Pregnancy and Parenting Features

Infant Potty Training

“Infant toilet learning is what I consider to be the perfect labor of love”

It started out innocently enough. My third son was just 3 months old when something inside me said, “Not another bout of diapers, please!” I knew there had to be a better way than the conventional toilet training used with my first two sons.

I had heard about women in Asia and Africa carrying their naked babies in slings everywhere they went. A mother always knew when her infant had to go and removed the baby from the sling in time for it to eliminate away from her, keeping both mother and infant clean and dry. Surely this was something for non-Western women only. Or was it?

It is true that mothers in many societies around the world use few or no diapers at all. Just think about it. What did people do before there were diapers in the world? Answer: They pottied their babies from birth or early infancy, while holding them gently and lovingly in-arms. Today, millions of new mothers continue the tradition by quickly learning their infants’ elimination body language, timing and patterns, or else instinctively knowing when their babies need to go.

In the last 10-20 years, infant toilet learning has been growing in popularity in Western countries – slowly at first, and now at a faster rate. (Important note: This method should NOT be confused with a similar but different one that was used in the USA until the 1950s.) The ancient method has been adapted to fit the Western lifestyle, and parents gradually reduce the number of diaper-changes and associated dirty laundry (sheets, wet or soiled clothes, training pants, etc.) until their babies complete toilet training. The ideal time to start is between birth and 4 months, so you need to learn about it during pregnancy or the early months of your baby’s life.

Around age 9-12 months, babies who started with this method in infancy have reasonable control of elimination but of course still need assistance getting to their potty place on time. Around 15 months, they have relatively few “accidents” but still need reminders and some assistance. The average age of completion in the West is around 2 years.

When my son was 3 months old, a lady from India taught me this nurturing way to toilet him. She told me that in India, they start pottying their babies around 1 month old and finish before their babies walk. At that time, babies still need some assistance since they can’t dress or walk, but parents there don’t consider these things an important part of potty training. Staying clean and dry, giving signals, and responding to cues is what it is all about. They do this by timing or intuition. Once they can crawl, babies typically head for the bathroom door when they need to go, and mothers are delighted to help with the rest. Everything she told me made sense, and I couldn’t wait to try.

The lady showed me how to hold my son in-arms (for a photo, click here and scroll down to the photo), then made a little watery sound (sssss) to encourage him to “go,” which he did! I soon got the hang of it, and away we went. In short, I found this new method to be far better than conventional training in all respects.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of infant potty training (IPT) is that parents typically begin working with a baby before she can even sit. There is no English term to suitably describe “infant potty training” as a whole, since (a) an infant cannot sit on a potty and (b) the process is more akin to teamwork (with your baby) and interconnectedness than actual training. Communication is the key to connecting with your baby about elimination. The bonding and frequent physical contact are fantastic.

Here is the secret to IPT. There is a window of learning open from birth until about 4-5 months. This time frame is a sensitive period where babies are very aware of elimination. They attempt to communicate, but we don’t watch and listen since we have not been trained to do so. Instead, we train our babies to use a diaper as their toilet, and they have to unlearn this behavior later.

Synopsis of the Method

  1. Observation

    Lay your undiapered baby in a comfortable place, then spend a little time observing her:

    • timing (how long and how frequently she goes after waking or feeding)
    • body language (such as twisting or grimacing while defecating)
    • sounds (such as grunting while defecating)

  2. Anticipation or Intuition

    Anticipate when your infant needs to go, then at that moment, make a watery sound such as “sssss.” Alternatively, if your baby starts to go while you are observing her, immediately make the “sssss” sound. Within a few days, your baby will associate this sound with elimination.

  3. Position & Toilet Place

    When you think your infant needs to go, hold her gently and securely over your preferred toilet place while giving an audible signal (“sssss” or whatever sound/words you prefer). Your baby will soon associate the sound, position and place with elimination. Use whatever location and receptacle are most comfy and convenient. Examples include the bathroom sink, a mixing bowl, a basin and the outdoors. Older babies can sit between your legs on the toilet.

  4. Baby-Mother Communication

    From now on, pay close attention to baby’s timing and signals. When you think she needs to go, hold her in position and give your signal. If it is near time to go, infants are able to relax those muscles upon receiving your cues.

How Do I Know When My Baby Needs to Go?

You can know when baby needs to go by one or more of the following:

  • timing (by the clock)
  • Signals and cues (including body language and vocalizations)
  • Patterns of elimination (relation to feeding, waking, etc.)
  • Intuition and instinct

Does My Baby Have To Be Naked?

This is not a requirement. Many parents keep a diaper or training pants on their baby in between potty visits, while others prefer to leave their baby bare-bottomed or naked most of the time. In short, it is a matter of preference.

Is There A Downside?

This depends on your outlook. Perhaps the biggest drawback in Western eyes is that it takes time?especially when you first start, but in the end it does not usually take any longer than traditional toilet training and sometimes far less, all things considered. And as with all aspects of child development, each child develops at his own rate, with some babies finishing far sooner than others.

What Does It Take?

Time, patience, diligence and the desire to use this age-old and fun method of toilet learning. It is essential to note that this is a non-punitive method, so parents need to be relaxed and loving. Trusted caregivers (such as nannies, siblings and grandparents) can help, and if necessary, this can be done on a part time basis, as long as you are reasonably consistent.

When reading about this for the first time, it will either resonate and sound right for you and your baby or else sound impracticable and ridiculous. If it resonates, it’s worth giving it a try!

Laurie Boucke is the mother of 3 sons. The third was toilet trained from age 3 months, never pooped in his diaper or pants or wet his bed from the day she started, remained dry with reminders around 9 months, and was 100% toilet trained around the age of 2 years.

Laurie is Phi Beta Kappa, University of California and has authored 7 books, including two on the topic of this article: Trickle Treat (1991) and Infant Potty Training (May 2000).

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