Thursday, April 25, 2013

Who needs diapers anyway? I'll tell you...

The diaperless parenting trend (also known as "elimination communication") is in the news again.  Here's a summary: Eco-conscious attachment-y parents, instead of using diapers, are attempting to read their baby's (as young as newborns') signals, and then rush them to a human waste receptacle (toilet, sure, but even a strategically placed bowl or just a slab of concrete between 2 parked cars) in time to pee or poop.

In other words: I'll see your organic cloth diaper and raise you... my diaperless baby.

Theoretically, I suppose it makes sense. Eliminating diapers makes a LOT less waste of the non-biodegradable variety - no small thing.  It eliminates things like diaper rash.  It eliminates the challenges of potty training a baby with the annoying ability to say "no."  It has the cache of ancient, indigenous wisdom, and the appeal of somehow more deeply and intimately "knowing" your baby.  And fewer diapers is easier on the wallet (though most diaperless mommies are of the urbanite hipster ilk, not the paycheck-to-paycheck single mom variety, so I'm not sure this is the primary motivator).

But, to state the obvious:  Ummm.... Wait. WHAT?

It seems that this technique will only work if you are almost constantly attached to your baby - so no work for mom - and willing to tolerate a possibly intolerable amount of human waste.  And it would help if you live on a farm and in warm weather - to keep the shit moving outdoors.  It might be nice too if your kid doesn't get too much diarhea or explosive poop.  Or have a communicable disease.  And will probably only "work" if you're among an elite minority doing this.

If all Americans start doing this, our world would look a lot more like it does ... well.... in the rest of the world, along with all the attendant problems the rest of the world is trying to escape from.

Here in Kenya a lot of mamas, oblivious of their hipster status, go 'diaperless,' and while they lack a fancy name for it, they also use some form of elimination communication.  Last week I watched my neighbor's sister bouncing her bare bottomed 7 month-old baby on her knee.  When I asked if she was worried about an accident, she described the particular twisting and fidgeting her daughter would do before she needed to go, which would tell her that some elimination was coming. I don't doubt that this communication happens.

But you can never stop or anticipate all accidents.  Without diapers, you're simply living in a world with a lot more human excrement.  Our neighbor's child has pooped on our doorstep half a dozen times.  (We're trying not to take it personally.)  And I remember interviewing a mama in the rural areas holding her baby in her lap who, mid-interview, wiped some of the babies poop off her lap with a corn husk. The very rhythm of the morning in the village includes hanging out the bed sheets to dry, which are inevitably soiled by some baby or young child. Every. morning.

Truly, this is a problem in the rural areas.  Besides finding a safe place for all that baby waste, young children are too frightened to use what adults use - a pit latrine - and it's probably dangerous anyway.  So, when a child becomes ambulatory, their mother will often train them to go in a certain less frequented area - behind a tree, for example.  But it's not perfect.

I don't want to give the impression that rural areas are filthy, because, quite frankly, I've never seen people sweep and mop and clean so fastidiously in my life.  But the lack of diapers causes a problem, and contributes to the spread of disease - to the tune of thousands of diarrhea-related deaths each day.

It's such a big issue that the NGO we work for has a multi-million dollar project to better understand how improvements in sanitation (including developing less scary toilets for toddlers) can prevent all these deaths.  There are other NGOs providing cloth diapers for poor women around the world, who desperately want to wake up in a dry bed with healthy children.

I'm not saying it's impossible for Western mothers to do carry out this method more hygienically with the benefit of modern sanitation.  My point is that in our wistfulness for doing things the "natural" way, we often forget that nature is not a national park.  And sometimes it can be a pretty unforgiving place.

But go ahead go diaperless.  Out eco your neighbor.  Just don't forget that it's a choice you're incredibly privileged to make.


  1. Great post! I too have looked at the elimination communication movement and gone - each it's own? However, the thought behind how much human waste can cause disease is often missed by those who have never seen it - myself included. Thank you for sharing your observations and widening our horizons.

    Heidi Raki

  2. Is that shit for realz? Seriously? Um...cholera? dysentery? Um...other people having to pick up your kid's crap when you've "cleverly" found a "private" place for your little eliminator to eliminate? Seriously, people, get real. Get a diaper or get the kind of bag they put around horses' butts when the horses are working carriage tour detail... gaaah!

  3. When our first child was born we tried every diaper at the store. We couldn't get a diaper to last him through the night without leaking. Only a few expensive diapers would not leak through night. But some would leave some gel looking residue on the baby's skin. We are now onto our second child and he just turned two. We still swear by Honest diapers.

  4. A lifestyle free of ongoing poo-related problems is a fortunate life. Eco-conscious folks in the know may indeed swirl around issues like freely plopped baby poo, humanure, and composting toilets but they do so with the assurance that wherever they choose to go in the developed world, poo can neatly swirl away at a flush. I for one am pretty happy about plumbing and cloth diapers...