Toddler behaviour

Helping kids cope with personal care

Most kids have at least one body bugaboo. Here's how to help your kid cope so that you can get the job done

By Wendy Haaf
Helping kids cope with personal care

If children were like cars, some jobs would be much simpler. After all, you don’t have to coax a bored Buick to sit still for a wash, or stop a Saturn from hopping off the hoist while the mechanic puts on new tires. So how do you make your child’s routine body maintenance, chores like nail clipping and the annual checkup, easier on all concerned — without resorting to tranquilizer darts or wrestling holds?

Fortunately, kids usually comply when these tasks are treated as expected and automatic, notes Vancouver-based parent educator and Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn. Even so, many children have one or two personal-care tasks that get under their skin. But remember that each of our offspring reacts differently to first-time experiences: Your three-year-old might hate haircuts, but chances are his one-year-old sister will submit to the stylist’s scissors without turning a hair. However, in situations you know your kid is apt to resist, here are some things to keep in mind:

Think first. Parents should weigh the importance of the activity in question, before laying down ground rules, says Diane Sacks, Today’s Parent columnist and former president of the Canadian Paediatric Society. For example, while doctor’s visits are non-negotiable, dirty hair isn’t a health hazard, so it’s perfectly OK to limit washes to once a week if your toddler loathes lathering up.

Keep your cool. “Kids are very perceptive — they pick up on your fears,” Sacks stresses. Temper temperament. If you’re the parent of a physically sensitive child (you know, the one who insists on wearing two-sizes-too-big underpants because elastic feels “icky”), you may have to work a little harder to make doctor’s visits and similar events as pleasant as possible.

Figure out which aspects of the experience might be bothersome beforehand so you can work around your child’s quirks. For example, a kid who can’t bear clothing tags rubbing against his neck may flinch at wearing a plastic cape at the hairdressing salon. “Don’t use the drape — have the child wear an old shirt, and take a bath when you get home,” suggests Sacks. Or if the crackly paper on the doctor’s examining table sends your baby into orbit, substitute a receiving blanket from home. If your preschooler jumps out of his skin when you touch his foot, prop it on a pillow while you trim his toenails.

Offer options. Sometimes kids resist handling because they’re not in the driver’s seat. Remedy this by giving your child a lot of acceptable choices around the process, suggests Mary Ann Avey, a parent educator in London, Ont. Obviously your child can’t choose to skip her checkup, but she can select what she wears to the office, or which toys and books to take along. You can also use this approach to tackle transitions like settling down in the kiddie salon. (“Do you want to sit in the airplane or the train?”)


You can also take your child’s mind off her unease by promising a “when/then” reward, says Diane O’Brien, a public health nurse and parent educator at the Middlesex-London Health Unit. Offer to spend some time doing a favourite activity that fits in with your plans, for example: “When the hairdresser is done, then we’ll go to the park.”

As your child gets a little older, ask her what she thinks would make the experience easier to endure. A quick pit stop at home for refuelling may be all your preteen needs to feel more comfortable before her physical.

Read and rehearse. The unknown scares kids and adults alike. Acclimatize your child to the idea of a haircut or a medical checkup long before you book the appointment, starting with a story like Henry’s First Haircut by Dan Yaccarino (Simon & Schuster 2004) or Froggy Goes to the Doctor by Jonathan London (Penguin Young Readers 2004). Role playing — like using the toy stethoscope to listen to daddy’s heart — helps kids get a handle on anxiety. Bringing along something familiar can also help your child feel more at ease — little ones might tote teddy, while a 12-year-old may find his favourite CD calming. Now, on to the chores in question:

The Shampoo Some kids freak at the feel of water on their faces, so try to keep eyes dry and soap-free. Tip back your child’s head while she holds a cloth over her eyes; have her look at stickers on the shower ceiling while you sluice away suds; give swimming goggles a whirl; or let her pour the water over her head. A special foam visor made for shampooing can also keep drips to a minimum.

For some children, tugging out tangles is the root of hair care distress. Try combing your child’s hair before you rinse out the conditioner, or use a spray detangler to tame snarls. Offer older kids the option of cutting down on hair hassles with a close-cropped coif. Or, promise to let your second-grader streak her locks with wash-out dye if she endures two weeks of fuss-free combing.


In cases where nothing stops the rafter-rattling screams, get the job over with quickly, in a matter-of-fact fashion, says Sacks. “It’s just a question of ‘I appreciate you hate this, but it has to be done.’” Soon enough, your kids will be old enough to shower solo — and you’ll have the hot water bills to prove it.

The Checkup “Don’t tell your child, ‘The doctor is not going to hurt you,’” advises Leora Kuttner, clinical professor of paediatrics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Why? The possibility of pain may never have crossed your kid’s mind, “but once it’s mentioned, the notion is planted.” And if your doctor does end up having to give your little one a shot or otherwise cause discomfort, it may take time to win back your child’s trust. Sacks prefers kids not know ahead of time if they’re going to get a vaccination. That way they don’t spend hours agonizing about the needle, and she has a better chance to observe them calmly interacting with mom or dad — which is an important part of accessing a child’s healthy development. And if you’re petrified of needles, get your partner or another family member to take your toddler in for shots.

“Make sure your child is well fed and rested because when kids are hungry, tired and bored, they can’t control themselves as well,” advises O’Brien. If possible, schedule appointments after nap time or first thing in the morning, and bring a few snacks and activities (keep a stash of stickers and dollar store finds for such occasions). Energetic kids may need to blow off some steam before they get to the waiting room — try walking around the block once you get to the office. Leave yourself a little extra time so you don’t feel rushed, and avoid squeezing an appointment between several errands. Call ahead to see whether your doctor is running on schedule.

A bottle of bubbles comes in handy during vaccinations, notes Kuttner — taking deep breaths and blowing out helps kids relax, and the glimmering globes distract attention from the needle.

Of course, a nine-year-old who needs blood drawn will probably die of embarrassment if you bring out the bubbles. If your school-aged child has to undergo an uncomfortable procedure, teach him to breathe slowly and deeply (in through the nose, out through the mouth) to ease anxiety.


If you can, switch to a same-sex physician if it will make your teen or tween more comfortable. “At a certain age, some boys want to switch to a male doctor, and girls to a female doctor,” says Sacks.

The Haircut “It’s important for parents to select the right person for the job,” states Kuttner. “You have the right to ask the barber or hairdresser, ‘Do you have experience with this age group?’” You may even be able to find a salon that caters to kids by featuring carousel horses or cars in lieu of barber’s chairs.

Watching while a friend gets a trim can tame a toddler’s trepidation. Cut down on the time she has to sit still in the hairdresser’s chair by washing your child’s hair at home.

If you’re skilled with the scissors or clippers, or know someone who is, set up a salon at home. (Or find a stylist who does home visits — call kid-friendly salons and ask for a quote.) Turn it into a game — a preschooler can pretend to cut his doll’s mane while you man the shears. To keep boredom at bay, give your child a job such as catching the clippings (sprinkle them in the garden to keep animals away).

The Manicure Babies are often too wiggly when they’re awake for mom or dad to safely snip tiny finger and toenails — try waiting until your little one naps. Use an emery board if you’re nervous about accidental cuts, or enlist another adult to do the deed while you feed your baby. If your toddler simply can’t sit still for more than a few seconds, divide the job into smaller units, and do one or two digits each day. (After a bath is the best time: Your child may be more relaxed, and nails will be soft and easier to cut.) You can also delegate the job to a preschooler: Show him how to file his own nails (though you may have to do touch-ups).


Pop in a favourite DVD and trim while your toddler watches. Or buckle her into her high chair and play “This little piggy.”

When Can Kids Take Over? “Let kids take on as much as they can — they love to do that,” advises Today’s Parent columnist Kathy Lynn. When can kids be responsible for body upkeep? Of course, the answer depends in part on your child’s temperament and dexterity — but here are some general guidelines:

Nail Care Filing with an emery board 3 to 4 Trimming nails 8 or 9

Shampooing With supervision 4 or 5 Showering solo 6 or 7

Doctor’s Visits Answering doctor’s questions 2 or 3 Going into exam room alone 12 or 13

This article was originally published on Apr 25, 2005

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