Infants, babies, and children change quickly. It can be really confusing for parents and caregivers, when someone worked the day before and then suddenly, does it.
It is common for children to change their mind about the bath, seemingly overnight. In some cases, children who abhor the bath (meaning hate it a lot) fall in love with it, and the struggles end. The reverse occurs just as often. It is unusual for a child who loves the bath to suddenly begin to fight it without some sort of intervening event.
Negative Experiences Are Common Culprits
Children learn quickly, and they take in all kinds of information about the world. They are fairly sensitive to sudden noises, unexpected sensations, or events. Something that seems innocuous to us can be a very dramatic event to a child.
It is really common for children who love the bath to have something happen during bathtime that changes how they feel about the whole experience. Did your child get splashed in the face? Or perhaps something loud fell over in the bathroom, making a very sudden or loud noise, startling the child? Think of all the things that can happen in the bath that might not be enjoyable for the child:
- soap in the eyes
- slipping and falling, out of control
- splashing water into eyes, nose, or mouth
- putting face under the water and getting water into the nose
- choking on water
- tasting soap
- hot/cold water
- washing up
- strange sounds from the faucet or drain
- parent response to some event (loud yell or surprise when child slips, authoritative demeanor in response to splashing, etc)
Some of these things may have happened before, but it can take just ONCE for a child to develop a negative association with the entire bath tub experience.
In most cases, if the parent is understanding (yet firm about the need to get cleaned up), the child can overcome the new found fear of the bath.
Developmental Jumps Are Also to Blame for Sudden Hatred of Bath Time
Depending on how old your baby is, developmental leaps forward can turn formerly enjoyable activities sour. This is partially because your child has new abilities, and improved senses. It can happen overnight with a young baby. Your child might cluster feed non-stop and be fussy for a few days, and them BOOM, she can do something new.
When it comes to bath time, these leaps can lead to trouble. Your baby may have enjoyed the warm water and the feeling of floating on her foam bath raft, or sitting in the little bath sling. But after a leap, your baby might now, for the first time, notice the water. Maybe it is the temperature. Or perhaps she didn’t notice that the water got in her ears. Or that the splashing made noise.
Whatever the case, your baby may not know what the “new” sound or sensation is, even though she has been technically experiencing it already for many weeks. This can cause her to act as though the bath was something completely new to her, even though you know as her parent that is isn’t.
We talked above about developmental jumps in babies causing problems with bath time. The same is true for toddlers. The bath may be awesome, but your developing two year-old may be in a developmental phase where she feels compelled to fight EVERYTHING. This is actually pretty normal, in my experience. A lot of what we as parents do with young children and toddlers is to just stay calm and help them get through their day in one piece.
If your child is 18-30 months old and has recently decided baths are terrible, you might just blame her age. But if her response to the bath seems extreme, you might consider taking a trip to see the pediatrician. She might be struggling with a sensory processing issue. Some kids process inputs differently, and feel things more extremely than you and I do. A sudden and inexplicable hatred of the bath could be a sign that the child can’t process all of the sensory inputs of the bath.
Other External Factors
Bath time is a fairly stimulating experience for children. If your child is suddenly melting down around bath time, you may need to check his schedule. Is he tired? So tired from his day that he can’t handle one more really fun activity? Your child may desperately want to take a bath, but when a child is tired and has been stimulated already a ton throughout the day, it may be impossible for him to make it through without having a meltdown.
Try changing up the schedule, or moving bath time to a different part of the day to see if it makes a difference. Consider rotating who gives the bath as well (mom, dad, older sibling) and see if that helps. Once you have a little more data, you might be able to pin point better what has caused the bath shakeup.
How do we help a child get used to the bath again?
If you think of your child’s response to the bath as valid, it helps. When parents don’t stop to think about why the child might be complaining about bath time, it is very hard to effectively move past it. You might not understand why your baby is fighting bath time all of a sudden, you just know that she is. You might feel tired, frustrated, or annoyed by the sudden fight.
If you assume that your child is messing with you, manipulating you, or is “bad,” it is going to be tough to move past bath time troubles.
Instead, take your child’s feelings and accept them. You don’t have to agree with her, or enable her to break rules or misbehave. But you can accept that she has a reason for acting the way she does. Once you start with that premise, you can move forward.
If your child is verbal, see if you can talk to her about it. Maybe she can’t tell you exactly what happened that changed her feelings about the bath, but perhaps she can tell you what she likes or doesn’t like. It could be that the problem isn’t the bath at all. It could be that she doesn’t like sitting in the bath while the water drains out. (Many children fear that they will do down the drain with the water, for example).
If your child is not verbal, you can still spend time with her in the bathroom and observe what she touches (or doesn’t), and how she reacts to things in the bathroom. Take a tour, and show her the toys, soap, towels, shower head. She what she’ll touch, and what she won’t.
If you can’t pinpoint any problem specifics, try starting baths over from the beginning. Start with the water, and letting her touch or play in the water from outside the bath. She can do this with her clothes on, or off. Don’t force her into the bath kicking and screaming.
If playing in the water from outside the bath goes well, try getting her into the bath, with an inch or two of water in there. She can go in wearing clothes or a swimsuit. For added fun, give her bath crayons, bath paints, or something else AWESOME to do in the bath. If she won’t go in with water, see if you can get her into the bathtub without water. Just her favorite toys. Or climb into the dry tub yourself, and see if she’ll sit in it with you to read a book.
The goal is to just make some new positive memories and feelings about bath time, in the hope that the new memories will overcome and replace the old, negative ones.
You can also try getting into the bath with her.
If you try and try and try to get her into the bath and the struggles continue, I’d consider letting bath time go for a while. Not that you won’t clean her up. Instead, try taking her into the shower with you. One thing we do in summer months is to take a plastic tub into the backyard and do some bathing outside.
I will also admit to spraying the kids off with the garden hose.
Occasionally. (Sometimes they are just too dirty to even come inside to make it to the tub or shower. And then they are so dirty I won’t want all that gunk in the shower or tub anyway).
Bath time struggles won’t last forever
The key to overcoming bath time problems when nothing else seems to work is probably just time. Children forget, and they move on. They develop language, enabling us to talk them through their problems and fears. Our children gain skills and abilities that allow them to have more control over their experience. But if you still have worries, talk to your child’s pediatrician.
Unless the case is extreme, I would take a deep breath, and not worry too much about sudden bath time struggles.
This, too, shall pass, Mom and Dad.
Before you go, check out this article from Mom Advice Line: Encouraging a Growth Mindset in Toddlers
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the screen when the kids are occupied. She can be reached through the Contact Us page.