Dare to Bare
By MEREDITH F. SMALL
Published: October 11, 2005
"The diaper-free-by-three movement - and the three here
is three weeks, not three years - claims that babies need never wear
According to the Web site diaperfreebaby.org, diaper liberation comes
as caretakers develop an "elimination communication" with their
infants. "Elimination communication" is a fancy term for "paying
attention," in the same way we notice other stuff babies communicate
like hunger, tiredness or a desire to be picked up.
In this case, parents watch for the kind of fussiness, squirming and
funny faces that come before a baby urinates or has a bowel movement.
Caretakers should also pay attention to any daily routines that the
baby follows, like urinating after feedings or when waking up. At that
point, it's a simple matter of holding the baby on the pot, and pretty
soon he or she connects the toilet with its function, and the pattern
As an anthropologist, I know that this idea is nothing new. Most
babies and toddlers around the world, and throughout human history,
have never worn diapers. For instance, in places like China, India and
Kenya, children wear split pants or run around naked from the waist
down. When it's clear that they have to go, they can squat or be held
over the right hole in a matter of seconds.
Parents and caretakers in these cultures see diapers as not the best,
but the worst alternative. Why bind bulky cloth around a small child?
Why use a disposable diaper that keeps buckets of urine next to tender
The trick is that infants in these cultures are always physically
entwined with a parent or someone else, and "elimination
communication" is the norm. With bare bottoms, they ride on the hip or
back and it's easy to feel when they need to go. The result is no
diaper rash, no washing cloth diapers, no clogging the landfill with
disposables, no frustrating struggle in the bathroom with a furious
I am ashamed to admit that, even though I've studied how babies are
cared for all over the world, it never occurred to me to focus on how
children in other cultures use the potty, or not. I certainly borrowed
all the other kinds of child-rearing behaviors that I admired from
other cultures like carrying my daughter all the time, co-sleeping and
feeding her on demand. And I was against the Western ideology of
making my child independent and self-reliant. I rejected the crib,
stroller and jump seat, all devices intended to teach babies to be on
their own. Instead I embraced the ideology of non-Western cultures and
opted for the closest kind of attachment I could get.
So why didn't I use that entwinement to free us both from diapers?
Because child-rearing traditions are culturally entrenched. The use of
diapers in particular is so engrained in Western culture that it's
almost impossible to imagine life without them.
Thanks to Freud, we also see the bathroom as a snake pit of
psychological danger, and believe that the only way to prevent
scarring a child for life is to let him or her come to the toilet in
his or her own time, assuming there will be a diaper pinned on for as
long as it takes. (I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the 75
countries that practice diaper-free training do not have a
disproportionately high number of obsessive-compulsive adults. Of
course, adults who were raised diaper-free may have other issues to
deal with, like a strange sensation whenever anyone makes a hissing
sound or the knowledge that at 7 months, a photo of you sitting on the
toilet appeared on the front page of this newspaper.)
We are also a bathroom-oriented culture. American houses these days
usually have several bathrooms, sometimes one for each bedroom, or
each person. And they are often color-coordinated, lavishly decorated
shrines to washing up and eliminating waste where everyone, even
children, would like to spend a lot of time.
Meredith F. Small, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University,
is the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape
the Way We Parent."