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"My Child Hates Baths!"

Q. My 1-year-old hates baths and screams and cries until we take her out. I can't understand why this is happening. Any ideas to help calm her down?

A. First you need to try to figure out why she hates the bath. She may be very sensitive to certain sensory experiences. She might not like feeling wet, hate having her hair washed, feel too cool while she's being toweled off, or not like the texture of the towel or the shampoo's smell.

If this is a sudden change for her, then the reason for her bath refusal is likely to be an experience she had that made her fearful. The water during a recent bath may have been too hot and felt uncomfortable. She may have experienced something -- like slipping or sliding -- that made her feel insecure and afraid.

For now, I suggest not fighting this battle. There are plenty of other ways to keep her clean; a warm sponge bath works great, and even a quick once-over with a soaped-up washcloth will get the job done.

Some tips for now:

  • Don't feel pressured to bathe your daughter every day. Unless she's been finger painting or making mud pies, every other day is fine -- paired with a quick scrub of the washcloth on "off" days.
  • Help her feel in control of the washing. Try to engage her in any way that she will accept; for example, by wetting the cloth and helping to clean herself. See if she will play with water from outside the tub.
  • Find ways for her to play and experiment with water, like bathing a toy duckie, to gradually build up her feelings of comfort and security with it.

If you see your daughter slowly feeling more comfortable with water, try the bath again. Bring in lots of toys, squirters, measuring cups, strainers. To make the bath even more fun, use bubbles and bath paints. Once she is in, read her cues to see if you can identify what bothers her. Is it shampooing that puts her over the edge? Or is it getting out and feeling cold as she towels off? You can modify the bath routine based on your observations.

Responding in this way is not coddling or being too lenient. It lets your child know that her needs are important and that you will provide support to help her cope with life's challenges.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.