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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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Published February 1, 2018. Last updated February 1, 2018.
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 [email protected].

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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Comments

6 Comments
  • AliceWonderland0

    February 1, 2018 at 4:01 pm

    We went through the same thing! Our daughter loved pools, water tables, splashing in water… basically any form of water except if it was via bath or shower. We tried everything Amy recommends here and none of it made a lick of difference (even if I was in the tub with her she would scale my body while sobbing in misery to escape the Evil Tub)… for us it just took time. It sucked but we spent several months doing super-quick baths just 1x/week to keep her mostly clean, while she sobbed and tried to climb up our arms to escape and wailed “up! up!” piteously. But! Eventually she just… calmed down. And now has NO (negative) reaction to the bath at all, will play with toys, enjoys pouring & splashing water, etc. So even if it seems like nothing is working right now, it WILL eventually pass, even if it really really seems like it never will 🙂

  • Megan

    February 1, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    After trying (and not succeeding) with all of the tips above and more, we tried a bubble gun (this sort of thing: https://www.amazon.com/Bubble-Gun-Educational-Products-Operated/dp/B002YY2T22). It worked so well at solving the problem that we ended up buying a bubble machine for the bathroom. We used it for a month or two, then we just didn’t need to anymore. We brought it out again for our second kid when he went through it and it worked for him too. Bubbles are magic!

  • Vickie

    February 2, 2018 at 1:28 am

    Try a dishpan, not in the tub, not even in the bathroom. In front of their favorite show on TV can help. If you can soak their bottom end, can just get the rest with a wash cloth. Do not leave them alone for even a second.

    Also a small kiddie pool on the kitchen floor can work. Put a towel in the bottom so it is not slippery. Naked, toys, fun. It is like the YMCA idea only at home.

    I am currently training a dog with the kiddie pool idea. The dog would happily plunge in a stream or lake, but will not put a muddy paw in a bucket with 2” of water. So kiddie pool and cheese.

  • Polopoly

    February 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Try a hand shower. Mine loves playing with the handle and trying to catch the spray. You can control the intensity of water too.

    Also, maybe increase the frequency of baths without soap so he gets used to the tub, and decrease the frequency of soap/ shampoo in case the suds are what freaked him out.

  • Emily Keller

    February 3, 2018 at 11:06 pm

    My son went through this first with the bath and then the shower and bathing with him really helped. If he got fussy I nursed and he felt better again. Obviously this only works if you are nursing and did not work for the shower but it helped! Time and patience. Babies don’t really get that dirty anyway 😛

  • Megan

    February 6, 2018 at 9:30 am

    We never went through a scared of bath phase although he did hate my in-laws bath tub and for that I just got in with him which helped immensely. Sponge baths or using something like Musetela’s cleansing wipes or no-rinse cleaning water might help if you want to take a short break from full on baths.