Elimination Communication and Your Baby’s Sleep

Elimination Communication and Baby Sleep

We’re shifting gears a bit today and talking about a topic with which some of you may not be familiar: elimination communication (also known as infant potty training). Believe it or not, the concept of elimination communication has been around for ages (literally – people have been doing this for thousands of years, according to experts!) But in recent history, it’s fallen out of favor, thanks to diapers. However, there’s been a fairly recent resurgence in elimination communication among young parents, who see it as a way to cut down on the cost and environmental hazards of diapers, and as a way to foster early potty training.

This is all well and good – but you know we care about sleep around here. 😉 And that’s what we were curious about when we started seeing more and more clients mention elimination communication: how does elimination communication affect a baby’s sleep?

Let’s take a look!

What is Elimination Communication, Anyway?

Simply put, elimination communication is potty training for babies. I know many of us in the Western world see potty training as something that you wouldn’t start until the toddler years, but elimination communication is based on the idea that your baby sends out subtle cues when he has to pee or poop – and if you learn these cues, you can respond by hustling him to a potty (or even a large bowl, if no potty is available) and letting him “go” there.

I know it may sound odd to many of us, who have grown up and are now raising children in the age of disposable diapers, but truly, people have been doing this for centuries. And it’s easy to imagine why, right? If you were a hunter-gatherer living in prehistoric times, what would be easier? Wrapping your baby’s tush in fabric, and then having to launder it every time it got dirty, or simply helping him do his business right on the ground?

Why Do Elimination Communication in Modern Times?

But why would parents want to do this now, in the 21st century? We have a zillion kinds of diapers to choose from, we have washing machines in our homes, and many of us lead lives that don’t exactly lend themselves to letting our babies pee or poop at will, whenever they want to. So why would a 21st century parent want to try this?

Well, for starters, advocates of elimination communication say that it’s an incredibly bonding experience between parent and baby – elimination communication requires you to spend lots of time learning your baby’s cues and signals, not to mention spending a lot of time with your baby, watching for those cues and signals. Many attachment parents also practice elimination communication at home – and really, attachment approaches and elimination communication fit under the broader category of responsive parenting.

Other parents use elimination communication for more immediate, practical reasons – they want to avoid the cost and/or environmental impact of diapers, for example. Other parents use it as a way to avoid common complications of diapers, like chronic diaper rash for babies with sensitive skin.

How Do I Do Elimination Communication With My Baby?

We’ve covered the what and why of elimination communication – now, on to the how! Well, the how and the when, that is. First, we need to talk about when to start working on elimination communication. Experts actually recommend that you start this process between birth and 4 months – that allows you plenty of time to learn your baby’s elimination cues (grunting, squirming, arching, etc.) from an early age, and it allows your baby to develop more predictable elimination habits.

You can also time your trips to the potty based on feedings and morning wake-up times. And you’ll need to make more trips to the potty in the morning, and fewer in the afternoon. Of course, the timing of potty trips changes as your baby grows – by the time your baby is 6 months old, she’ll probably be able to “hold it” for close to an hour, while a newborn obviously can’t hold it at all.

Now, as for the how – when it’s time to visit the potty with your baby, you’ll want to be sure to cradle baby securely over the potty. For younger babies, by the time your baby can sit up securely, you can seat her on a child potty. Next, you’ll make your cueing sound (many parents make a “psssssss” sound). Over time, the more you do this, the more your child will associate it with peeing or pooping. This “invites” your child to go to the bathroom. If your child has to go, she’ll go at your cue. If she doesn’t, she’ll arch or resist being held, and you’ll know you should try again later.

For great insights on the “when” and “how” of elimination communication, check out this series of blog articles.

Does Elimination Communication Affect Sleep?

Okay, here’s the million-dollar question: how is elimination communication going to affect your baby’s nighttime and nap time sleep? Because here’s the thing – babies and toddlers who are sensitive to their bladder and bowels (which often happens during potty training) do tend to wake more often when they have to pee or poop, or when they’ve wet/soiled themselves. For instance, if you’re working on elimination communication during the day, but use a diaper at night, your baby may be much more sensitive to a wet or dirty diaper than a baby who spends all day in diapers, and may therefore wake early from a nap, or wake more often at night. (Of course, that’s not true for all babies. Some babies, even those who go diaper-free during daylight hours, may sleep right through a wet or soiled diaper!)

Andrea Olson, the face behind the website GO Diaper Free, has this to say about how elimination communication affects sleep:

“I personally believe that nighttime EC is important… but only if it provides *everyone* in the family with more restful sleep. Some babies will become dry at night naturally after achieving daytime dryness through successful daytime EC with no nighttime EC practice at all! Some will wet that back-up every night till 36 months comes along.

It really depends.

My suggestion for you: give nighttime EC a good, solid try… and ONLY keep doing it if it provides you all with better sleep.”

Do I Have To Do Elimination Communication At Night?

Now, here’s the thing about elimination communication… There’s no “have to” involved. There are no rules! Some parents may choose to go diaper-free 24/7, practicing elimination communication around the clock. Other parents may do it during the day, but opt for diapers at night. Still, other parents (especially working parents whose childcare providers aren’t willing to do elimination communication) may choose to do it in the evenings and on weekends. Truly, it’s up to you how this plays out.

If you’re a co-sleeping attachment parent, then you are no doubt already well-prepared to wake often during the night and tend to your baby. In that case, you may want to do 24-hour elimination communication. But if your baby sleeps in a separate room, it will be a lot tougher to do nightly checks (particularly if your baby is older and has dropped all or most of his night feeds).

When it comes to nighttime elimination communication, it’s best to use your judgment, and to weigh your sleep needs against your “potty” goals. In general, it’s best not to put too much pressure on yourself. If doing elimination checks all night long is exhausting you completely, then go with a diaper for a while and catch up on sleep.

Elimination Communication Resources

Now, we’re not experts on elimination communication (sleep, yes – but not EC!). So we’ve included some great resources for you to browse, should you decide you want to try elimination communication with your baby.

I found these websites really helpful, and full of great elimination communication info:

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10 thoughts on “Elimination Communication and Your Baby’s Sleep”

  1. Our daughters have both potty trained at 16 and 17 months. I didn’t know what EC was with our first, we just introduced the potty sounds one year. With our second, we introduced the potty at 6 months. Our first day and night trained at the same time, our second wets once or twice overnight but tells us when she needs to go once she wakes.
    So we are not as much into EC as we are early potty training, but at the same time, they do go hand in hand. Kids are soo much smarter and capable than we think!

  2. We began practicing EC when my daughter was 8 months old, shortly after I first heard about it. I am so glad we did – it makes me happy to know that we weren’t teaching her to get comfortable sitting in wet diaper. Now at 22 months she’s potty trained without all the typical hassle. We do still use diaper backup at night.

    • @Dawn – potty trained at 22 months sounds amazing!! Thanks for sharing a bit about your story with us! 🙂

  3. I LOVE EC!! We’ve tried it off and on with my son since he was about 3 months old. I didn’t want to try it younger than that, because I was already so overwhelmed as a new mom, and I worried about him not holding up his head. But we mostly used cloth diapers.

    Now, he’s 10 1/2 months, and just a few weeks ago got this wicked diaper rash that’s STILL clearing up! Usually, when he’s gotten diaper rashes in the past, I just did very frequent diaper changes, and it would clear up within a day or so. This one didn’t. So we went diaper-free, doing bare bottom time, and of course EC. He was having a lot of success with catching pees, but not so much with poop. I bought him some toddler briefs (hanes.com has them cheap), and he’s been spending most of his wake time in them (except when he’s stuck in his high chair, car seat, or crib, or when I’m teaching and can’t pay as much attention to him). We still have some accidents, but the really cool thing? He will frequently have a dry diaper after naps, mealtimes, and even after I’m done teaching. My 10 month old is practically day time potty trained.

    Logan sleeps in his own room, so I plan to keep using diapers at night, but have noticed that sometimes he doesn’t seem to sleep as well at night.

    If you’re thinking of doing EC, I would DEFINITELY use cloth diapers. We went to disposables for a very short time with this diaper rash (I think it was a yeast rash, so wanted to strip all his cloth diapers and not re-infect himself with them), and his awareness of his eliminations PLUMMETED. It’s taken more than a week to get back to where we were before, and that’s even with bare bottom time while using the disposables.

    I also think I’ve been inadvertently reinforcing the behavior of pooping in his diaper or his pants, as I’ve gotten in the habit of just giving him a bath when that happens; it seems easier than trying to wipe everything off. But when we’re able to catch a poop, there’s almost nothing to clean, so he doesn’t get a bath usually. And he LOVES his baths! So I’m now trying to give him a bath anytime he poops in a potty, and go through the messy and difficult job of wiping things up when he doesn’t. We’ll see!

    • @Ashley – wow, love all these comments in support of EC! Good tip, too, on the cloth diapers – sounds like you know what you’re talking about. 😉

  4. My son is now almost 3 and we did EC with him when he was about 6 months old. We started a bit later because I didn’t know about it until I saw my sister doing it with her son who is two months older than my son. She had told me about it before but I brushed it off as something that was just a bit too ” woo woo” for me…but then I saw it in action. So thats when we started to try it with our son. We had already been making pee pee sounds when he would pee (because he would always pee when we changed him), so one day we put him on a potty and did the sound. And he peed! It was amazing. We started with pee and then started grunting for poops and by 8 months he had stopped pooping in his diaper. He still peed from time to time but it was so great not to have to change stinky diapers and he almost never had diaper rash (maybe 5 times in almost 3 years).

    One thing I must mention is that it has made eliminating diapers SO much easier. He is used to the toilet and isn’t afraid of it. We were able to fully potty train him in just under a week and the process was not hard at all.

    I love EC and I recommend it to all my parent friends.

    • @Diana – Very cool! Speedy potty training is a win in any parent’s book, I think. 😉 Glad this has been such a great approach for your family. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  5. I’m so glad to see you covering this topic here!! It is great to get some mainstream coverage of a practice that is unusual but makes so much sense for baby!!

    With my first son, I used disposable diapers, thought EC was for crazy helicopter parents, and he trained at 38 months. My second son had very sensitive skin, and at 6 weeks of age developed a horrible diaper rash. We were doing diaper free time to let it air out, and I noticed that just a little bit of poop would run out. So, I would take him to the sink to clean it off. It was winter, so I would wait above the sink with the water running, waiting for the water to warm up. I would clean him and then dry him and do more diaper free time. Well, after this happening a few times, he then pooped one time while over the sink. I thought, oh, well, I can deal with this — much easier to clean up. It happened a couple more times and I realized it was time to research EC! Apparently, holding him above the sink with the sound of the water running, we were actually inadvertently practicing EC. He associated that sound with the poop. We never looked back. Within only 2 weeks or so, we started catching almost all of his poops. Between 12 weeks and the time he left diapers at 22 months, he had maybe 12 poopy diapers. Our babysitter did EC for poop with him too, but when he started going once a day or less by about 6 months, he saved them for me when I was there. 🙂 We never tried to catch pee. We switched to cloth diapers with him and saved a ton of disposable diapers from reaching the landfills.

    Now, I have my third child. I started EC with her at birth, and caught the first pee and poop in the potty on her third day. It took a little longer for her to poop almost exclusively in the potty, but was definitely doing so by about 6 months. And, I have been focusing on pee as well, based on timings. She is 7 months now. In the morning, she usually has to go every half hour or so after she wakes up. Our babysitter also tries to do EC but of course we still use up a lot of (cloth) diapers! A little over a week ago, I took the plunge and tried going diaperless overnight! I was so scared to take the plunge, but it has been really great! I have a large wool pad under her, topped with a doubled up towel. Then, I have a small waterproof pad topped with an absorbent prefold diaper right under her diaper area. I dress her in a long sleeved top and baby legs to keep her warm. I also let her use a blanket (she has her favorite, but if it gets wet, I have some others I can sub in). When she wakes up, I first offer her to pee (over a large bowl I have in between my legs that I keep by the bed). Then, if necessary, I nurse back to sleep. Sometimes she nods off without it, other times she wants to nurse! And, sometimes she has to pee a lot!!

    I measured how much she peed one night, after nursing several times — it was almost a full cup!

    So, the question of EC and sleep is an important one. I’m not sure whether she is sleeping better with me peeing her at night — I am responding to her cries and letting her pee rather than soiling herself, so that is good. I am pretty sure she was uncomfortable in her wet cloth diaper overnight (as evidenced by wakeful periods in the night). But, it takes a lot more effort to pee her all night long!

    Others have told me their babies pee while basically staying asleep, or hold it almost all night. We’re still working on it. And, we are not sleep training, and so for now, I am happy to nurse her back to sleep. I did the same with my other two for a long time (longer than most I’m sure)! But, in a way, sleep training and letting your baby cry is teaching them that they have to soil themselves at night, because they aren’t going to be dry the rest of the night. Of course, we are all just surviving here and have to do what works best for us and are babies, and I respect everyone’s choices to do whatever works. 🙂

    The funny thing about EC is how excited and proud you are when you catch a pee or poop in the potty! It is so gratifying!

    So, my advice to you is, think about when your baby is about to poop — a lot of times, you know it is happening, right? Consider taking off the diaper and holding baby in your lap, but with your legs open, over the potty, supporting his thighs with your hands and his back with your tummy. He will feel comfortable with you that way. Just give it a try and see if you can catch something in the toilet!

    The number one best reason to give it a try is, you don’t have to deal with any poop! With a flush, it is gone!!

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