Recently, many of our friends and supporters have been asking us whether the Akha use diapers. Of course this question is inevitably followed by the other pressing question on people's minds, "What will you do for diapers when the baby comes?" If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would have said "Disposables!" with out hesitation, but two years on the mission field has significantly changed my answer!
To answer the original question, the Akha, in general, do not use diapers at all. When I first arrived in the village I was somewhat disgusted at the thought of babies without diapers. However, after living in the village for several months I began to realize that I never saw the horribly messy situations that I had envisioned when I thought of a world without diapers. For some time, this was a great mystery to me. Then, one day, I saw it. Right after feeding her son, one of the young mothers in our village, stepped aside to a nearby bush, pulled down the baby's pants, held him in a bit of a squat and made a "shushing" sound. Magically, as if on cue, the baby, who was just a few months old, peed.
Over time, I continued to observe this phenomenon with awe. I even began to notice that it not only applied to "number one", but "twosies" as well. While impressed and amazed, I was also baffled. How did that mom know her baby needed to go just then? How did the baby know to hold it until mom got his pants off? When I asked the mothers these questions, they were even more baffled at my ignorance in the matter. Unfortunately, they usually couldn't come up with an answer to my questions; often saying things like "I just knew that she needed to go".
As the reality of having a child set in, I began to toy with the idea of trying to mimic this diaperless style with our own children. After all, it does seem almost cruel to put diapers on a baby in this heat; I'm certain we would be constantly battling diaper and heat rash! However, the whole concept seemed pretty "out there" to my American mind, and I doubted that I could actually pull it off.
Recently, however, I ran across a small community of westerners who have embraced a similar diaperless method, which they've cleverly dubbed "Elimination Communication" or "Natural Infant Hygiene." I began to read up and found that most of China and India (and many parts of Africa) use similar diaperless techniques! Seriously, that's a LOT of undiapered bottoms out there!!
I also found that these western mothers were able to put into words things that my Akha friends could not. This method of caring for babies is so much a part of Akha culture, that Akha moms don't need to discuss all the ins and outs of when, where and how to allow their children to pee on cue. However, for westerners this information is vital.
I know that by now many of you are feeling intrigued, but skeptical. This post is already getting quite long, so I'll try to quickly sum up how this whole diaperless thing actually works! There are three main techniques that facilitate the process:
Rhythm and Timing: This is as simple as recognizing certain times when the baby usually pees and offering an opportunity to "go" (in a toilet, bucket or bush) at that time.
Infant Signs: This involves watching the baby for subtle signs (body language) that usually precede urination or a bowel movement... often, a facial expression. This allows mom or dad to give the baby a potty opportunity whenever he/she notices those signs.
Parental Cuing: When the parent notices the baby "going", (either in the toilet or otherwise) he makes a particular sound like "pssss" or "shhhh". The baby learns to associate this sound with the release of the muscles that control urination. Then, when "potty opportunities" are given the parent can make this sound and if the baby has to go, she will!
So, there you have it folks! The Vernons are going diaperless... or at least they're going to try!