Resolution of Bath Fears

Category: Fantasies, Fears and Phobias

PSP members discuss solutions for babies and toddlers who are skittish about bathing!

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Original Poster:

"I was wondering if and how people have found resolution to their toddler suddenly becoming afraid of the bath. We are still stuck in this weird phase. I have tried to be gentle, asking J. if he would like to take a bath, having him put the toys in the bath, having him reach in and splash, etc. But he still refuses to sit in the bath. He is getting strong and my husband and I literally cannot make him sit down. So for the last week, I have been giving him quick wipe downs while he stands at the side of the tub. Last weekend, I took a bath with him, which went well, but I don't want to always do this. I am hesitant to buy any new 'equipment,' as I fear it will be a waste of money. Any tips? Success stories? Thank you!"




Fill the tub first:

"My older daughter got over most of her issues once I figured out that she had developed a serious aversion to the sound of the tub filling. I could at least get her in the water if she arrived to a filled tub."


Some don't like it hot:

"Also, once she learned the word "hot" she started yelling it at the bath tub every time she got in the room. It turns out what I thought was tepid was boiling to her. Once we started running it kind of frigid, she was willing to sit down again. She's almost four and she still prefers a cold bath run in advance of her getting in. So, those might be worth trying."


Keep it quick:

"I don't have any advice to offer but only to share we have on/off being going through something similar. We can usually get our 15 month old H. to eventually sit but then he cries so much, we make it a super quick bath.
Guessing it's just a phase, like everything else."


Make it fun:

"How about bubbles? This may not work but may be worth a try. We do a bubble bath that comes with a bubble wand and you dip it in the solution and most of them land intact in the bath so it's really fun. P. tries to blow bubbles too but he can't just yet. It's California Baby bubble bath - we use overtired and cranky version."

"I got this duck tub for V. (10 months) a month or two ago and it has changed bath time for us! It's such a comfortable space for her to sit and enjoy the water and it's more secure than the other tub I had for her.  In regards to fears, don't stress out!  It feels awful in the moment, but next week could bring something totally different so don't worry too much."


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Make it different:

"Just to add to the suggestions, my daughter seemed to get over her fear of baths once the water features in the parks opened up and she started playing in those. She still doesn't love running water being poured over her, but she's much more comfortable in the tub."



"We had a similar challenge with [our son] over the last month, and I can say that it seems to be getting a little better. After another bath refusal/fit while we were at my parent's house, we tried giving him a bath in their whirlpool tub, just because it looks different, to see if that would help. It seemed to...he was skeptical, but did not immediately want to get out or start whining. He didn't sit down at first, but he did start playing with the water faucets, since he could reach them in that tub, and that really distracted him.
I let him play for awhile, and he got comfortable enough to sit down a couple of times really briefly. Was able to wash him standing up, while he played with the taps.
Since then, baths in our regular tub have been a bit better. He still doesn't sit down much, (he used to no problem!), and he can't really reach the water on/off thing in our tub here, so that doesn't work. But if he can play with the running water he is happier. So I guess the opposite of your [child]! ;
I guess the only take away I can see is that changing the scene can help - so a different tub - or even try a big sink or kiddy pool or something to get him comfortable again? Or a different thing to play with? And maybe also playing around with filled/not filled, temperature, etc. etc. I guess they just get more aware at this age and more strong and often crazy preferences."


Avoid spending too much time on trigger areas:

"He still really doesn't like having his head or face we try to save that to the end, or not always do it, so that he doesn't associate the bath only with that. Any suggestions on washing toddler's hair/face are welcome!"


Bathe together:

"Just another option—what happens if you get IN the bathtub with him. When my daughter was going through this we also started giving her showers with us instead. They also like the control of holding the shower head (we have one on a hose). And so you know… this is fairly common and luckily kids grow out of it!"


It's a phase they outgrow:

"I went through the same issue with [my child]. Before bath time was ok and then he hated it as well as any new faces, unknown people. I think this is a period they go through. Then from 9 months and a half he started to like the bath again. Not sure whether because he went out of this period of his life or whether the waterplay he did at nursery helped him feel more comfortable or other. But I think at around 8 months they have this kind of separation anxiety and become afraid of certain things/people , this then changed."


And it's normal:

"I think it's pretty normal since she probably just wants to move and explore. If I'm remembering correctly, [my son] started to try to climb out of his baby tub around 8 months or so. He wasn't sitting up on his own at the time so I wasn't eager to put him in the big tub but that's what we had to do since he would squrim to get out of the baby tub. At the time he was standing with support and could sit with support, so I just bathed him like that. It wasn't so much fun because he wanted to move but I couldn't leave him on his own. But by the time he was able to independently sit (for us 9.5 months), it was much easier for me and he now has a lot more independence and I let him do his thing with his bath toys so he's happy."


Response from the original poster:

"Thanks for all of your great advice. I have ordered a new non-slip mat and a set of alphabet bath toys so that James can stand in the bath if he pleases. I will also watch the temperature and continue to encourage him to play in the water features at the park.  And as a last resort, I will sit on our new bath mat and take a bath with him, as this worked well at my mom's house. Thank you again for all of your ideas!"


More ideas from a 2020 thread...


If they're worried about getting their face wet, encourage them to bathe "swimming-style":

"Once I remind her that she can do bathtime “swimming-style” (she leans back to put her hair in the water), she usually calms down, and even enjoys it."


Try a "shower-bath":

"This was about the time [four years old] that we started taking “shower-baths.”  If you can get a hose shower head and just have him sit in the tub and use the shower head (increasing his feeling of control— use with shower curtain closed!) it might help."


Or a regular shower:

"My guy has been taking showers for over a year. He loves it! He used to wear goggles to keep the water out but now he mostly just closes his eyes. We help wash him then just leave him alone and he has the best time. 
Worth a try?"


It might help if they have exposure to other watery activities in a fun context:

"One thing I remember though, in desperation I signed up for parent-kid swimming classes and once he started those out bath times became much easier. He is like a fish in the water now and diving in the bathtub for fun.
During those troubling bathing years he was also anxious about swimming in the ocean and lakes.
Just remember it is only a stage, it is some kind of fear some preschoolers start experiencing and that is their reaction. Don’t take personally. Hang in there and it will pass."


And that can translate into more fun in the tub:

"I gave them goggles and they thought it was fun to ‘swim’ in the bath. Kept the water out of their eyes too. My other son loved those little swimming fish that are battery operated and swim fast through the water. Bubbles were also a big hit with my young son but not my older one.
And at some point around 5 I think they both wanted to try a shower so we’d give them the option."


In some cases, it may be worth checking with your doctor to see if there's an underlying physical issue making bathtime more challenging:

"I share this not to scare anyone but to say that perhaps there might be something going on, which may require intervention.  In our experience after all the yelling, fighting and crying it turned out that my son was actually experiencing something quite traumatic- my son had partially blocked ears and had the sensation of feeling like he was under water when in the bath. Very very sad. But we fixed it and he was a very happy camper. It took a week post surgery to convince him that he was fine, and we also used a filled bucket to bath him rather than a shower or a filled bathtub."




And more from a 2021 thread...


Try different times of day:

"We've had more success after the playground in the morning sometimes."

"Maybe he's overtired? My kid loves bathtime, but if he has had a really active day or a day with a short nap, he resists/cries/immediately climbs out of the tub. I try to move bath earlier to accommodate an earlier bedtime on days he hasn't slept well or alternately has been really stimulated and is exhausted. If I get it early enough, bath can last a good twenty minutes, so I try to take that into account for bedtime."


Make it fun with a bubble bath:

"My daughter recently didn't want to get into the bath after months of not being able to get her out of it, but we nipped it in the bud by starting to do bubble baths, which she loves. She spends half the day chanting "bubble bath!" in anticipation now. But be forewarned that now every bath must be a bubble bath!"


Or bath bombs:

"And - bath bombs - they cure-all. We are particularly fond of the rainbow bath bombs. You can get them on Amazon, and I am sure they are available from other places, but they are magic and are super fun."


Try a brief break:

"My son had a bath strike right after getting a brief illness. It sounds so simple and maybe won't work for you, but what I did was take a two-day break from a bath, and then when I reintroduced it I put some of his older sister's bubble bath in his bathwater to entice him."


Bring back the baby tub to mitigate drain fears:

"This happened with my older kid, and it turned out she had developed a fear of the drain. We tried a host of things, like covering the drain, but eventually had to bring back the baby tub in the bigger tub. After several months (maybe even 6 months), her fear went away and we were back to normal. It was a total hassle while that lasted."

"Then I took his little foldable bathtub and set it up on the kitchen counter instead: there he accepted sitting in it. So, I guess for him the change of room helped. Now, he loooooves the big bathtub or his foldable bathtub in the bathroom again."


Reintroduce water in a new way:

"For this one, it was so bad I called our ped. At her advice we totally quit baths for a month. Showered instead. Then we reintroduced water in a totally different way and tried to make it fun. For us that was sink baths without hair washing. It worked and she’s back in the big tub and LOVES it. Still doesn’t love hair washing."

"I stopped saying, 'it’s time for bath.' Instead I carry him from dinner to the bathtub, close the bathroom door, turn on the tub faucet, sit on the floor and say, “let’s play with the water.” 95% of the time, he just wants to get in and play with the water."


Try different hair-washing methods:

"We experienced a short-lived but (stinky!) traumatic three-week+ stint with my older child at around the same age. I resorted to sponge baths standing in a baby tub since it was the closest I could get her to the water without her screaming in terror.

Our instance was specifically tied to fear of water getting in her eyes during hair washing. I bribed her back into the tub with bubble bath, bath paint, and all manner of new toys. We (eventually) got her to lay her head back by having one parent hold a phone up on the ceiling for her to look at while we washed her hair. It took about a week of practicing the head tilt until she started to believe that hair washing did not have to lead to water in her eyes. I know there are other accessories that might help with this (besides a screen), but its what worked for us!"

"My daughter, who turned 2 in Feb, HATED having her hair washed (specifically the part where I had to pour water on her head). She understood the concept of tilting her head back but when it came time to do it she refused and would freak out and flail her body everywhere. I had my older son demonstrate over and over and also pretended the shower head was a person so that when it was time for hair washing I would tell her to look up at the shower head and tell it about something we did that day. The other thing I did was to do the washing in tiny installments - I would tell her that I was going to pour a teeny amount on her head and that she just needed to tilt her head back and count to one. I would also have a dry towel/washcloth at the ready to wipe her face immediately after in case any drops got on her head. When she was able to do that without a huge fuss I praised her to the high heavens and then moved on to counting to 2, 3, etc etc. We just worked up from there and now she will let me wash her hair without a fight!"

"My daughter really hated having her hair washed. Another PSP mom recommended this bath visor to us, and it's been incredible! It keeps the water out of her eyes and keeps her happy."

"We use this for rinsing hair. I actually bought those visors but she refused to put it on. The whale works pretty well, although she can still get water on her face and gets mad about it occasionally."


Stand or sit in the tub with them:

"Same thing happened with us! Progressively got worse until our son wouldn’t go in at all...we kept it really low pressure and I actually ended up putting on a pair of shorts and standing in the tub ... he was super excited to go in after that. I only had to do it that once. And we got new toys and sponges for him to wash his own hair (I did sense that the hair washing was what bothered him the most previously)."

"So strange, this happened to L. at exactly 18 months as well. I had to look into it because we were starting swim lessons the NEXT day.

We had dad get in the bathtub while he hung out on the other side and that seemed to warm him up to approaching the bath tub again. And we also started to use bubbles as well. After a couple days he was fine again."


Or let them stand:

"Just to join the consensus - our son (at around 2) also abruptly started disliking / refusing bathtime after previously loving it. I didn't push / pressure him to take a bath if he didn't want to. But after a few days like this we tried a more playful approach and got him in the tub with less of a struggle (than the times I was really trying and trying). Sometimes he stands up in the tub, rather than sitting - and I wash him that way, play with him a little - and then get him out once he's clean."


Play videos (from a safe distance to avoid wetting your electronics!):

"We also faced something similar, my daughter protested the bath right for no apparent reason around the same age. We tried all the fun bath activities-- toys, bath paint, bubbles, etc to no avail. We moved to very quick sponge baths a few days a week and it kept her sufficiently clean. We also sometimes played short Elmo videos for her to watch (with a parent holding the phone/iPad) when we were desperate. But it passed as others have suggested. One day she happily got in the tub and now we can't get her out! The good news from fickle toddlers is that phases don't usually last long!"


Bring a popsicle:

"Forgot about this earlier - but much cleaner than a cookie and BRILLIANT."


Set expectations and let them prep for the tub:

"We also do a two minute timer along with a verbal acknowledgement about 10 minutes beforehand so he knows what’s coming (this makes almost everything a million times easier) and a lot of prep - which basically means, we give all his stuffed animals 'bath time' and 'doctor visits' and whatever else needs happening (it really really helped with medication recently)."


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Related reading on Park Slope Parents:

Bath time: How to wash your toddler's hair?

Toddler Afraid of Big Tub