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Signs vs. signals in elimination communication: What’s the difference and does it matter?

signs vs signals in elimination communication

I usually define an elimination communication signal as the baby doing something that the parent notices and offers the potty around, usually resulting in a catch.

Signals are one of the four roads to potty time based on what I teach, one of the frameworks in my book:

  1. baby's natural timing,
  2. baby signals,
  3. parent's intuition or generic timing (common times when babies need to go), and
  4. transition times like ins and outs.

Baby signals. Often people think, "Well, I can't do EC because my baby doesn't signal at all," but they could be showing signs that they need to go to the bathroom. I do consider signs to be signals. It can get really confusing.

Someone recently mentioned that some signals are actually signs and it got me thinking, so let's define both of those now and talk about whether it matters. I'm going to give you examples of both of them and, most importantly, we're going to talk about how they can help you potty your baby with more success today.

Signs that baby needs to potty - defined

First of all, signs. Your baby shows a sign that they need to go. This is body language, a mood shift, or something that indicates that it's time to potty.

Signals that baby needs to potty - defined

A signal is more looking to you directly and communicating that they need to go to the potty and need help, or looking to you directly while giving an obvious sign. That's a hybrid sign and signal.

Signals are direct communication and signs are things that you notice that are already happening.

Sign examples

As far as signs, here are some examples:

  1. shifting from moving a whole bunch to getting really still
  2. shifting from stillness to moving,
  3. pushing or bearing down - if they're not looking at you and doing it in their own world or swinging on the swing or laying on the ground, and they're just starting to push, that's a sign
  4. squatting when they're a little older
  5. hiding when there are a lot older
  6. moving to the bathroom - walking to the bathroom and going into the bathroom is a sign because they're not actually saying, "Hey, you come with me to the bathroom," which would be more of a signal
  7. touching the mini potty - if it's out in the living room in your play space (I highly recommend doing EC with the potty out in your space), and they go over and they touch it and start to play with it, that can be a sign. (But, if they grab that mini potty and they bring it to you, that's more of a signal. Hopefully that makes sense.)
  8. passing gas - something's going on down there, it's a sign, and if you're paying attention you'll notice it
  9. getting hyperactive, especially with an older toddler
  10. staring blankly into space - that's the opposite of hyperactivity, right? It's like moving to stillness.
  11. another sign can be a smell - "Gosh, I really smell poop” - but you look and there's nothing there. It's not necessarily like they made that smell to signal to you that they need to go; they're not using smell as a communication. I mean, maybe on another level. :)
  12. a phantom pee is also a sign. If you've got your baby in a baby carrier and you're wearing them and you feel like they've wet you or you're carrying them around and you feel like you got soaked but you didn't, it's their bladder warming up and your body feels that in their body. That could be a signal from their body to your body, but not in the direct face-to-face communication style that I'm talking about.

Signals Examples

Signals are more like:

  1. looking to you and signing potty - the T shaking, or patting their chest if that's your signal
  2. pointing to the bathroom, or crawling to the bathroom, while looking at you
  3. pushing down and bearing down while looking at you like, "Hey, hello, you see what's happening here?

There's an attempt at directly communicating with signals.

A lot of parents will give up on EC before they really even start because they don't see any signals. They don't see their child looking directly at them and communicating about it. Usually, they're starting with a mobile baby or a toddler who is on to bigger and better things at this point.

I highly encourage you, if you think that you don't have a child who signals, to also expand your horizons to include the signs above. I have a download of the four roads to potty time*, which basically gives you a list of all the possible signals including signs.

So, is it signs or signals?

I consider all the signs and all the signals I just mentioned plus everything else that I've learned over my five babies and the hundreds of thousands of you as “signals.” I'm going to call them all signals and keep it really simple.

The takeaway is that any sign or signal counts. It's all communication whether it's direct or indirect. It doesn't matter what you call it - don't overthink it.

It's all communication whether it's direct to you, indirect and you're just picking up on it, subtle, intense, verbal, non-verbal - all of it counts as information, like, “I'm going to go potty my baby right now because they're definitely telling me something,”

Babies are always giving signs that they need to pee, sleep, or eat

Some people think their baby doesn't signal but babies are always giving signs. Babies are giving signs about things all the time if you can just learn how to read them, which I can definitely help you inside my book .

Babies will also start to signal directly to you once you pick up on their signs and you start to teach them how to signal.

You can look at episode 47 of this podcast, read it, listen to it, watch the video to teach your baby how to signal.

Episode 27 is about signals, stopping, starting, and changing - when they shift and what to do about it.

Then, episode 80 is “what do you do if you find no signals and no patterns during observation time?” what do you do then?

Doing EC with zero signals

By the way, you can totally do EC with the other three roads to potty time - natural timing, common transition times, and intuition - without any signals ever.

But, what I'm trying to tell you today is that your baby is always giving some sort of sign about their state and their energy and everything else.

Babywearing FTW!

The best way to connect to those is to put your baby in a Beco Gemini baby carrier. The Beco is amazing - you can use it with an absolute newborn with no insert or anything.

Walk around, be with your baby that close for several hours every day, and you will get a lot better in touch with signals and signs - first signs, probably.

Signs eventually turn into signals

Then those signs turn into signals, and then you're looking at each other and when they give you that sign and they pass gas and you look at them and you go, "Hey, do you need to go to the bathroom?"

And then this communication loop starts to form. It's a beautiful thing, I highly recommend it, don't give up. If this is you: "I see no signals!" - that's totally fine.

Hopefully today's episode has helped you a little bit. Definitely watch one of the other three podcast episodes (listed above) to learn even more about signals.

I also have a YouTube video about signals called Signals 101 - definitely look at that video as well and download the PDF so that you can see all the examples of signals and signs.

If anybody ever says, "Well, they're not actually signaling to you because that's just a sign," I say, “It's the same thing, I'll take it.”

Whatever it is - we're going to work with that.

It's good information, we offer the potty. If it works, great, we note that in our head. If it doesn't work, great, we note that in our head - constant learning. EC is a beautiful thing.

Now I want to know:

What is your baby's current sign or signal?

Just pop it really briefly, really quickly into those comments below and, well, maybe there's a new one that we haven't listed on that download above...who knows?

xx Andrea

PS - here’s the video version of this episode in case you prefer to YouTube it. ;)

Andrea Olson

About Andrea Olson

I'm Andrea and I spend most of my time with my husband and 5 children (newborn to 8 years old) and the rest of my time teaching other new parents how to do Elimination Communication with their 0-18 month babies. I love what I do and try to make a difference in one baby or parent's life every single day. (And I love, love, love, mango gelato.)

12 Comments

  1. Natalie Natalie on October 20, 2020 at 6:48 am

    So interesting! I’ve always considered them one and the same and never worried about whether she was actively communicating the need or not (although it was SO nice when she did, before she started crawling lol)

    My baby’s sign is general “escaping” – repeatedly crawling off the bed, leaving play with the babysitter to go find mom, trying to get out of my arms or stroller, etc. Any shape or form of going away from the space she is in. On rare occasions she crawls into the bathroom itself. :)

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:29 pm

      Hi Natalie! Escaping is a great sign!! And you are so right, you don’t need baby to actively communicate to practice EC. xx Andrea

  2. Avatar Rebekah on October 20, 2020 at 6:54 am

    My 18 mo had recently learned to push his pants down, and now a signal/sign is sometimes him pushing his pants down and walking around with them at his ankles, lol!

    Even giving such an obvious sign, he usually doesn’t go the 2 metres to the potty unless I tell him to, and recently has resisted sitting, even if he is literally dripping! I’m assuming it is a independence thing, so now I’ve got to figure out how to give him that indifference without pee getting everywhere.

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:30 pm

      Oh my goodness that is too cute Rebekah! You can work on teaching him to move to the potty by racing there, or coming up with a silly song or dance. He’ll get there soon. xx Andrea

  3. Avatar AE on October 20, 2020 at 6:55 am

    I had just been thinking about these issues! Well, the actual communication, not the semantics, but I enjoy that too. I think if we consider that “signal” most likely comes from the verb “to signal”, to send a message, it’s easy to see there’s an intention to communicate, whereas a sign simply indicates something (eg: smoke is a sign of fire, and doctors look for “signs and symptoms” of an illness) so that squirming or staring into space are signs, but looking at you with a certain gesture is signalling.

    Anyway, my 13mo looks at me and then quickly crawls away from me! I just can’t understand why the mixed message, because every time I decide “you’re just playing”, even though I know it’s the right time, he pees / poos! And often, if I do catch him, after a clear signal, he resists mightily, only to go a minute later, away from me… It’s frustrating, but I can only think it goes with the developmental stage, and maybe a certain sense of humour? This is my third child, so I definitely don’t have the time to hover and over-offer.

    PS: I’m so glad I found GDF! This baby is nearly night dry, and quite dry during the day, even though he’s not walking yet (hoping he’ll walk sooner than #2 who happily crawled all the way to 16mo!) and the thought of being done with nappies in the next few months is very appealing.

    Sorry for the long post!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Hi! Potty resistance is pretty common at this age, so don’t worry. You can use distractions to keep him happy on the potty long enough to go. It sounds like once he’s walking you’ll be wrapping up quickly! xx Andrea

  4. Avatar Lizzie on October 20, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    My not-quite-mobile almost-6-month-old will squawk at me sometimes to signal! It’s so cute! The other day she was on the floor on her play mat, and I was cooking dinner. She let out a particularly loud squawk and I looked over at her. She was staring at me really intensely, and I just knew she needed to potty so I took a quick break. Sure enough, her diaper was dry and she peed in her potty!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Hi Lizzie! What a great signal! She’s definitely communicating with you. Aren’t babies remarkable? xx Andrea

  5. Avatar Anna on October 20, 2020 at 4:09 pm

    Fussing and popping off the boob are our big signs at 3 months!

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:34 pm

      Hi Anna! Young babies have such strong signals, that’s a great one! xx Andrea

  6. Avatar Rebeka on October 22, 2020 at 2:22 am

    My baby is 3 months old. His most obvious sign and signal is and has been basically fussing but starting quietly by kicking really hard while breathing heavily. Then if for some reason I haven’t taken him to potty yet, then he’d start whining crying too.
    He would do that wether he can look me in the eyes or not which is why it’s definitely both a sign and a signal.

    • Avatar Andrea Olson on October 22, 2020 at 3:35 pm

      Hi Rebeka! Such a great signal from a little one! I like how he gets more and more adamant that you take him potty lol, so cute. xx Andrea

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