It was recently reported that some British children aged 5 were still wearing nappies and there were even instances of some kids as old as 11. Such situations cause problems not only for the children but also create an increased workload for teachers. And according to studies this situation is getting worse. The problems have prompted a call for parents to work harder and help their kids develop their toilet-using skills before preschool.
Whenever I pass on such stories to my friends in China, the usual response is one of surprise. “Are you kidding?” they might say, or “How could that be possible?”
In China and other Asian countries it is commonplace for babies and young children to be off nappies by the age of 2. Indeed they may be seen as “developing slowly” or “having some problems” if this is not the case. Social pressure has a part to play, but another important issue is the fact that the maternity leave in China is only 98 days, just over three months, much shorter compared to the 10 months granted to mothers in the UK. This, to some extent, urges Chinese mothers to have their newborns trained earlier and get them well prepared for being looked after by grandparents or nurseries.
It might be astonishing to many westerners that Chinese parents begin potty training very early, sometimes after the baby is only a few weeks old. In fact the method is sometimes referred to as an “ancient Chinese secret” which has been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years.
The method often involves routinely holding the baby over a potty in an attempt to encourage them to pass their waste products, usually with the help of whistling or shushing noises. In addition many parents will dress their children in crotch-less pants or Kāidāngkù [开裆裤].
While less practiced today as China modernizes it is something that people in rural areas still do. While Western babies go through nappies, training nappies - often referred as pull-ups, potties and then toilets, many Chinese babies go from nappies straight to crotch-less pants with nothing inside at all.
In the past babies and young children would simply squat when the need arose and parents would wash away any deposits. Today mothers can still be seen holding their babies at kerb sides or over plant pots when their child shows a need to go.
In some ways the method works, in the sense that a child understands the process. It is also not too far removed from the methods encouraged by the renowned paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock who suggested observing the times when a young child showed signs of bowel movements and to sit them upon a potty at those times so as to associate the process with the action of being sat on the potty.
By setting up a routine babies can certainly learn much quicker than those who are left in nappies until they’re soiled.
Crotch-less pants may be traditional in China but would be considered somewhat bizarre or even distasteful in the UK and other western countries. Nonetheless there is something to be said for both Dr Spock’s methods and those seen in China.
Many parents in the west perhaps find it difficult to deal with the time-consuming and laborious methods Spock advocated or perhaps find the whole subject and process overwhelming. Indeed with many people living busier lives some parents might find it simply more convenient just change and throw away a dirty nappy rather than sit patiently aside a young child on a potty several times a day.
The use of nappies should only be for as long as needed. Not only is it important to get a child potty trained and independent, the continued dependence on nappies is not good for the environment. Washable nappies, though still available though companies like Cannymums are certainly not for everyone. And of course crotch-less pants would hardly be an option in most western countries.
I spent a few months in China with my baby daughter and was encouraged by my family to set a routine, holding her over a potty daily. Whilst not giving in to dressing her in crotch-less pants, the routine did seem to have some effect. Indeed, now we’re back in the UK she is almost at the stage where she tells you she wants to go. In fact I hardly ever change anything more than a wet nappy rather than a heavily soiled one.
This piece is part of a series of articles dedicated to exploring parenting expertise by looking at cultural backgrounds and the pros-and-cons of various traditions. This special series is also posted with acknowledgement to International Children's Day which is observed on the 1st June.
If you enjoyed this article please check out “Colourful Childhood: exploring cultural impacts on kids and parenthood”, "Cultural divides in raising a vegetarian child" and "Breastfeeding: Challenges faced by East & West".