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Dealing with Baby Bath Time Fears

Baby vs. Bath Time

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I’m a first time mom with a sweet, happy, social 10 month old son. We’re struggling with something I can’t find a solution to. It seems to be a problem with toddlers, but not so common with babies. About a month or two ago, my son went from enjoying bath time to hating it. At that time I just kept going through our normal bath routine (which is only two nights per week- we’re in a dry climate). He would fuss at first and hang on tight to the sides of his baby bath, then eventually calm down and happily play in the water for about 15 minutes. I figured we were slowly getting through the bath fear, but now he REALLY hates it and doesn’t even tolerate being put in the water.

I tried a different baby tub and then just the regular adult tub; both were met with screams of bloody murder and hanging onto me for dear life. I quickly bathed him anyway because hygiene, but I’m worried that I’ve betrayed his trust now and made the problem worse. There hasn’t been any traumatic event or change in our bath routine that I can think of, and I’m always super careful to check the water temperature. He doesn’t seem to have any sensory sensitivities- I try to expose him to different textures throughout the day and he’s always ok with that. He also doesn’t mind me washing his hands in the sink or just sitting with him next to the tub as the water runs. I’ve tried to play with him a few times in the bathtub without any water, but he has the same panicked reaction every time.

Did I break my baby? I have no idea what to do next. I would greatly appreciate any wisdom you can impart. Thank you in advance!

This actually IS very common!

Even for babies, and especially for babies around your son’s age. Somewhere around the 9-to-10 month mark babies tend to gain an awareness that oh, life is a thing that is happening to me and wow, life is kind of scary. They are aware now that they are a separate being from you (cue up the separation anxiety), but unfortunately this awareness of the wider world does not come with a built-in understanding of the world. They don’t know yet that you don’t actually disappear off the face of the earth when you leave the room, for example.

When it comes to the bathtub, a baby (even one who previously enjoyed bath time) doesn’t know that the sound of the running faucet isn’t a monster or that he’s too big to get sucked down the drain or that the water being poured on his head isn’t going to blind him for life. Without this understanding, even a previously routine, no-big-deal aspect of life triggers a fight-or-flight reaction from the baby and a big old WTF for the parent.

All three of my boys went through some level of this — ranging from “I like being in the water but will scream full-on bloody murder throughout any attempt to wash my hair” to full-on “no no no no the drain will eat me” tub terror. Baths suddenly went from something fun and routine to a WAR THAT MUST BE FOUGHT WITH EVERY FIBER OF THEIR TINY BEINGS. All three required a lot of experimentation, because of course what worked for one child 1,000% did not work for the other. But the good news: All three eventually learned to stop worrying and love the bath once again.

Ideas to try to overcome baby’s fear of the bath:

1. Bathe with baby. This can really help soothe that initial “DON’T PUT ME IN THERE” panicked reaction, or the constant instinct your son has to try to get out of the tub and clutch at the sides. Let him cling to you at first and be patient. Eventually you can try distracting him with some toys or bubbles or encourage him to mimic you splashing in the water. (Also, wait until you are both out of the tub and he’s out of the room before draining the water. The draining water reallllllly wigs babies and toddlers out.)

2. Toys toys toys. What’s his favorite type of toy outside of the bath? Chances are, you can find something similar in a bath toy variety, or just go all out with something new and shiny that he’s never seen before. Make the bath toys truly “bath only” toys. They live in the bathtub and that’s the only place he can play with them. This is usually where I’d also recommend the playing-in-the-empty-tub ploy as a first step, but since that didn’t work once before (and most bath toys are more fun when there’s water involved), you could probably skip that.

3. Try a different time of day. The whole bath-book-bedtime routine is drilled into new parents like it’s some kind of  gospel, but that’s with the idea that your baby likes baths and finds them soothing/relaxing. Which not all babies do!! If you’re bathing your son at night, he might already be tired or a little cranky and the bath is just hyping him up and stressing him out. Try separating the bath from the bedtime routine and see if he responds better in the morning, or after a nap.

4. Take him swimming. Look around your area for any kind of baby swimming/water acclimation class. (The YMCA is generally awesome at these.) This was the ultimate solution to my middle and youngest sons’ bath time terror. They hated baths but really loved swimming with me in the pool, and after a few weeks of regular exposure to swimming they just…chilled out in the tub from then on. (Well, until I needed to wash my youngest’s hair, but that’s a whole other bath topic tangent.) If your climate is warm on top of dry, a small backyard baby pool or splash playground are also great ways to help a water-adverse baby/toddler reframe it as something fun.

5. Try the shower. This only really worked with my oldest (and backfired spectacularly with my youngest), but it worked SO well I think it’s worth tossing out there. I took him in the shower with me, positioning him in a suction-cup bath seat (a Bumbo would work too, depending on your tub’s surface) so he could see me but stay out of the water. I’d soap up and wash my hair while talking/singing to him, then pick him up and get him just wet enough that I could stick him back in the chair and finish his “bath” with one of those baby rinse cup thingies with the forehead/eye shield. I think he liked being in there with me and watching me, but enjoyed not being fully submerged? (He also loved the sound of running water, even while not being a huge fan of the actual water.)

Readers? Any bath time tips I missed that worked for you?

Photo source: Depositphotos/Lopolo

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Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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