A Case for Early Potty Learning

Or, “Lazy” Elimination Communication

Or, how my infant poop-trained himself

I’m here to make a case for letting your infant learn how to use the potty very, very early, and separate from “potty training” as in wanting them to be dry between potty trips. This post just ballooned and ballooned like crazy; I’ve written a coles notes version.

Why on earth would I need my baby to use a potty?

Are you immediately skeptical of spending time putting a straight-up infant on the potty? Let me list some of the reasons you might find this worth the effort:

  • Your kid blows out their diapers frequently
  • Your kid reliably poops within minutes of being loaded into the car seat
  • Your kid poops in the bath
  • You are sick and tired of changing cloth diapers so incredibly frequently
  • You hate rinsing cloth diapers now that your kid started eating table food
  • You want to stretch how long your kid can wear a disposable diaper to cut back on waste
  • Your kid is susceptible to diaper rash

These strategies for early pottying are just about capitalizing on the chance when they’re ready to try something new and making your life a bit easier at the same time — and you’ll see there are useful dividends even before they get to the stage where they use the potty.

It is a big time investment but, not only is it enjoyable one-on-one time to sing songs and do fingerplays, it’s far more enjoyable than cleaning up blow outs, rinsing cloth diapers, or even just scrubbing poop off skin.

A few of the worst-case stories may also motivate teaching potty use early. It’s not uncommon for older kids to only be able to release when diapered, or only while standing; I didn’t have to “teach” my 4.5 month old how to release sitting because she was already doing it when I put her in her car seat or bouncy chair, and she was too young to be set in her ways to feel scared to release over the open seat. That moment is so worth seizing instead of having to learn when they are older. Don’t get hung up on the idea of starting “too early”. If your kid is distressed you’ll stop and you can try later while they are still pooping sitting down; waiting until they will only stand will introduce an un-learning component.

Is this method right for our family?

The Oh Crap method really stresses this: you are far more likely to wait too long than start too early. The US/Canada parenting ideas of “waiting until they are ready” is strange if you examine it closely. It happens occasionally, but it’s a pretty rare kid who will run into the bathroom and take their diaper off to show you they want to use the toilet just like you. You don’t wait for them to be ready to talk or read, you support them from a very very early age to build small steps towards the goal.

Certainly physiological reasons shouldn’t concern you. Other cultures than mine potty train far earlier than 2 years of age, and again, I’m not writing about training today, just using the potty.

Of course, every kid is different. A kid who poops 4 or more times a day is going to be very different to introduce to the potty via my methods than a kid who saves up 10 days at a time. This is what worked for me for one kid and seems to be working for my second, and you can read it and take away whatever seems useful. (For reference, my kids poop anywhere from every 8 to 24 hours. They didn’t have enough of a “tell” for pee for me to try to catch them specifically until we busted out full-on potty training, so all my writing refers to catching poops.)

I will also acknowledge that this whole post will seem ridiculous if your kid isn’t with you full-time. You’ll have less time to spend waiting for them on the potty (although, if you can fill the time with songs and finger plays, it’s lovely facetime to catch up together in the hubbub of daycare/multiple-home life) and you won’t be able to observe them all through the day. Like EC, this is a huge time-and-attention commitment that only parents-at-home can manage full-time. Where I live, parental leave has been extended to a total of 18 months, but even by 12 months my son was mostly poop-trained.

Here are some signs of readiness for starting my method, but they aren’t strictly necessary, and the first actions you can take are useful at the very early stages, some even from birth:

  • Your kid poops on a fairly consistent schedule, especially right after waking up
  • Your kid has a hilariously-obvious poop-face which gives you a warning
  • Your kid usually poops while in a bouncy chair, swing, car seat, or high chair
  • Bonus: Your kid can estimate “sitting” with your hands supporting them

Stage One: Communication

You’ve probably heard of elimination communication; this is the lazy version of that. From birth, if we happen to notice our babies eliminating, we label it with a distinctive, exaggerated word. You hear them poop from across the room? “Poop!” Giant mess all over the changetable? “Peeeeeeeeee!” Surprise bonus gift delivered as soon as you put them on a clean diaper? “Poooooop!” I find those changetable surprises are easier to cope with (emotionally at least) when I think of them as a learning opportunity: a chance to label their functions while they are doing them, without having to go full EC with naked time just to be able to spot the elimination.

We also did baby sign language signs for “pee”, “poop”, “potty”, and “diaper change”, and “more” and “all done”. My son continued to use the sign to tell us he had to go long after he started using spoken words. I don’t wait long to start signing, just until my babies are focusing their gaze on me before I start modeling the signs, even though it’ll be months before they can sign back. Starting early also gives you a chance to practice signing so that it comes quickly and naturally later.

The more excitement you can put into labeling these functions, the better. Babies LOVE to impress you. You might not even have to fake it if you’re happy they finally pooped because they’d been uncomfortable, or you’re relieved (ha) that they pooped before changing them right before a car ride. “A poooooooo! Yay!!”

If you’re not unlucky, your baby will have a “tell” that they are working on a poop. Keep an eye out for that. They might screw up their face tight, or turn a little red. It might not be visible; grunts are of course common but I can also sometimes pick up on a subtle change in how the baby is holding their breath, pre-grunting, which alerts me audibly to take a look at what their face is doing. My daughter especially loved to poop in her bouncy chair or car seat so we’d pay special attention once she was there. Spend some time gathering these observations and deducing cues; there’ll be false-positives and lots of misses. These things take time.

Stage 2: Poop Encouragement

OK. So your kid poops really consistently at a point of the day, or you feel confident enough that they are about to poop thanks to a tell.

(If your kid’s regular poop is in or right after the bath, go right to the next step. Personally, I’d even consider putting a small potty right into the bath to sit them on once they start grunting, assuming they are already able to sit steadily, if this is a regular occurrence.)

For the next little while, when you think they are going to poop, bring them into your lap at a comfy angle (them lying back a little on your elevated knees while you lie on a couch). If Baby blows out often, don’t forget a layer between you. Ask if they have a poop, and if they do one, get really excited and sign and say it and clap and cheer and shower them with kisses. While you’re waiting, sing some songs and do fingerplays with them. Make it into fun bonding time.

Even while still working on noticing the beginning of a poop, if your baby is like mine and has a few separate poops over 5 minutes, you can bring your kid into your lap while they finish the poop. You’ll learn more about the faces and sounds they make, and it will help with associating the words to the action.

If Baby’s routine is unfortunately pooping while eating, they may grow out of it. You can still help them recognize that they are doing something and link a word to it by labeling their poops with an excited word and a sign. During a regression I straight up nursed while my second kiddo was on the toilet on the seat reducer, but this was when she could sit completely unassisted, and felt far more pleasant that holding a bowl in my lap while nursing in a cradle position, part of the hard core EC that really scared me away.

Meanwhile, start looking into supplies for the next step. I’ll shout out some models I like below.

At this stage, you can start to see some major dividends if you can encourage Baby to poop a little earlier than they might otherwise. Heading out on the road? Poop first. On a pit stop mid-road-trip? Poop now, not in 10 minutes. About to diaper them for overnight? Poop first. Tired of doing back to back changes early in the morning? Poop before the first change. Baby is still fully clothed at this stage, but it can make a world of difference to change them one time before leaving instead of wasting time on an extra change, or worrying about a car seat blowout 10 minutes later after you’ve left.

Once you and Baby have a little routine in your lap, without changing anything but your location, move that routine into the space you want to try using your potty one day, whether it’s near your change table or in your bathroom. Bring a pillow for yourself if you need to be comfortable.

Stage 3: Move This Party to a Potty

After a few successfully-preempted poops fully dressed in your lap at your potty’s future location, and once baby can sort of sit if you are holding them, try supporting them, still fully dressed, on the potty chair. If they are distressed stop immediately and go back to your lap. Sing the same songs you were singing before and make it a fun one-on-one time. Eventually they’ll like sitting like a big kid!

If you are starting very early, Baby will need a lot of support. Here are my favourite accessories for infants:

  • Contours Bravo 3-in-1 potty, which I only use as a seat reducer (and the stool for myself for sitting across from them), is extremely supportive and sturdy and has an excellent guard for boys, although we see a lot of messes between it and the adult seat and have to be sure to clean up both after removing it. And it isn’t cheap.
    • Whatever you pick for a seat reducer, make sure what you pick is a tight fit and has a tall back on it. Tip: there are two shapes of toilet seats. The Bravo fits both.
  • IKEA LILLA potty is more annoying to dump than the LOCKIG but it’s the best fit for teeny babies I’ve seen and so cheap ($4 in Canada) that you can’t go wrong buying a couple for your house and one for Grandma’s house too. Little boys may be a bit of a hazard on these depending on their natural aim, although there is a guard (I think my kid might be talented in making messes).
    • Whatever you pick for a potty, make sure they are comfy and you won’t go batty about emptying it
  • Any mattress savers/flat mattress covers are great for use under the potty for easier cleanup or as ad hoc changing stations. I snagged a two-pack of “flat mattress pad covers” at Buy Buy Baby which were designed to be cut-to-fit, so they each easily cut into small pads I could put anywhere I needed protection

For my first kid we went right into the bathroom; for my second, I set up the potty on a flat mattress cover next to the changetable to simplify transferring her back to where I’d be changing her.

Once they are pooping fully clothed on the potty in a way you feel is predictable enough, it’s time to undress them and sit on the potty! You can hurry to the potty mid-session as a way to start, if you have a multi-stage pooper.

Prepare the space with everything you need to diaper them next to the potty; if you can’t do this, you’ll need some kind of pad for the floor, wipes, and something to wrap Baby in to carry them back to the changing station. If you cloth diaper, drape a large prefold over the potty and tuck it in a little; it will make a soft seat for Baby and also make cleaning up loose poop a cinch. (Once they start table food the cost/benefit of this changes since the diaper will need to be rinsed.) Otherwise put some toilet paper in the bottom. Since I started with tiny babies that didn’t sit properly yet, I had the potty against a hanging towel; if you don’t have a towel bar in the right spot, open a cupboard, hang a towel, and close the cupboard door as much as you can, placing the potty in front of that. Put a clock where you can see it so that you can time their usual pooping duration and learn how long to stay (my son could bring on a last poop 10 minutes after the first).

Don’t be discouraged if they don’t take to it immediately. Don’t get cocky if they do it right away, because you could get off schedule in the blink of an eye. Take them down if they get upset, even if they are mid-poop. Try again another time.

Keep an eye out for easy catches: after a significant amount of sitting in the high chair or car seat, and especially first thing in the morning.

Stage 4: Potty as a part of every change

Once my kids are comfortable pooping on the potty (or even better, toilet seat reducer), in addition to rushing them there if I think a poop is imminent, I will put them on for at least a minute as part of every diaper change. With my son I continued moving back and forth from the bathroom, which in retrospect was a little silly; with my daughter, I moved all the diapering stuff into the bathroom once it was every change. You’ll get a feel for their cues and schedule to know if they need to be on there for one minute to pee or 10 minutes to work on a poop. Even “just” a pee will give you the chance to label the action and sensation of release, and will extend the life of the next diaper you put on them.

With this method, my son learned to withhold and release his poop all by himself. I could count on two hands all the poop misses we had between 15 months and when we started training proper (and on one hand how many poop accidents we’ve had in underwear).

Figure out for yourself if you can manage toilet use while on the road. Many folding toilet seat reducers are on the market, but try these at home to see if they fit a very young user. Personally, I chose to master the EC-hold with my son, gripping him under his knees facing away from me, at first with me sitting down on the (cleaned with a baby wipe) toilet seat, then just hovering him over the seat. It remains to be seen if I can manage this with my daughter, but she is far larger and more solid than my son so we might go seat-reducer route together.

I recommend t-shirts instead of diaper shirts (onesies), especially if you’re using public washrooms, but if they are wearing a diaper shirt, do up the “crotch” over one shoulder.

As soon as your kid is big enough and not too wet for pull-up style diapers, these make a great accessory for potty-use-before-training; I subscribe to the belief that these are still diapers and are confusing to use once you are full-on training, but if you’re still in a diaper stage anyway, it’s much handier to pull down and up than combine a laying-down diaper change with potty use, if the diaper is likely to be dry enough to reuse anyway.

Whether or not they can use a toilet in a public washroom, be sure that your kids have spent time in them from a young age, even if it’s just while you’re going. Choose a trick for deactivating automatic flushers (like a post-it note) once they are hovering over them, but get them used to the big sounds early. Cloth diapering forced this issue for my kids since, combined with using transit, we could never last a whole outing in a single diaper, and I’m so glad, since bringing a two- or three-year-old into a public washroom for the first time is, understandably, terrifying.

Stage 5: Asking to use the potty, and beyond

Your kid communicating back to you will happen in its own time.

You can try to teach use of baby sign language, communication boards (pointing at a picture of the potty), words, or even just crawling over to the potty chair and tapping it, depending on what works for your family.

Watch for subtler signs too, like your kid not acknowledging “all done” while they are sitting on the potty.

Here’s where I left off with directed learning until we were ready to implement Oh Crap. The author uses a broad recommendation of “20-30 months” for her methods, but has tips for younger kids too. We waited until 23 months and that was even a little early for my son’s gross motor abilities and required we help him to, on, and off the potty for another year. I’d love to type up my own review and what-I-would-add for that book at a later date; we’ll see if that ever happens.

Stage 6: Keeping the Faith

After first publishing this post, I had a big regression with my second baby. We ended up out of sync, she wasn’t pooping first thing in the morning, and I just couldn’t catch any other poops. I was rinsing 1-2 diapers a day, and my wash routine was precarious enough already, so this was a very elaborate “rinse” more like a prewash and very, very gross. After a day with three poops, my daughter, who’s skin gets a bit red if you look at her too hard, had a diaper rash. I was getting paranoid that the next poop was any minute, and spending a lot of time in the bathroom (diaper rinsing was taking easily 15 minutes each, so spending that time on the potty seemed worth it… except we weren’t catching and it was just doubling the time, and we were using more blocks of time on the potty than the number of poops anyway).

After a couple misses while we were nursing I, in a fit of desperation, started nursing her while she was sitting on the toilet with the seat reducer. This is pretty comfy with our heights, and it helped me kill two birds with one 10 minutes, helping “make” the time to spend there. We are now trying to wean off that habit because SHE LOVES THIS and I’d rather split it off… but I’ll probably keep doing so when we’re in a hurry. Hopefully the inconsistency will click and she’ll be happy when she gets to nurse and fine if she doesn’t. She’s less cranky about it if we’ve nursed first.

Between getting her to hang on the potty with me for longer, more table food and lots of iron to help firm up and decrease the frequency of poops, and a bit of luck, we found our stride again. I think we’re even a bit ahead of where we were because at least twice I’ve caught her mid-grunt and been able to get her to hold it by saying “Potty! Potty! Let’s go!” and rushing her there when I was sure she’d already been pushing but actually we made it.

Summary

Here’s a quick rundown of how I got my kids pooping on the toilet by 7 months:

  • Labeled eliminations with words and signs, especially during diaper changes
  • Showed excitement at their eliminations, even into diapers
  • Laid them on my propped-up legs while they pooped, fully clothed
  • Sat them fully dressed on a tiny potty chair while they pooped
  • Sat them undressed on a tiny potty lined with cloth diaper while they pooped
  • Sat them undressed on bare potty while they pooped
  • Caught all the obvious straining or scheduled poops
  • Started offering the potty at every diaper change
  • Moved them to a supportive seat reducer once they could safely perch there, at every diaper change
  • Watched and listened for my son telling me he had to poop (with signs or words); he developed the ability to hold it for a few minutes until we could get to a potty

Note that I didn’t do any rewarding with a physical prize. Rewarding is risky at best, as it can encourage the child to want more and more in return for behaviour that at some point you are going to just expect of them without reward. And, with such young children, a reward can be too abstract for them to link to the behaviour. Food rewards should be right out, as they should be for any behaviour; food rewards are not conducive to a healthy relationship with food, but that’s a topic for another day.

I could argue that there was, technically, the intangible reward of my attention and excitement with the methods I used. Since I feel just as happy and proud of my 2.5 year old for telling me he needs the bathroom when we’re at the grocery store as I feel when my 6 month old poops in her potty chair, this kind of praise seems genuine and productive to me. Praise can be a fickle thing and slip into needing to be ever-improving like rewards, but is also more natural and sincere than, say, a sticker. Showering her with kisses is probably a reward, but just try to stop me.

Addendum: This method and potty training

The Oh Crap method of potty training warns that both EC and “leaving the potty out so kids get used to it” may be counterproductive towards proper potty training, but I do not think my method falls into either of those categories. I’m labeling the functions and practicing the physical mechanics of potty use, and don’t feel like that contradicts proper training later. I really think early potty use helped.

If anything worked against me, I felt that cloth diapering sabotaged my efforts slightly. My kids got used to being in wet cloth, but didn’t have to learn from scratch what they were supposed to do with a potty. Even if you’re using a cold-turkey approach like Oh Crap, I recommend switching to disposable diapers a few weeks out from starting, and definitely only using disposables for the Jaime-sanctioned diaper use after training starts (the travel diaper, which we use a lot since we bus everywhere, and the sleep time diaper, since we split off sleep potty training until later).

While it was heavenly to have my kids use the toilet at the early (and messier) stages, I did have to reintroduce the potty chairs during training both to foster independence and to keep a place to pee closer at hand. At least the chairs are so much easier to clean out at that point.

Addendum 2: Downsides

During our first week of successful catches with my daughter, I showed up to a morning appointment carting a carseat with a blown out baby and apologized for needing to go change her before we could being the meeting. The person I was meeting with was suitably confused that I would feel like I had any control over such things, but that’s the trap of learning these cues… the small amount of control you might gain then morphs into feeling like a responsibility, and I couldn’t help but feel like if I’d had 10 more minutes to sit with her on the potty at home, we’d have avoided the fuss of the change in an office waiting room. By 7 months my kids are pooping first thing in the morning so consistently that it feels like failure if they don’t and then blow out later, transforming me into a parent who can’t roll with the punches.

This is also a big time commitment, no question, so you have to weigh that. I could probably not have made this work with my second baby if my husband wasn’t home on parental leave and available to wrangle the toddler. It gets easier as the toddler gets better at waiting on the other side of the gate or in his high chair or playroom while Baby and I are in the bathroom.

The last downside I’ll mention is that it’s a bit nerve wracking to me if I think people will misinterpret early potty use as expecting to potty train my 7 month old. The worst is if they hear an uncharacteristically fussy trip to the potty and thinks I am forcing them to sit when they really don’t want to, when usually my babies smile and clap with me while sitting. You may want to keep your efforts to yourself except when you have the time to offer the context of what you mean when you say “Sorry we’re late, we had a long potty trip before leaving.” And watch out for the naysayers’ “But they can’t be ready yet!” — you will know what your kid is or isn’t ready for BECAUSE you’re trying it with them.

On that note, please share this high and low, by sharing this page’s address (please don’t copy and paste the text out!). I took the time to write it all out here so that it can offer that larger context without me needing to retype it in each of my parenting groups. If you want to try this out too, you can send people this way for the whole story. Good luck!

One Response to A Case for Early Potty Learning

  1. Nana says:

    ” it’s a bit nerve wracking to me if I think people will misinterpret early potty use as expecting to potty train my 7 month old.”

    Nana here: When Kaitlyn decided to do this with her first, I was ready to jump in and make it stop because I was worried about the baby. Observing how much he loved his potty time quickly converted me to this.

    Added bonus, I can’t remember ever having to change a poopy diaper. And it is fun to sit with them and sing or play games. Or do subversive things like teach the Water! Water! Loo! Loo! chant.

    The downside is that it takes a lot of time. Changing diapers, even poopy ones, is faster than taking the time to just sit in a bathroom with the kid. This is not for a family that is on a schedule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *