Ask the readers: “Help! My toddler is scared of the bath.”

Ask the readers: "Help! My toddler is scared of the bath."
Yesterday, SSBE reader hnMom from High Needs wrote in with a question:

We are going through a phase right now where she is completely scared of the water. How did you get [your toddler] to take his bath? What did the trick? I’d be thankful for any ideas.

When my toddler was close to two-years-old, he developed a fear of the bath. The first few times started off innocuously enough—some protests and crying; but a few days later, the fear transformed into hysterics where even the sight of any bath props like a washcloth was enough to send him running the opposite direction.

How I helped my toddler overcome his bath time fear
We tried a few tactics to ease our toddler back into the water, and of those we employed, the following were most helpful:

  • I placed him into an empty tub. Normally the tub is already full by the time my toddler is plopped in, but this time I placed him in with no water and turned on the faucet only when he was already sitting inside.
  • I tried to keep as many clothes on him as possible. Since removing clothes before bath time was enough to incite another crying fit, I kept my toddler’s t-shirt on while he was sitting in the bath before eventually removing it once the water started getting higher. Maybe having clothes on in the bath either stalled his anxiety or helped ease the transition.
  • I raised the water temperature. I played around with the idea of raising the water temperature just a tad higher than usual to see if the extra warmth was comforting; or rather, that the cold water wasn’t making him uncomfortable. I also turned on the heater to the bathroom so that the air was warm as well.
  • I trickled the water slowly from the faucet. I likened bath time to something he loved: his fascination with fountains and waterfalls. Normally the faucet remains shut during bath time, but we let the water trickle slowly and hyped it up, saying, “Look! It’s like your very own fountain!” For your kid maybe it’s playing on his love of boats, ducks, the ocean or ponds.
  • I bought new toys and books and played with them in the tub. He already had bath toys, but we figured a new set of toys might be a nice way to distract him and help focus his attention less on the fear and more on the fun. Before, I also let him play with the toys on his own, but this time I played with them too—sliding them down, making them talk.
  • I used my hands instead of a washcloth to suds him up. Since my toddler grew frantic even at the sight of anything bath time-related, I used my hands for most of the time to soap him up.

These ideas may work for hnMom’s daughter, they may not. When I was researching how to help my toddler, I tried several other tactics that didn’t work quite so well not so much because the ideas were useless but because they didn’t apply to my toddler. So, the first piece of advice I would offer hnMom is to try to find the reason behind the fear. For instance, with my toddler, I noticed that his fear stemmed from the water itself, so much so that if any water even splashed on his arm, he would freak out. For that reason, the tactics that worked for me was reducing the fear of water as much as possible (gradually trickling the water) while highlighting its positives (likening the water to fountains).

I’ve also heard other kids who are afraid of the bathtub itself, so parents have been known to sit and bathe with their kids to help mitigate their fear. On the other hand, some kids could be perfectly fine with the tub but are scared beyond wits of the drain, thinking that they too, could be sucked in. In that case, an explanation that only water goes down the drain and perhaps even a demonstration that toys nor people don’t might help comfort them.

The second piece of advice I would offer hnMom is to be mindful of her daughter’s fears. I didn’t know why he suddenly hated the bath and made the mistake of brushing aside my toddler’s emotions when he started acting up. I assumed it was yet another protest or antic and grew irritable at his every complaint. Only later did I realize that he was genuinely afraid and that addressing his emotions as petty will likely exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.

After a day or two, my toddler eventually resumed his normal bath time fun, although we kept several methods going, such as the trickling fountain, the heater and the new bath toys. I admit that his bath time terrors were one of the most challenging chapters of parenthood for me and, while I’ve learned plenty, am glad they’re gone (for now!).

How about you? What advice and ideas would you give hnMom? Which tactics did you use to help your kids overcome their fear? Were you able to identify the cause of the fear? How long did it take before your kids erased their fears and resumed normal bath time?

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17 thoughts on “Ask the readers: “Help! My toddler is scared of the bath.”

  1. We found that bubbles helped when Isaac didn’t want to bath anymore, he loves to play with them and it helps the water not look so intimadating, my husband also used to get into the bath with him to help build his confidence!

    • We do that, too. In fact, we got a step further and talk about how many cups of water I will use to wet Emilia’s hair, then the shampoo, then how many more cups to rinse it out. She keeps the towel covering her eyes and face and I tell her to say “ready,” when she’s ready for the water. Then we count together. 🙂

  2. We went through a fear of the bathtub phase too. Hubby was left to wash her hair one evening and I found her reluctant to go into the bath after that. After a LOOONG time she’s finally back to her normal happy-to-bathe self but she still doesn’t like water anywhere near her face. He must have let water drip in her eyes or something…while she was afraid of bathing I had weeks when we went without(I know, I’m a horrible mum!) and when she went I kept everything very calm and never put too much water in so her face didn’t have to come in contact with it…What really helped was taking her to a hotel swimming pool in the baby pool.

  3. When my children showed fear of bathing I tried many of the tactics mentioned above. I bathed with them, used bubbles, tub tints, bathtub crayons, bathtub markers, blew bubbles, and used Starburst candy for a reward for a bath well done.

  4. We have gone through periods similarly, and also played around with different ideas. By far the best one that worked was the bath crayons (or bath markers, too). For some reason, drawing in the bathtub is the best thing ever.

  5. Sleeping Should Be Easy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question. These are all great ideas and I’ll be sure to try them out.
    Also, many thanks to your readers who added their suggestions. For some of the ideas, she might still be too young, but I am willing to test them all.

    • My pleasure, hnMom! Let me know how it goes and what eventually does the trick.

      Thank you also fellow SSBE readers! I learned a ton of new ways should I ever be blessed with another bath time fiasco 🙂

  6. When Eli has started showing fear of bathing we’ve had success by letting Dad take over bathing for a few times. Somehow the change in person helped. Partly that can because he will do things in a different way, like filling up the tub only once Eli is in it, but in other ways it’s been obvious that it wasn’t just the techniques, but the novelty of the change in person that helped out.

  7. Swim lessons were huge for us and we started her around 9 months. Swimming at that age is only meant to really introduce the child to water and for both of us to become knowledgeable about water safety. So she loves bath time because it’s like swimming. And even though i would never leave her in there alone, she understands how to be safe in there.

  8. My youngest was afraid of the tub, but she liked the bathroom sink. When she started getting too big for the sink, my hubbie said, “Either she better get used to the tub, or I’ll have to install a bigger sink.”

  9. My daughter has always loved to bathe but one suggestion I have is to try the kitchen sink. I know kids who’ve been scared to bathe in the bathtub but have loved to bathe in the kitchen sink. Perhaps a change of scenery could help?

  10. I always learn new things from your posts, this one in particular. I’ll try some of your suggestions with my little boy, who has been shying away from his baths lately. I really appreciate this post!

  11. We’re lucky to never have had bath issues (with the exception of a little splashing monster!), and I think it’s likely because one of us always baths with my daughter. Might be something else to try

  12. My kids have all been afraid of the plug hole at one stage or another, especially when it makes that loud noise as the last of the water goes down. We have tried a few different things that seemed to help, such as holding them in our arms outside of the bathtub while they watch the water go down and making it clear that we aren’t afraid, we also put our fingers over the hole to show we couldn’t be sucked in, and we made a joke that it was the bath tub slurping down the water and we made slurping noises at the same time.

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