Questioning Theories of Moss

September 25, 2004

(Originally published in "The Mother" magazine, March/April 2007)

-by Sarabeth Matilsky

I tried to be modest and discreet. After all, I didn't want the other parents to feel bad. They were always complaining about something or other, mumbling about “lack of sleep” and “discipline,” and they always seemed confused. And here I was, pregnant with my first child, and I already had it all figured out.

I was going to parent my child-to-be in all the ways that made sense. The baby would be born at home, to avoid the medical establishment's treatment of Birth-as-Disease. I'd breastfeed my baby, of course, just as my mother and all the mothers before her did—it's the evolutionary way of our species. “Where will the baby sleep?” my husband asked, looking around our one-bedroom apartment.

“With us, of course,” I replied. “That's the way every native culture does it.” We'd carry the baby all the time, so that it would be soothed by the rocking of our bodies, and wouldn't cry much.

“And what about diapers?” my husband asked.

“Cloth, of course,” I said, not giving it much thought. “They're softer.”

“But what about those native cultures?” my husband asked. “They didn't have diapers!”

“Oh, they had moss,” I replied.

“Where'd they get all that moss?” my husband wondered, after reading the part of the Baby Book where it says that newborns soak at least ten to twelve diapers per day.

“I guess they just found it,” I said impatiently, all-knowing. I mean, I knew that having a baby would be challenging, but it wasn't rocket science! Just love it and take care of it, and everything would fall into place.

Ben Starling upset my plans right from the beginning, by emerging wetly and squirming on January 10, 2004, three weeks before we expected him. It was too soon for my tightly organized, highly efficient schedule! I had work to do, we had things to do to our new condo, and there were three concerts in the next three weeks that I really, really wanted to see. Plus, I had appointments all scheduled, and my sister-in-law had planned this really nice alternative-baby-shower ceremony for January 17. I had figured that I'd be pregnant well into February, since most new moms deliver after their due date.

But then here I was, on January 10, squatting on the floor of my bedroom and pushing out a baby boy. I just sort of stared at him a lot those first few days.

Then my milk came in, five days after he was born. I knew I was going to breastfeed this baby, but I didn't know that I was going to have to deal with all this pain. My breasts grew large as small melons, sagging and explosive. Each time my tiny son latched on, my uterus continued its contraction back into my pelvis and I would yelp involuntarily with pain. I had strange, unpleasant pelvic cramping when I went to the bathroom, and my right groin muscle felt like I had sprained it. And all this was before I experienced plugged milk ducts, and the agony of sore nipples. Ben bit them incessantly with his toothless gums, until I would wake up to his cries at night with tears of my own, because I just couldn't stand the thought of him latching on even one more time.

And even though we were sleeping with Ben, holding him all the time, breastfeeding on cue, and keeping him as warm and dry as possible, all was not right in his little world. He had reflux, and often vomited in an alarmingly projectile manner across the room. He cried at random intervals all day long, sometimes awakening suddenly from a deep sleep. He grunted all the time, too, as if he were constipated, and I tried every food elimination possible in order to quiet his rumbling tummy. Nothing seemed to work. He cried in the evenings, and although I still maintained that babies don't cry for no reason, I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was bothering my boy. I told my mom that being a mother was kind of like a babysitting job where the parents never come home to take the kid. When I talked this way, my family and friends got all funny and quiet, and asked gently if I needed to Talk With Someone, and that It's Okay, bonding Happens Differently for Everyone. What did they think? Of course I had bonded! Mothers have to love their babies.

And yet, I hadn't bonded—at least, not in the huge way that moms talk about, where their love for their infant could make them walk to the ends of the earth. I hadn't admitted the salient points that would allow the bonding to happen: that my son was already, from the minute he happened, his own person. All my wishes in the world wouldn't turn him into a different person. And in order to start to get to know him and discover his tiny, emerging personality, I had to admit to all that I didn't know.

When Ben was 2 ½ months old, I was at my wits' end with exhaustion, painful nipples, raging hormones, and frustration. I had to try something new. For months now, I had been hearing about a practice known by various names: “Elimination Communication” (or “EC”), “Infant Potty Training,” and “Natural Infant Hygeine.” I had met a few moms who told me about it: a way of learning to read your babies signals for when they had to pee and poop, and then helping them to associate those actions with a cue position and sound, such as “psss psss psss.” According to these moms I met, babies are capable of peeing and pooping in the potty nearly from birth, making diapers (or moss) all but obsolete after several months, and completely unnecessary by age 1 ½ or 2. Moms all over the world do this, I was told. At first, I shrugged and privately thought that my moss theory was still a good one.

But on a chilly Friday afternoon, home alone with Ben Starling, I thought that maybe I'd try it. He did have very clear signs when he was about to poop—his entire face contorted and he grunted loudly. Usually I just waited until he did his business, and when he started to cry (he didn't seem to like the whole operation), I'd change him, which would cause more crying since he didn't seem to like lying on his back while I wiped his bottom. Today, I awkwardly did what I'd been shown by those other moms: I held my baby in a modified squat above the toilet, and said “psss psss psss.” I waited. Then, a rumble in Ben's tummy, a grunt, and—blort. He vomited explosively all down his front. I'd forgotten about the reflux, and how it got triggered when he was in that sort of sitting position. I cleaned him up and tried again, holding him more gently so I wouldn't compress his tummy. This time, no sooner than I'd cued him than an orange stream of poop shot out of my baby like a rocket, landing cleanly in the toilet. With no poop all over his bottom, I wiped Ben with one swipe. My son, using a skill only recently acquired, turned his head toward me and gave me a huge smile.

I was hooked. On Monday, I went to a support group meeting for Diaper Free Baby, a whole bunch of moms who, I assumed, would be barefoot hippies with drooling children who peed in their pants a lot. (I still couldn't believe that Ben would actually signal me when he had to pee. Poop was one thing, but pee...) I arrived at the leader Rachel's house, a spotless home on a tree-lined street, and was greeted by a crowd of well-dressed, stylish women with their adorable babies, ranging in age from six months to two years.

I was told that EC isn't an alternative to potty training. It's an alternative way of thinking about elimination. Most babies who do it tend to potty independently by about two years old, but that outcome, I learned, is not the important focus. The important part is the process of communication between parent and child. These moms were doing this EC thing in all different ways. Some of them did it part-time, just after naps (a time when babies of all ages generally have to pee). Some did it full-time, and their barely-walking toddlers didn't wear diapers at all, even at night. Some people only did it at home, or only in the mornings. Some babies peed into mixing bowls, and some into little plastic potties, and some into the Big Potty. Rachel showed me how to hold Ben over a small plastic potty after I noticed that he was doing his random grunt thing. To my surprise, when I cued him, he peed right away.

The next day, I stayed home with Ben and kept him wrapped in just a cloth diaper. That way, I'd feel the wetness as soon as he peed. I sat down with him in the rocker to nurse. But Ben suddenly started to cry...and I felt wetness and warmth under his bottom. “Hmmm,” I thought, and exchanged the wet diaper for a dry one. Next time he started to yowl, I held him gently over the toilet and cued him. Sure enough, out came a pee.

In the next few weeks I learned a lot of things. I learned that Ben really, really didn't like sitting in his own excrement—and who could blame him, really? I learned that he grunted or cried when he had to pee. I learned that, contrary to the (diaper-industry-sponsored) belief espoused by most pediatricians and “experts,” babies do have bladder control; it doesn't just magically develop at age two. I learned that Ben often had to poop in the morning, and during nursing, and sometimes he had to pee while nursing, too. A major discovery was when I realized that his nipple biting, painful though it was, was also a signal: he had to go. When I began pottying him in the middle of our nursing sessions, as soon as I felt a nibble, the worst of the biting stopped and my nipples ceased to hurt. I learned that babies, especially boy babies, pee an amazing amount when they're little—sometimes every fifteen minutes. I learned that it wasn't necessary to shove a boob into Ben's mouth every time he got upset, and that he was often trying to communicate an entirely different need. He threw up much less after we discovered this, maybe because he wasn't being overfed. I learned that Ben was much happier when he didn't have to pee and poop in his diaper. I learned that pee and poop weren't nearly as gross when I didn't have to clean those substances out of Ben's rolls of fat. This new practice became a game: how many pees and poops can we catch today?

Most of all, this was something that I could do with Ben. For those first months, it was all such a guessing game: was he tired? hungry? cold? hot? It was anyone's best guess, and even after I'd do something for him, I was never quite sure whether he really had been hungry or thirsty or whatever. But with this potty thing, it was a definite yes/no proposition: either he had to go and he went, or he didn't have to go so he didn't. What a relief! Now we had a developing language, and our first word was “psss”!

The months go by quickly in retrospect, and now it's been six months since Ben started peeing and pooping in the potty; two months since he's been diaper free. We have misses some days, but it's getting easier. Ben doesn't pee nearly as frequently now, and when we're out he usually lets me know in advance so that we can find a potty place. His signals change often, and sometimes he doesn't signal at all, but our consistent success with our communication still leaves me awestruck at times. That isn't to say that I don't have my frustrations and lapses, and that I don't sometimes become neurotic about Ben's elimination and night waking. But so do parents of diapered babies, I assume! Elimination Communication isn't one of those (nonexistent) magic bullets. When I tell people what we're doing, they mostly get hung up on “how much work” this must be. I'm not going to pretend it's not time-consuming. But so is any other aspect of childrearing, and I sure prefer to hang out and play with toys with Ben while he poops in his potty than to clean a crap (or five) out of his pants every day, after chasing him down and wrestling with him to let me change his diaper. I feed him and keep him warm and I hold him as much as I can, so why not help him meet this important need also?

Who knew? Back in March I began the process of appreciating my son as the small person who he is, with this unusual (in our western world) catalyst. I always thought that diapers were the only way. Now I wonder what else I haven't realized yet, what other moss-type theories I should now debunk. I guess I'll keep finding out. At least now, I'm more open to questioning.