His Name Even Means Curly Headed
March 7, 2011 11:15 AM   Subscribe

My two year old son has really curly hair. How do we brush it so he's not traumatized?

We give him a bath twice a week, wash his hair with shampoo and conditioner once a week. I do my best to comb his hair when he is in the bath, which until about three weeks ago was just fine. I use a wide tooth wood comb and brush his hair when it is wet, and on the day that I also wash his hair, I leave the conditioner in until I am done combing.

Lately, however, he has been getting large mats -- not even knots, but mats --- on the back of his head. He's started screaming the moment the comb touches his hair. I assure you I'm not even pulling.

Last night I used a regular bristle brush, which seemed to do a quicker job, but was harsher on his hair.

I do not comb his hair every day because he never seemed to need it before, but maybe he does now? Are there any no-tears non-perfumed detanglers that would help? Try a new shampoo (currently use the Johnson&Johnson baby) or conditioner (currently use a Kiss My Face because that's what I use) Any brushing or combing techniques? Should I brush his hair more often? Less often?

My husband says just to leave his hair alone, but I'm not eager to face down the rat's nest that would almost assuredly happen if I were to do that.

For what it's worth, we have not yet ever cut his hair and don't intend to for some time. Really, this is not an option for us at present.
posted by zizzle to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (42 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
How much conditioner are you using? My siblings and I all have really curly hair. Our general rule is TONS of conditioner, no brushing. Ever.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:18 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have pretty curly hair and never ever brushed it. I think running your fingers through it every once and a while should keep it from getting knotted up too much, the only time I got serious mats/knots was in high school when I wore it really long.
posted by ghharr at 11:21 AM on March 7, 2011

No More Tangles?

Also, how is his pillow? Baby Llama has very long hair and recently started sleeping with her head on a very silky stuffed animal -- previously she slept on pillow with felt fabric. This new arrangement has caused a lot less matting.

We've never cut her hair, either--she's two and a half. We're just lazy.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:22 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, I have so much empathy for your little one. I too had a wild mess of curls as a little kid, very fine hair that tangled easily.

I remember my mom using a squirt bottle of warm water to dampen the hair. She also gave me a lollipop to ease the pain. Perhaps you could also try distraction, a favorite movie or television program? If the tangle is not at the hair root, you can hold onto the hair so that it doesn't pull quite so much. You might also try desensitizing him with a soft baby brush, so he's less anxious.

I was rewarded after with a hair bow or sometimes my mom would put confetti in my hair. Not really sure what that was about but I **loved** it.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:22 AM on March 7, 2011

Are you against cutting any hair at all, or you just don't want to give him a short haircut? Because when I was little, my Mom would cut the really impossible knots out. She decided it wasn't worth the screaming. (Contrary to what you'd expect, I did not end up looking like I'd cut my hair myself. Until that one time when I did cut my hair myself...)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:23 AM on March 7, 2011

Oh, hey, you know to start from the bottom, right? So the comb starts about an inch from the very ends, then up another inch, etc., until you get to the top of the head? The instinct is to start as you'd comb an adult's hair, but it's not necessary and you can move those clots out slowly, a little at a time, rather than trying to pull it all out.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:24 AM on March 7, 2011

Curly hair doesn't really lend itself to brushing very well when it's dry. I was all ready to say "cut it" before I got to the last line of your question.

That said:

1. Try a brush with the bristles/pins set into a cushion instead of anchored into a solid base. (Like this one.) And perhaps try one with harder "pins" rather than soft bristles--or pins and bristles together (harder to find.)

2. You can make a(n unscented) version of Johnson and Johnson's No More Tangles spray by making a very dilute conditioner/water mixture. Put it in a spray bottle and wet his hair a lot before you brush it, on non-hair-washing days.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:27 AM on March 7, 2011

If the tangle is not at the hair root, you can hold onto the hair so that it doesn't pull quite so much.

My hair is straight, but very fine and tangles easily. This is my trick. Starting from the bottom and outer parts is also a good strategy, as A Terrible Llama says. And working slowly from tangle hot-spot to tangle hot-spot. Actually, A Terrible Llama's advice is really freaking great.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 AM on March 7, 2011

My son used to have awful tangles at the back of his head when he got up in the morning. It made his hair a totally different texture from the rest. I used a detangler spray. Just a few spritzes and the comb just slid right through. I could never figure out how it worked, but it sure did.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2011

I was about to say what Llama said just now, about starting from the bottom. Also something like TIGI After Party or Head Rush will slicken the hair - not that I'm saying your kid needs high-end hair care but something similarly formulated will help with detagling. My hair is filament fine and will go nuts on me - I swear by Head Rush.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2011

Get a copy of Curly Girl. I actually cried when I read it because someone understood my hair drama! Lots and lots of good tips for curly hair care in there -- what ingredients to seek and what to avoid; avoid shampooing as much as possible, you can get hair pretty clean with water and friction if you're diligent, and then just condition; etc. Good tips for moms with curly children, especially for moms who have straight hair themselves.

What works best for my tangles (when my conditioning routine fails me) is Infusium 23 in a spray bottle ... I haven't tried No More Tangles, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:33 AM on March 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

My mother had to fight with my fine wavy hair as a kid. I HATED when she brushed my hair and she ended up cutting out a lot of mats. Ugh!

I highly recommend avoiding brushes, combs and shampoo. Instead, try washing his hair with conditioner only. There's some great advice about handling curly kidlets in the book Curly Girl. You can search for "kid" in the viewer and preview some of the recommendations.
posted by annaramma at 11:34 AM on March 7, 2011

Jinx Eyebrows McGee!
posted by annaramma at 11:35 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just to answer a couple of questions in case it helps the answers:

*I lather his hair in conditioner. I swear. If his hair were any more loaded with conditioner, it would have to come in the bottle itself.

*He does not regularly use pillows. His head is usually directly on the mattress, and the few times he's on a pillow, it's the typical cotton variety

*I do comb his hair from the bottom up, and I really don't pull. The portion I'm combing his held gently over my open palm as I brush from the bottom up --- and it's mostly the bottom that needs brushing anyway. The top is usually just fine. This is maybe a total of two inches that needs regular combing or his hair gets seriously, seriously matted. But anyway, his hair is completely slack in my hand. There's no tautness to it at all when I'm combing, and I do my absolute best not to pull it taut as I am combing.

*I wish hands alone were enough, but it really isn't.
posted by zizzle at 11:35 AM on March 7, 2011

My hair isn't curly, but it's extremely thick. Until I got some autonomy, it was also pretty long. And always very, very tangly. And I have a sensitive scalp. Combing my hair was always a major battle between my mom and me.

needs more cowbell reminded me of a very good point. Brushing my hair was always a huge pain until I used this hairbrush. Even ones I've tried that look similar hurt my head. It's very gentle. And for less than 20 bucks, probably worth a try.
posted by phunniemee at 11:45 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My husband and I use Curls products on our hair, and they make a line for babies and another line for kids. It sounds like you need to use a leave-in conditioner (like this) after you wash his hair. This will help the mats from forming in the first place. You can always go in and spray a little more on the hair at his nape.

Also, please don't brush his hair!
posted by crankylex at 11:46 AM on March 7, 2011

It's possible that his hair has just now reached that particular length that makes knots and mats inevitable and increasingly numerous. Short of detangling his hair several times a day with whatever method your only solution is really to cut it. It will grow back and when he is old enough to take care of it himself maybe he will choose to grow it. Do all of the other little boys in your community have long hair?
posted by mareli at 11:47 AM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, don't brush. Finger comb through when it's wet. If he's getting it all tangled maybe explore tying it back or even braiding (at least at night if you can't find a sufficiently masculine way to do it).

I don't know if this is you, but the Orthodox Jewish community has the custom of not cutting a boy's hair until he's three. Whether or not it is you, it seems like that could be a good place to go specifically for advice on managing kids' curly hair (especially because curly hair does seem slightly more common among Jews).
posted by Salamandrous at 11:49 AM on March 7, 2011

Here's the thing about not brushing curly hair: that's great, if you're an adult/teenager who's going for a particular curly look with intact curls, and are willing to put Product in your hair often and wet it down every day in the shower and arrange and air dry and not touch it when it's dry and generally behave Just So so that it looks nice. If you're a two-year-old who bathes twice a week and probably could care less and tends toward getting mats? Not so much. I don't even have the patience for that as an adult.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:54 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

The only solution that works for my brother and father is to keep it very, very short - two or three inches when dripping wet. Mine is to my chin (almost) when dry and just past my shoulders when wet and I'm just exactly at the longest I can be before I have to condition twice, use detangling sprays, and keep it all tied back and pretend not to notice the knots. No brush has ever been effective; I do my best to comb while the water is streaming over my head, scrunch ONCE to get the shape I want, and then not touch my head till I'm safe at home for the night. My hair also poofs like crazy. Sigh.

I know I was spanked a few times as a child, and had facial laser surgery, and dislocated a shoulder, but the pain I remember to this day is all from getting my hair brushed. Are you really, really sure you can't either cut it or ignore the tangles?
posted by SMPA at 11:59 AM on March 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, if his hair is long enough, you could braid it before he goes to bed, that will cut down on some of the tangling that is happening while he's sleeping.
posted by crankylex at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2011

I have - and have always had - a particular hair length that rats and mats something fierce at the back of my neck. Once it grows past that length (or is cut shorter, either way), it's reasonable again. My hair also has definite growing seasons (right now I have two insane foofs of new growth just above my temples and a product-impervious halo of new hair sticking out of my 'do at all times; I know this will pass in another 4-6 weeks) and the snarls are worse then.

I myself do not ever use a brush except immediately before washing, and even then I use a pick or very wide tooth comb first, starting at the ends. But I nth Curly Girl, it's a revelation.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My boyfriend has hair like your son's. The thing that works for him is basically putting his hair back in a ponytail or a braid when he sleeps. The combination of long + curly + pillow + hat/sweater just ensures matted hair, period. He conditions every time he washes [and runs a plastic comb with conditioner through his hair in the shower] but the most important part is really not letting hair get to the mat stage in the first place. I know it's a real challenge, but if it's long enough to mat, maybe it's also long enough to pull back in some way? Alternately, maybe trimming just the hair on his neck [which is shorter and tanglier I've found] and leaving the rest of his hair long might help? Alternatively you might consider some hair shine sort of ting to put in your son's hair before bed so that the matting [which is probably a nighttime thing though not definitely] doesn't get a chance to take hold.
posted by jessamyn at 12:08 PM on March 7, 2011

If you get desperate you could take the route my parents did with me and get two buzz cuts in a row. After the first it started coming back curly but the second stopped that some how and it was straight after that. With all the trauma connected to it I didn't mind the cut at all and I'm still pretty happy about it. Curly hair's a pain on its own anyway with razor bumps and all. A new blade every shave gets expensive quickly and adding product on top of that sounds like a disaster.
posted by jwells at 12:21 PM on March 7, 2011

Some Googling turned up some people giving satin pillow cases the thumbs up -- maybe since your son doesn't use a pillow, you could try getting him some satiny sheets? (You could go the distance. Get red.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:21 PM on March 7, 2011

We have pretty much the same situation and it's only somewhat under control. For my three year old, it seems related to length - there is a point where all of a sudden the tangling gets awful. We keep his hair what I like to call skater-kid length - below his ears, above shoulders when dry, a little below shoulders wet. Individual hairs being longer than about 2-3 inches is when the trouble starts. His hair is wavy-curly, not kinky-curly (relaxed curls with an occasional ringlet in high humidity).

There are a few things we do. We use a cushion bristle brush with a spray bottle of water, making sure it's quite wet. Combing = sadness. It's better if we do it at least daily, though I can't say that we do that. He doesn't like it but doesn't scream in pain either. The spray detangler helps a lot, but getting tangles out takes more moisture. We'd use half the bottle if we just used the detangler. We also use shampoo for curly hair.

For anyone who doesn't shampoo their toddlers, what about playground sand? OH GOD THE SAND.
posted by pekala at 12:54 PM on March 7, 2011

I have naturally curly hair (fine and a ton of it) and when I was little I had a very sensitive head. I think the fact that it took my mom a painful half-hour every morning to brush my hair is why I don't like to do my hair or have it messed with today. I got really bad knots around my neck especially, and even after just a normal day I'd have more. As Nickle Pickle suggested, she would park me on a chair in front of the TV as a distraction.

My mom had a lot of good luck with using a Tangle Tamer comb on me. Here's an example. (It is just a comb, not the new Remington electric nonsense by the same name.) She would also buy a detangling spray (no specific brand) and use that. She always made sure to hold my hair above the tangle she was working on so it wouldn't pull on my head. (Honestly, people who brush hair roughly and just pull and pull are sadistic.)

Probably not an option for your son but the only way my mom was able to prevent tangles in my hair was to braid it every morning before school. (And sometimes she'd braid it before bed, but I really hated sleeping in braids.) Then I got tired of other kids pulling my braids so in 3rd grade I got a boy cut.

I would definitely try to brush/comb your son's hair every day. Don't let the tangles get as big.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:46 PM on March 7, 2011

All of the hair around the hairline is especially fine. So you have to keep those little bits at the back of the neck in a braid or band while sleeping or they will turn to dreads.
posted by effluvia at 2:00 PM on March 7, 2011

I read somewhere, but have not tried it, to get a round brush (bristles on all sides of a cylinder) and roll it down the head. Don't pull it through, just roll down. Ah, here it is.
posted by d4nj450n at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2011

I've got wavy/curly hair that likes to tangle if I don't keep an eye on it. Finger-combing out the worst of the tangles is pretty much a requirement before brushing. Putting it in a braid while I sleep also helps keep it from tangling too much in the first place.
posted by JiBB at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2011

I would give him a buzz cut and keep it that way until he's a little older (4?) and better able to handle combing.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2011

(I mean buzz the hair at home with clippers, not go to a barber/hairdresser for a haircut, since you indicated that's not an option)
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:43 PM on March 7, 2011

I have very curly hair, and for most of my life I have absolutely hated having my hair combed, even though it usually was kept pretty short.

The solution to my hair-troubles turned out to be dreadlocks. No combing, no haircuts and easy maintainance due to the specific flavor of my curls (you know those springs in clicky pens? yeah.)

This obviously is not a perfect solution for everybody, but it might be worth a try.
posted by HFSH at 2:51 PM on March 7, 2011

Maybe I'm underestimating the amount of hassle involved in bathing a toddler, but I would just give him a bath whenever his hair is tangled, and comb his hair while it's drenched in conditioner. You don't need to wash it every time, just use conditioner by itself to help the comb slip through. If bathing is a real hassle, you could use a leave-in conditioner or surf spray instead.
posted by embrangled at 3:19 PM on March 7, 2011

A few possibilities from someone with very curly hair--

-Could you braid his hair at night? And tie it back somehow during the day?

-Try not to put knit caps on him in the winter.... If you can get one and line it with something silky that would help.

-Could you wash his hair more often? I'm assuming it's a lot easier to detangle with conditioner in. And with my hair, if I don't wash it for 3+ days it's a nightmare to get the tangles out. There's a point that I can feel it passing where I know that it will be painful to wash it.

-I know you said fingers aren't enough, but I'd at least try to get the worst of the knots out with fingers.... when I detangle my hair (which is always while it's wet with conditioner), it's more of a 'pulling apart' motion than a 'pulling through' one. Which is impossible with a comb.

- You might try leaving a little bit of conditioner in his hair after you're done washing it. Again, this could result in terrible nasty greasy hair depending on his hair type, but it also might make it more manageable. I'm not talking a lot of conditioner, I have two foot long hair when wet and I use maybe a half teaspoon and just fingercomb it through my hair right after I finish washing it, while it's still wet.
posted by geegollygosh at 3:28 PM on March 7, 2011

My (wavy to very curly) hair knots after no trims for a while. Why? SPLIT ENDS.

Nothing cures this but a trim of the split ends. Not conditioner, not deep conditioning, braiding or anything else. The minute those split ends are left to their own devices (wind, head movement, whatever) it gets tangled again.

Your son's hair hasn't been trimmed or cut in two years? That's most likely the issue.

I finally found this amazing hair stylist that keeps my hair shaped nicely (no split ends) and I am able to wear it longer than ever (way past my shoulders) with no extra fuss.

She recommended using shampoo and conditioner w/out sulfites to help prevent split ends (not sure if you can find a formula in baby shampoo) but really, once the hair is damaged, there is nothing to "repair" the split ends other than having them cut.

The matted hair will continue (and probably get worse as the hair gets more damaged) until you trim it.

I know that isn't the answer you wanted. Sorry.
posted by jbenben at 4:30 PM on March 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with jbenben - split ends lead to tangles for my curly hair, and there is a drastic difference if I trim my hair. Unless it's for religious reasons, I would consider a trim.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:11 PM on March 7, 2011

Soap and shampoo may be too harsh for his hair, consider a clay type cleanser.
posted by hortense at 10:37 PM on March 7, 2011

Let's see. Dollar Tree, if there's one near you, carries a detangling spray, and that'd be a good way to be able to use it liberally. And you might want to change conditioners; maybe look for one that's formulated to encourage hair to stay straight. I can definitely tell a difference between "curly" type conditioner and the "sleek" kind.

when I was a kid with long long hair, i had a plug in detangler that really worked. It was two combs, basically, with super-thick teeth, held close together, and they would vibrate when I used it. this doesn't look like mine, but it's got good reviews and it just might be worth a try.

another thought was that even though he doesn't use a pillow, you could still use silky fabric to cover the top 1/4 of his mattress, and pin it on the underside. When my mom would curl my hair as a kid, it stayed nicer if I had a satin pillowcase.
posted by lemniskate at 5:44 AM on March 8, 2011

My husband gets something we call "Carpet Head" that sounds very similar. The following has worked:

- pin type brushes in non-plastic (ceramic or metal) to avoid static
- wide-toothed combs
- also, NO bristle-type brushes
- satin or high-thread-count sheets/pillows

We ended up not getting satin pillow cases. We instead use 300 or 400 count (I forget which) SATEEN cotton sheets. It's worked amazingly.

Plus, his hair just got long enough to put up at night while sleeping, and he's amazed at the difference.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:41 AM on March 8, 2011

I'm going to suggest a detangling comb - and a very specific kind that has two rows of teeth that interlock. It's the only kind of comb that helps for me (and my 3-year old). The best part is that I just went on an image search for the kind of comb I'm talking about and the Google 'image result that looked most promising to me, linked right back to a thread in AskMe from 2007. And then, I searched through the thread to see who was making the recommendation and what they said and it turns out IT WAS ME. I feel like I just emerged from a time machine!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:33 PM on April 14, 2011

« Older Am I stuck with a "record?"   |   How can I suggest an anti-aging regimen to my... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.