What is elimination communication (EC)? First, it is predicated on the idea that babies — even half-finished human babies — are born aware of their elimination needs, and with the instinct/inclination to communicate those needs to their care providers. While infants’ bladders and bowels are very tiny (and thus their ability to hold their waste is comparatively quite limited), they do have voluntary control of the release of the sphincters of elimination. Conventional diapering, or diaper-training, teaches infants that the diaper is the appropriate place for elimination, which brings some convenience for adults, but also must be untaught later.
(A note on physiology: sphincters are muscles that by default are contracted/closed, and, in a physiologically “normal” individual, require deliberate signals from the brain to release, as in swallowing as well as urinating or defecating. The meme that infants cannot be pottied because they do not have control over the necessary muscles is widespread but mistaken, and bad science to boot.)
In the practice of EC, older humans — parents, grandparents, caretakers, older siblings, alloparents of all kinds — respond to infants’ needs and attempts at communication by providing opportunities to eliminate in appropriate places, such as toilets, potties, small bowls, sinks, bushes, a pile of towels or diapers, or whatever may be available. As we provide those opportunities, we offer a cue — usually a psss or some other auditory signal — that communicates to the infant “I heard you, this is a place you can eliminate”. And so communication is achieved, both from and to the infant. Combined with timing (more appropriately termed rhythms) and intuition, this means infants as early as birth can eliminate in an appropriate receptacle away from themselves, rather than in a diaper next to their skins. (Diapers, either cloth or plastic, are usually used as backup for “misses”, either full or part time. “Diaper-free” is a a catchy but inaccurate title for this practice.)
Elimination communication is about communication primarily, and honoring the young person’s innate desire to avoid eliminating on hirself. With both parties of the communication being fallible humans, and with at least one being new to the communication, elimination, and living gigs, it is not a “perfect” science, but rather a process: its goal is not future independence, but present interdependence.
EC is one aspect of the approach I term biologically appropriate parenting, and as with all aspects, it is neither “all or nothing” nor intended as a “checklist” item. All infants are born with the need to eliminate, and all parents seek to deal with that elimination in a sanitary way that meets their own needs as well; EC is the biological expectation, and conventional diapering, like formula and bouncy seats in our kyriarchal, child- and parent-unfriendly culture, is an oft-useful, if overused, substitute.