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Tips for Tangle-Free Toddler Hair

Tips for Tangle-Free Toddler Hair

By Amalah

My 3.5 year old daughter has fine blonde hair like your youngest son, Ike. The difference is that it is as straight as can be but still turns into a tangled matted mess at the back if we miss one bathtime or have one morning where we run out of time to brush. What do you use on Ike’s hair? Or are we just forever doomed to deal with the knots??

-long-time reader

(PS I’m exhausted, and if you need me to be more witty in order to post this to the site I can re-write it)

And behold! Our first question back from hiatus takes us back to this column’s odd, tangled roots: HAIRZ.

No need for wit here, by the way. Just get the question typed and sent. I consider that to be a fabulous accomplishment.

And with brevity in mind, here’s how we keep Ike’s fine, shaggy mop-top mostly free of knots:

1) Comb out hair BEFORE the bath to ensure it’s tangle-free. Skipping this step can turn a small knot into a big old matted mess during the washing/drying process. Trust.

2) Wash with a gentle shampoo. We currently use the combo shampoo/body wash by The Honest Company. As a fine-haired individual myself, I’ve learned to mostly ignore shampoos labeled for that hair type — they all promise “volume” which isn’t what my 3 year old needs, and most volumizing products are very drying, which makes my hair more prone to tangles. So for Ike, I look for a shampoo that won’t sting his eyes, won’t irritate his scalp (he’s still prone to cradle cap so occasionally we have to use a tea tree oil shampoo), and both suds up and rinses away as quickly as possible. Most gentle baby shampoos fit the bill just fine, and won’t really effect the post-bath tangle situation either way.

3) Condition with a Real Actual Grown-Up Conditioner. We used various “baby” or “kids” conditioners for a long time, but eventually I had to concede that they just weren’t getting the job done for Ike. So I started using my conditioner on him (or other conditioners I bought/got samples of/stole from hotels). Muuuuuuch better. I don’t even think any particular brand is super necessary — just moving out of the baby/kids labels seemed to make a visible difference in his hair’s softness and combability (totally a word) in the days after a bath. (Since we don’t bathe him everyday in the winter.)

My personal favorite conditioners for my fine, knotty hair are Pureology Hydrate and Klorane Oat Milk Conditioner. Pureology is pricey as hell so I would never buy it just for my kid, but I’m such a loving, caring mother I’m willing to occasionally share a tiny drop of it with him. But if you don’t have anything handy to try on your daughter, just go to the drugstore and look for something labeled with one or more of the following buzzwords: detangling, calming, lightweight moisturizing, gentle, etc. Stay away from anything promising volume or “deep” conditioning. I believe Garnier Fructis or Herbal Essences would likely have something appropriate.

4) Shampoo the roots, condition the ends. Man, this one takes me back. I am pretty sure I’ve been giving out this advice to fellow fine-haired ladies for over a decade now. But it’s the BEST thing I ever started doing for my hair, and it totally works for Ike, too. As best as I can, I keep shampoo and the associated scrubbing/later limited to just the roots. Don’t pull it through to the ends, don’t pile her hair up on top of her head in a big soapy pouf. Rinse it out, then apply her conditioner to just her ends. Basically hold her hair out at an angle from her head, as if you were preparing to cut it. Apply conditioner to just the final couple inches of hair that pull away from the scalp. Let the conditioner stay on her hair for the duration of the bath, then rinse it right before she gets out.

This works because most of the time, fine hair is really only getting dirty up by the scalp, thanks to all our natural oils (and running our hands through it to flip or tuck it out of our way). By over shampooing the non-dirty ends, we’re drying them out, making them super prone to frizz, breakage and tangles. And for fine, lightweight hair, conditioning the roots weighs them down, making our hair look even flatter and more lifeless than usual. Same deal with my fine-haired kid.

5) Use a detangling spray and comb it through promptly. I use a lightweight, spray-in detangling spray on all three of my boys to ensure a nice, pain-free post-bath comb through. My favorite for them is the The Honest Company’s. I’ve used it on myself, though my personal grown-up favorite is Bed Head’s Superstar Volumizing Leave-in Conditioner. (My kids don’t need the volume part, though, so I don’t share that one.) Also go easy on the towel drying — don’t toss a towel on her head and rub it all over. Comb her hair out while it’s still dripping wet and then gently squeeze the ends (with a towel or t-shirt) to absorb the excess. Then let it air dry on its on, time permitting.

6) Use a detangling spray, period.  I know it can feel like a pointless battle — you detangle and comb out and ensure a perfectly tangle-free head post-bath…only to have them wake up the next day or pull a winter hat off and BAM. Knot City. So spritz with the detangling spray (just one or two pumps) before you brush, each and every time. Yes, you can use it on dry hair, and you can use it BEFORE the knotted, matted mess has a chance to form. It’ll make your morning brush session  go MUCH quicker and help prevent tangles later in the day.

7) Keep those ends trimmed and healthy. Regular trims will do WONDERS for hair tangles. I can always tell when I’m overdue for a haircut when, despite my best conditioning and haircare efforts, I hit a huge major snag on the back of my head after the shower, or start noticing my hair tangling more and more around my shoulders, thanks to coats/hoods/scarves/etc. I trim Ike’s hair about every four weeks — microscopic snips, usually! — and find this to help immensely with the back-of-the-head tangles.

Anything else to add? Specific products to recommend? Or simply want to commiserate on the agony of trying to brush a toddler’s hair while they shriek and cower and act like you’re yanking their hair out by the roots, and then promptly mess it all up with their hands the second you’re done?

Photo source: DepositPhotos

Best Detangling Hairbrushes To Get Out the Knots Without the Tears

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

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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  • Holly

    March 2, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    I LOVE “the wet brush” (found on Amazn) for my 4yo daughter’s long, fine, stick straight, thick platinum blond hair. Also, it may be obvious, but start brushing at the bottom, then work your way up, otherwise you can just push knots all the way down into other knots making an even bigger rats nest. I also keep my daughter’s hair up in some way every day. Usually a reverse french braid (ala Elsa) because that cuts waaaayyy down on the after-school craziness.

  • chelsea

    March 2, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    My son doesn’t have fine hair, but it is a crazy curly nest that gets dreadlocks without periodic conditioning. I LOVE Paul Mitchell lavender tea tree for him (and me!) I only condition his about once a week, but it makes it so smooth and really helps keep the locks at bay. I also heard tea tree is a lice deterrent? I’m hoping yes because I don’t want to deal with that drama.

    • Kim

      April 17, 2015 at 1:15 pm

      Yes!  I bought every little girl I know a wet brush for Christmas, had their moms look at me like I was nuts (what’s next, are you going to buy my kid a toothbrush or something?)  And then I had phone calls about the wet brush the next day from 6 different moms, so !!!happy!!! about the wetbrush.  It really is awesome.

  • Liz

    March 2, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Great advice!  I second “the Wet Brush” off amazon. Game changer for us. My three year old has long fine hair that curls at the ends, and I agree that brushing before bathtime is essential. Spot on, Amy!  Glad your column is back. 🙂

  • Ally

    March 2, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    My daughters hair gets a lot of knots in it. I always made sure it’s knot-free before bedtime and braid it. It makes it so much easier to do in the morning. 

  • alexa

    March 2, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    I third the wet brush. Bot the my girls have my fine super tangly hair. And the wet brush works wonders for us. I also use It’s a 10 ( And that helps.
    My older one is 6 years old now and her hair is quite long, so I pretty much don’t shampoo it often and then just condition the back with adult conditioner. And then add “It’s a 10”
    I feel for you. There are a lot of tears regarding hair in our house. But this regimen seems to help. Also putting on some TV show while I’m doing the brushing.

  • Lauren

    March 2, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    They sell the wet brush at target too- at least near me 🙂

  • Cheryl S.

    March 2, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    I love “It’s a 10” for my daughter’s hair. She’s almost 10 and we still have this issue! I’m off to see what the “wet brush” is!

  • Claire Newman

    March 2, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    In the UK the Tangle Teezer is hands down the best buy. It is unbelievable on wet and dry and has changed the post-bath brushing from 15 to 5 (no-cry) minutes. My 2 year old has thick curly hair and it is lovely on dry as well as it doesn’t brush it out straight and frizzy sort of glides over the top making it look lush. 

  • Jaida

    March 2, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    I bought my daughter an inexpensive satin pillowcase and it’s made allllll the difference in the back-of-the-head morning rat’s nests.

  • Soam

    March 2, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    We use The Honest Company’s detangler in our household. As a Dad – and never growing up with any sisters – I never knew what a crazy battle this is. But boy am I learning. One pump and it’s like a miracle! Smells good too! 

    Will check out the “Web Brush.”
    Best, Soam from

  • Lindsay

    March 2, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Bookmarking this, thanks! I was prepared for dealing with all manner of insane thick curly hair issues, and what do you know? My daughter ends up with my husband’s (thin straight) hair!

  • Lise

    March 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    If her hair is long enough, braiding it before bed will keep away the tangles. And if she’s into “Frozen,” you can totally play up the Anna (two braid) and Elsa (one braid) styles.

  • Autumn

    March 2, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    Keep the hair out of her face while eating, so less food gets in it.  We keep clips in the dining room just for this purpose, as she is resisting braids and ponys currently.

    ALso, make sure the conditioner is well rinsed.  Daddy does most baths at our home, and it took some practice before he understood how to use conditioner.  He was glopping in on the top of her head like shampoo. . . and then barely rinsing at all.  Things are much better after some lessons. 

  • Anna

    March 2, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    As the mother of two daughters with thick, fine, tangly hair, I’ve tried many different conditioners, and I fully agree with Amy that children’s conditioners do not cut it. I’m not willing to share/buy expensive conditioners in the quantities that would be required, so I’ve finally settled on this inexpensive option:

  • Stephanie

    March 2, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    My older daughter has thick, fine hair that tangles like crazy. I should warn some of you that the detangler we bought at Target (unfortunately I don’t remember its name as we tossed it) caused all sorts of stains on my daughter’s clothing. I couldn’t figure it out for the longest time because it only showed up after washing. We realized it was the detangler because it looks like grayish blue spots all along the collar and not on any other clothes.

    We bought her a satin pillowcase, a recommended brush on Amazon, and we definitely use the adult conditioner. Thanks for the advice on only shampooing her scalp, and also brushing before bath. I will try that tonight. She’s also getting a haircut this weekend, which will definitely help. Unfortunately she starts swim today, so we’ll have all sorts of tangle battles ahead of us.

    • Autumn

      March 2, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      We use a spray bottle with plain water to wet down our 3 year old’s hair in the mornings and I’ve found it to be as effective as detailer, and I don’t care what it gets on.  

      • Jennifer

        March 10, 2015 at 9:11 pm

        Try a swim cap. I wet my daughter’s hair, put it in a ponytail, then put on a swim cap.  Since the hair is already wet, it won’t absorb as much of the harsh pool water and stays untangled. 

    • christina

      March 3, 2015 at 3:09 pm

      Braid before swimming! I don’t have any girls but grew up with the same type of hair. I still will braid it for the beach now!

  • Kendra

    March 3, 2015 at 7:35 am

    We use Garnier Fructis leave in conditioner and what a difference! It is not a spray though so put it in after bath time when the hair is still wet. And bonus, my daughter loves the smell. We also use Honest shampoo and the spray conditioner with the wet brush and those have helped too. Wish she would sleep on a pillow, kid always ends up on her stuffed animals or in the middle of the bed otherwise we would try the satin pillowcase too.

  • Cassie

    March 3, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I have to add in the support for keeping her hair up and/or braided. I had long hair as a kid and my mom put it up every day. I remember going to a birthday party in fourth grade with my hair down and more than one person said “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with your hair down.” But leaving it down all the time resulted in HORRIBLE knots. At the very least, braids for bedtime help mornings a lot. Also, they’ll give her a little wave, which is always fun. 

  • lisa

    March 3, 2015 at 11:31 am

    thank you thank you thank you…I’ve got thick, coarse hair and my daughter’s straight/thin and constantly tangled hair has left me perplexed. I’ve slowly come to the realization that the kids hair products aren’t working, but was at a loss for what products to use. I’d already figured out that braiding her hair for bed helps, but thanks for the product recommendations!!

  • Meri

    March 3, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    I second/third/ fourth the braiding before bedtime. I’ve also read that a satin pillowcase makes a HUGE difference.
    I try to avoid using the rubbery rubber bands even though they hold super well; it leads to tangles, screaming and tears 🙁

  • Sabrina

    March 3, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Mustela brand cradle cap shampoo is AMAZING and smells great. Cleared up the severe cradle cap my son had when he was tiny. (that doesn’t answer the readers question but since you said Ike has this issue I thought I would throw that out there)

  • Rachel Abrams

    March 4, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Yes, cradle cap….could use some help! My 10 month old has had it but her hair is already a bit long, and it’s hard to get a product into her scalp. I haven’t tried a shampoo for it though, so do you think that’s the thing to try?

  • Rachel Abrams

    March 4, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    Oh thanks! I’ll check that out.

  • Andrea

    March 4, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    My daughter has very long curly hair. What works for us:

    1. wet brush, 2. detangling spray, 3. brush after bath time, 4. brush in the morning, first spritz hair with water to get it damp, then detangler, 5. brush every single day, 6 braids as often as she’ll let me.

  • Cheryl S.

    March 6, 2015 at 11:40 am

    Just had to come back and say THANK YOU!  I bought the wet brush based on everyone’s recommendations. It is a miracle and a godsend!  

  • JB

    March 11, 2015 at 11:55 pm

    Wet Brush. Wet Brush. Wet Brush.  Saved my relationship with my daughter.

    Wet. Brush.

  • Elizabeth

    March 17, 2015 at 3:33 pm

    My eldest inherited her dad’s spiral curls. I swear, I needed to go to boot camp to learn how to deal with these.

    What works for us: SULFATE-FREE shampoo and conditioner, detangling spray, and then I splurge on the Deva Curl conditioning cream to scrunch it.

  • Annie

    March 17, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Braid, braid, braid. My middle had similar hair and she would get the worst rat’s nest at the base of her skull from sleeping or from wearing anything with a higher collar (or a hoodie) that would rub it up. I learned to braid it every single night – it would still fall out, often times, but it spent less time rubbing into a bunch. We always thought maybe she’d get some waves from the braids but within an hour it would be stick straight again.

  • Kati

    March 19, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    I wanted to thank everyone that suggested the wet brush.  It has CHANGED our lives.  My oldest has waist length super fine hair and every morning was a battle.  This brush is wonderful!

  • Kate Nepveu

    April 1, 2015 at 7:36 am

    Well, so far the Wet Brush is a giant hit with my first-grader even on her dry hair, so thanks everyone for the recommendations!

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      April 1, 2015 at 10:58 am

      Thanks for returning and leaving some feedback for us. We love to hear about what does and doesn’t work.

  • Lindsay

    April 3, 2015 at 1:30 pm

    Others have said it but I feel so strongly I need to say it too: Braids! Braids are the magic answer, especially at bedtime but anytime.

    Also we use grownup conditioner, Suave brand, nothing fancy, so I second Amy on that.

  • Heather

    April 12, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    My daughter has fine blonde ringlets that get very tangly.  We have had very good results with Circle of Friends leave in conditioner and detangler as well as Fairy Tales Curly-Q shampoo and curl enhancer for styling.  Fairy Tales also makes products not specifically suggested for curly hair as well.  Both product lines are available at Ulta.

  • Nancy

    April 14, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    I am cheap, so for our two girls (one with fine hair halfway down her back, the other with thick hair to her shoulders) I use Suave (not kids) shampoo and conditioner – and I use a LOT of conditioner, like a handful. it’s cheap, smells great (I buy the coconut scent because that’s what I like to smell) and just use plenty.

    We use the Walmart equivalent of No More Tears detangler for the morning.

    Of course for MY hair I use salon-grade products 😉 I have to save $$ somewhere! (When they were toddlers, I would use a tiny dot of my conditioner on them as a leave-in conditioner and it worked great… but now that they are bigger and have lots of hair, I needed another solution)

  • Maggie

    April 15, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Wet brush, braids, high-quality leave-in conditioner, never go more than 12 hours without brushing…. Echoing what others have said – all very important. My daughter has exactly the hair the original question describes. She’s 8 now and it’s STILL a time suck. My other daughter has different hair (coarser, thicker, still straight), but it’s still the same advice.

    I always tell people that one thing I never imagined about being a mother is all the time I would spend on my daughters’ hair!!

  • Kate

    April 17, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    SQUEE! It’s my email! You responded! And it helped others! 

    Braids/ponytails don’t work for us, my daughter doesn’t want to be Elsa, or Anna, or Pippi Longstocking or anybody other than herself. “I’m JILLIAN.” And apparently Jillian wears her hair down and IN HER FACE. She will pull out any clips or rubber bands that I try to sneak in while she’s watching TV. *throws hands up in the air* *buys expensive conditioner and more wine*

  • LisaBeth

    June 7, 2015 at 7:58 am

    My hair gets very tangly and the ONLY product that works for me is the Shielo Smoothing Conditioner – works very effectively to smooth and untangle my thin, color treated hair. Doesnt fade my hair color at all! Couldn’t ask for a better conditioner!

  • Cheryl

    March 8, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Why use a brush? A wide tooth comb works much better. I stopped using my brush and strictly use a wide tooth comb on my elbow length locks. I started with the wide tooth comb when my hair was to my collar bone per the advice of my boyfriend as I asked him to help me grow my hair out. The brush stretches and breaks hair causing breakage and split ends and tangles, never brush wet hair. I use a light oil I got from Sally’s after I wash to make my hair easy to comb through. I braid my hair before bed and my husband trims my ends every 6-8 weeks. No tangles. My mom always used a brush, she would yank my hair and she gave up, took me to her salon and I got a short butch cut, I looked like a boy, and I cried. Please don’t do that to your daughters.