Babies without diapers? No thanks.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Oct. 14 2005 2:27 PM

Diaper Genie

Babies without diapers? No thanks.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
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They smell and cause rashes. The disposable kind is expensive, mass-produced, commercially packaged, and filled with clingy little polymer pellets. Who wants to defend the diaper in light of all its sins? It's a wrinkled-nose stance that's hard to get excited about, especially when the imagined au naturel alternative is "a baby's bare bottom bouncing through the house," as anthropologist Meredith Small fondly put it in a New York Times op-ed this week.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Small was celebrating the diaper-free baby movement, which promises that you can teach your months-old or even weeks-old infant to use the potty, all the while "promoting strong baby-parent bonds, fulfilling natural human instincts." Unlike their predecessors in the long-running debates on toileting, the latest proponents of early potty training mercifully refrain from remonstrating that you'll turn your child into a mess of an adult if you wait too long to introduce her to the toilet (or make her anal if you start too soon). Still, however gently, the diaper-free gurus are preaching a dogma. And before parents sign on to it—or, far more likely, feel guilty for being too exhausted to try—it's worth remembering why diapers became indispensable in the first place, and what parents give up if they jettison the little sinners.

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Until the 19th century, American mothers wrapped their babies in swaddling. Then they began putting infants in some version of cloth diapers or pads, giving their wearers a greater range of movement and ensuring they didn't have to be held all the time. Pampers began marketing the first disposable diaper in 1961. The early versions were leaky, bulky, and generally inferior to cloth diapers. (In the 1970s, my mother scorned them.) But when the technology improved, thanks to those polymer pellets—which allow today's diapers to absorb up to 500 milliliters of water—the disposable diaper achieved "something like perfection," in the words of Malcolm Gladwell in a 2001 New Yorker article.

Like the washing machine and the dishwasher, disposable diapers brought energy-intensive industrial production into the home. In a story about early toilet-training last weekend (which followed recent articles on the topic in the Boston Globe, the Toronto Star, the Oregonian, the Tampa Tribune, Newsweek, and the Providence Journal), the New York Times reported that diapers fill landfills at a rate of 22 billion a year and cost families up to $3,000 per child. All of which makes them a good symbol of American waste and excess.

But also like washing machines and dishwashers, diapers are crucial labor-savers. They save time—chiefly women's time. A child who wears disposable diapers is a child whose diapers need not be washed, rinsed, or soaked. More radically, she is a child who can be easily handed off to someone else. Changing diapers is no one's favorite thing, but it's fast, unfussy, and part of the job description of most nannies and many day-care teachers.

Taking off a baby's diapers, on the other hand, means taking a giant step in the opposite direction. The mantra of the diaper-free gurus is "elimination communication," or EC, which means picking up on the little signals your baby makes before, well, eliminating. "Elimination Communication can be practiced full-time or part-time, by stay-at-home parents or by working parents," promises the mission and philosophies page of the Web site for the nonprofit DiaperFreeBaby. This smacks of false inclusivity. Learning to read your baby's elimination signals correctly involves watching them closely. It requires divining an infant's "timing patterns and rhythms"—zero, five, 10, 15 minutes after nursing; in the morning; in the afternoon; in the evening—and her "body language and signals"—frowning, squirming, fussing, tensing. Once you've keyed into the right cues, you hold the baby over a potty at the appropriate moment, go "hss-hss," or "wss-wss" to trigger the desired association, and then repeat 10 or 15 or 20 times a day. All of which sounds like the sort of incremental, intimate process that requires near round-the-clock contact. And who is likely to be so devotedly attentive? I wonder.

In fact, elimination communication sounds a lot like another name for ever-present mothering: attachment parenting, the theory of child rearing that holds that kids are best off emotionally and cognitively if they're always with a single caregiver in their early years. Here's how babies become toilet trained by the age of 6 months among the Digo people of East Africa, according to the American Family Physician: "The child spends the first few months of life exclusively in the company of the mother." Here's the modern-day Manhattan version as reported by the Times: "Some parents sleep next to their children and keep a potty at arm's reach." So much for an evening away. And forget about a day at the office.

Perhaps all this vigilance is short-term? EC can be "as easy as 1, 2, Pee!" the diaper-free baby Web site promises. This conjures up a vision that could appeal even to the feckless parent: Master EC during your three-month maternity leave (OK, or paternity leave), acclimate your baby to the toilet, and hand her over to a loving nanny or day-care center sleekly panty-clad. But communication goes both ways, and EC is as much about training the parent as about training the baby. That point was made by the mid-20th-century experts who refuted the claims of the last wave of early-training advocates. Keeping babies on a toilet-using routine into their toddler years isn't so easy—even when a parent closely watches them. One mother, the wife of Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, the early 20th-century baby expert who championed early training, commented dryly on the subject in a diary she kept of her 14-month-old son: "He positively declined to conform to some of the habits in which he has been drilled since he was two months old." (The quote comes from Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children, by my Slate colleague Ann Hulbert.)

The diaper-free devotees love to point out that in much of the world, babies don't need drills—toilet training comes to them naturally. "Most babies and toddlers around the world, and throughout human history, have never worn diapers," Small writes. In China, India, and Kenya, she continues, "children wear split pants or run around naked from the waist down. When it's clear they have to go, they can squat or be held over the right hole in a matter of seconds." Right, because presumably those babies live in rural villages or in cities where peeing down a hole or in the gutter isn't viewed as unsanitary or unseemly. That's not the sort of diaper-free culture likely to catch on in the United States in 2005. "Babies without diapers" in this country sounds to me a lot like "mothers without lives." Maybe America would be better off without diapers. Maybe we'd be better off without dishwashers and washing machines, too. But before we get too taken with that all-natural vision, let's remember who did all the work before the hardware came along—a lot of very tired women.