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. They are:
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 their baby.
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
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
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
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?"
Excerpted from Joseph Chilton Pearce, Magical
Child, page 58.