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Cloth or Paper? The Great Diaper Debate. RE Blog Guest Story.

Cloth or paper? The great diaper debate.
a guest story submitted by Sheila Cameron

Many parents ponder which is better. It wasn’t until I read the history of diapers in Today’s Parent article Diaper Dance (Sara Cassidy, Feb, 04) that I asked, “What about neither?” I was intrigued by the notion that diapers didn’t always exist and that they are not used in many countries around the world today. Before this point I had merely accepted them as normal.

I purchased and began to read Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene by Ingrid Bauer. I was immediately saddened by the lost opportunity with my first child. Many times I had cut short the giggles of audiences, wanting to let my daughter know it was perfectly normal to have a poop anywhere, anytime. Diapers had conditioned me to let the chips fall where they may and it never occurred to me to have them fall in the toilet. I chastised myself for failing to recognize the communication of a basic human need recalling several fussy episodes that appeared to be resolved by the passing of urine. Although the book has suggestions for late starters, there was no chance to try with my daughter. She was over a year old and I was returning to full-time employment.

When my son was born later that year, I was overwhelmed by my new workload. My daughter was 22 months old, still in diapers, and had quit napping. We also had an aging, incontinent dog. With no support from anyone (even my husband, who agreed with the concept, couldn’t see putting it into practice), I was having doubts about the diaperless plan.

At three months, a mild rash appeared on my son’s groin and I left him on an absorbent pad to air his parts. Half an hour later, I noticed that he hadn’t peed yet. I took him to the bathroom sink and supported him at the edge. I turned on the water gently and said “peepeepeepeepeepeepee”. And he peed! I was amazed. Two more times that evening I had the same result and was so excited I called my mother to brag. The next day was far less rewarding, but each success lifted my spirits and gave me greater resolve to keep trying.

Before long, I learned to position my son over the toilet. With his back against my tummy, my hands under his thighs and the all-important finger on the top of his penis to keep it aimed into the bowl, I straddled the toilet seat facing backwards. When he bored of smashing my head with the toilet lid, I started taking him outside. He loved that and it came with the added benefit of simplifying outings and road travel.

I soon found the frequent “peepee” excursions with my son were straining my relationship with my daughter. I began to attempt natural infant hygiene mainly at night, holding the little guy over a bucket by the bed when he stirred. He wore disposables during the day but we continued to practise part-time. My husband was inspired and began to participate. We found we were saving a lot of diapers, sometimes only needing one or two for an entire day.

Before my son was born, family and friends had shunned the idea of diaperless. When I spoke of my success, they suddenly approved and shared stories they had heard or witnessed. I was thrilled to hear that my own grandmother, on a Manitoba farm, held her babies over a newspaper when they had to go.

I was sceptical of the beauty of “elimination communication” (a phrase coined by Ingrid Bauer), but by six months my son was easily communicating his needs. As I didn’t see any “I’m-about-to-pee” signals, I relied on timing, taking him to pee every 30-60 minutes and always upon awakening. Once held over the pee-spot-du-jour, his signals were clear—immediately releasing the pee, or arching his back up and away if he did not want to go. A few grunts would signal an impending poop. He nearly always allowed time to get to the toilet where we’d groan, tighten our tummies and exchange meaningful smiles. Cleanup, a simple wipe with toilet paper, was bliss compared to a messy diaper. On the flipside, the occasional messy underwear resulted in more work than disposables.

Without words, my 17-month-old son advised me he had outgrown my hold and wanted to sit up on the toilet and read magazines while having a bowel movement. At 18 months, he wore underwear almost exclusively and stood while peeing into any receptacle we provided him. The transition to independent toilet use was much easier for him than it was for his sister, who chose to quit wearing diapers at 35 months. My son has wet the bed only one time since he was two years old.

It took me a long time to realize that part of my son’s ‘toilet-trained success’ had to do with keeping him dry, changing him immediately upon being wet or soiled, no matter whether using cloth diapers or paper disposables. I had used both with my daughter but made the uneducated error of allowing her to remain in the wet cloth diaper getting used to the feeling (or non-feeling) of being wet in her own clothes. And when using disposables I fuelled my thrifty streak and allowed the pee to accumulate inside the super absorbent material so that I wouldn’t have to use/buy so many. With my son, at first I was all about saving money and waste—he wore disposables but we made a serious effort to keep them dry/clean by taking him to pee often. From about 18 months, I took a new approach of using a type of thick underwear and changing them, and his pants if necessary, immediately upon them getting wet or soiled. The underwear made it easier to feel if a pee had happened; with a disposable it was sometimes difficult to know. We did a lot of laundry during this time.

Environmentalists are also asking the big question—cloth or paper? There are winning arguments for either side of the debate, but it is clear to me that practising natural infant hygiene even part-time will reduce natural resources consumed and waste sent to the landfill, regardless of whether a child wears cloth, disposables, or underwear.

It was difficult to overcome the cultural conditioning I had received about diapers, but once I got my head around it, there was no turning back. Going diaperless saved money, reduced waste, and softened my approach with both children. Practising this method was a loving and respectful way to communicate with my child.

Critics pointed out that the method doesn’t train the child—it trains the adult. Thank goodness I was trained—to listen to my child and respond to his basic needs. The choice to refrain from diaper use now seems extraordinarily obvious to me and I wish I had a few more babies to share it with.

Sheila Cameron lives with her family on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada. While trying to attend to the goal of conscious parenting as a top priority, Sheila also enjoys writing, editing, learning, delivering the mail, and dreaming up ways to eradicate poverty, instill peace, challenge systems, increase wellness, spread love, and practise joyful living. She appreciates honesty, kindness, hiking on a most splendid planet, inspirational stories, homemade cookies, and dark organic chocolate. Sheila sometimes blogs at

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a wonderful piece to read this morning. This had me laughing “let the chips fall where they may ” — I had visions of toddler cow chip poop. Pun intended or accidental? lol

    March 23, 2012
  2. Misty Odom #

    Thank you so much for sharing! I started practicing EC with my daughter after learning about it at a LLL Meeting. She was 10 months old at the time. All I did was Google search “elimination communication” and read what info was available~ I never bought the book. All the sources said that if your child was past 7 or 8 months old, the window had passed~ not true! It worked beautifully and my daughter was fully potty trained by 2, and has wet the bed only a couple of times. She is now 5. I feel the method not only saved washing so many diapers, it brought my daughter and I closer together as I had to pay attention to and decipher subtle body movements in order to anticipate that she had to go. I highly recommend it. Way to go, Mama!

    March 26, 2012
    • Thank you so much for sharing this enthusiasm for child led intelligence. I bet the indigenous cultures have had it right all along… what do you think?

      March 26, 2012

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