There are as many different ways
of approaching parenting as there are cultures. However, in
cultures where mothers are still parenting in the same gentle ways
they have for generations, the similarities are also striking.
Nurturing practices such as natural weaning ("extended
nursing"), co-sleeping, carrying the baby in close physical
contact, responding promptly to cries or distress, and never
leaving a baby alone, are all virtually universal in traditional
societies that have not become overly "westernized". In
the majority of non-industrialized cultures, mothers also know how
to tune into their babies' elimination needs, and how to keep them
clean and dry without diapers.
Since I discovered this, I've had to re-examine everything I
ever believed about toilet learning. My son, like millions of
babies around the globe, experienced no difficulty in developing
awareness and control of his body functions from infancy. We've
been communicating about it since his birth and he has been out of
diapers since he was four months old. The consequences have been
very positive: a strengthened trust, an intimate bond, and a child
who is conscious and comfortable in his own body.
What I learned, and came to call "natural infant
hygiene", may seem new, unusual, and revolutionary in our
culture. Yet throughout human existence, parents have cared for
their babies hygienically without diapers. This natural practice
is common in Asia, Africa, and parts of South America, and was
traditionally practiced among the Inuit and some Native North
American peoples. For these mothers, knowing when their baby
"needs to go," and holding them over an appropriate
place, is (or was) second nature.
There is a small but steadily growing resurgence of interest in
this practice among North American and European parents today.
Parents are drawn to it for the baby's physical comfort, because
"it's natural", to avoid diaper rash and digestive
problems, to support the baby's body awareness, for environmental
reasons, to prevent diapering and toilet training struggles, and
to reduce diaper use.
The greatest reason and benefit, however, is that parents feel
they are responding to their baby's needs in the present moment,
enhancing their bond, and developing a deeper communication and
trust. Natural infant hygiene provides yet another opportunity to
understand and grow closer to our babies.
How Does It Work?
When the mother knows or feels that her baby needs to go, she
can remove the diaper or clothing and hold the baby in a secure,
close position over an appropriate receptacle. There are several
facets to communicating with a pre-verbal baby about elimination.
Timing and elimination patterns
Watching closely, the mother learns when the baby usually goes
and how this relates to other bodily functions, such as sleeping
or nursing. For example, many babies pee as soon as they awaken,
and at regular intervals after nursing.
Baby's signals and body language
Once they begin watching for it, many parents are amazed to
notice that their babies are actually signaling when they need to
go, just as a nursing mother learns to recognize her baby's need
to nurse before s/he cries. Though every baby is different, some
common signals include: fussing, squirming, grunting or
vocalizing, pausing and becoming still, waking from sleep, a
certain frown, etc.
Many mothers who have a close nurturing relationship with their
babies find they simply "know" when their babies need to
relieve themselves, especially once they've been using this
approach for a while. For example, I could "feel" this
need even when I had my back turned to my child.
Cueing the baby
Natural infant hygiene is a two-way communication. Around the
world, parents may use a specific sound (such as "shhh"
or "sss") and a specific position to hold their baby
when they eliminate. This serves as a kind of preliminary language
that the baby comes to associate with the act, and a way for the
parents to offer an opportunity to go. However, it is always the
baby who decides whether they need to go or not. Sometimes the
baby also begins to use this sound as a signal to the parent.
When parents first hear about this practice, they may wonder if
this means forcing or rushing a child to grow up before they are
ready. This is a valid concern, but one that is easily allayed
when you've seen this gentle approach in action. Unlike
conventional toilet training, the focus in natural infant hygiene
is not on the baby contracting and retaining or "holding
in" body functions. Rather, the baby communicates a need and
relaxes and releases at will with the parent's support. The
ability to retain develops at the baby's pace, as a natural
consequence of his or her awareness. Millions of mothers worldwide
can attest to the fact that babies can voluntarily regulate their
elimination without any coercion or negative effects whatsoever.
In fact, parents often feel an increased closeness and respect for
Tuning in to your baby in this way does require commitment and
effort, as does being a responsive parent in general. Most parents
prefer to use diapers, at least part-time, during the early
learning process, on outings, and sometimes at night if they don't
waken in time to respond to their baby's need to go. Most children
become reliably toilet-independent with this practice between
about 10 to 20 months of age. Yet many of the parents I've
interviewed say they would choose this approach again, even if it
were to take just as long as conventional training, because they
value the closeness and communication.
I think the real work of natural infant hygiene is that of
being in the present moment. There are days when it can seem
like the most difficult thing in the world to do. And there are
days when you have glimpses of enlightenment: the feeling of being
in the present moment, being in the flow, having that peaceful
experience of synchronicity and symbiotic relationship that can
develop between mother and child when they are in tune.
Another Opportunity for Gentle Nurturing
Babies are not the passive beings they were once believed to
be. They are absorbing and processing new stimuli and sensory
information moment by moment. They are also signaling in both
subtle and not so subtle ways throughout the day, trying to
communicate to their caregivers exactly what they need, and when.
Natural infant hygiene opens another avenue for parents to tune
in and respond to their baby's needs. This opportunity for
strengthening the intimate parent-child relationship relies on
practical tools designed by nature to work. Yet, this approach
offers much more than just another parenting "technique"
for dealing with a baby's elimination. Ideally, it is
fundamentally a way of being with a baby. This way of being
focuses on relationship and communication: natural infant hygiene
is seen as part of a lifestyle, rather than a chore.
Parents who follow nature's plan for infant care have a
distinct advantage in responding to a baby's needs fully. Babies
who are breastfed and have frequent or constant contact with their
mother's bodies feel satisfied, secure, and content. In turn, this
strengthens the parent's confidence, pleasure, and responsiveness.
Studies have shown that these infants are more likely to have
their subtle signals heeded, and cry less. Even when these babies
cry, they do so in the loving arms of a parent who is doing their
utmost to understand and help.
MacKellar told me of her years in Uganda, where her
husband practiced medicine. Local mothers brought their
infants to see the doctor, often standing patiently in
line for hours. The women carried the tiny infants in a
sling, next to their bare breasts. Older infants were
carried on the back, papoose style. The infants were never
swaddled, nor were diapers used. Yet none of them were
soiled when finally examined by the doctor. Puzzled by
this, Jean finally asked some of the women how they
managed to keep their babies so clean without diapers and
such. "Oh," the women answered, "we just go
to the bushes." Well, Jean countered, how did they
know when the infant needed to go to the bushes? The women
were astonished at her question. "How do you know
when you have to go?" they exclaimed."
Excerpted from Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical Child, page 58.