Prev Next
The Bathtime Battle

The Bathtime Battle

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I tried to search the archives if you had answered questions on this but couldn’t seem to find anything. Anyways. I have an almost 2 year old boy who use to love the bath. He enjoy splashing in the water, stomping playing with his toys, would run to the tub with glee when we asked if he wanted a bath. Then one day a few months ago, baths became the scariest, awfullest thing he could ever imagine. We thought maybe it was because he had slipped a few times in the tub so we bought a tub mat, that didn’t really help. He still just stands there and screams and cries “ALL DONE! ALL DONE!” I thought maybe it was because he gets upset about washing his hair, so I stopped that to try and make bath time at least fun again. But that hasn’t improved anything. Then I started filling a bowl full of water and putting it in the tub, letting him play in the water from the outside of the tub with his bath toys. He gets excited about dumping the water so I just have him fill the tub, then take off one piece of clothing at a time which he gets upset about. Then finally after a while place him in the tub. He’s having a great time outside of the tub but once inside he’s a mess. The first time I did this, it went really smooth and he didn’t even notice I was bathing him. But since then he still stands there and cries/screams. On a side note, he loves water, he loves washing his hands, it’s just something about the tub. It’s gotten so bad that I only give him a bath once a week. . .sometimes longer because it’s so stressful for both of us. I also bought bath crayons to see if he would draw in the tub and that didn’t help. I just don’t know what to do, wait it out? Force the bath on him even if he is crying so hard snot is flying out of his nose? I’m so afraid he’s going to be the smelly kid in class that no one wants to be friends with.

Thank you!

P.S. I should mention that we have also tried me getting in the bath with him, taking a bath at my parent’s house, taking showers with him and talking to him about how everyone washes their body (which he likes to repeat a lot “Mama wash the body”).

For what it’s worth, each and every one of my children went through a similar anti-bath/anti-hairwashing phase. Bathtime suddenly (and inexplicably) went from being fun and relaxing to The Worst Thing Ever. Screaming, crying, begging to be ALL DONE ALL DONE EEEEEEEEEEEEE NOOOOOOOO. You’d think I was drowning them. I’m pretty sure our next door neighbor thought I was drowning them.

And each and every one of my children eventually just…snapped out of it. For my oldest, starting swimming lessons seemed to coincide with him getting over his bathtime fear (which was mostly just about getting his hair wet or water/soap in his eyes, not necessarily being in the tub in general). The younger two just kinda…outgrew it, I guess. We didn’t really change anything with them, other than bathing as rarely as possible, offering sponge baths as an alternative, bribing with lots of fun bath toys, and…yes, when it was really totally time for an actual bath and hair wash and there was no way around it, I just put them in the tub and tried to get it over with as quickly as humanly possible, and ignored the screaming.  (Luckily, they do not appear to be scarred for life from that less-than-ideal solution.)

So I would mostly keep doing what you’re doing, while continuing to experiment with other water experiences. A toddler swim class might help if the fear is somewhat rooted around the whole “getting his head/hair wet” thing.  Since it’s summer, you could totally try bathing him outside in a kiddie pool to avoid the dreaded tub. And while I’ve never used these (so I don’t know how well they work or how much of a mess they make), maybe he would enjoy something like these fingerpaint soaps from Crayola, or the Play-Doh like Fun Soaps from LUSH.

I’m sorry I don’t have a ton of specific suggestions…I can mostly offer my condolences and reassurances that you are not alone in trying to figure out why bathtime is suddenly akin to waterboarding for your toddler. He WILL outgrow this, I can say with relative confidence, although I can’t even begin to predict when that will happen.

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.

icon icon
chat bubble icon


  • Carolyn Allen Russell

    June 26, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    You mentioned that you’ve tried getting in the bath with him or taking a shower instead (which were both of the things I was going to suggest!) but you don’t mention how those went. I am curious if those experiences could help you pinpoint where his fear is stemming from (does he feel more secure if you’re in the bath and he’s sitting in your lap instead of sitting on his own? Is he fine playing in the tub with you but then panics if you try to pour water on his hair? Or will he gladly get his hair wet in the shower or outside in the sprinklers but not want shampoo in it?) My kiddos around that age have both gone through a fear of having their hair washed (so bathtime is an epic struggle, but only because of that. If I just set them in the tub and didn’t wash them they’d be fine). Things that helped were giving them a rolled up washcloth or small towel to hold over their eyes and being sure to go really slow when wetting their hair to make sure as little water as possible comes down the face as possible. We also have a qdSpray (which is a handheld sprayer that attaches to the sink faucet) and that is great for being able to target the water more precisely than I can with a bucket. My son for a while was happier if he got to use the sprayer himself to wet his hair (I’d close the shower curtain for that because he did make a mess!) so giving your child more control over the bathing experience might be something else to try. But I think it IS a stage a LOT of toddlers go through, so you’re not alone and didn’t do anything wrong! Time and trial and error will get you through it eventually 🙂 

  • Chris

    June 26, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    My first thought – Is he suddenly afraid he’s going to slip down the drain?  Like some kids are afraid they’ll flush down the toilet?  As kids’ cognitive skills develop, they can become scared of the oddest things because they can understand just enough to be afraid.  When one of my boys was five, he was terrified of sharks in the pool at the Y.  He wasn’t convinced until I let him see it empty when drained for repairs! Just a thought.  

  • Katie

    June 26, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    I just went through this with my 2 year old, although luckily it only lasted a few weeks.  My son got scared by the drain noises (at the end of bath, or if the tub got overfilled).  I read online that sometimes bath aversion is due to a lack of understanding scale, and therefore fearing that he will get sucked down the drain (which is why bathing with a parent may not necessarily help and in fact could increase the fear : Mama will also get sucked down the drain!)
    Here’s what I tried, although who knows what worked and why.  1.  Put the plug in the drain before he entered the bathroom, and then had the water running in a small stream continuously through the bath as an attraction.  Do not drain the tub while he’s in the room.  2.  Put towels on the floor and let him play with bath toys outside the tub — it was his choice whether to get in or not.  If he didn’t get in, we would do a sponge bath.  (We also went swimming a lot during this period so not taking a full bath wasn’t quite as big a problem as it might have been).  3.  Have a parent sit on the edge of the tub with feet in the water, and the toddler sitting on parent’s lap.  Other parent plays with new enticing bath toys at other end of the tub (crayons, mama and baby floating animals, Elmo, empty shampoo bottle).  My son eventually would get into the water to play, but could easily retreat to the safety of an adult’s legs.  If he wanted to get out, we’d pull him back onto the lap and try again in a few minutes. Again, he had total control over the choice.  4.  Got him a washable doll to take into the bathtub and mirror everything we do to wash him on the baby first.  My son LOVED this.  When nothing else worked, talking about how it was his job to wash the baby got him into the tub.  5.  Got him a strange bath hat that (sort of) keeps water out of his face when we’re rinsing his hair.
    We had a week of screaming during forced baths, followed by maybe two weeks of refusing to get in (and not being forced), and then he suddenly started loving baths again.
    Good luck!

  • s

    June 26, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I’m in with my almost 2 year old. We used to do strictly baths and he seemed to put together that baths=night night. We changed.up the bedtime routine a bit (GASP!) and now bath seems to go easier. So maybe try changing.up the order of things a bit. If it.usually goes (potty?) Teeth bath jammies books bed… try like… potty bath books jammies bed. And make sure,(I’m sure you already do) you have adequate “cool down” time before all this. Its not much fun to have to STOP TOYS RIGHT NOW cuz it’s bath/bed time, especially if he’s a.typical gogogo boy. So maybe even a book before bath to ease into the process. Its what’s been working for us so maybe it’s worth giving a shot.

  • Sara

    June 26, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    we had a similar issue with my daughter just before two. We started letting her bathe in the baby tub again with her diaper on, and I would slowly remove it as she played. She was a late talker so had absolutely no way of communicating what the issue was (although even if she could talk still may not have had to words to tell us). We figured she may have sat on a toy one day in tub and hurt her bum, which then frightened her, or had a rash somewhere we couldn’t see that was hurting in the warm water. 
    It was winter so baths weren’t that big of an issue but I did learn it wasn’t that big of deal. This too shall pass. Good luck!

  • Dani

    June 27, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Straws, plastic cups, Popsicles or frozen yogurt sticks in the bathtub worked for us at this stage

  • Mara

    June 27, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    We are also in this area of bath resistance with a two year old. The kiddo LOVES water everwhere else, but bathtime started freaking her out! What has finally worked for us is that we have a long hose/showerhead sprayer. She gets to be in charge of getting herself wet, and she’s much happier about the whole thing. At least for my toddler, being in control is huge.

    Good luck to you!

  • Tl

    June 27, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    We just had this a few weeks ago with my 20 month old. It lasted a few weeks, maybe a month.  Things we did that seemed to help ease him back into the tub: fun new bath toys, a bath book that can go in the water, much less water in the tub, and a cooler water temperature (almost tepid). We’re still only bathing every other day even though he seems to be over it now. 

  • Maree

    June 28, 2015 at 9:50 am

    We had luck bathing our daughter in the laundry tub – I think the size was less scary and shu could lean against the side (no slipping). A big plus is that it way easier on my back and I can get some folding done while supervising her.

    For the hair wash dramas I have had a lot of luck laying the child (clothed) on the bench with their shoulders on the sink drainer and just their head over the sink. They don’t have to tip their head to avoid water in their eyes and the are nice and warm and secure – no dramas.

    My big kids shower and wash their own hair so it all works out eventually if that helps!  Also I haven’t seen a link between bath and pool in my kids.

    • Meagan

      July 3, 2015 at 4:45 pm

      I fondly remember my mother washing my hair in the kitchen! I would lie on the counter with a towel cushioning my neck and my head over the sink. I was terribly afraid of getting soap in my eyes.

  • Hp

    June 29, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    My son did this.  His fear seemed to coincide with his fear of potty training.  We had been telling him to let us know when he needed to pee and we would put him on the potty instead of peeing in the tub.  Oops.  He became petrified of peeing in the tub and refused to bathe.

    My mom took him for a week when we were in the PICU with the baby and he now loves the bath.  I think she just gave him every toy he ever wanted while bathing, took him swimming and drew that connection, and made it a game.  Still not potty trained though. 

  • Margaret

    July 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    My oldest went through a water terror stage as well. He HATED getting his head wet, so most of the time I would use a washcloth and wipe his head clean-ish. 😉 I also put only a little water in the tub- about five inches maybe. That made him feel much more secure. And never drained the tub while he was in it- freaked him out! He is five now and really enjoys bathtime AND doesn’t mid washing his hair, although we use a cloth to cover his eyes. My middle boy loves water, but needs and cloth to cover his eyes as well when we wash hair. I will say that just recently (he is 2.5) he has become terrified of anything going down the drain, so I am careful to get toys out before we drain the water.