May 20th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Guest Viewpoint

Ask any working family – single-use nappies are convenient and easy to use. But like many of life’s little conveniences, environmentally they are on the nose. Single-use nappies are not recyclable, they take years to decompose and use considerably more raw materials and energy in their manufacture than cloth nappies.

Apart from environmental issues single-use nappies have changed our behaviour. Human poo now gets dumped in places that once would have been unthinkable – domestic wheelie bins, waste-paper baskets, and public rubbish bins in parks, streets and shopping centres.

The advent of the single-use nappy is also prolonging the toilet training age to the stage where many toddlers are now at least 3½, sometimes 4 before they are nappy-free in daylight hours. Single-use nappy manufacturers have subtle ways of extending their market beyond what is essential. Pull-ups for toddlers are advertised as ‘potty training’ aids when in fact they are nothing of the sort. The toddler has no idea that he/she is wet and no incentive to use a toilet.

Pull-ups have so neutralised the down-side of dealing with the contents of toddler nappies that motivation to bid the nappies farewell has dramatically decreased. The old skills of potty-training – routine, consistent input from parents and tolerance for accidents – are rapidly disappearing.

Before single-use nappies arrived most toddlers were trained by 2½ because washing and drying nappies was so tedious. In the pre-washing machine/tumbler dryer era when nappies were boiled up in a copper, often in the back yard, and mothers had tribes of kids most were trained before their second birthdays. Standard advice in baby books in the 1920s/30s was to hold babies out (at least for their poo) from birth.

The current relaxed approach to potty training, which neatly dovetailed into the arrival of single-use nappies, came about in an effort to avoid stress and psychological problems (sociopathic, anal retentive behaviour – the Freudian approach). And it is true that inappropriate pressure put onto babies and toddlers about potty training (or anything else for that matter), can have disastrous effects. I have seen this often enough in my work to be wary of being too dogmatic about any behavioural issue, be it sleep or discipline or potty training.

But I also note that when early potty training, nappy-free or whatever we like to call it is done in a stress-free, non-competitive environment in a culture where it is the norm there are no psychological ill-effects. During the 1980s I saw Chinese parents whose babies were daytime trained at 12 months and it was all very relaxed.

The factors that dictate potty training age appear to me to be more related to convenience, lifestyle, the communities in which families live and the attitude of parents rather than the much-touted ‘signs of readiness’.

There are always going to be a small number of toddlers who resist the notion of potty training until they are older but most healthy toddlers are capable of being out of nappies in daylight hours by 3 if not before. Delaying training prolongs the financial output, doubles the number of single-use nappies in landfill, robs toddlers of the independence they so eagerly seek, is inconvenient and messy and limits carefree enjoyment of toddler activities – swimming, preschool, outings.

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