Why does my toddler drink dirty bathwater?

That water can’t taste good, with the pee, the soap and the cleaned-off dirt! So, why the heck is your toddler gulping it back?

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My toddler likes to pretend she’s a mermaid when she’s taking a bath. It’s adorable to watch her little body wriggle around in the tub and her long, dark hair fan out behind her in the water. It’s a lot less adorable when she drinks the water, like she thinks mermaids do. You know, the water she probably just peed in. Yeah, that water.

My son did this when he was little, too, though with less subtlety and creativity—he’d just take a cup he’d been playing with, fill it and chug it. I always try to stay calm when this happens, but I’m not sure I’ve ever truly succeeded: I mean, they’re drinking their own pee! We are not on a Bear Grylls show, people!

OK, deep breath.

Drinking dirty, peed-in bathwater may be disgusting, but it’s not dangerous. “Urine is a sterile body fluid and will not transmit disease,” says Tricia Feener, a paediatrician in Corner Brook, Nfld., and a member of the CPS Public Education Advisory Committee, “but tummy upset may occur if a large amount of bathwater is ingested, particularly if it contains soap.”

two babies in the bath with tub toys 13 great bath toysThat water can’t taste good, with the pee, the soap and the cleaned-off dirt, but that’s not why they’re taste-testing in the tub. This is just one more way that children explore their environment and learn about the world. They also don’t understand that there are certain types of water that you don’t drink: After all, you drink water, so why not this water? Sure, it’s obvious to us, but it’s not to them.

So, how do you convey that this is a big no-no?

For starters, remain calm. We repeat: remain calm. “When you want to emphasize something to a child,” says Feener, “you can use a sterner, deeper voice and be a little more direct, but there’s no need to scream and freak out. That never helps any situation.” Otherwise, you can create bigger problems—scaring your child or even causing them to act out more.

Instead, stop the behaviour as soon as it starts by calmly but firmly saying, “No, we don’t drink that water. Bathwater is not for drinking.” You can follow up by asking if your child is thirsty and getting a drink from the sink, explaining the difference between water you drink and water you get clean in or play in.

For the time being, you may want to remove scooping toys and containers from the bath to take away the temptation. And if you’re still not getting the desired result, let them know there will be a consequence to the behaviour: If they drink the water, they’ll be taken out of the bath immediately. Make sure to follow through, and they’ll eventually make the connection and stop the behaviour.

To do this right, you need to be fully engaged with your child during bath time. Obviously, you should always be in the room for safety reasons, but this is about more than just being there. “These days, we have issues of parents being physically present but maybe mentally absent, like if they’re on their cellphones,” says Feener, “so it’s important to point out that a parent should give their child their full attention in the bath.” Aside from allowing you to stop the undesirable behaviour right away, your child won’t engage in negative attention-seeking—i.e. doing it just to get your attention.

The verdict on this seemingly bizarre behaviour is that it’s not a big deal. “Pee in the bath is a very minor matter,” says Feener, adding that it’s not all that different from a child swallowing a little water in the pool. “Pooping in the bath is a whole different story. It’s potentially harmful to a child’s health, and the tub would need to be drained and cleaned, and the child cleaned again. It’s OK to get grossed out by that.”

Read more:
3 hacks for making toddler bathtime easier
Why some kids hate the bath and what to do about it

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