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Child Not Wanting to Wash Hair

Hair Washing Wars

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

I’m in need of some quick and dirty (perhaps literally) bath time advice. My 22mo old loves pool time and bath time…so she is OK with water. Until it is time to wash her. And then it is like full-on panic/trauma/fight or flight. I feel awful (AWFUL) watching it unfold. I feel like if I were a neighbor who overhead the crying and pleading, I’d be tempted to call Child Protective Services. That bad.  

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI also have a 5 month old (i.e., my life is not lacking for useless baby gear; nor is it overflowing with free time or energy to devote to clean toddler hair. I mean, seriously? Is there even such a thing?). So I need some no nonsense ideas. (as opposed to loading up on random bath aids like shower visors, goggles and baby shower contraptions. unless they are some kind of miracle that I need more faith in)

What I’m really looking for is (a) Why God WHYYY? Can I do something to minimize the trauma (something that is super low maintenance)? (b) How long does this bath/shampoo-aversion thing last? (c) What is the least cleaning I can get away with? I already only shampoo her hair once a week (I’m not gonna lie, that is not much more than I shampoo mine, we aren’t very oily people she and I). She has curls and will let me condition her hair, which I do more frequently (go figure? I imagine this is because I condition her ends and shampoo her roots, which are closer to her face/eyes.) This child doesn’t really go for putting much of anything on her head (bows, ponytails, etc) so I’m doubting the visor or goggle thing will work. When she sees the shampoo time coming, she freaks out. So I don’t imagine asking her to lean back or do something equally peaceful/logical will work. My next plan was a foaming shampoo that is quick to wash out (i.e., can be rinsed off with a wash cloth). Am I overlooking some other simple solution(s)?

Failing that, do I have your permission to just never wash my child’s hair again? (kidding. kind of)

AH MAH GAH. The shampoo terrors. I remember them well. Noah had them from about your daughter’s age until…oh, I am sorry to do this to you, but THIS YEAR. As in SUPER RECENTLY, IN THE PAST COUPLE MONTHS.

He is going to be six.

And apparently, he got it from me, because my mother can tell you truly epic stories. The first of which occurred at my baptism. I was a very young but highly verbal toddler who apparently shrieked DON’T PUT WATER ON MY HEAD! at the minister.

He put water on my head. So I kicked him.

So my mom was never very sympathetic when I would wail on about Noah’s hairwashing terrors, because I put her through the exact same thing for YEARS. Until elementary school, apparently, which is when I started swimming lessons (I started them later than most kids because of chronic ear infections and surgery for tubes). I actually remember the night I decided to get over my fear and stuck my own head in the bathwater voluntarily. I then marched downstairs (bathing unsupervised FTW!) to proudly show my mom what I had done. LOOK I’M BRAVE NOW!

(She was…not as thrilled as I’d been expecting, because I’d forgotten the part that now my long, fine hair was sopping wet and would need to be combed, detangled and dried. By her. And this wasn’t supposed to be a “hairwash night.”)

With Noah, we tired all the usual tactics. No visors or anything (he hates hats), but I did buy one of those rinsing cup/pitcher things with the rubberized side that was supposed to go against his forehead and minimize the water in his eyes and face. I can’t find the exact model anymore on Amazon, which isn’t too surprising because it did not really work at all. It required cooperation from your child, as they needed to stay still and in a certain head-tilt position, and as you probably know, when you’ve got a wet, naked, slippery kid who is genuinely terrified out of their gourd by the mere SIGHT of the shampoo bottle, you aren’t getting any cooperation.

(It never occurred to me to try a shampoo that could be rinsed out with a washcloth — honestly I had no idea such a thing existed. If it does and it works, GO FOR IT.)

What helped Noah, in the end, was the same thing that helped me as a kid: swimming lessons. Not free fun play or those mommy-and-me groups in the pool, but actual instructional lessons. We enrolled him in February (also older than I would have liked, but his sensory/attentional difficulties needed to be worked through first) in group lessons and occasionally even lucked out with “private” lessons when the class wasn’t densely enrolled and he was the only kid to consistently show up. The teachers got him to put his face in the water, then to wear goggles and go completely underwater for a few seconds (all skills we’d tried and failed to teach him ourselves), and by the time he was going under to retrieve sunken toys I realized that the drama at bathtime had all but ended.

Was it a maturity thing? A confidence thing? Learning how to properly hold his breath? A realization that nothing bad would happen even if he DID get water in his eyes/nose/mouth?  I don’t know. But he lets me wash and condition and rinse his hair now.

(Though it would be great if he’d stop running from me every time he sees me approaching him with a hairbrush. Sigh.)

The problem, of course, is that our local YMCA doesn’t start actual instructional swimming lessons until age 3. (Before that it’s basically a glorified Gymboree class in the water, and while my kids enjoyed going and all, it never had any effect on our bath troubles.) (Ezra really hates hairwashing too, though not to the violent fight-or-flight level of Noah. He’s getting signed up for lessons this fall ON HIS BIRTHDAY I SWEAR.) Can you find “real” swimming lesson programs for a 22-month-old? I don’t know. And I certainly don’t know how much they’d cost, or if that investment would be worth it, as your daughter may ALSO need to simply get a little older and more mature before getting over her fear.

So how did we survive all those years of bathtub panic and screaming? (Oh my God, the screeeeeeeeeeeaming, and we live in a townhouse and my children’s bathtub is against the shared wall and I CAN ONLY IMAGINE WHAT OUR NEIGHBORS THOUGHT WAS HAPPENING.)

Not going to lie: I washed Noah’s hair when it looked dirty. And not a day before. Rarely more than once a week, IF THAT. Especially in the winter. Summer? Well, summer was harder, what with swimming and sweating and sunscreen. (Note that I’m talking about hair washing, not BATHING. I promise my kids aren’t completely filthy. I just don’t think their hair honestly needs washed all that much to look/feel/smell just fine.) (We’ve also been incredibly fortunate in the head-lice-scare department.)

And I just…did it as quickly and matter-of-factly as possible. Like, sorry dude, this has to happen but if you cooperate it will be over super quick. I usually gave him the choice between me wetting/rinsing his hair with a cup or small bucket or the shower head. (He never chose the shower head — that was the scariest option, so a toy cup was an “easy” choice in comparison.) I would give him a hand towel to put over his eyes either during or immediately after, and I would do my darnedest best to both minimize the water on his face AND go as quickly as possible, like a Band-Aid. Sometimes we’d do bath time earlier on hair wash nights, so I could dangle the promise of a pre-bedtime snack or an episode of Dora afterwards.

Sometimes, it was okay. Sometimes, it was awful. Sometimes, I TOTALLY delayed hairwashing until Friday night when the babysitter was coming and left her to deal with it, because I AM JUST THAT TERRIBLE. NOW YOU KNOW.

But it was not forever. It was longer than I would have liked, but not forever. It won’t be forever for your daughter, either.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Published August 17, 2011. Last updated August 19, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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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