Have you ever smelled a faint whiff of poo and quickly checked your shoes to see you haven’t trodden on any?
It happened to me the other day, only the poo wasn’t on my shoes, it was on my shirt.
And it wasn’t a dog’s, it was a human’s.
Faeces smeared on my clothes is just one of the unusual things I’ve experienced in my attempts to be an eco-mum.
From disposable nappies to… nothing?
Let’s rewind back a year to when this ridiculousness first began, fittingly on April Fools’ Day. After a summer of bushfires, droughts and burning rainforests, I gave birth to my second daughter.
It was these environmental disasters, and the terrifying prospect of their increased frequency, that filled me with dread about adding another human to this overpopulated planet.
But instead of not having her at all (because the realisation came at six months pregnant — yikes!), I vowed to raise her with the smallest carbon footprint possible and using zero waste.
That meant nothing disposable that would end up in landfill because of her. In short, none of the stuff that makes modern parenting easy and convenient.
Attempting “zero waste” parenting has led to some pretty creative eco workarounds; from fashioning homemade baby wipes out of old flannel shirts, to recycled nursing pads, and — most importantly — finding an alternative to eco-parenting’s enemy number one, disposable nappies.
With my first baby, the convenience of disposable nappies trumped any consideration for the effect they were having on the environment. But for my second, despite how much I love them, I’ve forced myself to wave goodbye to throw-away nappies — the wonderfully handy, wee-soaked polyester that hangs off a baby’s hips like a mobile toilet.
Oh, how I miss them.
Initially I assumed the best environmentally-friendly alternative to disposable nappies was cloth ones. I was wrong. The ultimate waste-free solution uses no nappies AT ALL.
It’s a baby-potty training method called EC, or elimination communication, and paediatric nurse Rebecca Mottram says it’s existed for as long as humans have.
“Nappies are a relatively modern invention,” she says.
“So in a sense, you know, humans have done some version of this ever since we were around.”
What is elimination communication?
So what the hell is elimination communication? It sounds like the title of a Terminator prequel, but Ms Mottram explains it’s a pretty over-the-top name to describe something that basically involves learning the signals and timing of a baby’s patterns for when they want to “eliminate”, i.e. poo or wee, then holding them over a potty to do it.
“It’s about picking up on those signals that your baby is giving you when they want to poo and wee and responding to that.”
Ms Mottram writes books, blogs and produces online content on her website helping parents understand EC. She recommends it for the benefits she says it brings to children, to your hip pocket and to the planet.
She also says it’s a surprisingly rewarding experience for parents.
“You will be convinced from that point onwards that it is a good idea because you know, it’s so pleasurable. It’s like you just feel like you’re just totally winning at life, honestly.”
The more I learned about EC, the more it sounded like an easy, zero-waste slam dunk. So when it came to practising it, why was I such a dismal failure?
What EC requires of you
The problem wasn’t with the method itself, but my (and my baby’s) inability to commit to it. I failed the first, crucial step — the observation phase.
In order to succeed in EC you have to invest time in observing the baby and familiarising yourself with their poo and wee “signals”. This phase can take hours — you need to be patient and diligent. But I was too busy to devote myself entirely.
It’s a process that’d be easier with your first child, a time when your diary wasn’t chock-full of three-year-old playdates, library visits and childcare commutes.
I’ll admit, there was one fleeting moment of glory where I held my daughter over the potty and the system worked, but in hindsight I think it was a fluke, because every other time I tried the “cue” sound she looked at me like I was insane.
Are there reasons not to try EC?
Unfortunately it’s not the first time I’ve been bad at something, so I did what any desperate loser does in the same situation: I try to find reasons to be thankful for my ineptitude.
The person I turn to is my father-in-law, which might seem odd but he’s an adult and paediatric urologist and a former president of the Urological Society, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’s also a very good bloke.
His name is Dr Lawrence Hayden and while he believes that EC could achieve good bowel and bladder control (if practised appropriately by a committed parent), he also thinks there could be unforeseen problems with toilet training a newborn baby.
“In our traditional Western approach we usually wait until the child is 1.5-2 years old when the nervous system is a bit mature before commencing toilet training,” Dr Hayden says.
“If the child does not respond or seem interested it’s best to wait a few months before having another go.
“If the child is forced to toilet train then there can be problems of mismatching the nerve signals, causing problems with even more incontinence, infections and other less common but more severe problems.”
Dr Hayden recommends potty training that is baby led.
“My advice is to tell the parent to wait until the child shows interest, although that may not work for all.”
My ‘not quite perfect’ solution
I should confess, this conversation happened with our whole family listening during our weekly family meal. Thankfully he doesn’t think toilet talk is an unsavoury dinner table topic.
And thankfully this talk helped me feel better about not being perfect (or even very good) at EC.
For me, the answer was to pivot to another (not quite as eco) solution. But one which better suited my lifestyle.
Nowadays my daughter wears cloth nappies through the day and bamboo biodegradables through the night. I think it is a good compromise — albeit not ENTIRELY zero waste.
While I didn’t achieve consistent success doing EC, I’m glad I gave it a go. For that brief moment in the one time it worked, like Ms Mottram said, I really did feel like I was “winning at life”.
It was truly glorious, even if it did mean our celebratory hug afterward left human poo on my shirt.
Veronica Milsom is a radio and podcast presenter and comedian. Her podcast is called Zero Waste Baby.
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