If you arrive in China during warm weather, it will likely only take a day or two before you encounter your first bare bum in public. While it is becoming less and less common in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the 开裆裤 （pronounced kai dang ku), or split pants are still alive and well all over the rest of China. I for one hope they never leave; I think they are fun (no, really!), affordable, and environmentally and developmentally advantageous over disposable or cloth diapers (nappies).
The advantages of using split pants instead of cloth or disposable diapers are many, though it took me quite some time to realize many of them. At first when I arrived in China I just felt awful for the poor mothers who needed to buy expensive carpet cleaners to clean their rugs daily instead of simply changing a diaper. It seemed like an unreasonable amount of work just to save on the cost of diapers. I wrote home and sent pictures joking about how peculiar this was to me.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the split pants are not just great on the environment (*An estimated 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the US, resulting in a possible 3.4 million tons of used diapers adding to landfills each year), but they are also good for the child. I spoke with many mothers from Jiangyin to Beijing and all the way back south to Nanjing. I discovered that these mothers instinctively seem to know when their infant is going to need to relieve himself. They can notice patterns related to other activities like nursing and sleeping. I discovered that most babies need to pee soon after they wake up, and at predictable times after nursing. Not only do the babies become predictable, they also have cues that they give to their parents that may include a type of frown, or holding still, or squirming. Regardless of what the cue is, the parents learn to watch for it and be prepared. When the baby needs to be relieved, the mother or father holds the baby in a specific position every time, and makes the same sound every time– usually a SSSS SSSS or a shuu shuu sound. Before too long the baby actually makes the sound when they need to go. Many of these mothers claim that their child had become completely potty trained by about 4-6 months! Can you imagine!?!
The website babycottonbottoms.com claims that an average baby in America will go through several thousand diapers in a lifetime, and most are not completely independent of diapers until about 20 or even 30 months! Finally, Consumer Reports (July 8, 2009) claims that the average child will go through $1500-2000 worth of diapers before they are potty trained. For many Chinese, this was an impossible expense until the last ten years or so. Also, for these Chinese babies, diaper rashes are non-existent.
While I certainly didn’t understand or appreciate kai dang ku before, I honestly think they are great now! If any of my readers know of other reasons the Chinese use these special pants please do share!
*Carl Lehrburger, Jocelyn Mullen, and C. V. Jones, “Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis,” January 1991
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