Photo: iStock Photo
Most parents have had bath-time struggles with their kids at some point. Whether it’s a problem transitioning from playtime to bath time, fear they'll get sucked down the drain, the dread of getting soapy eyes or wet ears—for any of a thousand different reasons, the bath time struggle is real.
Kids have vivid imaginations, which is almost always a wonderful thing. But sometimes their imaginative brains come up with scary stuff. “Cognitively, young children tend to have sort of magical thinking,” says Karen Saroca, a child & adolescent psychiatrist and paediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “The fear of getting sucked down the drain is a very real possibility for kids in that stage of cognitive development.” Meaning: It's important to take your child’s fears seriously—even though you know they're unfounded.
The unique sensations of a bath can be hard for some kids. Think about all the sensory input that taking a bath involves: The thunderous sound of water filling the tub, the soft tickle of lather rushing over the skin, the smells of different shampoos and soaps. It can be a lot to take in.
“It might be a kid developing typically who has some sensory quirks, or you might have a child with special needs and massive sensory issues,” says Virginia Spielmann, associate director of the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder in Colorado. In either case, parents should try to be “communication detectives,” as Spielmann puts it, to pinpoint the specific aspect of bathing that your kid finds bothersome.
If you have a bathroom with lots of colour, patterned shower curtains, and a dozen bath toys, it could be too much to take in for a child who already may be nervous. Simplify and streamline, and add things back in judiciously if your child might be getting overloaded with visual stimuli.
That said, Spielmann says, “having a mirror in the room is a really good idea. Our kiddos rely on visual information to make sense of where their body is in space.”
Not only is there the roaring sound of water filling the tub, but also the drip-drip-drip of a faucet, the loud whoosh of flushing toilets, and the buzz of extractor fans. Then, if ears are getting wet, sounds can become muffled and suddenly clear up in a confusing way. Both Saroca and Spielmann recommend filling the tub before your child is in the room. Adding noise dampeners like lots of hanging towels and soft rugs can also help mitigate the echoing of sound off of hard surfaces that are commonly in the bathroom.
While bath time is a great opportunity to use calming scents if your child responds well to them, it’s important to look for clues that smells may be overwhelming your kiddo. Notice if he or she makes remarks about the smells, plugs his nose, or frequently wipes his or her nose. What smells nice to you could be overwhelming for your child.
Skin is the largest organ, and there are lots of different sensations that go on during a bath. For example, getting undressed and feeling the chilly air, and then going straight into a warm tub is a pleasant sensation for adults, but not always for kids. And some kids, Spielmann says, can experience the feeling of bubbles against the skin like being covered in mosquitos.
Shampoo time is a particularly tough moment for so many kids. Spielmann recommends giving kids choices so they feel they have a sense of control. Let them choose which shampoo to use, what type and colour of bath visor to purchase, or whether they prefer rinsing shampoo themselves, or having you do it for them.
Try a variety of washcloths or sponges and see which one your child responds to best. Soap Sox makes stuffed animals that hold a bar of soap and can be used to lather up and snuggle up almost simultaneously; the product was conceived when an abused child in a group home was to afraid to use the bath.
Babies may have a particularly hard time with temperature fluctuations, especially when you undress them and when you dry them off. Saroca recommends helping baby feel contained. Try using a smaller baby bath, getting in the tub yourself for some skin-to-skin soothing, or even use a towel to swaddle baby in the water, taking out each body part to lather as needed.
When it’s time to dry off, Spielmann says most kids will respond best to firm, long, downward strokes.
Have you ever picked up a child who you thought would be rather heavy, only to realize they're much lighter? Or have you ever been in an elevator and weren’t sure whether it was moving up or down? Those are both examples of proprioceptive senses. They are clues to help us understand where our body is in space. According to Spielmann, “the bath...might be taking away some of that data about a child’s body map, where their body is in space.” And this can freak them out. To manage this issue, minimize movements like tilting back for rinsing. Don’t make bath water too deep, which can make small bodies feel unmoored in quite a slippery spot.
A few more ideas for making bath time better:
Always make it a predictable routine. Use what Spielmann calls “first/then” language: “First we’re going to shampoo, then we’ll play with bubbles.” She also recommends having kids blow bubbles or a windmill, both of which encourage deep breathing that can be calming for kids with bath-related fears.
Finally, take heart: Baths won’t always be so hard. Besides, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, older babies and kids really only need a bath once or twice a week, depending on their activities. Sponge bathing and dry shampoo products can help you and your child eek out a little more time between baths, until eventually she learns to love the tub again.
Kids with developmentally typical fears around bath time will generally respond to parental reassurances, redirection with fun bath toys and sometimes just a little time. If nothing works, says Saroca, “it might be time to consider talking to your child’s doctor about what other techniques might be helpful.”
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners