To you, a nice warm bath seems like a perfect part of your toddler's soothing bedtime routine, and a peaceful opportunity for bonding. To your toddler, though, it may be anything but calming, as tub time turns traumatic. Her "Rub-a-dub-dub, I'm terrified of the tub!" behavior may be a long-running problem or a new development, but it's also a common fear that will fade. Meanwhile, you can remove the macaroni and cheese from her hair without a conventional tub bath and experiment with gentle strategies to help her overcome her fear.
When a toddler's positive bath-time experiences end abruptly, you're left wondering what happened to the toddler who splashed happily in the tub a few days earlier. The bathing routine remains unchanged, but your toddler’s ability to assess cause and effect does not. As your toddler's cognitive development continues to evolve, her perception of the variables associated with a bath may evolve as well, according to the child-development Web site Zero to Three. For example, the drain that makes a funny swooshing sound may now appear menacing, and the smooth interior of the tub may feel dangerously slippery—same tub, same adorable toddler, but entirely new perspective. You can diminish the anxiety related to your toddler's perspective by helping her acquire a new, positive association between tub time and an enjoyable activity. Follow the bathing routine with an activity that holds irresistible appeal for your little one. Bath time may become an anticipated event when it consistently precedes a rewarding activity.
Tempt your unwilling bather by modeling the good, clean fun she's missing. Invite your toddler to join you in the bathroom while you take a bath, but do not pressure her to join you in the tub, suggests Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears nurse of the pediatrician-driven resource, called Ask Dr. Sears. Include her favorite bath toys, lots of bubbles and encouragement. If your toddler refuses to join you, that's OK. Continue the bath-time fun by singing her favorite songs, forming silly shapes with the bubbles and enlisting your toddler's assistance with rinsing the bubbles. For some toddlers, the added assurance of having mom in the tub is enough incentive to reconsider taking a bath-time plunge, while other children develop a comfort level after the scenario is repeated several times.
Feelings of helplessness escalate anxiety and fear, so help your toddler exercise control over some of the choices related to her bath time. Allow her to select some new bath toys and then choose which toys will accompany her in the tub, advises online pediatrician guide KeepKidsHealthy.com. Extend her choices into the timing of the bath, if possible. For example, ask your toddler, "Would you like to take a bath before we read a story or after story time?" When your little one is in the tub, do some detective work. Monitor for signs of fear and discomfort, and intervene early by giving your toddler additional choices. For example, if you observe that your toddler wrinkles her nose when you unscrew the cap on the strawberry-scented shampoo, offer a different one.
Consider other bathing options until your toddler welcomes a conventional bath. Your flexibility communicates an awareness of her feelings and a commitment to solving the problem. Forcing a tub bath validates feelings of helplessness and reinforces your toddler's fear. A dip in the kitchen sink, a sponge bath and quick touch-ups with a warm washcloth will do the trick without the trauma.