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What Would Happen if All Moms Went 'Diaperless'?

04/26/2013 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013
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The diaperless parenting trend (also known as "elimination communication") is in the news again. Here's a summary: Eco-conscious attachment-y parents, instead of using diapers, are attempting to read their baby's signals, and then rush them to a human waste receptacle (toilet, sure, but even a strategically placed bowl or just a slab of concrete between two parked cars) in time to pee or poop.

In other words: I'll see your organic cloth diaper and raise you... my diaperless baby.

Theoretically, I suppose it makes sense. Eliminating diapers makes a lot less waste of the non-biodegradable variety -- no small thing. It eliminates things like diaper rash. It eliminates the challenges of potty training a baby with the annoying ability to say "no." It has the cache of ancient, indigenous wisdom, and the appeal of somehow more deeply and intimately "knowing" your baby. And fewer diapers is easier on the wallet (though most diaperless mommies are of the urbanite hipster ilk, not the paycheck-to-paycheck single mom variety, so I'm not sure this is the primary motivator).

But, to state the obvious: Ummm... WHAT?

It seems that this technique will only work if you are almost constantly attached to your baby -- so no work for mom -- and willing to tolerate a possibly intolerable amount of human waste. And it would help if you live on a farm and in warm weather -- to keep the poop moving outdoors. It might be nice too if your kid doesn't get too much diarhea or explosive poop. Or have a communicable disease. And will probably only "work" if you're among an elite minority doing this.

If all Americans start doing this, our world would look a lot more like it does... well... in the rest of the world, along with all the attendant problems the rest of the world is trying to escape from.

Where I currently live in Kenya a lot of mamas, oblivious of their hipster status, go "diaperless," and while they lack a fancy name for it, they also use some form of elimination communication. Last week I watched my neighbor's sister bouncing her bare bottomed seven-month-old baby on her knee. When I asked if she was worried about an accident, she described the particular twisting and fidgeting her daughter would do before she needed to go, which would tell her that some elimination was coming. I don't doubt that this communication happens.

But you can never stop or anticipate all accidents. Without diapers, you're simply living in a world with a lot more human excrement. Our neighbor's child has pooped on our doorstep half a dozen times. (We're trying not to take it too personally.) And I remember interviewing a mama in a rural area holding her baby in her lap who, mid-interview, wiped some of the babies poop off her lap with a corn husk. The very rhythm of the morning in a typical village includes hanging out the bed sheets to dry, which have been inevitably soiled by some baby or young child. Every. Morning.

Truly, this is a problem in the rural areas. Besides finding a safe place for all that baby waste, young children are too frightened to use what adults use -- a pit latrine -- and it's probably dangerous anyway. So, when a child becomes ambulatory, his mother will typically train him to go in a certain less frequented area -- behind a tree, for example. But it's not perfect.

I don't want to give the impression that rural areas are filthy, because, quite frankly, I've never seen people sweep and mop and clean so fastidiously in my life. But the lack of diapers causes a problem, and contributes to the spread of disease -- to the tune of thousands of diarrhea-related deaths each day.

It's such a big issue that the NGO my husband and I work for has a multi-million dollar project to better understand how improvements in sanitation (including developing less scary toilets for toddlers) can prevent all these deaths. There are other NGOs providing cloth diapers for poor women around the world, who desperately want to wake up in a dry bed with healthy children.

I'm not saying it's impossible for Western mothers to carry out this method more hygienically with the benefit of modern sanitation. My point is that in our wistfulness for doing things the "natural" way, we often forget that nature is not a national park. And sometimes it can be a pretty unforgiving place.

But go ahead, go diaperless. Out eco your neighbor. Just don't forget that it's a choice you're incredibly privileged to make.

This post original appeared in the author's personal blog www.mamamzungu.com