Potty training Chinese style: With a diaper-free child, look for potted plants

Potty training Chinese style fascinates Western expat moms who see the diaper-free baby style as a form of environmentalism – but they watch for potted plants, just in case. For Junior to "go" on command is a mother's dream.

By , Guest Blogger

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    Potty training Chinese style is also known as "elimination training," or getting Junior to "go" on command, sans diapers.
    Here, a Chinese baby cools off in Beijing.
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Lucy Hornby lives life on the edge. She recently took her 18-month-old son, Oliver, out to lunch. And he wasn’t wearing a diaper.

[Editor's noteThe original version of this story misspelled the name of Lucy Hornby.]

“There was a bush nearby. I felt like we had an escape hatch,” says the Beijing-based Reuters reporter.

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That’s because Ms. Hornsby and her husband have been using an ancient Chinese method of toilet training, with some success. Called “elimination training” or “elimination communication,” the practice encourages babies and toddlers to use the toilet on demand while a caregiver is making whistling or shushing noises. Eventually, the baby learns the cue to "go" on cue and becomes diaper-free.

Move over, Sigmund Freud.

Using slit-bottom pants called kaidangku, Chinese children have traditionally used very few diapers. Instead, they’re encouraged from as early as a few days old to release when they’re held over a toilet. And when they’re out in public, they often wear kaidangku, which allows them the freedom to do what they need to do in a tree box, on the sidewalk, or while they’re being held over a trash can.

Western parents and increasing numbers of Chinese parents have adopted a hybrid form of that practice, relying on toilets – as well as carpet-free homes in case of accidents – and putting a diaper on baby bottoms for excursions away from home.

Johanna Garton, an American living for a year in Kunming, China, adopted her two children from China in 2004 and 2009. While her son, Will, was in diapers as a one-year-old, her daughter Eden, who had spent time with a foster family, had been started on elimination training before her first birthday. “And since we were going into it blind, we asked if they could give us any indication of what the signal was,” Ms. Garton says. It turned out that they were supposed to make a “shushing sound” and were given a brief tutorial about how to hold her over the toilet.

Garton and her husband were part of a group of about nine families who had adopted children in China, and many of those parents were told their children had been potty trained. All of the others, however, decided to put their new babies in diapers. They thought that going through the adoption process and moving to a new country was enough stress.

“But we were adamant” about trying it, Garton says. For the first week, Garton and her husband were “constantly running to the bathroom” with their baby, while the other parents sat back and watched. “But we wanted to take it on, since potty training a toddler is kind of a nightmare,” she says. “We felt if we were going to take on the stress, we’d rather do it now.”

Today, Garton encourages all of her friends in America to think about trying elimination communication. “Nobody has come close to considering it,” she says. “It’s so far outside that Western way of thinking. We’ve been brainwashed by the diaper companies” with their marketing efforts, she adds.

For many Western parents, the use of disposable diapers seems to offset any good they might do by recycling plastic, driving hybrid cars, or keeping the thermostat low at home. Hornsby says that when her son was born, she felt guilty she wasn’t using cloth diapers, but since she worked all day, she didn’t want to ask her child’s caretaker to deal with washing diapers. And she felt disposable diapers are environmentally “egregious.” So she and her husband decided to try elimination training.

They started whistling as they held the baby over the toilet at four months. They never gave up diapers, but cut their use dramatically. The key element, she says, was to pay attention to cues. When he started to squirm or look distracted, they held him over the toilet. In a very short time, he would go as soon as he was given the signal. “So it wasn’t onerous in that sense at all,” she notes.

She was so successful that she became a bit of a sideshow when she brought Oliver to the United States last summer. “My mom would be, ‘[Y]ou’ve got to see this!’ And she would call all my aunts and we’d have five people in the bathroom, and he would be upset and refuse to do it,” Hornsby says. 

In fact, elimination communication becomes a two-way conversation when a toddler is involved. “Because he has his own opinions, he feels like he should only go to the toilet when he feels he has to go,” she says. But that’s often about 15 seconds before he can’t hold it in any longer, and, well, mistakes are made. “I can’t be a total flag bearer for this,” she says.

One Chinese woman who works for a news organization in Beijing and who asked not to be named also uses a kind of hybrid approach with her one-year-old daughter. In the first month after her daughter’s birth, she used cloth diapers for the baby during the day and a disposable diaper at night. When the baby was about 10 months old, she bought a baby toilet and put the toddler on the toilet first thing in the morning. “It becomes a habit,” she says.

Now her mother, who watches the baby during the day, wants to encourage more use of the potty during the daytime. “I agree,” she says. “I think it’s time for her to get used to the small toilet. She’s old enough to do that.”

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Meanwhile, the one-year-old still wears disposable diapers when she’s out. In fact, children younger than three years are required to wear diapers at many play groups, playgrounds, and educational centers in Beijing, she says.

And with China’s annual growth of 8 million people – along with a rumored end to the one-child policy – that could mean a lot more playgrounds and a lot more diapers.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Debra Bruno blogs at Not by Occident.

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