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One of the biggest misconceptions about elimination communication–one I hear all the time–is the idea that the point of it is potty training. Which is perfectly understandable: it does involve helping a baby use the potty, so it can look a lot like potty training from the outside. I say this all the time–DiaperFreeBaby actually issued a statement earlier this year explaining it–but I’ll say it again: elimination communication is not potty training. Potty training is about getting your child to use the toilet, all of the time. Elimination communication is about listening to your baby, respecting your baby’s innate desire to be clean and dry, and encouraging your baby’s natural ability to control his body. Yes, EC eventually leads to potty training–or potty learning and independence, as EC’ers generally prefer to phrase it. But that’s not the point. It’s really not. And if you practice EC thinking that every single pee needs to go in the toilet from a very early age, well, you and your baby are probably going to both get pretty frustrated. And EC should never be frustrating. If it’s not fun for both you and your baby, then you should take a break, because something is wrong.

So. This Thursday at our DiaperFreeBaby meeting, we’ll be talking about how EC helps us as parents and what we’ve learned about parenting by practicing EC. This topic is, without a doubt, the reason why I’m so passionate about EC, the reason why I’m a DiaperFreeBaby Mentor, the reason why I tell everyone I see who has a baby under age two about EC. Not because I want to help the environment (although that’s why I started doing EC), and not because I think it’s great for kids to potty learn early (although it is nice). But because learning the skill of EC has taught me so many other skills as a parent. And I want every parent to experience the many lessons that your baby can teach you through EC. What lessons are those? Here are just a few:

1. Trust your baby’s ability. EC taught me that my daughter could communicate clearly from infancy and control her body in ways I never knew were possible for a young baby. That encouraged me to trust and encourage her ability in lots of other areas as well, from rolling over and reaching for toys to dressing herself and preparing her own peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Of course you can learn this truth many ways–Montessori school helped me learn it as well–but EC was the first glimpse I had of how capable she is. There’s nothing like that inner glow of confidence that your child is a capable genius when they’re only three months old. Shouldn’t every parent feel that?

2. Listen to your baby. EC taught me, from my daughter’s earliest infancy, that there is always a reason for her fussing. Always. The reason wasn’t always because she needed to pee, of course, and I couldn’t always figure out the reason, but EC did help me understand a lot of what would have otherwise been “unexplained fussiness.” And it helped me believe that the fussiness had an explanation. Now that she’s three, this knowledge is invaluable. She amazes me sometimes with the logic of her distress: her reason for being upset may not always be sensible from an adult perspective, but it always makes perfect sense from hers. She has good reason for her feelings. I first learned this from EC.

3. Behavior I don’t like is communication, not misbehavior. This is a central tenant of positive discipline: that negative behavior in children is communicating an unmet need. Again, you can learn this truth through lots of experiences, but I learned it through EC. When my daughter was 12 months old and she refused to pee on the potty but then peed on the floor immediately afterward, EC taught me not to regard that as a mistake or even as something negative, but rather as an opportunity to learn and understand my daughter. What was she telling me? What did she need in order to stay clean and dry? Did she need more independence, more interesting locations, more help? EC taught me to find a path that worked for both of us toward a behavior that would keep us both happy. Again, at age three, the value of learning this lesson early can’t be overestimated!

4. Be creative. EC taught me to hear what my daughter was really communicating. Refusing to sit on the potty didn’t necessarily mean she didn’t need to pee, just as refusing an apple doesn’t necessarily mean she’s not hungry. Sometimes refusing the potty meant she wanted to take herself, or that she wanted to go in a different place, or that she wanted to practice holding it a little longer. Sometimes refusing an apple means she wants chicken instead. EC taught me to think outside the box (maybe she’ll prefer peeing in the bathtub?) and to consider all the options. There’s often a solution I haven’t thought of yet.

5. Be playful. Did I mention that EC is always supposed to be fun? I often tell people that if it’s not fun, for both you and your baby, then you’re doing it wrong. As long as it’s fun, you’re doing it right. And this is true of a lot of aspects of parenting. No, it’s not possible to have fun all the time–sometimes I just don’t have the energy or the creativity for it, and that’s okay; I’m not perfect–but the vast majority of the time, playful parenting will get you farther on the road to cooperation than anything else. EC taught me to set up a little table next to the toilet so she could do puzzles while pooping so she didn’t get bored (because hey, we all need entertainment while we poop!). It taught me to make up funny songs to help her pee when she was having trouble relaxing. It taught me to use playfulness to smooth transitions throughout the day.

6. Learn to read your child. In an ideal world, EC would always be child-initiated: the baby signals and the caregiver responds. But in the real world, the baby’s attentiveness to his need to eliminate, just like his attentiveness to his need to sleep or his need to eat, varies through different developmental stages. Even now, at three years old, my daughter often doesn’t notice when she’s hungry. (My husband has the same problem, so I’m not sure if this is something she’ll ever grow out of!) But I know when she’s hungry. I know when she’s tired. I know when she needs to pee, too. Most of the time I can tell at a glance, just from her body language and her general attitude, if she has an unmet basic physical need. And quite honestly, I’m not sure if I could have learned that ability without EC. EC teaches you to listen to your intuition (one of the “common signals” that you’ll see listed, in any EC advice guide, is “a feeling or intuition that your baby needs to pee.” Really), and when she was a baby, I focused a lot on developing this skill. Now I can sometimes tell even with other people’s babies, just at a glance, that they’re tired or hungry or need to pee. Intuition is like any other skill–once you learn it, you just know it.

7. Your baby doesn’t need all the stuff you think she needs. Again, you can learn this a lot of ways. But again, I learned it from EC. I discovered EC because I was struggling with the disposables vs. cloth diapers debate when I was pregnant: living in a small apartment with no washing machine, I thought cloth seemed impossible, but I couldn’t bear the thought of the environmental impact of disposables. For me, realizing that the answer to the debate was actually “neither” was freeing, and it freed me to reconsider a lot of baby stuff and gear that many families consider essential. There are certainly plenty of minimalist parents out there who believe that babies need very little. But only us EC’ers put diapers on the “nice to have” instead of “necessary” list.

8. It’s okay to question mainstream opinion. I know it’s possible to take this questioning to an extreme, but really, it’s good to research things for yourself. Many of the childcare practices widely accepted in our society really don’t have any science to back them up. Just because your pediatrician tells you something doesn’t make it true. Doctors are human like everybody else, and they don’t always keep up-to-date on the latest research. New information is coming out all the time. EC taught me to question the AAP’s recommendations on toilet training readiness, and when I saw how well that worked, I felt comfortable questioning a lot of other things, too.

9. Kids like routines. Ok, I know every parent knows this, but to be honest, I was hoping to avoid it. Only because I am just not a routine person. Schedules stress me out. I have a passionate hatred of watches. I’ve always wanted to live in a country where “on time” actually means “within 30 minutes or so of the time we said.” But EC was one of the first things that made me realize that lax approach to life just wasn’t going to work for my daughter. She wants everything just so, and she always have. At one point I actually bought a watch (the first one I’ve owned since college) for the sole purpose of remembering to take her potty, because her timing was so precise, and she would gladly go when she needed to, but she would never tell me she needed to go. EC also taught me to respect her need to have everything “just so” in the bathroom: the potty in the exact right place, the exact same puzzle to play with, the exact same song every time. That’s how she wanted it. I learned to be okay with that.

10. Pay attention to small changes or quirks in your child’s health and attitude. I really don’t think I would have learned this without EC. My pediatrician told me, for example, that a little bit of diaper rash is fine and it’s practically impossible to diagnose diarrhea in a breastfed baby. But I knew diaper rash wasn’t fine for a baby who rarely wore a diaper. If I hadn’t been practicing EC, I never would have recognized my daughter’s sensitivity to dairy. Would it have made a big difference in the big picture of her health? Probably not. But would it have caused a lot more fussiness and discomfort when she was young? Definitely. More importantly, that experience taught me to pay close attention to her quirks and functioning and to listen to my instincts when it came to her health. Even when doctors insist she’s fine, even when no one else sees anything wrong, I pay attention and keep searching for the cause. Because if I think something’s off with her system, I’m probably right. EC taught me that.

What about you? What parenting skills has EC taught you?