Living in a foreign country gives you a new perspective on things, and the way we go about our daily lives. Here in China I have seen lots of things that have made me question Western ideas and methods – and one of the things that has really made me think is the way the Chinese toilet train their infants.
Toilet-training is started about a month after the baby is born and usually the infant is ‘clean and dry’ during the day by the age of 12 months. No child is accepted into a creche or nursery until they have mastered bowel and bladder control.
I first became aware of that things were different here when, years ago on a trip to China I saw babies and toddlers in open-crotch pants (kaidangku). Many foreign visitors see the kids in these and think they look cute, but few realise why they wear them.
Basically the method they use is this: the mum (or whoever is the infant’s main carer) pays close attention to the little signals the tiny baby gives immediately prior to weeing or pooing and at that moment holds them over a potty making a small regular whistling noise like sssuussuu, shwish-shwish-shwish as the baby urinates. This noise is quickly associated with weeing by the baby and if it is held over the potty at frequent intervals it learns to use that moment to empty its bladder. No praise or blame is given, nor any punishment for accidents, it is all treated in a routine matter-of-fact way. Once the child starts crawling, standing and toddling they are quickly put into open-crotch pants for every day wear. They are still too young to be able to go to a toilet, remove their pants etc, wipe themselves and re-dress at this stage, but can and do indicate when they need to ‘go’; if in the home they would then be placed on a pot, but if outdoors they will be held over the gutter, a flowerbed etc, and they learn to squat by themselves, indeed if one small child does so, other small children will often do the same straight away. In a nursery here it is not uncommon for a single teacher to be able to ‘potty’ 20 or more infants simultaneously. Any residual mess after a mishap will be cleared up by the adult who is with the child. This method is sometimes referred to as EC (Elimination Communication) by western parenting experts. If you are interested in reading more about this method, try this site.
The daughter of one of my Chinese friends was born in the US, and her parents did not return to China until she was two years old. They had followed American child care advice so XiaoXiao was still in nappies. QH’s brother and his wife were aghast, they had a one-year old who was already completely potty trained, and poor QH got a lot of comments about being a ‘lazy’ mother, and about how unhygienic and ‘dirty’ it was for a child to walk around with wee and poo in their nappy. By that time XX had lost the initial ability to know when she ‘needed’ to go, and so potty training turned into the usual drawn-out performance that many western parents experience.
Before writing this post I did a little digging around to see why Chinese methods and western methods of potty training are so different, and why there is a wide-spread belief in the west that a child has to be ‘developmentally ready’ before potty training can begin. Freud and others linked potty training to all sorts of psychosexual problems, but as far as I can tell Freud seemed to link everything to sex so thats no big surprise! What does seem to have happened is that during the 1920s and 30s child-care ‘experts’ in the west advised very rigid and quite punative methods of training children, and somehow the idea of ‘bad’ training and ‘early’ training became muddled together. There doesn’t seem to be any scientific rationale for using the Western method, but, and it is a big BUT, there is a commercial rational for encouraging it.
There are several advantages to the Chinese method and foremost amongst these is that parents do not have to spend money on nappies (diapers as the Americans call them). Nowadays, in western society, babies are put into nappies at birth, and often continue to wear them, day and night until three or even four years of age. With several changes of nappy required in 24 hours that adds up to a lot of nappies. The energy and materials required to manufacture these disposables, and the fact that most of them end up in landfill makes them extremely bad from an environmental aspect.
Needless to say, the two great giants of nappy manufacturing namely Proctor & Gamble who make Pampers, and Kimberly-Clark who make Huggies , are doing their damnedest to get Chinese parents to adopt western ways. There are 1.3billion people in China, and even with the emphasis on one-child families that is still a lot of babies and toddlers. The potential profits for these companies is huge so it is no surprise to learn that in 2009 P&G spent the equivalent of US$ 69 million, and K-C spent US$12 million on advertising nappies in China. Their shtick seems to be that it is ‘scientifically proved’ that babies sleep better in disposable nappies – hmm. Many Chinese assume that everything done in the West (particularly the USA) is ‘better’, more ‘modern’, more ‘sophisticated’ and so may feel it is desirable to go the nappy route, which I think would be terrible, why change a method that has been successfully used for hundreds of years just to make profits for big corporations?
Can you imagine the adverse environmental impact on China of millions and millions of disposables first being manufactured (using up materials and energy) and then having to be buried in landfill waste sites?
I think China (and India and other Asian countries which practice this form of toilet training) should be exporting their methods to the west, not the other way around.