Out of those diapers and on the spot

For some parents and infants, toilet-training can't start too soon

October 09, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Hannah Rothstein, 7 months old, has double thighs and a dimpled bottom, but very svelte German underwear. She can still fit into her birth-to-3-month-old clothes because she lacks her peers' familiar bulge in the rear. She can sleep all night without a diaper. And during the day, every so often, after her mother, Melinda, of Newton, Mass., places her on a plastic potty and makes a little "pss-wss-wss" sound like the one used to call a cat, Hannah uses the toilet.

For many parents in the United States, the idea of potty training before a baby is able to walk, or even before age 2, is not just horrifying but reprehensible - a sure nightmare for parents and baby, not to mention a direct route from the crib to the psychiatrist's couch. But a growing number of parents are experimenting with infant potty training, seeing it as more sanitary, ecologically correct and likely to strengthen bonds between parent and child.

About 2,000 people across the country have joined Internet groups and e-mail lists to learn more about the techniques of encouraging a baby - a child too young to walk or talk - to go in a toilet, a sink or a pot. Through a nonprofit group, Diaper Free Baby, 77 local groups have formed in 35 states to encourage the practice. One author's how-to books on the subject have sold about 50,000 copies.

"It's just so simple," said Lamelle Ryman, who recently attended a support meeting at an apartment on the Upper West Side. Ryman, the mother of 7-month-old Neshama, added, "I feel like it's been such a gift in our relationship."

To be sure, adoption of the approach in the West is in its infant stage, so to speak. Moreover, the philosophy behind it flies in the face of Spock-influenced child-rearing. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the last word in raising children for many American families through much of the 20th century, recommended against any training in the first year, believing that it could lead to rebellion later through bedwetting.

Once, however, breastfeeding, too, was a rarity, until conversations among mothers, supported by medical research and encouragement from doctors, nurses and midwives, pushed it during the 1970s to the mainstream of child care practices.

With early toilet-training, there is a broad body of knowledge and experience to draw on. Parents in at least 75 countries, including India, Kenya and Greenland, embrace the practice, with Chinese babies often wearing pants with split bottoms for easy squatting.

Some parents who adopt children from other countries say they are startled to find that their babies arrive ready to use the toilet. More than 50 percent of the world's children are toilet-trained about the time they turn 1, according to Contemporary Pediatrics magazine.

From birth, the reasoning goes, infants are aware of their needs to eliminate, and although their muscles are not developed, they can soon learn to go on cue. Conversely, by relying on disposable diapers, modern parents are in effect teaching babies to ignore the signs that they have to go, making potty training at a later age more difficult.

Ingrid Bauer, author of Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene, believes it is easiest to begin toilet-training in the first six months. To start, parents are taught to hold the baby by the thighs in a seated position against their stomachs and to make an encouraging hiss or grunt.

For families who practice the technique, the advantages are many: savings in the cost of diapers, which can reach $3,000 a child; less guilt about contributing to the 22 billion disposable diapers that end up in landfills every year; no diaper rash; and a nursery that doesn't reek of diaper pail. They also note that age 2, a common age for toilet training, is a time of notorious willfulness and a terrible age to start.

Most important, they say, is an increased emotional bond with the baby, forged by the need for the parent to pick up on subtle signs and act on them quickly. Proponents of the practice use the phrase "elimination communication."

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the renowned child-rearing expert, said parents need not worry about psychologically damaging their child. Brazelton, author of Toilet Training: The Brazelton Way, has always advocated a child-centered approach to training: Do it when a child is ready, without too much pushing or even encouraging.

"I'm all for it, except I don't think many people can do it," he said of elimination communication. "The thing that bothers me about it is today, probably 80 percent of women don't have that kind of availability."

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