Split Pants, the Anti-Diaper

When I arrived in Beijing in the fall, a friend was just leaving. On her last day, her Facebook status bar read, “Farewell to…publicly urinating babies!”

She’s not the first to complain about the “split pants” phenomenon. If you’ve been to China, especially poorer parts of it, then you’ve seen plenty of baby bottoms mooning you from under crotchless pants. Sometimes these overexposed babies are toddling around the sidewalk spontaneously squatting down for a pee. Other times their mothers are holding their legs open and whistling up a storm (“Xuuuuu, xuuuu”) as a stream of natural fertilizer hits the nearest tree.

The ubiquitous baby moon


What’s up with that? Why do Chinese parents relieve their kids in public and what’s whistling got to do with it? I looked into it (not literally) and found that split pants — or “kaidangku” (literally “open crotch pants”) — are no simple matter. Not so much a fashion choice, they have more to do with tradition, income, and the environment.

Google isn’t much help when it comes to “split pants.” Your top hits will lead you to a Youtube video of some poor kid named Alice bending over to pick something up, a SpongeBob SquarePants song, and pictures of Brad chivalrously covering up Angie’s leather-clad behind on the red carpet. Apparently Chinese baby bottoms aren’t that relevant in online searches.

I’ll have to draw from memory to explain the intended function of split pants. Chinese parents put their kids into these pants with holes cut into the middle at the ages of one to three. The idea is to give toddlers the convenience of squatting down anywhere, anytime, without soiling their clothes, while avoiding a diaper rash (from traditional cloth diapers) on a hot day. I find this sensible enough, given Chinese attitudes about waste (imagine people who keep the plastic covers on their sofas for years throwing out thick bundles of disposable diapers daily).

So it’s a tradition, but it is unsightly and unhygienic in an urban setting, where baby poop may be sitting on the sidewalk for days (or worse, get stuck to somebody’s leather soles). Before you hate on the split pants, consider that it’s a greener alternative than disposable diapers.

The cloth versus disposable diaper debate has been going on in America ever since Pampers showed up on supermarket shelves in 1961. The diaper industry maintains that cloth diapers are just as damaging to the environment as their fancy products. Yes, cleaning cloth diapers uses up water and electricity, but I find it hard to believe that two extra loads of household laundry every week outdoes the disposable diaper factories. Additionally, disposables are 70% made of trees (more than 200,000 trees a year, in fact) and 30% of petroleum. When they’re used up, they add to landfills and can contaminate water supplies. Even without statistics, you can intuit how much waste a single-use disposable diaper generates compared to a cloth diaper, which can be used on average 75 times.

So what about “green diapers”? In 1981, American mommies and daddies could buy “biodegradable” diapers for the first time, but there is still no evidence to back up the environmental claim. Nothing really biodegrades in a landfill for lack of adequate exposure to oxygen and sunlight. The reincarnation process for these supposedly “green” disposables is probably a few hundred years.

After reading that the average American baby goes through 5000 diapers before being potty trained, I made up my mind to swathe my future children in cloths. I’ll at least give the natural method a try before reaching for Pampers. (I still haven’t made up my mind about split pants though – perhaps there’s a more aesthetic way to raise earth babies?). When I tried to find out more on proper use of cloth diapers, I discovered fervent proponents on the internet, mostly outside of China. There are countless websites that discuss “traditional” potty training techniques and attire (including split pants), and parents debate the issue as hotly as right wingers defend their right to own guns.

I finally found my way to a reliable source, the “the pee and poop guru”. Ingrid Bauer is the author of the definitive guide to diaperless child rearing and coined the term “elimination communication” (EC). EC describes traditional methods of potty training babies (starting as early as birth) and draws from cultures as far ranging as Indian and Italian. The idea is to avoid diapers as much as possible, if not entirely.

The most active bulletin boards on EC and split pants I found are run by American mothers who adopted Chinese babies. Many of them were shocked to find that the 9-month olds they brought home could find their way to the potty and “go” on command. Others were appalled by the split pants they saw at orphanages and put their adoptees in disposable diapers ASAP. The most interesting thing I learned about EC is that “cueing” is an essential part of the method. The cue for babies to relieve themselves is usually a whistling or a clucking of the tongue by the caretaker. Aha! This explains why Chinese mothers whistle while holding out their bare-bottomed babies to pee in public!

Next time you see a split pant-wearing baby in China (this is getting rarer and rarer as Proctor & Gamble take over the market) you might instinctively wrinkle your nose in disgust. But think also about the environmental benefits of these children’s unsightly attire, consider the affordability of disposable diapers for average Chinese parents, and read up a little on schools of toilet training thought. There are plenty of greenies and earth mothers out there who will make a better case for the split pant than I can!

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14 thoughts on “Split Pants, the Anti-Diaper

  1. If for no other reason than the early potty training (by U.S. standards) I can’t fathom why someone wouldn’t go for split pants in general. So the practice needs to be modified to be less public for our overly sensitive western urban areas; that’s totally doable.

  2. I found your site looking for split-crotch pants to _buy_ because we practice EC so it’s ironic that the topic of your post is to evaluate Chinese practice of diaper-free elimination!

    This is not so much a case for the split-pant since I am only beginning to try them, but for natural infant hygiene. In an attempt to be greener than cloth/disposable, our family decided to use EC/natural infant hygiene. We started at 6-weeks-old and our now 9-mo-old baby uses the toilet for 50% of his pees, all poops, and wears a regular diaper as a backup (in case we don’t pick up on his cues fast enough). We still are able to fit into civilization and do not scandalize people … And best of all it seemed to clear up his symptoms of colic permanently (when we began at 6-weeks-old).

    It can be a great solution for those who can invest the time (DH and I are S/WAHPs). Getting up at 4am to take the baby to the potty can be a challenge though for late-risers like me. Type-A parents need to make sure their ambitions don’t make them militant about using the potty so we try to be extremely laid-back about it. Also, we found that once we began, we needed to stay committed – DS had developed an awareness of his needs to pee/poop and couldn’t just ignore them anymore and go in his diaper.

    Having said all of that, we’re quite happy we went this route, esp. when we see our traditional-diapering friends _still_ cleaning up poopy diapers, and their babies are years older than our own.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble on, just felt invited by the last statement of your blog post! 🙂

    – greenie/earth mother 🙂

  3. Hey this was doubtlessly one of the best blurbs I’ve had the chance to view on the topic so far. I do not understand where you get all of your info but keep it coming! I’m going to send a few individuals your way to check this out. Fantastic, simply fantastic. I’m have just started getting into spitting out articles myself, nothing compared to your writing skills (lol) but I’d love for you to check out my stuff sometime! right here

    • Thank you for your feedback. This diaper / split pant thing is garnering a lot of interest, surprisingly. I wrote it as a way to explain some cultural quirks about China but a little research yielded great info about childrearing practices. Please feel free to email me at qriouslife@gmail.com if there’s anything I can read of yours. The link you posted didn’t work. Cheers.

  4. Hi,
    I too came across this site while trying to find where I could buy/or get a pattern for split pants. I have two children 6 and 7 who I used disp nappys for and toilet trained along with tradition in the western world. I was thrilled when my 20mo biy was pretty much done by20months,although my daughter took a little longer.

    I now have a 5mo.This time around I decided to use modern cloth.I have been thrilled with the result.Sure,a bit more washing but once there is 5 in the house,when does the washing ever stop???? I also then became interested in using sign language and the potential for early toilet training. Once I discovered EC, (only end of last week) I started Sat. Caught 5 wees and was SOOOO excited. Thought I’d be ages before I got a poo,but then sure enough SUn I got two more wees and a poo. Much more satisfying and rewarding than battling with an independant 2/3/4yo who could go on their own if they wanted but need bribery or entising some how.

    Anyway,sorry to ramble, but was very happy to see so many +ve comments here.

    I have to admit I went to China 18months ago with a g/friend and we thought the split pants were incredibly,and we suitably shocked in the beginning.Although we did find it hard in Shanghai to ever see many poos around because there were cleaners out on the streets before the crack of dawn. I have to say if you can get past seeing it,then it actually makes alot of sense. SO I have gone full 180 from initail thoughts.

    Why teach a baby to have no control and wee/poo in pants and then have to unteach them???? Food for thought.

    Kirsty

  5. Oh,and one more thing. I agree with another messager… it is not like we can’t fit it in, in a civilized manner. Like use a potty or the toilet! The interesting thing is you have to put in about as much effort with an older child to get them over the line… so why not do it with a littlie? Doesn’t take that much time after waking or at times during the day… and once they can hold longer it will be less time consuming!

  6. Pingback: Poo and wee elimination the Chinese way | the OTHER baby blog

  7. It seems like an interesting solution – when they are walking around, is the crotch still split? So their parts are all touching the outdoor elements?

    Would it work if parents could get kids to a bathroom so that they’re not just dumping all over the street?

    Seems like a good alternative to diapers but kind of scary in the event of a mishap…

  8. another question:
    i bought a book on EC and will be at home for only 5 months. Do you think EC is do-able if we’re taking the baby to a sitter during the day? Is 5 mos enough to establish a pattern that you could at least maintain at home during evenings and weekends? We just can’t afford right now to have one parent at home all the time. But I’m totally stoked about the idea of potty training early and eliminating the mess and expense of diapers.
    I’m 4 mos preg right now.

  9. I just spent six weeks in Hefei, for the second time. Rather than seeing these less and less, I saw these everywhere. I wished I had a camera for a mother standing over her 4to5-year old in the middle of an open market. I do think that at some point the benefits of private urination will dominate most decisions. But for the rural province of Anhui, public waste disposal is as natural as nursing babies. Cultures vary a bit from city to city, province to province, but make no mistake, the difference is cultural.

  10. Pingback: New Year’s Intention

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