What Used to Happen With Baby Pee?
October 5, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

How were babies' excretions handled before "modern" diaper technology?

I just read this question. Summary: diaper is leaking in the middle of the night, necessitating 3 AM changes. Lots of the responses said to get the 'overnights' thicker diapers that absorb a ton of pee.

What historically was the experience like for babies / parents before these miraculous absorbent diapers? Would the parents get up multiple times per night to change pee-soaked rags? How were they held on before safety pins? What was the diaper-changing process like? How has diaper technology changed from ancient times? Were kids potty-trained faster in olden days?

I am interested in any answer, varying from culture to culture and in any historical time periods.
posted by amicamentis to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
This page has some information
posted by pipeski at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well lots of folks still use cloth diapers. Which are just rectangular pieces of cloth.

Those have been around a long time. They used to be tied at the corners before pins were common.
posted by French Fry at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2012

Many cultures use this technique.

Also, if you watch the documentary "Babies", you'll see a Nambian woman casually wipe her infant daughter's poopy bum on her leg, then take a corn cob an scrub off the poop. Nary a diaper to be seen.
posted by Specklet at 11:28 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cloth diapers, multi layers. An absorbant cloth to soak up pee, sometimes covered in woolen outer diaper that stays pretty dry because of something to do with real wool absorbency stuff I never looked at because wool and florida weather do not mix.

Also, elimination communication. You've got a baby on your hip or back all day you know when he or she is gonna go. I used to leave one of my kids naked and 1 or 2 times out of 10 I'd be faced with a naked time blow out.
posted by tilde at 11:30 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chinese split pants are an alternative to diapers that has been around for a very long time.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:33 AM on October 5, 2012

ocherdraco beat me to it, but:

Canadian is agog.

I was trying to find the story I heard on NPR about how in China the babies are given to the granny, who whistles and the baby pees on command. No luck, but I remember I called my sister and before I could say anything she said, "Did you just hear that story on NPR about the Chinese babies?"
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:39 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Little known fact: Babies, even very young ones, don't like peeing/pooping on their parents or in their 'nest'. Before they go, they often squirm or cry or give other signs telling you they want to pee/poop. If you're outside or in a place with earthen floors, you can just hold them away from your body or over a receptacle and they will pee/poop without dirtying you or themselves. Our culture has decided to ignore this instinct and instead teaches babies to poop/pee into diapers. At a certain age, we then 're-train' them to recognize when they have to go. Kids that go diaperless from the start are often potty trained by 18 or even 12 months! Kids that need to be re-trained not to poop/pee on themselves usually learn to go potty around 3 or even later.
posted by The Toad at 11:43 AM on October 5, 2012 [25 favorites]

What The Toad said. Most places where diapers don't exist, children are fairly close to their family always, and communicates when its time.
posted by mumimor at 11:52 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

To elaborate on what The Toad wrote, Diaper-Free Baby has a description of how elimination communication (aka infant toilet training) works. It's pretty amazing. Even a couple-month old baby can hold it to go in a toilet instead of in a diaper or pants.
posted by medusa at 11:52 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another factor to think about: modern standards of hygeine and general environmental non-smelliness are very modern. And baby poo, for breastfed babies, isn't really very noxious at all compared to poo from formula-fed or weaned babies.

So I would imagine that for the overwhelming majority of humans throughout history, breastfeeding their children well past the first year, and living without running water, among their own and their livestock's waste, with no organized sanitation...baby poo was probably just not that a big deal. If baby looks like she needs to go, hold her over a bush, if you don't make it to the bush, well, whatev.
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 11:59 AM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think that people in the diaper-using but pre-industrial cultures often diapered their babies in whatever cloth they had. They sometimes stuffed the diaper with absorbent "disposable" material like moss, dry grass, whatever to keep the worst of the business off the cloth. (That would have been less important once washing machines became a reality, but pretty important if you had to wash your diapers by hand.)

I suspect that a lot of diapered kids were just wet and dirty a lot more of the time than we would currently consider okay. I think that people just had different standards for how wet or dirty a baby could be before you had to change them: Even fairly recently, people did not wash a pee-only cloth diaper after every use. Someone told me that her grandmother was thought of as extremely fastidious because she only used-dried-reused a pee diaper two or three times before washing. And life in general was less clean, I think. The impression I have is that modern urban life in the West is insanely fastidious and clean in ways that are largely invisible to us. For instance, from elder women I have heard that babies of their day often didn't wear diaper covers at all, they just ran around with some kind of cloth tied around their bottoms until it got too wet. I suspect if you did that now in most urban settings, people would be pretty alarmed.

A lot of cloth diapering types use wool pants as diaper covers. I've made and used them myself, and the pitch, that the wool, when lanolinized, has magical properties that contain most moisture while still letting the diaper breathe, is for real. It is not clear to me if pre-Huggies people used wool covers extensively, though. (I think there is a bit of inaccurate romanticization of the past that happens in parenting lore.)

For overnight, a lot of people who cloth-diaper using traditional materials (so not the ultra-absorbent microfiber dealios) use a LOT of diapering material, so much so that sometimes the kid's butt lifts off the mattress.

And of course, not everyone uses diapers. A lot of humans basically did and do "elimination communication" with their babies, some combination of cueing the infant to eliminate, and learning the baby's signs that it's about to, and then responding (by, for instance, holding a baby in split pants over a gutter). Even in diaper-using cultures, pre-disposables, mothers were really interested in getting kids out of diapers. My mother-in-law has told me that the generation of her parents potty-trained at a year on the dot. They were probably actually moving into a form of elimination communication, less than the 12-month-old managing their own toileting from that point. But either way I can imagine that you'd be really motivated to get the kid out of diapers if diapers were a by-hand endeavor!

Re: elimination communication, I read a lot about it and attempted it at various times with my baby. I gave it multiple serious tries and ultimately, I am not convinced that the glowing PR it receives in the crunchy parenting universe is totally right on. I think that what you probably see in traditional environments that practice it is much less "This baby is fastidious and only ever poops when held over the ground and cued" and more "The mom catches her baby's signs some of the time but also frequently gets pooped on and there is poop all over the walkway outside the house, and that is less of a big deal in her culture than it would be in Chicago."

I also think it's kind of a market-forces issue, where if you are a tribal woman who is in physical contact with her infant basically 24/7, and who has no access to modern diapering materials and a washing machine, it's a good deal to put in the effort to be extremely aware of your child's cues. If you are a woman in London with a job and an apartment where it would suck to have the kid poop on the rug all the time, and access to Pampers, the equation looks very different. I don't think it's as simple as kids being trained away from their natural instincts. (And I've read all the books and totally wanted to be a believer.) The people I know who did EC did not wind up with a kid who was reliably managing their own toileting at the young age touted in the books. At all. They wound up pretty much where the parents of kids who had been in diapers all along wound up, telling the child "Now it's time to go on the potty", and sometimes having great success, and sometimes not.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 12:02 PM on October 5, 2012 [26 favorites]

Native Americans stuffed babies' pants with cattail down. A buddy of mine from Baltistan tells me that in his village they stuff kids' pants with dried, pulverized goat feces which they then throw on their crops.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:20 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have a lot of historical/cultural info, but it's certainly possible to potty-train kids literally from day one. I was a complete skeptic but we've had great success with elimination communication. Our 19-month-old regularly (though certainly not exclusively) sits herself down on the potty or asks us to put her on the toilet, and has done so for months. She has woken up in a dry diaper more often than not since before she was one. We've had only a few dozen poopy diapers in our daughter's entire life. The few times we've had to deal with poop landing in the wrong place have overall been far more pleasant than the years of near-daily cleaning up a poopy crotch & frequent poopy clothes we had with the older two.
posted by sudama at 12:48 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

The short answer in recent Western culture is: laundry. Lots and lots of laundry. You can read a modern history of diapering pre-disposables here. It covers the materials but doesn't cover the enormous, incredible labour-intensity of laundering those diapers. My husband's grandmother is 93.

She will happily tell you about having five kids, two in diapers at all times for a decade, and the amount of laundry she did with boiled water, a wash tub, brightening flakes, a mangle and a line for drying. She did it every other day in the sweating heat, frozen cold, heavily pregnant, post-partum, etc for did I mention ten years without a break?

The burden of domestic labour prior to the 1950s (or 60s, in many places) would blow our tiny modern minds.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:02 PM on October 5, 2012 [13 favorites]

They sometimes stuffed the diaper with absorbent "disposable" material like moss, dry grass, whatever to keep the worst of the business off the cloth.

I minored in cultural anthropology in college, and I seem to remember that traditional Inuit (the Arctic people sometimes called "Eskimos") carried their infants on their backs inside their hoods (I guess they wore a separate hat during early motherhood) and filled the hood with moss and/or ptarmigan or other arctic bird feathers for absorbency. I believe they also used their own version of "elimination communication" as soon as it was deemed possible for the infant to participate. (Who wants poop in their hood?) So even in forbidding subzero climes ways were devised to contain infant excretions without modern diapers.
posted by RRgal at 1:25 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bet a great majority of the planet's babies do more or less what I saw this young Filipina do in her grandmother's compound of homes in the barangay. She was running around naked, may have been around 14 or 16 months old. She had to go so she just squatted on teh front porch and went. Her grandma came around a little embarressed while washing it away with a bucket of water (that has to be carried up and in from the well) but I suspect its a convenient location if child yells out that they have to go and wait to hear from the adult where exactly the spot is.
posted by infini at 1:33 PM on October 5, 2012

In turkic central asia a special type of cradle is used ("beshik" - photos here). Basically, the baby is swaddled securely and his or her butt placed over a hole with a cup where waste is collected throughout the time the baby is in the cradle. Thus the baby doesn't end up soaking in his or her own waste. More detailed description here.
posted by scrambles at 2:22 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

We use cotton flatfold cloth diapers from a local diaper service with our twins. At night we double up (i.e. they're wearing two diapers) and never have leaks overnight. It doesn't take much technology to handle things.
posted by zsazsa at 5:07 PM on October 5, 2012

well, back in my day, you young'uns..... I babysat a lot before there were disposables. Cloth diaper, plastic diaper cover. Usually 2 diapers at night when the baby reached toddlerhood and had a bigger bladder.
posted by theora55 at 5:48 PM on October 5, 2012

when my husband was in Africa he asked a mama what she did about diapers--no well, no washing clothes for about 2 weeks, and then only if you had to. She showed him her beautiful flowers outside the hut on the not-so-hot side. She showed him how even tiny ones squirm, you walk over to the flowers, hold the baby...fertilizer. She was very vehement that they were not to be eaten, just pretty-baby-helped-flowers.
posted by msleann at 2:12 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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