Why you should care

Because diapers are expensive and bad for the environment. 

Ngân Vương Bảo, a teacher in Danang, Vietnam, started to potty train her daughter when she was 7 months old. “I placed her on the potty and whistled the way every Vietnamese mom does,” she recalls. Within a month or two, Bảo Junior had gotten the hang of using the potty for No. 2s. She was fully trained before she hit 18 months.

In Vietnam — where some mothers begin the process within a week or two of giving birth — Bảo was seen as a late starter.

As a parent of three, this tale fills me with … jealousy. Diapers aren’t just unpleasant to change, but they’re also terrible for the environment. And cloth versions are just as bad, smarty-pants, and expensive. The average child in the U.S. will use 2,700 diapers in the first year alone at a cost of around $550 (plus another $500 or so for wipes and balm). So what if there is a better way for both parents and the environment that does no harm to the kids?

Bảo kicked things off by simply placing her daughter on a traditional potty (cái bô, no flashing lights or canned music here) and helping her not to fall. Then she started whistling — if that is the correct verb. The way Bảo describes it, it sounds more like a hiss. “We make the sound ‘sss’ as in snake,” she says, adding that “there is no special way; we just go ahead and whistle — no high and low notes.”

This video explains it quite well (and graphically!). The fact that it’s made by a Malaysian vlogger also highlights the fact that “elimination communication” is common throughout Asia.

From then on, whenever Bảo noticed her daughter was about to poop — every parent knows that look — she would put her on the potty, whistle and “there she went.” Soon, Madame had learned that “sitting on the potty means she has to go poo-poo,” she explains. Bảo delayed pee training until her little one could walk (earning props from our medical expert — see below), although many Vietnamese moms don’t wait this long. Bảo taught her daughter to shout out “Xì bô” (pee-pee potty) whenever she needed to go. For the first couple of weeks she’d shout — and pee — before she got to the potty, but within a few months she was totally trained.

If you’re asking “Why so early?” bear in mind that Bảo’s family were asking “Why so late?” Like many of her generation, Bảo was “a little worried” about doing things the traditional way, as she’d read on Facebook that early potty training could be bad for a baby’s digestive system (#fakenews). She was eventually persuaded to commence the process by the dual specter of her mother-in-law (“I was scared of her”) and the stinky poos that result from eating solids. In hindsight, she says she thinks her hesitation was part of a wider trend for younger Vietnamese moms to “follow Facebook pages and to resist traditional methods at all costs.”

Dr. Maria Santos, a pediatrician at Hanoi’s Family Medical Practice who has worked in the capital for eight years, says early training does not harm the digestive system and sees “no reason to recommend for or against traditional potty training methods.” A recent Swedish study that focused on 47 Vietnamese mothers concluded that “it is possible to start potty training with good outcomes very early in life,” describing the process as “an ongoing communication between parent and child.”

However, Santos points out that a child cannot autonomously use the potty before she can walk, talk or control her bladder, which starts to develop between 12 and 18 months. Potty training a newborn is all about the caregiver’s unwavering powers of observation, says the doctor, before noting that “a caregiver who is this attuned to the baby’s needs could easily build upon this dynamic to do further potty training as the baby grows older.”

There’s nothing to stop any parent from trying Bảo’s techniques, but you’ll need to accept some hard truths. You and your posse (enlist the help of family members!) will need to give your baby undivided attention for it to work (or be prepared to do a lot of cleaning); also, it’s a lot easier to pull off at home than out and about. While full-on elimination communication may be difficult to square with Western lifestyles, a mix of Western and traditional methods can work well — as shown by this testimonial. However you choose to potty train, you’ll need inordinate patience and a bulletproof sense of humor.

Perhaps the intense commitment required for elimination communication is why diaper sales in Vietnam are growing at 5.5 percent every year (compared to 0.5 percent in the U.S., according to Statista).

Whenever you decide to start, remember, says Santos, that it’s not when you potty train but how you do it that really matters. Bad potty training, which is associated with “negative emotions like inadequacy, fear of punishment, ridicule or rejection,” is traumatic at any age.

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