Toddler Terror: A Bath Time Drama

Hi Janet,

First, I have to say how thrilled I am to have found your site. I’m an advocate of RIE principles, and I organize a community of parents trying to parent mindfully and healthfully. I’m excited to read through your back posts!

My second reason for writing is an issue we’re having with my daughter. Marlowe is 22 months old, and about a month ago she had a terrible diaper rash. Without realizing that it would cause her any pain, we put her in the tub for a bath. She let us know right away that something was wrong and we took her out. We did sponge baths while the rash cleared. Now she’s terrified of the bath—she downright refuses it. We’ve tried all sorts of things to coax her back in (new playthings, less water, putting her potty in the tub so she wouldn’t be submerged). Nothing’s working, and bath time is awful for all of us as we try to wash her while she screams and tries to climb out. 

Of course, we don’t want to put her in situations she’s so clearly upset by, but I’m at a loss for how to get her back in the bath. Any advice would be welcomed and appreciated!

All the best,


Hi Lindsay,

I can never emphasize enough how bright, aware, sensitive, receptive and capable our babies are – simply brilliant. And in toddlerhood, they surprise us by becoming a little more complex. Gaining the new independence they instinctively need requires them to test us, pull our strings, push our buttons and, in Marlowe’s case, pull back the reins, which is not to say that I don’t believe her terror of the bath (or at least believe that she believes it).

Who knew a bath would irritate diaper rash? (I sure didn’t!)  It was an understandable blunder, but what’s done is done. Now, how to stop Marlowe from associating the bath with pain, and help her overcome the emotional hurdle to get back in the bathwater…

Whenever I am having difficulties understanding my children (or anyone), I try to see from their point of view.  This might be Marlowe’s take on the situation…

It was a nasty surprise for Marlowe when it hurt her to be in the bath, a place she’s enjoyed and found comfortable. Naturally, she’s wary of ‘getting back on the horse’ and bathing again. Meanwhile, she senses her parents’ dismay, and is fully aware of their growing concern as they coax her, try to placate and please her, to no avail. Like most toddlers, she sees right through those efforts, doesn’t miss a trick. All the while, she feels something strangely thrilling: she has power — the power to make her parents worry, puzzle, and fret, feel a bit of guilt, even a tad desperate. Jumping in and enjoying a bath again would mean giving all of that up…hmmm.

I don’t have a magic solution, but here’s what I would do:

Encourage and acknowledge her feelings.

When the children we’re caring for are hurt or cry for any reason, we have a tendency to talk them out of their feelings by saying things like, “Oh, it’s alright, you’ll be okay. All better now!”  Our intention is to give comfort and reassurance. I learned through infant expert Magda Gerber that what children really need is a response that feels counterintuitive for most of us…acknowledgement and validation of all their feelings, directly, honestly, completely. Pre-verbal toddlers especially need encouragement to release feelings, many of which are confusing to them. They need our acknowledgement and acceptance, so that they can process the feelings and move on. Maybe you’ve done some of this with Marlowe already. She may need more.

I would sit down with Marlowe during a peaceful, pleasant time of day and talk to her about what happened in the bath. Tell her you realize that must have hurt terribly and been really upsetting, and you totally understand why she wouldn’t want to take a bath again. Ask her about it with no agenda, just an open, accepting attitude. Encourage her to go over it, even relive it, and complain, cry, whatever. Be her therapist. 

Trust her and let her know it.

Then I would actually apologize for coaxing her to take a bath. It’s good for children to know that adults make mistakes — we’re human.  I would project confidence, and say something like, “I’m sorry we tried to get you to take a bath when you didn’t want to. I know you got very upset and said NO. We made a mistake. We won’t do that again.  We’ll wait for you to show us when you’re ready for a bath. For now, we’ll have sponge baths to help you stay clean.”

Keep perspective.

I know you’re probably thinking my suggestions give Marlowe too much power. But right now, unless you’re going to force her into a bath (and you don’t sound like you want to do that), she has the power in the situation. Toddlers need to be forced to do things sometimes, but for me, bathing isn’t one of those times (unless of course, she works on a construction site, or plays in an oil spill or dangerous chemical substance). It sounds like you want her baths to be relaxing and fun. So, if I were you I would let go, pull back, wave the white flag and resign yourself to giving sponge baths for awhile. It won’t be long.

Give her choices for when she’s ready.

At the end of the “therapy session” you might add, “When you are ready for a bath again, I want you to choose 5 toys for the bath and pick either the green or blue washcloth.”  Then, when it’s time for her bath, ask her once, “Do you want a tub bath or a sponge bath?” Accept her answer readily.  If she does go for the bath, don’t forget to give her the choices, continue to allow her to lead the way or change her mind, respect and acknowledge any fears or tears, i.e., “You’re looking worried. Are you remembering how much your bottom hurt that time? It won’t hurt now. You can either give it a try or get out.”  If she decides to stay in the bath, ask her to wash herself, help turn off the water, etc., always inviting her to participate as much as possible.

With a little patience, I have a feeling she’ll be splish-splashing happily again soon…

With Warm Regards,                                                                                                                                                            Janet

P.S. Thanks for your kind words about the site. I’m glad to know you, too!

If anyone reading has dealt with bath time dramas, please share what worked or didn’t!


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. My 3 year old has been refusing to take a bath. I guess is more os a confrontational issue, she doesn´t like being told that she need a bath and she will resist.

    I avoid forcing her to do it, although it happend sometimes…

    I gave up and let her get away with some baths that really are just important to me. Like she comes home from school very dirty and I´d like her to take a bath before us going out, but ok, no problem, she can skip the afternoon bath alright now.

    We sleep together, so by bed time if she still didn´t take the shower I´ll tell her that it´s fine, she can go to bed withouth it, but not my bed. This makes her change her mind 🙂 I hope I´m not using the wrong strategy.

    Please Lindsay, take some time and come back to report how it went.

    1. Marilia, that sounds like perfect boundary setting to me because you are respecting your daughter’s choices and your needs, too! That kind of relationship is what parenting is all about! And not allowing her to sleep with you when she’s dirty is a perfect example of giving logical consequences instead of punishments… It’s totally honest, respectful, not at all manipulative. Love it.

  2. Here are a couple of additional suggestions – maybe some you have already tried!
    Sometimes it’s the reaction that causes the continuing reaction. The toddler may not remember the pain of that first experience, but by now she clearly remembers that there’s screaming and scrambling and cajoling and power struggle every time, so she may now associate the bathtub with the screaming and the struggle, even if she forgot about the rash. So it’s important to break that cycle up. Some ideas: try playing with water in other settings like a baby pool outside or the garden hose or the kitchen sink – or even a little basin on the kitchen floor. Let her play with sponges and wash cloths and soap bubbles. Let her take her shirt off when it gets wet because ‘ it’s so much fun to play in the water’ or dip her bare feet in. Let her wash some plastic cups – some toys – a babydoll – and gradually change the association to water and fun. And, as Janet describes above, this is another way to let the toddler have some control over her experiences so she can get more comfortable with the whole thing. The more experiences she has with water and soap that are fun – the more the memory of that upset will fade away.
    BUT – I also agree with Janet that you should not try to ignore her feelings. I agree with the strategy Janet describes about talking at a separate time about those feelings.

    1. Karen, these are great suggestions and much appreciated. And if you’re having an Indian Summer like we are here in L.A. today, water play outside sounds perfect. Still, I would let her decide to enter water on totally on her own and not coax…ever… When I feel someone coaxing me to do something I’m unsure about, I want to slam on the brakes. Guess I’m a toddler disguised as a middle-aged mom.;-)

  3. We had a similar thing happen with my 18 month old. We decided that one of us would get in the bathtub and rely on her desire to imitate everything we do, and it worked! Now, she still has huge issues with getting her hair washed, but we can at least get her in the tub.

  4. I go through this with my toddler every now and then. I am not sure what triggers it but there are days he gets right in and other days he downright refuses. If we have gone more than 2 days without a bath I usually give him a shower. Maybe it is not the best solution and it is giving him more power but it’s what I have been doing. I wish I had a reason for the days he refuses.

  5. What about a shower? If you had a handheld shower head it would be easier. My 16mo used to be a little scared of the shower head, but I made it fun, let him play with it. If he was nervous, I shut it off and put it back. Now he likes it. I can remember being scared of showering, but it was because the shower head had a lot of water pressure, and it kind of stung. It wasn’t hand held, either, so it was high up, running over my face, which I hated. My mother also didn’t realize I liked cooler water. Always have, still do. She never burned me, but I always found it too warm.

  6. Thank you for this post, and this whole site. I have found it invaluable in caring for my 20 month old son in a respectful way. Usually when I reach a stumbling point in my parenting, I am able to search your site and find suggestions that are extremely helpful.
    I wonder if you could help with how to approach my sons fear of noise?
    He is very afraid of loud noises like the vacuum and the blender (the blender is a really big fear for some reason). I have tried many ways to prepare him for and talk him through the noises that are happening (such as, ‘there is going to be a noise, would you like to sit on your chair or come hold my hand’… and while the noise is happening: ‘you are upset by the noise, it’s loud and maybe it’s hurting your ears. You are safe with me.’) But to no avail. Usually I stop the offending activity because his fear becomes very intense. A few nights ago we had a situation where I was making a big batch of coleslaw in the food processor (for a family dinner.) There was nowhere for him to go to avoid the noise, but he had the option to sit on his special chair or have me hold him while I did it. He became very afraid. I decided to press on, all the while holding him and trying to acknowledge his fears. But, I think I may have made things worse by doing this…now he cries even when he sees it on the counter.
    The problem is, these things aren’t optional. I do need to vaccuum, or prepare dinner (though the blender isn’t a necessity, it’s not something I want to stop using for the next few years). Much of the advice I have read says to save it for naps or just not do it. I don’t find this realistic. These are things that would abruptly wake him from his nap, which I’d like to avoid. And life is full of noises. I’d rather respectfully help him overcome this fear than avoid making any loud noises for the next few years.
    Do you have any suggestions?
    Thanks for all you do,

    1. My toddler is afraid of the vacuum and blender, too. What has been working for us lately is this: when I see that she is afraid, I say, “yes, I’m going to use the blender, and you don’t like the loud noise. Can I help you get some books out to read in the other room?” I then remind her that I will come let her know when I’m all done making noise– she likes to know that the coast is clear. Of course, whenever possible, I send her to play outside or run an errand with her papa, but that’s not always practical.
      I am curious to hear what other people do!

    2. Kelly Ritting says:

      This sounds like it might be more than just a fear of loud noises. Does he have especially adverse reactions to other stimuli like socks feeling funny or disliking sleeves on his clothes?

    3. Our daughter was like that as well, between 18 months to 2 1/2. She was terrified of the lawnmowers where ever we went, the vacuum, the blow dryer…when we sat in church and the music played, she would cover her ears and scream. It’s at that point that we realized that the noises were causing her pain from super sensitive hearing and she was getting scared because she knew the noises were going to hurt her ears. We bought her a pack of ear plugs and whenever we would come across an unavoidablly loud noise, we would ask her if she wanted to wear her ear plugs. She still got scared, but not nearly as much and while she still has sensitive hearing now, at 4, she’s rational enough to tell us what’s wrong.

      1. We bought noise cancelling headphones for both our boys and they love to wear them when we vacuum or use the blender.

  7. Jonathan Huddleston says:


    Thank you for this site, my 3 Yr old will not and I mean WILL NOT let us wash her hair. Me and my wife has tried letting her wash her own hair, we tried tried having her cover her ears, we have tried everything we can find. bath time is fun and as long as we wash her body then she is fine. But once it comes to washing her hair its all bets off. Im not sure what to do anymore.

    Jonathan Huddleston

  8. Elissa Grandjean says:

    Im not sure whays going on with my son at bath time. A little before his second birthday he developed or a horrible fear of having his hair washed. He will scream and cry until sometimes he throws up. We tried everything we can think of. Including the little visors thay keep the water off his face. Now the fear has grown to being terrified of the bath all together. As well as the shower. If we even say shower he breaks down. Im not sure what to do anymore. Not showering at least every other day is not really an option. He sweats very very badly so he gets smelly and his hair gets icky. I am going to try bath crayons that i made for him ( i cant find them locally)..

    Has anyone ever been through this?

    1. i have 2 todddlers and everytime after dinner,usually i need to put them in the tub,and well its a sudden fuzzing and yelling, i want to know ways of helping me getting them in bathtub.

  9. Angelique says:

    Hi, I just posted on the RIE Facebook group about this issue, although we had no preceding incident like a nappy rash that hurt in the bath. Our 17mth old simply stopped wanting the bath. She would not sit (which we’ve always insisted for safety) and hold onto our necks really hard and clearly indicate she wants out. We would ask ‘can you sit by yourself or do you want me to help you sit?’ And her refusal got so bad that she was stiffening her body backwards to almost lie down in the bath. Simply wasn’t working. Forcing her legs to bend and pushing her down to sit was not feeling very RIE.
    The next day we went slower. We ran the bath together. She sat on my husband’s knee and we played with the bath toys from outside the bath. Then we suggested to get in, she started to complain. We offered her the choice to sit or for us to help. She resisted but I think with our calmer approach and clear intention she accepted and sat. She sort of cried but then played with her toys.
    So our solution (maybe, as its only been one day of this) was to slow down, lots of preparation before getting in, clear intention).
    If we hit the difficulty again, our plan is to offer the sponge to wash her, while she’s standing, holding her to support her and get her out. Haven’t needed to do that yet but will see.

    FYI: a shower isn’t an option in our home as they’re not suitable for her on her own and we don’t want to have a shower or hop in the bath every time she resists.

  10. This happened with my toddler for a while. We did standing quick baths for a while while I splashed him down. It was a few weeks at least before he was ok with sitting in the tub again. This was before I had implemented RIE, sadly, because I would have found it more insightful and trusted him more.

  11. My daughter is now 3, but around a year and a half she went from loving the bath to HATING it. Screaming, crying, fighting. Out of no where. I did a little research and realized that the fragrance free, organic shampoo/soap we were using has a tendency towards stinging little eyes. I did some research and found a brand with a better reputation when it came to being gentle on the eyes. We switched, and added a handful of new bath toys (at the time she was very into dogs and penguins, so thats what we got, plus some bath crayons). Night and day. Once we showed her that we took he complaints seriously, she was reassured and it went from a negative experience to a positive one over night. It was great to be able to show our little one that she could trust us too.

  12. Thank you so much for shedding light on how to handle a child that is downright scared of the bath. As Lindsay mentioned, her child even went so far as to climb out of the bath on her own. This presents a situation that may lead to injury, which of course all parents want to avoid. I recommend that all parents become certified in basic First Aid and CPR for instances that may lead to serious injury. These lifesaving skills can make a big difference. Thanks again for sharing your tips, I am sure many parents will benefits from your information!

  13. Jacqueline says:

    Thanks so much for this advice. My 16 month old is currently going through a “I’m scared of bath time stage” I will try and implement some of your strategies. I did already have a talk with her, but will fine tune it with some of your language. Thanks so much! Looking forward to trying out your ideas.

  14. Hi Janet, this is such a great article. My 17 month old is okay with taking a bath, but he refuses to sit. This has been going on for a while. A few months back he slipped in the bath and landed on a hard plastic lego block which I had allowed him to bring into the bath as a toy. It gave him a bruise and i think was really painful. That may have been the start of him refusing to sit, though from what i can remember, he sat for a while after that. Now every bath we do is a standing bath. I have installed a slip proof mat in our bathtub, and obviously I supervise every moment of the bath. He is very steady and confident on his feet and has never fallen. He enjoys playing with a squeeze bottle, washcloths, and filling plastic containers with water in there. He does hate having his hair washed, and the fact that he’s standing makes washing his hair much harder for me and for him because its harder to keep the water out of this face. Bath time is fine, we do it about twice a week, but its not the relaxing fun time that it seems to be with a lot of kids. I guess my question is – should I be refusing to allow him to stand, and foregoing all baths until he is willing to sit? My feeling with this is that I’m respecting his body and the way that he feels safe in the bathtub. I’m just not sure exactly how to approach this, if this is a blind spot for me somehow, or if I should be doing anything differently from what I’m currently doing. Thanks!

  15. I have the same problem with my son as well. He is 22 months and he refuses to take a bath since 2-3 weeks ago, without any obvious reaon! Some days he agrees to put off his clothes, but as soon as he sees the bathtub, he starts to scream and cry like crazy! And don’t let me put him in the tub or wash him. He agreed 2-3 times during this period, though and we did the washing forcefully (unfortunately) 2 more times!! No other ways (playing, bringing fun toys,…) has worked so far. And I’m really exhausted.

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