Sometimes bathing a toddler can be like trying to hold a fish—a wiggly, giggly, slippery minnow that can even run away from you. Here are four ideas to help you make bath time less fishy.
Don’t Pass on Prep Time
Before trying to corral your kiddo, make sure you have everything you need within reach. Don’t forget to pull together towels, soap, shampoo, and the all-important toys. If you encourage your child to help gather the bath-time items, he or she will feel more included and can even learn some skills like planning ahead and organization and you’ll avoid your kid standing in a cold, wet puddle while you search for that special towel.
You can also include a build-up to bath time as part of your prep. Give your child a few minutes warning in the lead-up to their bath like saying things like, “It’s just five minutes to bath time!” Toddlers don’t usually like to stop one thing and start another without notice. You can use these same kinds of signals when it’s almost time to get out of the bath too.
Make sure you test the water before helping your child climb in. The back of your hand is more sensitive than your palm. And, never run hot water when your child is in the tub to avoid scalding. Once your child is in the tub, always stay within arms reach.
Combat Fears of Water and the Dreaded Drain
It’s not uncommon for children to be a little apprehensive about a bath. Sometimes it’s feeling nervous about water getting in their eyes, and other times it’s a fear that they might get sucked down the drain with the rest of the suds. Kids can also be a little unnerved by the sound of rushing water or can be worried about slipping.
Identify the reason for your child’s concern first, and then use small steps to help calm their fears.
For a child with a lot of uneasiness about water, it’s sometimes helpful to give them a chance to put their hands in the sink water to learn that water play can be fun. For kids who are extra frightened around water, you can even start water play in the kitchen sink or in a bucket/tray of water outside the bathroom. Then, over several days or weeks move it closer and closer. For example, start in the kitchen and then move it to the bathroom. Finally, move the bucket into the tub so your child can play with water when the tub is empty.
Introduce new bath toys outside the tub too, and show him or her how much fun it is to float them in water. Try only filling the tub with a couple of inches of water at first—just enough to splash a little—then gradually add more water as he or she gets more comfortable.
Get a nonskid mat for the tub to make it less slippery and cover the faucet with a piece of pool noodle to avoid head injuries. And don’t forget the non-slip mat outside the tub to make the floor less slippery. Even a towel on the floor will work in a pinch. If the rushing water sound is scary, try filling the tub when your child is in another room.
If your child is afraid of getting pulled down the drain, try having him or her help fill up the bathtub and bathe a toy or doll. Practice cleaning and grooming the toy and then leave it in the water and unplug the drain. Watch together and see that the toy doesn’t get sucked away. And don’t forget to point out how much bigger they are than the toy.
If none of these ideas work, you could try washing someplace other than the bathtub. Fill a different kind of receptacle with water instead. Try a flexible tub with handles or even a laundry bucket. Sometimes smaller options will be a novelty and will help your child look forward to bath time.
Add Some Fun (and Some Learning)
Bath activities can be fun, and you don’t need fancy toys for a good time. Even funnels, plastic bottles, or measuring cups can make bath time interesting. Rotate toys to keep things fresh, or try singing songs and telling stories. Helping your toddler make up their own games and stories will fuel their imagination.
Because toddlers are constantly learning, bath time is full of opportunities. Try naming the different parts of the body as you wash them. You can also add new vocabulary by repeating and incorporating new words. Repeat words for actions like: splash, pour, splash, spill, or sit. Learn the words for toys like: duck, fish, turtle, boat, ball, etc. Or, try naming the colors all around the bath. But also remember that bath time doesn’t mean school time, so keep it natural and low-key.
Try adding a few drops of food coloring to the bathtub to catch a wary toddler’s attention. Or, freeze small bath toys inside ice cubes and watch how much fun your child has as the ice melts to reveal what’s inside. Ice cubes made with colored water are also fun to chase around the tub.
Communicate to Calm Nerves
Give your child a heads-up when you are going to pour water over their head. Help them tilt their head back, or have them hold a washcloth over their eyes. If you are having trouble getting them to look up, try putting a picture of their favorite character on the ceiling (like Mickey Mouse or Thomas the Train). Then have them look at or find the character.
You can talk through the process so they aren’t surprised by saying things like: “Now let’s wash your hair.” And, don’t skip the praise. Let them know how brave they are, or how calm they are being.
You also could invest in a bath visor to keep little eyes dry. Even a foam visor from the dollar store would work. And, make sure your bath products are gentle and “no-tear” formulas. But, keep the focus on fun. You can sometimes skip the soaping and shampooing when it’s too much of a stressor.
If your child is especially unhappy about a certain part of bath time (like washing their hair), try singing the same song during this part every time. This ritual will help your child know what is coming and it will also help them realize it will be over soon. They’re done as soon as the song is over.
When all else fails, maybe a little togetherness can do the trick. Try getting in the tub with your child. Your example goes a long way, so showing your toddler how much fun you think the bath is might be just the inspiration he or she needs. Plus, who wouldn’t want to take a turn dumping water on mommy or daddy’s head?
Written by Annie Buck, OT
Annie Buck is an Occupational Therapist with Kids Who Count. She specializes in helping children with feeding and sensory delays. She lives in a houseful of boys. She and her husband have four sons, from 8-months-old to 7-years-old. Things are always loud at home with fun that usually involves someone wrestling someone else.