What is Baby Toilet Learning'?
aka: elimination communication, natural baby hygiene, baby-led pottying...
Toilet learning is just a gentle and respectful manner of getting used to using a toilet and practicing good hygiene from birth to 18 months, and beyond. You already help your baby by offering comfort, food and sleep. Why not help with toileting? Just as we teach babies to use a spoon, wipe their nose, or throw a ball, we can also teach toileting. Its a normal bodily function and they are very capable of participating at any age if you give them a chance.
Half of the world's children are out of nappies by their first birthday because they learn to toilet early in cultures where nappies aren't easily available or accessible (e.g. Africa, China, Russia, India, South America, etc). In the western world, the concept of holding baby out to pee or poo was also common until the invention and significant marketing of disposable nappies and the subsequent toddler toilet training industry.
Now, baby toilet learning is gradually being rediscovered because of its many benefits.
Its about using a nappy as a back-up
Believe it or not, your child wasn’t born wanting to soil a nappy. Like many mammals, and adults, babies don’t enjoy sitting in their own waste or 'soiling their nest'. Getting sprayed with pee or poo as soon as a nappy comes off is common with newborns but lessens as they learn to use the nappy as a toilet.
With baby toilet learning a nappy is considered a back-up rather than as toilet in itself. It is a great tool to give peace of mind and stay relaxed about the learning process. There are various styles of nappies available, and each feel different to your baby and can serve different purposes for you too; use the right one at the right time to support you.
Use the best nappy for the right situation
Newborns are very sensitive to feeling a wet bum so if you use a cloth nappy with absorbent fabric they will likely squirm to let you know they're wet as soon as they need changing; so they are a great option when you are at home and nappy changes can be immediate. Many modern cloth nappies, especially pocket nappies, now have 'feel-dry' fabrics which means your baby is likely to be comfortable even if its been used and so that's a good nappy to use when an immediate change isn't always possible (e.g. when in daycare). Disposable nappies, with their 'super feel-dry' design, are best reserved for rare occasions when their high-absorption feature is really necessary (e.g. at night to prioritise sleep, or maybe when you or baby are sick, or your baby is accompanying you to an important meeting). Constant use of disposable nappies tends to desensitise babies to not take notice when they're peeing/pooing (which will require retraining later).
It's about ease and flexibility
Babies are very keen and forgiving learners so you can practice a few times a week or many times a day, starting from birth or later - there are countless opportunities.
Even if you have more going on in life than most, you can do this in a way that fits your situation and preferences. Some caregivers and their babies practice occasionally, others at specific routine times (e.g. upon waking, after a meal, mornings-only, home-only, weekends-only) and others as often as they can or want. It's entirely normal to fluctuate between these as circumstances and moods change, but all of it helps build understanding.
It's about relaxation and fun
Because this process relies on your baby having to relax to release their pee or poo, it only works if it is done in a respectful, gentle and, most importantly, a non-coercive way. There are no expectations, no power struggles. To 'go' in a potty or toilet will only come easily for a baby that feels safe and loved in that moment. It's a relatively private process and each time they go is evidence of the trust they have in you and your help.
Toilet practice is a great one-on-one bonding activity that you can make fun. If you sit your baby on a potty and nothing happens then that is not a failed moment. If you don't get hung up about whether a pee or poo happens, you will see it is the act of offering an enjoyable toilet opportunity that counts as the win. If your baby wants to go they'll go. If they don't, they'll wriggle and squirm, and its your job to listen and offer to try again later.
Its about communicating
You and your baby communicate all the time with simple sounds, gestures and actions. Recognizing their urge to go to the toilet is no different to recognizing cues for tiredness or hunger. Even the youngest newborn can sense the urge to pee/poo and can express it in some way. Some babies give signals beforehand or during, while others are too subtle to detect. Therefore, most caregivers take the lead and offer toilet opportunities by based on a sense of routine and intuition after having observed and reflected on their babies toileting patterns. Your practice might be more routine based rather than communicative - just make it work for you.
Babies are watching and listening to what we do all the time and taking in much more than we think. We can support their learning by talking to them before, during and after a toilet opportunity. If you let them know beforehand, then make a sound when you've got them in position and its good to go, and then acknowledge what's happening they'll feel reassured. As your baby grows you may also like to talk to them when you go to the toilet, or signal their stuffed toys as a game, or even read children's books on the topic.
It's about self-esteem and independence
Usually, toilet trained is described as doing the whole act independently, but with toilet learning a baby is considered a graduate when you, together, are having very few or no misses. Being fully capable of getting undressed, seated and redressed can come later as those skills develop. In comparison, a weaned child often still needs prompts for when to eat and help cutting up food. You are there to gently assist as long as needed.
Getting out of nappies earlier than usual is common but not the goal. There is no best age for having no misses or full toileting independence, just as there is no set age for rolling over, walking or talking. No matter at what age the reach these milestones it is very likely you will have used less nappies than you would have otherwise and that your child is very bodily aware and proud of their toileting accomplishments.
It's not toilet training
Toilet training is a necessary 'fix' in a society that has normalised full-time use of nappies. Just a few decades ago almost all babies were using a toilet by 18 months. Now, unfortunately, the age for toilet training has increased massively in the western world, and while some sail through it there are many others who struggle to train their 2, 3, 4 or even 5 year olds who have only ever known the life of using a nappy as a toilet.
Their brain has to relearn that peeing and pooing is worth paying attention to, and which muscles to use, and some find it difficult emotionally, suffering from strong feelings of embarrassment or shame at not mastering a seemingly simple bodily function and disappointing their caregivers or missing out on pre-promised rewards. This can lead to other issues like 'holding' constipation, anxiety or just not wanting to learn until later due to these negative associations.
If your child is over 18 months and has used nappies extensively then you could try a combination toilet learning/potty training approach such as described in this book, or seek out another gentle and respectful form of toilet training.