When nature calls, little Hannah Rothstein gets the message. During a recent visit to a friend’s house, she squirms in her mother’s lap and is scooped up and placed on a plastic potty seat. “Do you want to go pee-pee?” asks Melinda Rothstein, 31, who whispers a gentle “psspsspsss” to her daughter to move things along. Soon, Hannah’s job is done, her Dora the Explorer underpants are hitched up, and the little girl is back playing with pals. It’s a scene parents of toddlers know by heart. But Hannah is no toddler: She’s only 7 months old.
But then, Rothstein, a former Web strategist with an MBA, isn’t just any parent. Along with another Boston area mom, Rachel Milgroom, 34, she’s out to revolutionize potty training as we know it. While many U.S. youngsters wear diapers until well past age 3, Rothstein and Milgroom are advocates of so-called “elimination communication,” starting toilet training in infancy by monitoring a baby’s body language and vocal cues. “It’s artificial to diaper a child,” says Rothstein. “No adult would want to sit in their waste—yet we subject infants to it.”
A growing number of parents—worried about the environmental impact of disposable diapers or interested in alternative approaches to child rearing—agree. Since Milgroom and Rothstein met and founded DiaperFreeBaby, a nonprofit that teaches elimination communication, in 2003, more than 400 mothers have registered on the group’s Web site (www.diaperfreebaby.org) and 30 chapters have sprung up nationwide. Among the converts are Katherine Abbey and her husband, Martin Hovey, a Riverview, Fla., couple who began holding their son Jason over the toilet within hours of his birth. “Once I caught my first pee, I was hooked,” says Abbey, 29, a part-time music director. Now a year old, Jason is making good progress, with Abbey using diapers as occasional backup, “especially if I were having a stressful day.”
In many cultures, mothers carry undiapered babies next to their bodies, and quickly learn when they are ready to go. In the U.S., practitioners of “EC” watch their infants closely, learning when a kick or grimace means it’s time. These parents believe that by about 25 months a child should be potty-trained. But accidents happen. “I rarely got poos in the toilet,” says Julie Seritella, 38, a Newfield, N.Y., life coach who uses the method with her 6-month-old daughter Angelica Grace. “But each time we get to the bathroom it reinforces her awareness of her body.”
While toilet training before 2 was common at the turn of the century, a study by the Medical College of Wisconsin found that by the late ’90s the average age had risen to 33 months for girls and 36 months for boys—attributed to disposable diapers and the child-led approach to toilet training. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton worries the diaper-free movement puts pressure on working moms: “People are going to feel guilty if they can’t do this.”
Milgroom and Rothstein concede that even they use diapers for occasions like travel, and Rothstein puts a plastic protector on Hannah’s mattress while she sleeps. Still, they say, keeping babies diaperless even a few hours strengthens ties between parent and child. “Our job is to help them develop into a person,” Rothstein says. “That means tending to their every need.”
Both women used the approach with their own children. Rothstein’s son Samuel, now 3, was trained by 21 months, while Milgroom’s second son, Simon, mastered the potty by 2 ½. During the process, says Milgroom, “you discover how amazing your baby is.”
Which is fine by Julie Seritella, who says she and her husband, Eric, tried ditching diapers entirely—only to discover that they come in handy now and then. “We got tired of getting peed on,” says Julie. “It got old.”
Nancy Jeffrey. Tom Duffy in Newton, Mass.