nappy use?

Most parents choose to practise infant pottying (EC/elimination communication) part-time, using nappies as ‘backup’ and offering the potty when they think baby needs it. In this article, I want to draw attention to the importance of nappy-off time as part of infant pottying, as well as considering how we may think of this unique parenting practice as part-time-nappy-use instead of part-time-potty-use. 

‘Part-time pottying’ parents “catch whatever they are able to, but don’t practise EC all the time. They might focus on…mornings….or for an hour or two in the evenings [or] start with bowel movements [only]” (Gross-Loh, 2007,p.11-12). Indeed, part-time pottying appears to be the most popular way of practising EC amongst Western parents. This may be down to cultural differences between countries who use nappies as the “norm” and countries that don’t (yes, they exist!), which both generate a different set of expectations.

Unlike cultures where infants ‘eliminate’ freely, UK culture and living arrangements mean that many parents choose to use a nappy to help little ones stay warm and covered as well as protect living spaces. This is perhaps why we often hear people describe their EC practice as “part-time”, and this usually means using nappies some, if not all of the time. However, whilst nappies have their place, for parents who want to practise infant pottying, it is important to understand the impact that nappy use can have on a child’s ability to communicate their eliminations to their caregivers, as well as the caregiver’s ability to respond to them..

Put simply; with a nappy on, it’s harder to know what’s happening and when.

We can describe the effects of conventional (or really what we understand as ‘modern’) nappy use versus no nappy or part-time nappy use like this:

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In ‘modern’ nappy use (the current “norm” in Western cultures) babies are put in nappies until they are ready to be “trained”. Nappies come off at an older age, signals are learned and eventually the child becomes “potty trained”. During this time, the average baby will use thousands of nappies, many of which will of course end up in landfill and take hundreds of years to decompose.  In contrast, many babies “EC’d” from birth seem to reach “nappy freedom” before their “normal” peer group (a likely consequence of potty normalisation).

The importance of nappy-off time is commonly cited in EC literature as a good way for parents to learn their babies signals or cues and help them use a potty. This is because using a nappy when you are trying to learn your baby’s signals creates a physical barrier between your baby’s eliminations and your awareness of them. Sounds obvious, but sometimes it is very difficult to spot signals (especially as your baby develops), and the only signal may be once the baby is actually eliminating.  And of course, if you want to actually get anything in a potty, you need to take the nappy off at some point!

Nappy-off time is the quickest way to learn and respond to your baby’s cues

Whilst most parents I have spoken to accept this theory, nappy-off time is also one of the most problematic aspects of infant pottying due to the obvious difficulties of dealing with ‘misses’ (poos and wees that end up anywhere other than the potty!). Whilst ‘catching’ everything is not usually a realistic goal, neither do you want to teach your baby that weeing anywhere and everywhere is OK.  Many people seem to struggle between these two things and end up losing confidence as a result, and/or using nappies more often than not.

Nappy-off time in the first few months

In the early months before a baby is mobile, nappy-off time can teach you a lot about your baby as long as you dedicate time to close observation and try not to accomplish other things at the same time. It’s a great time to experience the joy of ‘catching’ things in a potty. To help with the process, a puddle pad (or other absorbent surface) can be used to great effect to observe your baby and learn their signals during playtime, sleeping and napping, or cuddles and lap time, without the worry of spoiling soft furnishings etc. And who wouldn’t want to spend as much time as possible getting to know the new little person in their life?

You can also dress them in potty-friendly clothing (oh, and getting the right kit for nappy-off time not only helps build your confidence, but it also overcomes the problems associated with carpeted living spaces and the need for modesty).

Up to around 6 months old, average urine outputs are small (around 400mls total per day, which equates to around a large cup of tea or a glass of squash).

Young babies usually give very clear signals that a poo is coming or in progress (the effort will be evidence enough), and without a nappy to remove, you will get to potty/toilet in time. If it happens during feeding, you can have a potty to hand. So in the early months, and assuming your child is not yet in daycare, it can be possible to be nappy-free for a good percentage of time:

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The first few months can really develop your confidence in helping your baby use a potty and many parents are very proud of their achievements during this period (and so you should be!). Arguably, this period is the easiest time to think of nappy use as a part-time choice. During this time, when you do use a nappy, it is also really useful to use a cloth nappy rather than a disposable, as they will help with the sensation of wetness and therefore awareness for the baby.

But what about when they are older?

Between the crawling and walking stages (and sometimes beyond), when many children who have previously successfully used a potty can suddenly become resistant and go on “potty strike”, nappy-off time can become what may appear to be an unsurmountable challenge.

All of a sudden, the “rules” are constantly shifting, there are more “misses” and confidence plummets

In our case, instead of using fewer nappies, we were suddenly back to using them more and more and I went from proudly telling my friends how many catches we’d had to hoping they didn’t ask. Our son’s months of dry nights and days when we might use the same nappy for hours vanished into the mists of history, along with our confidence and enthusiasm for the whole thing.  Then one day, spurred on by some confidence-boosting reading (the Tiny Potty Training Book) I decided I could NOT WASH ANOTHER NAPPY. Our son was nearly 18 months and I’d had enough; it was time for things to change. During what I now look back on and call our “hands-on-potty-teaching-weeks”, my whole life seemed to revolve around what would, and what would not, get in the potty. But I was determined not to give up, we stuck to our plan of no nappies, and in just under 2 weeks we had successfully completed.

It was only after waving goodbye to nappies forever that I realised how my reaction to the past months of difficulty had affected my confidence

As I said previously, using nappy-off time as a way of successfully ‘catching’ means that you as a parent must be in a position to focus completely on what your baby is doing, so you can know and respond immediately when things happen. Doing this in the final stages of our journey made me realise that we could have done it a long time before, had we not lost confidence in the months prior to this.

My experience taught me that between 6-18 months is not the time to give up on nappy-off time, rather to remember the importance of allowing windows of learning as a way to work with your child to reduce nappy use.

Don’t let your confidence be a barrier to continuing your part-time nappy use choice.

The more nappy-off time you allow, the more you will help tip the balance between nappy dependence and nappy freedom.

Of course, this is easier said than done; our busy lives and schedules can make this kind of one-on-one focussed time a challenge.  But despite this, and even at difficult developmental stages, there remain opportunities for nappy-off time every day.  A great time to be nappy-off with an older child is during nap and sleep times, as you can build a rhythm into their schedule that encourages pottying before sleep. If you catch them as they are waking and wait for the magic, you may also have an opportunity to re-build any lost confidence. And if you do have a ‘missed’ wee, it will be more contained in one place (again, a wool puddle pad is absolutely invaluable to nappy-off time in this situation, especially in a daycare setting). Other times are playing outside, when spending time with older ‘potty-independent’ children, or closely-observed playtime with you and a potty to hand (split crotch trousers are also useful in this situation as they will help speedy potty access as soon as anything happens).

A little creative thinking can get you a long way to maintaining some nappy-off time every day until you are ready to make the leap and say goodbye to nappies forever!

And perhaps along the way, you will inspire another parent to see nappies as a choice, not a full-time necessity.

There are so many great sources of advice and info available on how to practice infant pottying, especially now to do “nappy free time”, I don’t want to try and repeat it. But I recommend you do read up on it before you get going. Here are my favourite reads to help you:

godiaperfree.com probably my favourite philosophy of practice when it comes to EC.

bornready.uk for a great description on how to start.

nappyfreebaby.co.uk for the benefits and some really interesting and well-informed historical info.

Of course there is more out there…… so go ahead and enjoy the ride and in the meantime, here are some real-life photos to inspire you:

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