The diaper free movement: cultural and historical origins

Mainly sociocultural factors determine when children can use the "toilet" - with a little help

Being diaper free is possible from young age

Changing diapers is a big job in those beginning years and using lots of resources. Most babies in the West are wearing diapers during their first 3 life years. On a contrary many caregivers worlwide learn young babies to use a potty, even soon after birth. When children are ready for toilet training appears to be depending mainly on sociocultural factors. Making your baby diaper free at a very young age is possible. Habits in non-Western cultures and previous Western cultures are proving this.

Creative solutions for babies’ toilet in the past: a bit of grass or rabbit skin needed?

We can go back in time, until the beginning, even of mankind: there was always a need for keeping babies and living spaces clean and warm. There are several documents that refer to the special clothing used for the babies in ancient times such as milkweed leaf wraps, animal skins and other creative natural resources. The Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Romans, and many others, who left documentation of their day to day activities, mention its use and other methods. There are also many other times and places where babies stay diaper free, in whatever form that might be.

During the Roman Empire, babies stayed diaper free. The midwife wrapped a newborn baby in strips of linen or wool, swaddling bands, to give it a sense of security, except for the lower bottom. Babies ‘went’ in small clay pots that the mother carried with her and she quickly learned the signals of the baby when he/she had to go. She almost never left the side of the baby which made it easier to be without diaper. In Elizabethan times, babies were treated to a fresh diaper only every few days.                   

Infant's dress of Eskimos to keep baby warm and easy changing square diaper, filled with moss and hairInuits, an Eskimo people, placed moss under sealskin. In some Native American tribes, mothers packed grass under a diaper cover made of rabbit skin, as it was done by the Incas in South America. In warmer tropical climates, babies were mostly naked and mothers tried to anticipate bowel movements of the diaper free babies to avoid any mess near the house. In the American West of the pioneering days, wet diapers were seldom washed – most of the times they just hung by the fireplace to dry and were then used again. As you can imagine, skin rash was a serious problem these days.


More wealth and need for freedom blow the practice diaper free from the scene in the West

In Europe, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution from 1820 onwards that the working people started to worry about their baby’s waste, having acquired sufficient wealth to buy household furniture and the need to protect it. In the 19th century the modern diaper began to take shape. Most mothers used cloth diapers, made from cotton, with eventually a safety pin to keep things in place. In the early part of the 20th century, cloth users were boiling diapers as they became aware of bacteria. During World War II, the increase of working mothers brought the need for the "diaper service". Fresh cotton diapers would be delivered on demand. The invention of the plastic snaps, instead of dangerous safety pins, prefold diapers and waterproof covering made the use far safer and easier.

It was only in 1948 that the first disposable diaper was invented. With the invention of new materials, the diapers became thinner and more absorbent. A huge market was found in mothers wanting more freedom to work and travel. In the late 80s the cloth diaper regains more interest due to environmental issues concerning the use of disposable diapers. There’s an estimate of 3,4 million tons of used diapers for landfill every year in the US, taking up to 500 years to decompose. A growing number of campaigns wanted to convince parents to use reusable alternatives or to let the babies be diaper free again.

Diaper free babies of non-Western societies

Potty_India_sketch_0.jpgThroughout much of the non-Western world, babies stay diaper free. Infant toilet training, starting soon after birth, is still the norm in most villages. In India, China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the arctic and parts of Africa and Latin America parents leave the babies diaper free. Diapers are considered unnecessary, even disgusting. Parents are watching the body signals of the baby and when needed, they hold the baby on a toilet, in the garden or other place so that the baby can eliminate.

An East African tribe, the Digo believe that infants can learn toilet training soon after birth and begin toilet training in the first weeks of life. Night and day dryness is already accomplished by 5 or 6 months. Also in China, toilet training starts very early, sometimes within days of birth. Close relatives, such as parents and grandparents, take care of him, being sensible whenever the child has to go. When it appears in need going to the toilet, they hold the child over the toilet or any other suitable place. The adult makes a soft whistle, imitating running water and holds it in a bă  or bunched-up position or the whole process of imitating the sound of running water, and holding the child in a suitable place to relax the appropriate muscles to urinate.

kaidangku_0.jpgWhen the child is first taken out of the house, it stays diaper free and wears open-crotch pants, or sundresses for the girls. Open-crotch pants, traditionally called kaidangku, are pants with an unsewn seam over the buttocks and crotch or a hole over the central buttocks. They allow the children to urinate and defecate without lowering the pants. When outdoors, caretakers use a wastebasket, large potted plant, sidewalk or any other available uncovered surface and clean it up afterwards. Although the use of the kaidangku has drastically increased, due to the availability of cheap disposable diapers, reports from China suggests that their use will be continued.

Reintroduction of being diaper free in the West

As Chinese parents were migrating from kaidangku to diapers, some Western parents were going in the opposite direction, concerned about the environmental impact of used diapers and the health effects on the child. Around that same time, inspired by the Chinese example, parents in the U.S. and other Western countries began forming diaper free support groups and practicing infant toilet training, using the ba whistling sound to incite urination.

new-mom_1.jpgA hindrance to the acceptance of the practice in modern Western societies for some years was the misconception that infant potty training is the same as a somewhat harsh and coercive method used in the early 1900s in Europe and North America that used suppositories to put the baby on a strict schedule of bowel movements. However, gentler methods that did not rely on suppositories were recommended in the 1914 and 1938 and later editions of Infant Care. Though a regulated schedule was valued in many parts of infant care, including toilet training, at no time was punishment considered appropriate for an infant under one year of age.

Infant potty training or being diaper free, as we see it nowadays, is a gentle way of staying dray with parental supervision. The terms elimination communication and natural infant hygiene, introduced by Ingrid Bauer in 2001, are also used for this practice, adapted for the West. Many caregivers don’t consider it as a kind of training. The accent lays on meeting the needs of the baby and enhance attachment and communication.

Biologically possible to be diaper free at young age

Babies are capable from birth to feel these needs. Many people assume that babies have no control their bladders and bowels. The contact between cultures pushed experts to question the ability of the infant and the age to start toilet training. Infant toilet training is biologically possible. Infants can learn at a young age to wait to eliminate for a short time. Scientific research states that the muscles of the bladder are usually stable, peeing only when awake or awaking. Urination is not just an automatic reflex, but can be regulated through toilet training. Sociocultural factors, along with the child's personality, have an effect on the difference in age to start with toilet training. For example the widespread use of disposable diapers increase the age of children being diaper free, because babies forget to recognize toilet needs. The age of toilet training in the US of complete nighttime dryness increased from 3 years (until 1950) to 5 or 6 years in 2002.

Diaper free baby in China on the street, bonding mother-childBy being diaper free, parents create a stronger connection with their baby, the baby keeps in touch with her body sensations and learns what to do when she experiences these sensations. You can also eliminate diaper rash and reduce the environmental problems as stated above. Parents avoid also all problems with training older children, where we have to break the habits of wearing diapers. Disadvantages are that it’s a more time-consuming practice, although the practice can easily partly be done also. Another problem can be a lack of hygiene if the child doesn’t reach the toilet in time. However, diapers can be used as back-up in case of misses.



The diaper free movement is an eye opener for parents and other care-givers, even if they don't follow this practice full-time. It's a different way of looking at a baby and to tune in and respond to its primal needs. These are intense moments of being together: sharing time, recognizing needs and full acceptation, really precious gifts for your little one. The diaper free movement is a reviving of the past and an appreciation and understanding of non-Western cultures where being diaper free is still a common practice.


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