Split-pants vs. Diapers: which do you use? Parents, share your split-pants experience!

When my sister in Canada was pregnant we mailed her some Chinese split-pants (开裆裤) as a joke. There’s no way she would possibly have taken them seriously. But they’re no joke to most Mainland Chinese. I can’t remember ever hearing about split-pants before we came to China, and I’d certainly never seen them in action! Most North Americans probably don’t even know what Chinese split-pants are, and the ones who do know probably aren’t aware that most Chinese people greatly prefer them to diapers. Chinese parents typically don’t use diapers, at least not like we do, not because they’re an unaffordable luxury, but because they feel diapers are horribly inferior to split-pants.

Yesterday I played The Poopsmith Song by Over the Rhine (listen / lyrics) for my students before making them compare and discuss Western and Chinese styles of potty training. Had about 30 in the class, in their 20’s to 40’s, and they produced a long list of criticisms: diapers make the baby uncomfortable, they’re environmentally unfriendly, dirty, bad for the baby’s health and skin, too hot, etc. There was only one student who had anything good to say about Western-style (i.e. diaper-using) potty training, and I’m pretty sure he was just throwing the foreign teacher/father a bone. I actually had to explain some of the major differences between North American and Chinese potty training styles because most of the class didn’t know anything about North American potty training. For example, they didn’t know that most “foreigners” don’t know about and have never even seen split-pants.

I’m not advocating one way or the other here, but I am curious about what different families do in China, especially if one or both parents is a foreigner and they’ve decided to use split-pants. I know of a couple expat/Chinese couples that do Chinese-style potty training — in both cases the husband is the foreigner. I’ve got my preferences, of course, but to each their own; I don’t really care how other families do it so long as you clean it up afterward. So, my question to couples who actually considered both methods of potty training: Which method do you use? How did you decide? What are the pros and cons in your experience? I’m genuinely curious. (But don’t worry, mom — it’s only idle curiosity. I know I promised. :) )

(P.S. – The photo is from this gallery: Morning with a village family.)

26 thoughts on “Split-pants vs. Diapers: which do you use? Parents, share your split-pants experience!”

  1. I’ve read about split pants and “elimination communication” on my cloth-diapering blogs.
    I cloth diaper, because I can’t imagine being able to keep up with how long it’s been since my son last wee-weed or pooped and knowing when it might happen again.
    I know you probably weren’t asking for MY opinion in this matter, but there you go – as a very white, very American mother of two. :D

  2. (To remind, I am a New Zealander and my wife is a Chinese; we are living in China.)

    Hehe … yep, I also had never heard/thought of the split-pants thing until I came to China.

    For our first child (now almost 4), we used cloth nappies during the day and disposable nappies at night (sorry, just lazy at night!). We didn’t use “elimination communication” at all (lazy, too!). We also didn’t try to toilet train her. She simply decided to train herself when she was a little over 2 years.

    For our second child (now 7 months) we are doing much the same thing. However, we are also doing elimination communication (with nappies, not with split-pants). In my opinion, it is well worth it, even simply for the fewer cloth nappies that I need to wash each day!

    But, it wasn’t the Chinese side which influenced our decision. It was my sister who successfully used elimination communication with her 4th child, and told us we should do it too.

    As we always say, there are “different Chinas”.

    In my local area, the young children of our friends and acquaintances (all Chinese) all wore/wear (disposable) nappies outside — these children don’t run around with split-pants, or pee in public.

    But, most of them still toilet-train (comparatively) early. Typically, they stop using nappies at around 1 year old. When they go out, the parents just take a big supply of pants. (Though we know some Chinese families who follow the “slow” Western ways, and the children still wear nappies at 3 or so.)

    However, locally, we also see numerous “countryside” grannies and nannies with split-panted children. These children are often allowed to pee anywhere and everywhere (playgrounds, sandpits, etc).

    As we understand it, the general thinking for early toilet training is that it is just about education. Just like Chinese children are taught reading early, so too are they taught toileting early. No different. Our Chinese friends certainly don’t see nappies as inferior, or as being incompatible with early toilet training.

    The other reason for early toilet training is that there is pressure from kindergartens. When children are sent at around 2 years old, they are expected to be toilet trained.

    (Anyway, my overall point in this overlong post is that there aren’t just 2 ways — Chinese vs Western — but several, overlapping ways.)

  3. I believe the Chinese end up having their children potty trained earlier because of the split pants approach. I still think I would not have liked the clean-up side.
    If your sister would like to give it a try I can give her 2 pairs of Zoi’s that she can have.

  4. We foster a little boy in China and he wears diapers. I think he wore diapers in the orphanage, too. We had to show our fairly young and educated helper how to change a diaper and she never quite caught on to how often they needed to be changed. We finally told her to change our foster son every two hours. Her doctor had told her that diapers were unhealthy and she believed it 100%.
    One of her big things was that diapers made his genitals too hot. She also believed that about the safety belt in the high chair so she wouldn’t buckle him in.
    She doesn’t work for us anymore. :)
    Most of the younger families in our part of China use disposable diapers. If there is a grandma involved, split pants are the norm.

  5. oh man you done set it off!!!! i was planning on writing a post about this cuz we do a bit of both at home … mind if i reply via CDliving in a bit? kaidangju are awesome justcuz i can squeeze booty anytime i want hahaha

  6. So the day I post this is the day she decides to, while running around naked before her bath, leave a pile on living room floor, split-pants style, for the first time ever. It must be a sign. I just cleaned it up, and I can see how that could get real old, real fast. Although compared to changing a loaded diaper… tough call. I suppose it would depend what exactly she poops on. Cloth couch, no thanks. Tile floor? That’s a little easier.

    @Sascha – Yeah, parenting is like politics and religion, especially on the internets. But i did try write about it as non-committally as possible. :) Sure, write it at Chengdu Living. I always appreciate a little link love.

    @Amber – we always want your opinion around here! We would have gone with cloth diapers, and still might for #2, but our daughter being a preemie and all that sort of threw us off our groove.

    @Patty – Yeah, kids get potty trained earlier here. Of course grown men also treat the city sidewalk like they’re camping in the woods, but whatever. People certainly have a different relationship to and expectations about public spaces, especially streets, sidewalks, and the outer walls of buildings. Haha, I’ll ask Joanna and see what she says. We sent her Hello Kitty ones.

  7. Hey Joel,

    What about making your kid go pee in the middle of the foreign foods section at da run fa? Any ideas about that? A couple of days ago, that’s what I saw. I’ve seen lots of others, but that one was the first one I saw inside the grocery store!

  8. It’s been my impression that it’s not a Chinese-vs-Western thing, but a Poor-vs-Wealthy thing. An easy observation is to look at the ratio of diaper/split pants in Taiwan and HK. When Chinese people can buy carpet, they will buy diapers (or maybe when they buy diapers, they’ll then buy carpet). This is further exasperated by the high cost of diapers in China.

    As for me and my home, we definitely use diapers. I already feel bad for when our dog has accidents, I’d feel awkward having to rub our daughter’s nose in her poo too! “Bad girl!”

  9. 開襠褲



  10. I assume that the sheer force of modern living will eventually put a major dent in the split-pants tradition, but as for this generation new parents? My students are all well-off, and that class had a lot of moms, and they all objected to diapers for a lot of reasons, and none of those reasons were economic. They (more likely their children) may eventually cave in and give up split-pants, but they still feel that split-pants are superior in terms of the child’s health and development, just maybe not a good fit for modern urban living. Though from the split-pants episodes we see in restaurants, the subway, Sunday school, our friends’ apartment floors, etc., people are sure trying hard to make it work!

    “When Chinese buy carpet…”
    When we lived in Taibei, working for a brand new school targeting the rich parents, the manager told us he couldn’t put carpet in the classrooms (to lessen the noise) because the parents would complain — carpeted floors are considered much less clean. Point is, Chinese people sometimes just don’t want stuff we assume they would, even when they can afford it, for whatever their own reasons. Besides, if there’ one place Chinese families are willing to overspend, it’s on their child!

    @Glenn — I’m going to respond to your dance class post, once I remember how to sign in to my sina account! Many chinas indeed! How would you characterize your local area, where they wear diapers outside?

    @Sandy — Hearing about her concerns about his genitals getting too hot makes me rethink one of the complaints my students had about diapers, that they’d make the child “too hot.” I assumed they just meant too hot and uncomfortable in the summer, but now I wonder if there was more too it than that.

  11. @Joel,

    True on the carpet thing, but I think I’m still right on the diaper thing, I RARELY saw split pants in Taibei, and I think a large factor there is average income.

  12. @Joel,
    Yeah, sina makes it so difficult to comment. It was a bad decision by me to set up the blog there, but too lazy to change now. Hope you figure it out!
    My local area? We live on the 中山大学 (Sun Yat-sen University) campus, in Guangzhou (for those who don’t know, it is ranked around 10th in China).
    One thing that puzzles us is that there are huge rows of disposable nappies in the shops here, dominating the baby sections (along with formula). And yet your students were so clearly against them. Is it a north-south difference? An educational difference? Or what?

  13. @Glenn – we have racks of diapers in the Carrefours and Walmarts here in Tianjin, too, and a token selection at the smaller local supermarkets. And they’re expensive! People use them, but not as a regular daily thing. We’ve been out to the park with parents who’ve brought their kid in a diaper. My students weren’t *against* diapers, they just felt that diapers were inferior in terms of the child’s health an development. Maybe one major thing is that all these professional women, with cash to burn, aren’t raising their own kids; their maids and parents are, and maids and grandparents are much more likely to go split-pants, I guess.

    @Chip – yeah, but in Taibei I saw diapers on DOGS! They’ve got something screwy going on down there in Taibei. :) I think income definitely plays a role because it makes diapers a possibility, but I’m guessing that the pressures of modern urban living in an extremely dense city are what make the convenience of diapers attractive to the point that people choose them in spite of their traditional beliefs/concerns about diapers negative effect on the baby’s health. Wow that was a long sentence.

  14. I have a 22 month old and I would definitely do split pants for potty training at home at this stage (if only she would squat to go–different issue altogether!)–but not in public. Given the amount of attention my little æ··è¡€ daughter gets, I’m thinking keeping her covered up in public is a good idea. That, and I’ll have to keep an closer eye out once the weather warms up and people are out more, but I’m thinking 22 months is awfully old for split pants. Most kids seem to be trained enough to be out of them long before that.

    Where we live, split pants seem to be the norm. Maybe diapers when out in public (apartment playground does not count), maybe not. Have seen parent in mall pull down child’s pants and have him pee into a diaper, which I thought was polite.

    That being said, I said something about split pants to my Chinese inlaws, who left the country almost 30 years ago but were here until their youngest was 10. None of them had any memory of split pants being used.

  15. @ HE
    Your question is not only a difficult one in China, but a difficult one the world over. In any country, it is not unusual to be out with a child who needs to pee, and be out of range of a toilet.

    In New Zealand, baby shops often sell portable potties. I bought one a couple of years ago, and use it a lot here in China. I wrote about it on my blog — http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_62ca074f0100g7bq.html.

    If you can’t get a shop-bought portable potty, then a plastic container packed in the baby-gear bag works equally well.

    (But, unfortunately, wet pants sometimes happen, so prepare yourself with plastic bags and spare clothes. That’s life with children, in any country!)

    As far as trying to explain to children why they shouldn’t pee anywhere when they see others doing it, this is just the first of many “but my friends are doing …” issues. And again, this is not unique to China. This is simply about raising children with an awareness of differences, and them learning values and how to make decisions.

    In this case, I asked my daughter if she would like to play in someone else’s pee. If, when she is playing in the sandpit, she wants to build sandcastles of pee. If, when she is sitting and rolling on the grass, she wants her clothes wet from someone else’s pee. If, when she is climbing a tree, she wants to step in pee at the bottom. I guess she has picked up my values, because she would only ever pee outside if there was absolutely no other choice.

  16. An equally difficult question is what to do when you are out and about in China with a young potty trained child. We raised our daughter with cloth and disposable diapers and she has a good grasp of the potty at home. However, as we all know finding clean toilets in china is a challenge. This is even more difficult when you only have a matter to minutes to find one for your child. On the street, at parks and playgrounds its often hopeless. After a few incidents of wet pants, we finally gave in to local customs and let her squat when she needs to. I hate to say it, but its so much easier than running and risking wet pants. Its also easier than trying to explain to her that she can’t just squat and go like the other kids she sees every day. I should mention that we are in a play group with a french family and a half German family and they both have no qualms about letting their kids pee like the locals; apparently its also done that way in Eruope (but not with split pants). Anyway, this also gets back to the split pants subject, because we are planning to have another child here and having spent all that time in diapers just to give into peeing outside once they are potty trained anyway, I’m tempted to try out the split pants the next time around. At least then we won’t have to teach them to squat once the are potty trained. I just hope our daughter can readjust when we get back to the states! I can’t imagine my old neighbors would take kindly to her dropping her draws and leaving puddles all over town.

  17. We just brought our 3 year old daughter home from China, she was in an orphanage her whole life and wore split pants. I don’t see that this helped her be potty trained at all, now that we are home in the US we tried underpants and she has no concept of telling someone she needs to go. We still find her squating and peeing in her pants the majority of the time. We have gone back to diapers. As far as poo goes she does not let us know at all, can’t imagine having to clean it up off the floor. Also in our group of children that were all adopted the majority had small scars on their bottoms/genitals due to being open in split pants. That just seems like it would bring on a host of infections.

  18. It sounds like the orphanage in the comment above was neglecting their babies. Using split pants is a very ethical means to potty train your baby. You use the split pants as an easy way to take them to the potty when you see they have to go (you have to learn their particular cues) as when you hold them with their knees up, their little bums hang out. This method of potty training, also called Elimination Communication, helps babies stay aware of their elimination cues and not lose their ability from birth to hold their pee and poo. By sitting in a dirty diaper all day we train this out of them (no animal wants to soil themselves). Here’s a bit on EC in my blog… http://theartandsciencedoula.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/what-is-elimination-communication-imagine-a-world-without-diapers/

    I just bought my first pair of split pants to go with some awesome diapers made for natural potty training called Ecapants. I wish I could find split pants from China on the Internet!!!

  19. when I was in china like most north americans I had never experienced china solution to potty training, the shock of a bare bottom on my conditioned sensibilities was acute. at first I realized the beauty in a culture not yet ashamed of its bodies needs or afraid for their childs saftey. Considering the tremendous waste of disposable diapers, as well as the unsafe illegal dummping I hope china is not afraid to bare it bottom….

  20. I live in Holland and did elimination communication with my little girl. I did use diapers sometimes, but I also used splitpants. I think it’s a great invention. Around here, people who do EC, don’t take their child out of the house bare bottomed. That’s a no-go. And your child leaving a pile of poo in the supermarket… hm… I think the supermarket owner doesn’t want you in anymore.

  21. Mywife is a naturalized Chinese-American and very Americanized. We also have a 9 month old mixed blood daughter. My wife and I decided against split pants early on, each for different reasons. My reason is that I refuse to have my childs genitals exposed in public. I think exposing your privates in public is disgusting. I also dislike seeing grannies holding babies on city sidewalks whistling to entice babies to pee or poo in public, making people walk around them. I also don’t want to expose my daughters privates where some pervert can get his jollies looking at her. My daughter never sits in her dirty diapers. When she goes she is changed as soon as it happens

    My wife looks at it as a potential for health problems. She has friends who are doctors who say they are seeing more babies who wear the split pants are easily catching colds, have diarrhea and even suffer urethritis.

    I recently saw a picture and article on Shanghailist.com on a mainland Chinese woman who in the middle of the terminal walkway in Tapei holding her son over some newspapers so he could poo, but when you look at the picture you can clearly see she was doing it in front the restrooms

    My wife laid down the law early to her mother and sisters that split pants would not be acceptable. Her oldest sister’s son and his wife recently had a baby of their own. After seeing the advantages of disposible diapers she now uses them on her grand daughter, much to the chagrin of the wifes mother,

  22. Hi! I’m a mother of 2 little girls (9 and 4 years old) Split pants is a no-no here. :-) I just hated it when I take my girls to playground and see little kids wearing split pants and they’re on the slide. Yikes!

    Sometimes, I meet some people telling me to put more clothes on my daughters (colder season) because for them, my daughters are not wearing enough clothing. I just smile at them and tell them to cover their kids/grandkids bottoms first cos obviously, they’re not wearing enough clothing.

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