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Parenting Tips: Help! My Toddler Suddenly Hates the Bath!

Today, my sister in North Carolina called. I could barely hear her, with her 12-month-old screaming in the background. "We're trying to give her a bath, like usual. But all of a sudden, she HATES it. What happened?" She remembered me telling her about one of our kids at that age. "It's as if there's an electrical current in the water," I had said. "Just putting his foot into it makes him shriek with terror and pain, and he pulls his foot up high, away from the water, until I take him out of the bathroom." Actually, we went through it will ALL of our kids. Each of them previously had loved their bath. Suddenly, it was Bathing Terror.



There must be a weird moon in the Baby Bath Constellation, because I've gotten this question quite a lot recently. BabyShrink reader Erik is a stay-at-home Dad to this little 16-month-old cutie, who previously enjoyed her bath. "All of a sudden," he writes,"she seems to panic when we get her in the tub. We have measuring cups, bubbles, and all sorts of distractions. We've even tried to join her in the tub, but this seems to panic her even more." Erik googled the problem, and found that, often, there is some traumatic experience before the panic starts (such as slipping and falling in the tub, or otherwise being frightened in the bath). But Erik assures me this has not occurred. So what can he do?


Sudden Bath Fears Are Common There are major cognitive changes that take place, along with the development of walking. All of a sudden, your toddler can purposely move -- away from you, and known safety, into strange and new situations. Discovery of a new skill — like MOBILITY — leads to excitement -- and then FEAR. This stage is characterized by the back-and-forth of moving out into the environment -- just until it gets a little scary -- and moving back to be with Dad or Mom to get "refueled" for future discovery.


As my child development Guru Dr. Brazelton says, there is an upsurge in fears at this point, starting at about 12-18 months. The BATH is a COMMON fear. Think about it: your baby is just getting used to WALKING, and in the process, their sense of equilibrium and body control get messed up. They’re not quite sure what their body can -- and can't -- handle.  


What’s Going On Inside that Cute Little Head? Your toddler's perspective is that the bath is SLIPPERY. And that the water and soap sometimes HURTS the little scrapes and cuts they’re now getting, thanks to their new walking (and frequent falls). And they might get STUCK in the scary/painful water, because we don’t want them to just jump out of the tub. They think, "I might get soap in my eyes. I can bonk my little head on the side, or on the faucet. If I have a scrape or a cut, it hurts in the bath, and I can't always figure out why, or how to tell Dad about it. Then there's this weird wall between me and the safe, dry part of the bathroom, and I'm not allowed to just jump in and out if I get nervous. And when the water gets sucked down into the drain, I wonder, will I fit down that thing? Am I going to get sucked down there too?"

They’re still figuring out cause and effect, and they’re not quite sure how that drain thing works. But it's powerful, it makes noise, and it sucks all the water into it.  


SO NOW WHAT? Do I Have to Let Them Be Stinky Until the Next Developmental Phase Kicks In? No. Well, maybe just a little. Pediatricians say that we Americans bathe our babies way too much anyway; it's not necessarily good for young skin. So you can back off the nightly baths. Don't feel temped to FORCE the issue; I promise, it will only make things worse. But of course, smashed banana needs to be cleaned out of their hair, and dirt needs to be dislodged from various nooks and crannies. So I wouldn't suggest “giving in” to bathing fears, simply being a little more flexible about it than usual. Here are a few other suggestions:  


Know that this IS a phase.  It's not permanent. This is a temporary blip in your bathing routine. Eventually, your toddler will regain confidence and enjoyment in the bath.  


For Now, Rely on the Kitchen Sink At this age, they need to be wiped down after every meal and snack anyway, right? So keep a bottle of their bath soap in the kitchen and strip them down at the sink after meals. Clear the sink area of unsafe stuff. Then let them splash away -- with you holding them safely, of course -- and wipe them down as you play with them at the sink.


And most kids still love to play with the hose or the kiddie pool, despite bath fears. So if weather permits, sneak in a little cleaning while they’re splashing around in the yard.  Keep Trying, But Don't Force It, If You Can Avoid It. 


Every few days, make a big deal out of preparing a really fun bath. Use bubbles, add new toys, and be silly. Allow your toddler to play in the water from the OUTSIDE of the tub, but don't make them get in. Talk about what fun they will have, when they decide to get back in. You want them to have a good experience -- at their pace -- with the bath. Let them "help" you with bathing a sibling -- sitting with you, outside the tub. Let them get in -- and get out again -- if they’re even slightly interested. Or let them walk away -- it's their choice, at this point. Make a big deal out of letting THEM decide about the bath.  


What If I Forced It Already? Don't feel guilty. Tell them you realized it’s UP TO THEM — most of the time. And that you’ll let them play with the water but won’t force them, unless they’re really stinky or dirty. And you’ll try to wipe them down OUTSIDE the tub, as much as possible. Convey that you UNDERSTAND what’s going on inside that cute little head. Listen, when my TT was going through this phase, he woke up one night, puking. There was no way around it -- he HAD to have a bath. So I explained to my very miserable little guy that we had to have a bath, and I knew he was not going to like it, but that I would make it very, very fast. He screamed bloody murder the whole time. And otherwise, I let him choose how we would wipe him down, as much as possible. But he eventually got over his bathing fear in about the same amount of time as his older brother and sister did (about 3-4 months). The main thing is to convey your empathy about the situation. "I know you're afraid of the bath, and I'm willing to do whatever I can to help you through this time. I know that one day you'll like it again, but for now, we'll take it at your pace."


Erik: Let us know what happens. Readers: Got any other suggestions to add?

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