The Evolution of Potty Training

This will be my first foray into baby blogging (technically it's my second, however the first ended up being somewhat accidental). What I hope to explore through these posts will be child development through the lens of anthropology and primatology as I observe my child going through various stages. I first wanted to explore a new idea (at least new to me) that my partner and I have been working with: early potty training, also known as Natural Infant Hygiene or Elimination Communication (EC).

The concept of EC is a simple one: mammals don't like to sit in their own waste and, if allowed the opportunity, will avoid doing so. Current trends in dog training show that leaving puppies in their carrier when you have to leave them for several hours during the day will result in them waiting until you return before relieving themselves. The logic being that dogs, recent evolutionary descendants of wolves, are den animals and have an instinct not to urinate or defecate where they sleep. Having just helped raise a puppy this way I have seen its effectiveness (not once did she go while in her crate for the day, though we never left her in there for more than four or five hours). The idea, translated to humans, is that infants have an instinct not to sit in their own filth. However, unlike dogs, humans have less muscle control ability until much later in their development. Nevertheless, human infants will give cues to their caregiver in order to avoid having to soil themselves.

This is an idea that was first considered (though I should say rediscovered) when anthropologists studied the parenting styles of non-Western or indigenous populations. As should be perfectly obvious, hunter-gatherer societies don't use Pampers, so what's their option? They listen to the cues from their infants and, when the fussing sounds that they've learned to associate with the "call of nature" arrive, they hold their infants away from them and let them do their business.

Obviously, in modern households we don't have the ability to follow the same approach (not unless we want an enormous cleaning bill) but the concept can be adapted to our different circumstances. Instead, parents can learn to communicate with their child through the use of cue sounds. To return to the mammals that most people know extremely well, in dogs there's the concept of Pavlov's bell. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist and psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for research on the digestive system. However today he's best known for his work on classical conditioning. Every time his experimental dogs would eat, he would ring a hand held bell. Over time the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with food. Later, when Pavlov would ring the bell, the dogs would immediately begin to salivate in the expectation of dinner. The conditioned sound cue would initiate a physiological response. This concept has now been adapted for use with Elimination Communication.

Here's what we did with our son, Sagan. Starting at week one, every time we noticed that he was going pee or poop we gave him a cue sound ("pss pss" for #1 and a grunting sound for #2). We wanted to first associate these sounds with the various activities. Starting at around week five we began giving him the opportunity to use a child potty. We sat him over the potty, using one of his diapers underneath him so he wouldn't feel the cold plastic, and gave him the cue sounds. We were thrilled to find that he went poop on cue. We also began noticing a specific fussing sound that he would make when he needed to go. This is a different sound from when he's hungry or tired. We're now able to identify when he needs to go and offer him an opportunity to use the potty. After about two weeks of doing this now, I estimate that he's gone poop on cue around 80% of the time (this week we've only changed a single poopy diaper). We've had a more difficult time with his urination, possibly because it's been more difficult for us to tell when he's peeing so haven't been able to associate the cue sounds with the activity. However, in the last few weeks he has been going pee in the child potty when we give him the opportunity to do so. We don't catch all, or even most, but it appears that an association is being formed.

EC is a relatively new parenting technique in the West and there haven't been any studies (that I'm aware of) looking at it's long term efficacy. Pediatricians generally recommend starting potty training much later than five weeks old. For example, Stadtler et al. (1999) in the journal Pediatrics state:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommends that parents avoid pushing their child into toilet training, and suggests instead that the process begin only when the child is developmentally ready or shows signs of readiness. . . More specifically, at 18 months, children may show signs of readiness; at 24 months, a step-by-step approach for teaching the child his/her role in the process should be initiated; at 30 to 36 months, most children will have achieved daytime continence; and finally, at 36 to 48 months, most children will have completed nighttime training.

These are the recommendations from the AAP in tandem with the Pampers Parenting Institute Pediatric Roundtable (it's hard not to wonder the extent to which selling disposable diapers influences the advice from the Pampers Institute). In contrast to these AAP guidelines, informal reports by parents using EC suggest that a child will alert their caregiver to most, if not all, of their elimination needs by one year and could be diaper free (using the potty independently) by 18 months. These would certainly be the best case scenarios and depend on how often the parents use EC as well as the individual temperament of the child. At the very least, parents have reported that training their child with EC has made the later potty training experience much smoother. This shouldn't be surprising considering that, for most children, parents have been training them for years to sit in their own waste. Suddenly, at two years old, parents are then telling their kids that what they've been trained to do was bad. Confusion, anger and frustration are understandable reactions. EC should make this process smoother.

I will follow up on our experience with EC in subsequent posts if readers are interested, and will keep an eye out for published studies (in both anthropology and child development journals) to show in greater detail both how it's being used and what the long term results typically are. In general, based on my own experience, I will say that I have been very impressed with the technique. It makes intuitive sense to me based on my research in primatology and I've seen tangible results after a very short period. Time will tell how effective the strategy ultimately is.

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I have to say I am very impressed too. 5 weeks? Really?


Oprah was the first place I heard about Western parents trying the diaper free approach. It really makes sense from an anthopology and primatology perspective.

I'm not sure I have the patience to try it though. Y

Kudos to you! I would certainly be up for hearing how it all pans out for you.

I can offer you an anecdotal report based on my EC experience with my son. It totally works. I started him at 3 weeks, and he peed and pooped on the very first attempt. By 5 months, he was giving me "that look" when he had to go - we changed very few poopy diapers after that. By about 8 months, he could sign for the potty when he needed to go, and he was potty independent at 22 months.

The best part - it is completely non-coercive, so there was no frustration, no potty refusals, and the dreaded "regression" the experts warned us about never happened. Kids learn to use the potty with EC the same way they learn to talk, walk, or feed themselves - it's just another self-care activity that they happily master when given the opportunity to practice. If only teeth-brushing were this easy.

By Rational Jen (not verified) on 21 Aug 2009 #permalink

Among the Efe Pygmies I've observed that "potty training" is fairly quick and easy. This is partly because there are no potties.

Look up Foxx & Azrin's toilet training in a day from the 70's. Diaper removal is helpful, having trained over 30 kids/older people myself.

Is there much evidence of self-training among infants? I was told that I learned to use the toilet on my own at about 15 months. My mother woke up one morning to find me on the throne, as the story goes, and it's now part of the family history. I don't remember it, being quite young at the time, but all my relatives confirm that I never needed training, I just started using the facilities (monkey see, monkey doo-doo)?

I don't have experience with human smallies, but it's certainly the case that dogs will signal that they want to get away from home areas to eliminate and will never do so in what they identify as the home unless they have no option. I've never house trained a single dog, just gone with this, and, apart from rare tummy upsets, we've never had an "accident" over many years. Humans being what they are,they can never imagine that anything will work unless they have some decisive input into the process!
Very interesting article, thanks.

The best part - it is completely non-coercive, so there was no frustration, no potty refusals, and the dreaded "regression" the experts warned us about never happened.

I do think that it's the "coercive approaches" that have given pre-2-year-old potty training such a bad name. Nice to see a way around all that.

Great to see a post on EC here. We used EC with our first daughter (she's 3 now and she's been an independent potty-user since she was 21 months), and are doing it again with our 4-month-old baby. EC still works and I think it's a shame so many people are opposed to it. (We live in Hungary, Europe.) There are so many arguments in favour of it, from environmental aspects to communication with your child. I just love to see my baby relieved having pooed on cue, and i'm happy everytime we didn't have to use a nappy.
Happy EC-ing to you guys! :)

Hi Eric,
It's great to see an article discussing the concept of EC in a way that is open minded and I'm glad you are having an enjoyable time with it.

Certainly reducing the mountains of diapers is a positive approach to entertaining this idea of earlier potty learning - just part-time works very well for many folks, depending on their lifestyle - it is really a very adaptable practice, this EC.

We are practicing EC for the second time, and like others above, have found it fits into a normal lifestyle.

Pop by my site to read more stories of families practicing EC.


Another anecdote: I had a co-worker/friend that told me his mother had used the operant conditioning technique of turning the water on each time he was set on the toilet. He strongly associated the sound of running water with going to the bathroom. I would torture him in our weekly staff meetings by noisily poring a glass of water just before the point in the meeting where we required to make our reports. It was cruelly funny to watch him get immediately uncomfortable.

(BTW, he always extracted his own revenge on me but in different ways - but those are different anecdotes.)

Nice to see you're trying EC. It worked for us for poops, less so for pees, and a daytime diaper free child just before age 2. We were very informal, just relying on noticing our child's signals and putting her on the loo at appropriate times, e.g. right after a nap. It was never an all or nothing thing really. But we also used washable diapers, so we were glad to have mostly poop-free ones.

This posting is great. I am 7 1/2 months along and have been looking for this. Great stuff. I already made several pairs of cloth diapers but this seems way better. Thanx

By Marina havard (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink