In tropical areas like West Africa where the climate is hot, most of the kids were naked and their moms observed them for signs that they wanted to “go”. Some of the methods used to collect baby waste were between weird, hilarious and outrageous.
In some cultures, moms used pots to collect the baby’s waste. A mom would usually put her baby on the pot once she noticed some bowel movement. Keeping the pots handy meant she had to move around with it. This also aided early potty training for the kids.
In some Native American homes, moms used the natural things around them to catch baby waste. Milkweed leaf was wrapped around the baby’s bum to hold pee and poop. One has to wonder how the leaves held anything. It may have helped with the poop – depending on the strength – but the pee must have found some way to seep out.
However, the milkweed was not the only thing used. In some places, parents used rabbit fur. The rabbit fur was made in such a way that there was space in the bottom. This space was used to stuff grass into the baby’s bum and the grass was changed from time to time as they got soiled.
Wood shaving is well-known as the carpenter's waste used as bedding in the farmer's pen. If you've ever been on a farm then you are aware of how absorbent wood shavings are. Their unique ability to even absorb smells make them the perfect companion for the farmer. This absorbency quality may have been what encouraged moms to use wood shavings to hold the babies' waste. They shoved the wood shavings into the baby’s loin garments and changed it intermittently.
Medieval Europe had babies swaddled. The babies were often wrapped tightly in wool bands. The bands were worn tightly around the baby and left a little loose around the bottom to enable change of fresh fabric. Swaddles were used mostly in cold and dry climates as it helped to keep the babies warm. Babies were often left unattended in the swaddle for long periods of time. Sometimes the swaddles were unwrapped to dispose of the baby’s waste and the wraps were placed over the fire to dry. These wraps were barely washed as the people believed that urine served as a disinfectant. They were placed over the fire to dry and re-used on the infant. Even babies were not bathed on a regular basis. Whenever the swaddles were removed, the baby’s bum was wiped with a certain type of leaf and powdered with absorbent wood dust formed by woodworms.
The Eskimos put moss in seal skin to absorb the babies' waste. The seal skin was made with the fur turned inside. The back was completely covered, some space was left in front and leg space was created. This seal skin served as pants. Much like the idea of diaper pants introduced years later. Chunks of moss were shoved into the pants which were changed as they got soiled.
The depression-era had moms recycling flour sacks. They cut out flour bags and tied them around their babies’ bum to collect waste. The flour sacks were absorbent and beautifully made by flour companies - a marketing strategy, one would think. These features made the idea acceptable among many families.
Among the Chinese it was common practice, still found among them today, to leave the child’s cloth open underneath. In this way, the mom could just hold the child squat over a space or pot and clean the child afterward.
In certain climates, the babies were often naked especially in warm seasons. Moms often held the babies in a squat position over their knees or feet and made whispering sounds which the babies learned to respond to overtime. This method has been in use over time especially in the tropics.
Evidently, moms have consistently and innovatively sought convenient ways to hold their babies’ waste, experimenting with as many absorbent materials as they could think of. Diapering has obviously been around for longer than we know, just not in the name that we know it. Being able to collect the baby’s waste over a period of time allowed the mom to attend to other house chores or even help on the farm.
The later part of the 1800s saw an emergence of intentional diapering. Most American and European families used linen, cotton fabric or stockinette around the baby’s bum. They kept the linen in place with safety pins. A man named came up with the idea of the modern disposable diapers when he introduced tissue-like papers that were placed underneath rubber pants and disposed of after use.
The downside of the ancient methods of collecting waste was that they didn’t consider the hygiene of the baby. Often babies were left unattended to in their own waste even when crying in discomfort. This resulted in irritated and bruised skin and diseases. Doctors later began to encourage moms to change their babies more often.
Non-diapering methods of collecting pee and poop have influenced modern potty training methods. Elimination communication which is a method where moms observed for signs that their babies wanted “to go” has influenced modern potty training. Moms would usually hold their babies in squat positions and make cooing sounds that they learned to respond to.
Nowadays, if your sister was visiting with her 8-month-old daughter for a couple of hours and she ran out of diapers following a hot poop; and if the closest shop was an hour's drive away with the rains in full torrent, how will you manage the situation? There's the thought of a generous distribution of pee on your leather couch and the likelihood of another round of poo. Plus you're single and love your little clean space.
Imagine that you are the mom visiting your sister and you ran into a diaper emergency. You barely want to think about it. Yet there was a time when diapers did not exist. Moms invented strategies to help their kids “go”. Most of these strategies were hinged on the culture and weather of the people.
This is how diapers have developed over time.