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Disposable diapers or bare bottoms? China frets over potty training

As they rapidly enter the middle class, Chinese parents are scorning traditional environmentally-friendly split pants for disposable diapers. 

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Pampers then used that information to target an enormous concern of Chinese parents: linking extra sleep with “improved cognitive performance,” says Pampers spokeswoman Heidi Wang.

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Beijing resident Ember Swift, a Canadian woman married to a Chinese man, says that when the couple’s baby was born last winter, she was shocked to learn that her mother-in-law automatically assumed the family would use disposable diapers. “It seems like it’s all about pride,” Ms. Swift says, “and being able to supply a child with expensive disposable diapers. They’ve reached an economic level as middle class where they can afford a partially disposable lifestyle.”

READ MORE on China's rising middle class

That middle class is buying diapers by the millions.

The China National Household Paper Industry Association reported that 2010 sales of diapers in China reached 18.49 billion yuan, or almost $3 billion. Hengan, one of a handful of Chinese diaper manufacturers, reported that its 2011 diaper sales totaled $351 million, a rise of 11.3 percent from the year before. Pampers registered $10 billion in global sales last year, says Ms. Wang, with China coming in as the company’s second-largest market after the United States.

Meanwhile, in the West

Ironically, while Chinese parents are gravitating toward disposable diapers, some Western parents in China are embracing the ancient method of Chinese baby care. In other words, they’re using what’s known as elimination training or elimination communication: training a baby to urinate and defecate on cue when they’re held over a toilet. (See related story on Modern Parenthood.)

Swift, for instance, has become a big advocate of the practice. At first, she had to battle her Chinese mother-in-law. “It’s almost as if I’m the Chinese person,” she says. Nevertheless, as she persisted, her baby eventually got the idea, and now the nine-month-old is well on her way to using the toilet much of the time.  Not only does the practice help to prevent diaper rash, Swift says, but it’s far better for the environment.

Though environmentalists worry about the consequences of China adopting a “throwaway consumer lifestyle,” it may be a losing argument. Price Hanna Consultants estimates that China accounts for about 14 percent of all diaper use around the world, but with the second-largest infant population in the world (India has more), it will grow over the next five years to a quarter of the global market.

In fact, Proctor & Gamble announced in 2009 that it had 4 billion customers worldwide. Today the company says it has 4.6 billion and “are confident” about reaching 5 billion by 2015, says spokeswoman Wang. And a large part of the reason for that surge is China.

IN PICTURES: Beijing today

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