My Kid Won’t Take A Bath

Dear Mamas,
Help! My son, age 24 months, has suddenly become afraid of taking a bath. We are stumped because he has always enjoyed his bath and nothing unusual has happened to make him scared. He will be absolutely fine but once we get the tub filled and take him in there, he screams and cries and won’t get in!
Thanks, Kate

Hey Kate,
I feel your pain mama, because I’ve been there myself. And believe it or not, it’s not that unusual for a toddler to go through a period of hating the bath. Most of the time it’s a fear-based issue so it’s not good to get angry, give time-outs, or make threats. This kind of reaction will only drag the whole thing out and add trauma to the mix as well.

One night when my son was around 2, he refused to get in the tub too, just like yours. This was out-of-the-blue though, and I had no idea what was up. Luckily, his language skills were pretty good and I figured out that he was terrified of tiny pieces of lint that were floating on the surface of the water! You’ve got to trust me on this one, they were practically non-existent.

But apparently he had gotten it into his head that they could “get him,” because when the water moved, the little pieces would move too. Maybe he thought they were alive and chasing him. Who knows? But no matter how I scrubbed that tub, he still refused to get in. He was scared!

So what I did was give him sponge baths each night instead. I would run the water in the tub, get the washcloth wet and soapy and wash him that way. We did his hair in the sink. After about a week of this, I filled the tub and added some baby wash to make some bubbles so he couldn’t see the surface of the water. He got right in and played with the bubbles.

I continued with the bubbles, adding less each night and before long, he was back to the regular water-only bath. Thank God. I think he had forgotten about it, since I didn’t over-focus on it, and just got on with business as usual.

*One thing to remember is that bubble baths can cause urinary tract infections in small children (particularly little girls) so it’s best to avoid them as a general rule.

I hope your little boy grows out of this stage SOON! But in the meantime, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Suddenly hating the bath is a stage many kids, ages one all the way through pre-school, go in and then out of. Getting angry or turning bath time into a heated, dreaded experience with time-outs and threats will NOT help.

2. Most often it’s due to fear of some kind. Since many toddlers can’t express what the fear is, we are often left shaking our heads. Our job though, is to try and help them get over the fear. Make due for awhile with sponge baths, but still call it bath time. Make it enjoyable, relatively quick, and calm.

3. You can help him overcome his fear by letting him be in the room when his brother or sister takes a bath. Don’t make your plan too obvious though by saying things like, “See Bobby? Bath time is FUN!” Just let him quietly observe that bath time is a safe, and not scary, thing to do.

4. A lot of little ones worry that they will go down the drain. If you think this might be an issue, make sure to take him out of the tub before draining it. You can let him watch from safely outside the tub while the water is emptying and show him how your finger, for example, can’t go down, or his boat, or the washcloth. Then talk gently about how the tub is safe for boys and girls to bathe in.

You can also help him give one of his own toys a bath in the kitchen sink or a small plastic tub and make it a happy, calm experience. You can actually turn it into a mini play therapy session by “talking” for the doll: “No, I don’t want to take a bath.” “Why not, Elmo?” “It’s scary!” “Oh Elmo, we won’t let anything bad happen to you in the tub. What are you afraid of?” “Maybe I’ll go down the drain!” “Oh, no, Elmo, you are way too big.” Then give “Elmo” a big hug and lots of reassurance.

Let your son play with Elmo like this and even encourage him to give Elmo his bath in the “big-boy” tub once he’s ready.

Good luck!!

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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