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19 month old Baby hates baths!

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Dr. Laura,

My son used to love baths, right up until he was about ten months old. All of a sudden for the past nine months, bath time has been a nightmare. He screams and screams and screams. I've tried everything from getting in there with him, to toys and bathtub paints, bubbles, no bubbles, hotter water, colder water, even putting his swimsuit on him,cause he loves the pool, we've even thought maybe the shower would work. No such luck. He screams and screams and SCREAMS. We've had neighbors knock on our door to make sure everything is alright. All I can do is say, yeah we're fine. It's just bath time. I've talked to my pediatrician about it and in 23 years he's never had a child who doesn't love their baths. I'm at a complete loss. I dread bath time. We're down to 2 baths a week because its so incredibly painful to listen to and he's really starting to stink!



Despite the fact that your pediatrician hasn't encountered this, it is not so unusual for a toddler to develop an aversion to baths. This usually happens at about one year but can occur anytime through preschool. Since most kids aren't verbal when this happens, we don't really know what causes it, but when it happens to slightly older children it always seems to be about fear, so we have to assume that's what's going on for little ones as well.

It's very common for toddlers to develop sudden fears, whether of baths, bugs, balloons -- really, anything. Psychologists see this as a displacement of more profound anxieties such as fear of loss of parental love ("Mommy was really mad, but I just wanted to see what what happened if I broke the eggs open. Does she still love me?") So one very effective way to reduce early childhood fears is to drop all punishment from your parenting style. Conventional discipline triggers a small child's fears of abandonment, and there are better ways for them to learn what you want to teach.

But even children who are never punished develop fears. My own daughter developed a fear of baths when she was three. Her name is Alice and some well-meaning adult had taught her the song about Alice disappearing down the bathtub drain. She was positive this could happen, no matter how I tried to point out that the drain was much smaller than she was. (It's actually very common for little ones to develop this fear.) Alice didn't take a bath for a few weeks. I washed her hair with the kitchen sprayer while she stood on a stool at the sink, and sponge-bathed her on a bathmat. I didn't force her, and she quickly outgrew her fear and was ready to hop back in to play with her boats.

You've done all the right things to interest your son in baths: trying bubbles, getting in with him, etc. Those are terrific ideas, and they work with many kids. But since they haven't worked with him, and he is still screaming, you can assume that making him take baths while he screamed in fear is just making his fear worse. So my advice is NOT to force him to take baths. You can just say "I know the bath scares you right now. Don't worry, it's safe. But if you're too worried right now, let's just use the sink today. I will always keep you safe. When you're ready, you'll take baths again."

I know it's satisfying as part of the bedtime routine to give kids daily baths, but the truth is that you can clean them pretty well with a washcloth most of the time. The hair is the hardest, and unless there's jam in it, they can usually go a long time without a hair wash. Since he loves the pool, he might even stay clean enough for now by using the shower there after he swims. Some kids go right to showers at this age, particularly if you have a handheld shower and let them stand on a mat in the tub and spray themselves gently. No reason they need to be submerged. If he will let you give him a sponge bath (use a plastic bowl of soapy water, don't fill the tub) in the tub, your problem is solved.

More likely, he won't even get in the tub at this point, since he's been screaming about baths for nine months. Your challenge is therefore greater, because you have to give him time to get past the trauma he associates with being forced into the bathtub. If the kitchen sink is too small, he could stand in a baby tub on the bathroom floor, or sit in the the kitchen sink, or the laundry room sink. He could stand in a wading pool in the back yard or on the kitchen floor. It's unconventional, but who cares? Who says kids have to get in the bathtub?

Most toddlers get over their fears quickly, although in your son's case the last nine months of screaming may make it take a little longer. To help him move past this more quickly, you might get him a doll that can be washed, and a toy tub. You and he can fill the tub and give little Petey a bath. You can act out that Petey is scared and cries, and take Petey out and comfort him.Then let Petey be brave and get into his tub and have a lot of fun. Patrick will find this very interesting. If he gets scared, back off and comfort the doll more, and take them both out of the bathroom. But try again another time, and eventually he will start giving the doll a bath, which will be the beginning of his getting past this. Once he is happily bathing Petey in the little toy tub, move the toy tub into the big tub, and let him bathe there. Gradually start putting a little water into the big tub, and gradually move Petey into the big tub. Once he is happily bathing Petey in the big tub, he will probably be very happy to get in himself.

In the meantime, you might want to start inviting your son into the bathroom to help give you a bath. If you let him see you enjoying your bath, and pour water on you with a toy bucket, he might start wanting to join you. (I would advise you not to use the shower head, which could be scary for him, and also not to drain the tub while he's in the room.) Just enjoy the soak -- doctors orders! -- and if you can put some bath toys out for him to play with from the side, all the better.

But don't force the issue of his getting into the tub. Just go on about your life as if all kids bathe in the kitchen sink. Call it bath time, and make it as fun as possible. But arrange, after a couple of months, for him to be at a friend's or cousin's house at bath time. It may take a few times, but soon he'll be begging to join the fun, particularly if you can offer him any toys he enjoys at the pool during bath time.

You might also want to find the children's book Angelo the Naughty One. I would never use the term "naughty" to describe a child, but the book is worth reading to him. It's about a boy who's terrified of water, but by the end of the story becomes Angelo, The Brave One. (In fact, you could name his bath doll Angelo!)
Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,
Thank you so much. I tried moving his baby bath back out of the closet and placed it our bathtub. He still cried but it wasn't the same screaming. I think I'll try just bathing him on the bathroom floor cause I'm relatively sure he's outgrown the sink by now. He's a little on the tall side (97% for height) for nineteen months so we'll just do what we can. My mom today got down one of my old dolls and a very small rubber tub to give "Baby Angelo/ aka Susan the doll" his bath starting tomorrow and we can comfort the doll and make sure he knows that it will be okay.

Actually when you mentioned the drain it suddenly hit me that that's when we started having this fear. My pediatrician had asked me if I was having issues getting him out of the bath, this was when he still loved it and I said yes. He suggested that we start draining the water while he was still in the tub to make him colder and want to get out. Ever since then, the bathtub has been a bad thing. I wonder if he fears going down the drain for some reason, even though we've certainly never told him that he could go down there. I won't even sing rock-a-bye baby to him for fear of installing a silly fear like that.

Thank you!

It's very common for kids to become afraid they'll go down the drain. To them, the whole thing is sort of magical: one minute there's water, the next minute it vanishes down the drain. So any smart toddler could conclude he might vanish too.

I think the big lesson here is listening to our kids. When they develop a fear, it helps if we can respect it, rather than forcing them into a situation where they're terrified. Toddlers develop many fears -- of the vacuum, the blender, bugs, toilets, swimming pools, dogs, etc. When they scream in response to something, it's a message to us to reassure them and help them feel safe in the situation, not to force them. For instance, they can always learn to swim next summer, you can vacuum while his dad takes him out for a walk, he'll eventually learn that the toilet flushing isn't dangerous, and he won't be phobic about bugs forever. Most of these fears don't last long, as long as we're sensitive to what our child is telling us and don't constantly re-expose them to whatever is scaring them.

So the more you avoid the bathtub, the more quickly he will get over his fear of it. The baby bathtub on the bathroom floor sounds like a great idea.

Oh, and one comment about pediatricians. They have terrific training in child health. But they have virtually no training in child psychology. So, no disrespect, but they aren't always the best source for behavioral issues!
Dr. Laura

Dr. Laura,
I just wanted to thank you. We've been bathing him in the pool in my mothers back yard and while it worked, eventually the weather will turn cooler and that just won't work. So last night I filled up the baby bathtub. He saw me filling it up in the big bathtub and he flipped out. There was no way he was getting in that tub. I put it on our bathroom floor. I stripped him down and brought him into the bathroom. The minute he saw that baby bath tub on the bathroom floor, filled with water, he got right in and started playing. It was wonderful. So for right now we'll continue doing that and see if maybe we can transition the baby bathtub into the big bathtub and then transition it out completely. I just wanted to say how grateful I am.

Thank you!

Another update. We moved the baby bathtub into the big bathtub. I was going to try leaving it out for longer but once he saw me filling up the little one, he was fine with getting into the big bathtub so long as he could sit in the little one. Then last night I just filled the bath tub with all his toys, and a few bubbles. He got right in. No baby bathtub, just him and our regular tub. He laughed and played with no tears. It was fantastic. Thank you sooo much Dr. Laura. He's having a great time in there, and I've never been so happy to have a much better smelling child.
Thank you, Thank you!

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