How do I get my toddler to stop freaking out at bath time?
September 30, 2007 12:12 PM   Subscribe

ToddlerFilter: Why did my 14 month old son go from absolutely loving to fearing and loathing bathtime? What can I do to get him to like taking baths again?

My kid used to absolutely love taking baths - it was arguably one of the most enjoyable parts of the nighttime routine. However, sometime in mid-August he started getting a little upset and resistant. After a few days it seemed like we got over the hump and he was back to liking bathtime. Then he went with my husband to visit his grandparents for a week and ever since he got back, he's been absolutely dead-set against baths. He cries hysterically and tries to climb up my arms to get out of the tub. His previously much loved bath toys are now useless for amusing and distracting him.

I've tried taking a bath with him (somewhat less hysterical, cries and plays with toys simultaneously), bathing him in the kitchen sink (okay until he realizes that he's being BATHED and then freaks out), and bubble bath (not fooled in the least, total meltdown). Right now, we're down to bathing him every couple of days by having him stand ankle deep in a tub of warm water, gently wetting him down with a squirt bottle filled with warm, soapy water and using a small bowl to pour water over his body to rinse him off. Hair washing is completely out of the question as getting water on his face and head completely sends him off the deep end. Even this abbreviated routine is a torturous experience for all involved. Advice?
posted by echolalia67 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What happened at the grandparents house? Either something happened or it's one of those inexplicable toddler things. I remember my son going through a similar dislike at a similar age, with nothing triggering the problem. I think we just pushed through it.
posted by cooker girl at 12:38 PM on September 30, 2007

It's not really that uncommon for some little ones to go through a stage where they hate being bathed. It's also possible that something scary happened while he was at the grandparents' house? Harsh shampoo in eyes, swallowing water, something like that?

It sounds like right now he sees bath time as punishment or torture, so stop. Let him go a few days without the bath - he'll be okay. If you can keep his hands and face and diaper area relatively clean, he won't suffer any ill effects from not being shampooed or scrubbed for a bit.

What if you and your husband get in the tub together, and wash each other, while the little guy watches? Laugh a lot and make sure he sees you having a great time, and maybe he'll get jealous of all the fun you're having and want to get in. It might take a few tries for him to brave up to joining in, but just think how clean you'll both be and how much fun you'll have in the meantime.
posted by iconomy at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2007

I had a similar issue with one of my girls. We thought it might have had something to do with a tub being too hot one night. Not for us, but for her. After that she went from luvving baths to having an irrational fear of them.

Getting in the tub first was one strategy, and it did help. But usually she'd want to play in the tub from outside the tub. The other thing we exploited was sibling rivalry. I or my wife would get in the tub with our older daughter and just laugh it up, bubbles and tub crayons and farty noises galore. This also seemed to help turn our little one around. But because we thought a temp thing was what scared her off in the first place, we always made sure the water was tepid. And we let her explore the water from outside the tub with cups and pitchers so she knew, quite literally, what she was getting into. We also let them both play with water in the kitchen sink, standing on chairs. We then took the same cups, sponges, and bowls she played with in the sink to the tub when we were trying to get her into the tub.

I don't think any one of these things worked, they just eventually wore her fear down. If you're doing the in the tub too thing, one thing I found that kept her in longer was not actually having her in the water. Just a low level of water and then her sitting on one of us but not touching the water. That seemed to help her acclimate. We'd also sometimes put her clothed in an empty tub with her favorite activities, tub crayons being one of those. Then we'd maybe let the spigot drip a bit like the kitchen sink, and let her play with the sink toys, even if she got a little wet.

What we figured we needed to do was get over the association she was making with the tub, by associating it with other activities. This did eventually occur, but it took about two months, and a lot of patience on our part.
posted by Toekneesan at 12:39 PM on September 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for your responses. The antipathy to bathing seemed to predate the visit to the grandparents by at least a week. He was pretty much resistant to getting bathed at his grandparents from the moment he arrived - that I can understand as the person who normally gives him baths (me) wasn't around and he was in a strange house with people he didn't really know. He apparently had a traumatic incident in the pool when he tried to leap from my husband's arms to his grandfather and ended up momentarily underwater. The visit to the grandparents seems to have reinforced a phobia that was already brewing.
posted by echolalia67 at 1:05 PM on September 30, 2007

This could be a control issue, rather than a fear-of-bathtime issue. As he gets older, he attempts to exert more control over his environment, and if he whines and screams enough to change your behavior and change the routine, he "wins" a measure of control, even if that means a denial of something he would otherwise enjoy.

The trick is to stick to the routine, routine, routine, with little-to-no negotiation involved. Doesn't like water dumped over the head? Do it gently, but do it. Make a game of it. Provide a warning. Give him prizes. Something, anything. But don't change the routine. The hair gets washed, period.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:18 PM on September 30, 2007

Another possible association-breaker...stand him up in the emptry tub and give him a sponge/cloth bath. If he has short hair, this will take a while but will still get him clean. The key is no free-falling water (e.g. sprays or poured from a bowl).

An uncommon but possible problem could be very sensitive skin, such that the soap/shampoo makes him itchy or hurt later (with possibly very little visual signs/redness). Or even just the water...I have a friend who could only shower every few days at college because the city water hurt her skin, whereas the artisianal well water from her home/farm had never caused a problem.

Sidenote: My mother had a similar, relatively minor "drowning" experience as a child, and 50 years later she still doesn't like to get her face wet, even in the shower...phobias are powerful things, so continue being patient with him (it sounds like you've been saints so far).
posted by sarahkeebs at 1:27 PM on September 30, 2007

Both my children went through a phase where they hated baths, without any traumatic incident that preceded. We put them n the tub as it was filling (so it was never very high), allowed standing (although sitting is safer), and poured water over their heads gently with cups while covering their faces with washcloths.

Happy to report both outgrew the phase.

FWIW, I have found that allowing the kids to work through various phases on their own (rather than trying to reason or yell them over) has been very effective for us, so I think your approach is good. But I agree with echolalia67 that at the end of the day, not bathing is not an option.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 2:04 PM on September 30, 2007

It sounds like a control issue, given the age. Perhaps he felt really out of his element while away from you and this is just a continuation of his attempt to assert control. Or perhaps there was an incident or something that scared him. Maybe he had a sore bottom and the water hurt and now he's afraid of that repeating.

Is he walking? If he's not crawling along the floor, he probably isn't getting super dirty. Perhaps you could try the bath routine less often. Things will probably calm down and then you can increase the frequency again. In the meantime, you could wash his face and hands.

Also, perhaps you could try going to an indoor swimming pool. See if he needs to be reintroduced to water in a fun way, in case there is some element of fear. The novel experience might change his mind.
posted by acoutu at 3:30 PM on September 30, 2007

Read The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg for the best advice about the fears of young children. It's available used and in libraries everywhere.

Little kids' fears come and go but keep in mind that you really don't know what he's afraid of - you *think* it's bathing, but it could be something else altogether. Their fears are often so odd, that it's hard for adults to even conceive that someone could be thinking such a thing. It could be some kind of monster who lives in the faucet, who you don't even know about!

One of my kids suddenly got frightened at bath time, and it turned out that what she was actually afraid of was getting sucked down the drain with the old water. Once we demonstrated (with her ducky) how she was just too big to go down the drain, even if she wanted to, she got a big smile on her face, and it was over.

In general, the best solution is to play it cool - don't make a big power struggle over it. Just let him know that you all have got to find a way to wash him because otherwise he'll get all stinky. You can talk, or draw with him to try to find out what it's all about. If it turns out he is frightened of a monster, help him think through what you all can do together to defeat the monster - kids can be *very* creative and resourceful when they know they're being taken seriously.
posted by jasper411 at 3:30 PM on September 30, 2007

Mister Rogers had a song to address a common fear of young children that assures them "you can't go down the bathtub drain"
posted by InkaLomax at 3:39 PM on September 30, 2007

Two things that helped with my children. One, sometimes the noise of the water filling the tub was scary (probably not your problem.) the other was that it really helped to let them hold a washcloth over their eyes while doing the their hair. My son especially liked the control of being able cover up his eyes nice and snug. (You may been to keep a hand on the top edge to make sure he doens't suddenly let go.)
posted by metahawk at 4:06 PM on September 30, 2007

I don't remember any traumatic issue, but I do remember, when I was little, being afraid of drowning while having my hair washed/rinsed. I even had nightmares about Ronald McDonald trying to drown me while washing my hair.

My parents also used to rinse my head under the bathtub spigot -- which is pretty big, loud, and scary when you're small.
posted by amtho at 5:21 PM on September 30, 2007

My friend's mom tried to show her that she couldn't get sucked down the drain, using a washcloth. Unfortunately it was a small baby wash cloth which did, indeed, go straight down the drain. Years of terror followed.
Just saying, be careful lest you worsen the situation.
posted by arcticwoman at 5:30 PM on September 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

My 15 month-old just - within the last two weeks - got over that hump. It was virtually identical to what you described. He always liked baths from the time he was an infant. Then, like flipping a switch, one day he just started to scream and cry and climb the sides of the tub. It went on for at least a few weeks, and we would fight like crazy to wash him, enduring the screams for a couple of minutes and then hurrying him out of there and into his pajamas.

I was freaked out about it, and started googling around to see if something was wrong with him. I never found anything, and we kept trying to distract him with his previously-loved toys, then one day he took an interest in them again and I sat him down in the tub and after a couple half-hearted protest screams he hushed up and we had a normal bath. For the most part he's back to normal, with only a few scattered cries (like he remembers he's not supposed to like it).

So don't freak out, keep trying the toys, and know that one day it will be back to normal. In the meantime, prepare yourself for some sucky bathtimes.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:43 PM on September 30, 2007

When we went through this with my VERY strong-willed daughter, we found out that she was afraid of the drain. You know all that "Bye, bye. There goes the old water" stuff we say to them? She was hearing something along the lines of "The ax murderer is coming to get you". So, find out if this is fear-based; toddlers can have lots of lots of weird and wonderful phobias. You cannot reason with them, so get creative!

If it's drain phobia, here's how we overcame it. We got a BIG drain stopper and then bathed her in 1-2" of water, gave her a swim mask to protect her eyes, and rinsed her with cups of water. I think we may have actually put a towel in the water to make her feel like she was just sitting on a (very wet) towel. And of course, we never let her see the water going bye-bye.

Hang in there!
posted by OlderThanTOS at 8:15 PM on September 30, 2007

This happened with all my kids, too. We just kept up the routine, except for the long soak while playing with toys part - just went through the normal washing routine as quickly as possible. I don't think it really is a a control issue but, if you let the child decide about simple things like baths, you run the risk of losing a small part of the control you have.
posted by dg at 8:38 PM on September 30, 2007

Use a very small amount of water, lots of toys that he only gets to use in the tub, and make it as pleasant as possible. I'd suggest that even if your son isn't happy about it, still wash his hair every night. Assuming you do it without drowning him, eventually he'll see it's really not such a big deal.
posted by jstruan at 9:17 PM on September 30, 2007


My son is 14 months old, and until mid-August was terrified - completely terrified - of being in the tub (or, in fact, of being around pools of water of any kind). So we spent the first year of his life washing him in one of the following ways:

+ sponge bath (not scared, but very wiggly)
+ In tub with Mamma (very clingy and clearly afraid)
+ In the shower with Daddy holding him and Mamma standing outside washing him (not afraid at all).

So, short term, try getting him into the shower with one/both of you - either with one of you holding him and the other washng, or with him standing up in the shower.

For our water-terrified son, the thing that finally got him to like baths was that we went on a camping trip for two weeks, and washed him (and generally cooled him off) in big plastic 20-gallon bucket that we bought for about $6 at Target. (Ah, here's a photo) After we got home, we transitioned him into the "real" tub by simply sitting the bucket inside our regular tub for a while. I think he was more comfortable in there because a) he could easily stand up and hold onto the sides, and b) it was a much smaller space that he was more in control of.

We still don't give him a bath every day. On average I would say that he has a bath or shower about 3-4 times per week, which seems to be plenty. It took a couple of weeks, but we were able to get him out of the bucket and into the regular tub - first it was just the bucket inside the tub with water in the bucket only, then bucket in tub with water inside and outside the bucket (and toys!), then him standing outside the tub playing with water in the tub (with the bucket still inside the tub) before we put him into the bucket, then finally getting him into the tub.

Whatever you do, however, don't make him take a bath if he's afraid. That was the best best best piece of advice our ped gave to us. There are lots of ways to wash babies without plunging them into water, and it won't get better just by continuing to do it. Find a way to adapt to his fear, then work with him to slowly overcome it.
posted by anastasiav at 9:44 PM on September 30, 2007

Another parent to say it happens. Our daughter loved baths up until about 14 mo, spent 3-4 months being terrified, and just as quickly decided she liked them again and has loved them since.
posted by Tallguy at 11:42 AM on October 2, 2007

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