My son was just 3 weeks old the first time he pooped in a toilet. My neighbor David Chung, who is trained in natural parenting techniques, showed me how to comfortably cradle Jessey in my forearms over the toilet. Jessey fussed meekly for a while as David coached me to breathe and relax. If my body was rigid, he explained, the baby will sense the tension and have a harder time letting go. The three of us spent about 10 minutes crammed in my Brooklyn apartment bathroom until Jessey finally pooped. By 15 months old, he was sitting on the toilet by himself — one hand on the side of the seat and the other between his legs — as I brushed my teeth or read him a book. Now, when many his age are just being introduced to a baby toilet, my 19-month-old uses the adult one on his own.

This model of early potty training, called elimination communication, cuts down on diaper waste, expenses and rashes. It also helps parents become more in tune with their babies and bond during toilet time. The goal isn’t to force newborns to control their bowels – they can’t. In elimination communication, parents adapt to their infants, not vice versa. By paying attention to their babies’ cues – a scrunched face or grunting – parents learn their typical rhythm for bowel movements and offer frequent opportunities for infants to pee in the toilet, in a bowl or outside. Of course, that doesn’t mean leaving baby feces in public spaces. There have only been a handful of times when I’ve found a woodsy area for Jessey to pee, and parents can carry a container with them as back up.

Elimination communication has made its way into hipster communities focused on natural or attachment parenting, and concerned about baby health and the environment. The estimated 27.4 billion diapers our country buys each year end up sitting in landfills for centuries, composing more than 2 percent of all landfill waste. Cloth diapers offer a more sustainable option, but there’s still a big environmental impact with the amount of water used to launder them. Depending on the type of soap or detergent used, they can also have a negative effect on ecosystems.

Some parents take a strict diaper-free approach, holding their babies to eliminate numerous times a day. That can be time intensive and not a practical daily practice for parents who work. But elimination communication does not have to be an all-or-nothing lifestyle. My son and I use a hybrid model that works for our lifestyle. On weekends, Jessey has lots of naked time at home or he uses underwear. He much prefers underwear to diapers, and he’ll often be dry in underwear for hours. When we go out, I put him in cloth diapers. Overnight and when in daycare, he wears eco-friendly disposables.

In addition to the financial and environmental benefits elimination communication, early potty training helps parents bond with their babies. When Jessey was an infant, I was home with him full time, which allowed me to take him to the toilet about eight to 10 times a day. I learned to pick up on his subtle (or not so subtle) body language, signaling he needed a bathroom trip: Sometimes he suddenly paused what he was doing with a thinking face or strained expression. Of course, there were accidents. Sometimes he would wriggle in discomfort or immediately cry and I would use it as a teaching moment, saying “Feel that; you’re wet” or “You had to go.” By 14 months old, when he wet his underwear, he immediately grabbed himself, aware he created the pee. More and more, he grabbed himself right before he peed, giving me a short window to get him to the toilet.

Now the bathroom trips have become less frequent and more predictable. Now Jessey likes to linger on the toilet for more reading time. I have made up a silly song to which Jessey enjoys bouncing in rhythm: “Go, go, go on the potty. Pee on the pot; you can poop in it too. You can go in a hole or pee by a tree… .” The song provides a cue that it’s time to eliminate, and it allows for some parent-child bonding.

Some have expressed skepticism about elimination communication. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t specify an age when children should begin potty training, but encourages parents to wait until their child can verbalize the need to go to the bathroom. But not all doctors agree. Pediatrician Leslie Rubin, who runs a private practice in Atlanta, notes that elimination communication is the norm in many cultures where there’s more intimacy between parents and infants. According to a story on WebMD, Rubin says “There’s a nice logic to the elimination communication method. If you become aware and sensitive to what the little ones are doing, you can respond accordingly.”  The emphasis with elimination communication is on communication and not training.

Elimination communication has had numerous benefits for me and my son. Financially, I save money on diapers and the water needed to wash cloth ones. And we skipped the little potty stage, leaving one less baby item in the house. The process also has given Jessey confidence and autonomy, and has contributed to routine hand washing. It has encouraged us to bond, too. There are several daily opportunities for extended eye contact, close conversation, and shared reading and singing time for me and Jessey.

Most of all, elimination communication has inspired me to be more in tune with my son’s needs, in general. Along with teaching him American Sign Language, it has helped improve our nonverbal communication, allowing me to respond to his feelings, thirst, hunger, and interests more easily. As people become more aware of these benefits, I hope more parents will practice elimination communication, so we can cut down on diapers and improve baby bonding.

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