The Natural Child Project The Natural Child Project
View shopping cart

Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene

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 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.

"Jean 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.

Ingrid Bauer is the author of the book Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, and many articles on parenting and natural living.

Web: BCNCC: Ingrid Bauer

Copyright © 2001 Ingrid Bauer