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Why your child may fear bathtime

Baby fearing bathtime

Bathtime is meant to be a fun, bonding time with your baby or toddler. But what happens when it becomes a battleground because your little one is afraid of being splashed? Our sensory trained, Occupational Therapists, Carly Tzanos and Lourdes Bruwer weigh in on this daily activity to help you make the most of this splashy, soapy, sensory fun time with your little one.

Reasons why your little one may be afraid of water splashing onto their head and face.

Understanding why your baby or toddler dislikes having his hair washed, or water splashed near his face, will help you manage this fear effectively.

He may dislike the feeling of having his head tipped backwards when you are rinsing his hair.


Movement of the head stimulates the vestibular sense (movement sense). The receptors for this system are found in the inner ear as 3 semicircular canals positioned at right angles to each other. These allow your baby’s body to register changes in his body position or movement in different planes (linear, circular and diagonal.

Moving his head lower than his shoulders or dipping it forwards or backwards (e.g. tipping it to rinse the shampoo off his hair) stimulates one or more of these semicircular canals and sends a rather intense movement message to the brain.

Some babies or toddlers may feel dizzy or overwhelmed by this sensation and it may also be intensified when he feels like he is not in control of the movement.

She may dislike the feeling of having of the water on her head and face.


If your little one is a daredevil and loves hanging upside down, yet still avoids having her hair washed or her face splashed, she may dislike this activity because she finds the touch part of the experience daunting. This seemingly “normal” touch experience may be heightened by her sensory system, making her experience it as more intense than it really is.

The feeling of the water on her skin can be registered as overwhelming or even painful, and the lack of control in this activity will only serve to make this touch experience even more difficult to manage. In addition, changes in temperature as your little one gets into the bath or has water poured over her can be hard for her sensitive sensory system to adjust to.

He doesn’t like the smell.


Some babies or toddlers are particularly sensitive to smells in their sensory world. Bath time is a sensory-rich activity and may be too much for him to handle.

Some soap and shampoo are strong smelling, even for us adults and your baby’s sense of smell is actually much better than yours. So, if the scent is strong for you as an adult, then it is even stronger for your child.”

A growing sense of independence.


As babies enter toddlerdom, they acquire the need to become more and more independent. Your toddler may be exerting this newfound sense of independence and demanding more control over certain situations. So, if hair washing is a new battle, this may be the cause.

So if you have a sensitive little being, what can you do?

Here are some sensory-smart strategies to try at home:

  • Change positions when rinsing or wetting hair. Sitting, lying down or tilting his head forwards instead of backwards.
  • Counting or singing with your baby or toddler to let him know that this challenging experience will be over soon.
  • Allow your little one to hold a face cloth or small towel at his forehead or close by to wipe his eyes.
  • Allow your child to pour the water over her head as this may help her to feel in control of the action.
  • Ask your child to help you wash his hair by rubbing in the shampoo.
  • Use a firm, deep pressure to rub in the shampoo instead of a light ticklish touch.
  • Try showering instead of bathing but be sure to hold her hand firmly as she tilts her head back to avoid falling over. Her balance will not be very good with her eyes closed at this age.
  • Warm the room or use heated towels to help make the temperature change between the bathroom air and the water less significant
  • Use fragrance-free soap and shampoo
  • Give your toddler some closed choices (2 options) around this activity. Things like offering a choice of 2 sponges (red or blue?), selection of a favourite song while rinsing her hair (Old Mac Donald or Twinkle Twinkle?) or chatting about what the best choice of pyjamas would be once out of the bath (would you like to wear your teddy or car PJ’s).

Offer sensory stimulation through play

Exploring sensory experiences and maturing the sensory system is foundational to development. Helping your little one become used to movement, touch and smell sensations in a fun and non-threatening way can go a long way in helping him overcome his bath time struggles.

Stimulating all the semicircular canals is important, and movement in all planes should be explored and encouraged at a young age and during the baby and toddler stage.

Having fun with messy play can help mature the touch system. Being able to tolerate various touch experiences will also impact his ability to try new tastes and textures and can go along way to preventing your little one from being a fussy eater! Having a mature and desensitised touch system will also help your little one enjoy touch activities such as splashing about in his bath!

Signing up for an early childhood development app like Nubabi will provide you with all the activity ideas you need to stimulate your little one’s developing sensory system. Find out more here.

When to seek professional help

If your little one’s fear remains and causes her to develop functional difficulties, you may want to consult a sensory-trained Occupational Therapist to help overcome these sensory challenges.

A functional difficulty can be observed when your little one struggles to do a task that she should reasonably be expected to do at her age. Children all develop at their own pace and according to their own unique developmental roadmap but developmental milestones (a set of age-specific tasks that most children can do within a certain age-range) can help identify potential challenges.

Examples may include:

  • Avoiding swinging or climbing on playground equipment
  • Refusing to take part in arts and crafts for fear of getting messy or not enjoying the feeling or texture of the materials
  • Refusing to potty train because of the smells in the bathroom

With the help of your sensory-trained Occupational Therapist, your sensitive little one will learn how to navigate and make the most of his sensory world in a sensory calm-alert state.

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