Main / Personal projects / Elimination Communication for Hackers

What’s the worst part of parenthood? Many people will point to changing diapers. Babies start out helpless and incontinent. The caregivers are responsible for providing all the input and dealing with all the output; many kids aren’t toilet trained until two, three, or even four years old. The prospect of that many poopy diapers was somewhat off-putting, so I started exploring alternatives.

It turns out that it is not too difficult to teach your baby to use the toilet. Of course, a young child is not competent to manage their own toileting until well into middle childhood. Even a toilet trained toddler will need to be reminded to go to the potty and will sometimes make mistakes. EC is not changing that or pushing your child before they are ready; instead we are teaching them to engage in a certain behavior in a certain place and time.

The idea behind EC is simple: operant conditioning. Unfortunately, many guides and instruction manuals don’t use this language to describe the process, possibly because it sounds coercive. However, our children are sponges, soaking up correlations between events in the world. It is our job as parents to pass on the cultural knowledge they need to be successful in life, and operant conditioning is a critical tool for accomplishing this goal. You are using it whether you acknowledge it or not.

For me and Jay, the first step was building the association. There are typical times when kids will reliably potty. For Jay, he always went right after he woke up from his nap, and almost always during a feed. He’d go every 20 minutes in the mornings, and slow down to every 40 or 60 minutes in the evenings. I started when he was about two months old. We bought the Baby Bjorn smallest potty. I spread out some waterproof pads and kept him naked for a few hours every morning, and plopped him on the potty whenever it felt right. Sometimes I’d put him in a cloth diaper so he could feel the wetness. It took a while. Some days I would catch five in a row, and feel like, “We got this.” Then the next day I’d miss them all. We took a trip to Poland, and during the travel, I caught almost none of them. When we came back, it was a very poor association. I thought, “now or never” because he was then approaching six months. We kept at it every morning. And I very clearly remember one weekend when he seemed to get it. We were visiting the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum of Science. I didn’t try to catch all his potties, but every time we changed his diaper, I offered it, and almost every time, he went. After that, we really got into it. I was no longer trying to catch them all, which stressed out both him and me. Instead I’d do it at a regular diaper change. The diaper was always wet, but I’d almost always get a pee. And then I’d put on a dry diaper and he’d be try for that much longer.

The poops were less predictable, and I caught very few of them until he started solids. However, once he was on solids and they firmed up, we started catching almost all of them. It is easier for him to go when he was held in position over the toilet, and it was much easier to clean up than when he went in his diaper. When he’s sick or doesn’t have enough solids and the soften, then he’ll go in his diaper. But almost all the time, he poops in the toilet.

Thinking of EC as operant condition also explains why part-time EC can work so well. Since it’s not about staying dry, but about engaging in a behavior in a particular time and place, the baby can learn in a non-coercive way.