My daughter doesn’t hate baths, in fact she toddles around the house saying ‘ba, ba, ba’ when she hears the tub filling up. But she’s never loved being washed (hair or otherwise) and I’m sensing that her aversion may be growing stronger. I’ve heard enough horror stories about bath-time battles from parents (including my own) to know that I want to nip this issue in the bud. But where to start?

photo credit: Nathan Stamper

What it looks like: Responses can vary greatly. Child may simply whine or say ‘no’ when bath time comes around or she may happily enter the bath but cry when water is poured over her head. If the fear and trauma are really deep she may scream, hold her breath and even vomit at the mere suggestion of a bath.

Mistaken for: Irrational fear of a simple and necessary routine. 

What child is learning:
IF a child is forced (fears are either dismissed or not acknowledged) into a bath when she has made it clear that this is NOT something she’s okay with…

  • her fears may deepen
  • she will certainly lose some trust in the adult who is forcing her in
  • she may lose confidence in the validity of her own feelings
  • bath time will be very stressful for everyone

IF a child is not forced into a bath before she is ready (fears are acknowledged and she is supported to work through them)…

  • her fears will likely heal
  • she will develop more trust in the adult who is respecting her fears
  • she will learn that her feelings are valid
  • she will learn how to cope with fearful situations

How to support: One of the first things to do in ANY situation where a child is refusing is to reassess your priorities. There are certain times when you need to stick to your guns (I won’t let you hit. It’s time to sleep now. We need to go and pick up your brother.) but it’s easy to lengthen the list of these times unnecessarily (You must say please. You can’t get your trousers dirty. You need to share that toy.) It does not undermine your authority to change your boundaries, as long as you’re doing it because you think it’s right and not because you want to avoid confrontation. So in this case you must decide how important a daily bath really is. Is it right up there with physical safety or could it perhaps come down a notch?

Now this isn’t to say that bathing is completely unimportant and if a child refuses to bathe you should just give up on baths altogether. Surely that would not help, if only because it would teach her to bow to her fears and that’s clearly not what we’re going for. What’s needed instead is a two-fold approach:

  1. Acknowledge the child’s fear – In my daughter’s case, this means stopping and listening when she says ‘no’. I need to slow down and speak to her about what is happening. I would like you to have a bath now but I hear you saying no. Perhaps I’ve interrupted her focused play? I can see that you’re very focused. I’ll come back in a few minutes and see if you’re ready then. Perhaps she’s upset about the idea of taking off her clothes and being cold? I know that you don’t like it when I take your clothes off and you’re cold. Let’s go to the bathroom where it’s warm and we’ll change you slowly. Perhaps she’s anticipating me pouring water over her head and it getting in her eyes? I think you might be worried about getting water in your eyes. I promise that I won’t pour any water on you without checking with you first. If you’d like, you can pour the water and wash your hair. Will she wash her hair as thoroughly and quickly as I would? No. But what’s more important here, dispelling her fears or perfectly clean hair? Acknowledging fears does not mean indulging them. It doesn’t mean that I take her away from whatever it is she fears but instead support her as she faces it. There are all sorts of reasons children may fear the bath – some suggest it’s an important instinct to keep them from drowning while others have figured out that their child is afraid of going down the drain with the water! Your child’s developmental stage and level of communication will determine how much you’ll be able to understand about his fear. Go ahead and talk to your child to try and find out what is behind the fear but don’t pressure her to come up with an explanation. She may not understand it any better than you but it doesn’t make the fear any less real.
  2. Support the child to work through her fear – If you’re looking for a way to heal deep trauma I suggest this article. But if, like me, you’re at the prevention stage you’re mostly looking to…
    • Slow things down – I’m guilty of trying to solve these problems by moving quickly in an effort to ‘just get it over with’. This backfires. Every time. It’s motivated entirely by my own impatience. Instead, move slowly, explain what you’d like to do before you do it AND THEN WAIT. Allow her time to process what you’ve said and give you permission.
    • Rethink your priorities – Is a daily hair wash really necessary? What about a daily bath? Could a sponge bath do the trick until he is feeling more comfortable with the tub?
    • Try to give over as much control as possible – Invite him to wash his own hair and body. Bring in a baby doll that he can wash. Carefully explain everything that you do (I’m going to put a wet wash cloth on the back of your head.) and wait for his permission (Is that okay or would you like to do it?) If all else fails, climb into the tub with him and have him wash your hair!
    • Don’t put her into the bath until she indicates she’s ready – Choose your battles. I’ve come to realize that regular baths in the tub are not battles I’m willing to fight to the death.

So that’s what I’ve learned about children and baths. Hopefully you find some of it useful. If you have any insights to share I’d love to hear them!