If you have a toddler who hates bath time due to sensory issues, keep reading for my top tips on creating a sensory-friendly bath time routine. *This blog post was sponsored by GloPals, but all of the information and opinions are my own.
Be honest, do you sometimes feel like you’re summoning the spirit of Steve Irwin as you try to wrestle your sensory sensitive child into the bathtub?
If you said yes, trust me, you’re not alone.
I know tons of parents who have a toddler who hates bath time and are desperate for tips on making bath time easier. Keep reading to find out common reasons why toddlers hate bath time, best ways to set up a bath time routine and sensory friendly bath time strategies.
Reasons why your toddler hates bath time
To be honest, it’s a pretty common occurrence for most toddlers to start avoiding bath time at some point in their life. It’s quite on brand for toddlers to just out-right refuse to do anything that’s remotely good for their hygiene or safety!
But as a pediatric OT who works with children with sensory processing disorder, I want to bring your attention to some of the common reasons toddlers hate bath time, from a sensory perspective:
- They’re sensitive to the feeling of water dripping on their face, down their back, or just getting wet in general. Note: it’s common for toddlers to hate bath time but be okay with playing with a water sensory bin.
- They’re sensitive to the sounds in the bathroom, such as the echoes or the sound of running water.
- They may have vestibular sensitivity that gets triggered when they need to tip their head back to rinse off shampoo.
- They may be extremely sensitive to the temperature of the water.
So if your toddler hates bath time due to any of those sensory issues, keep reading for my best tips.
How to change up your bath time routine
Bath time routine starts from the moment you say “It’s time for bath!”. Rather than having a toddler run away screaming from you, here are some ways you can make the transition to bath time a little easier (and dare I say, fun!)
- Include heavy work– the magic sauce of self regulation. Get your toddler to help you push, pull, carry items to the bathroom or have them crawl like a crab or hop like a bunny to the bathroom. Not only does this make the transition more fun, but it offers them proprioceptive input, which is calming to the nervous system.
- If you have a bed time routine your child looks forward to (cuddles, books, songs), talk about it right before you go to bath. For example “What book do you want to read for bed tonight? [they answer] Oh that sounds great! Ok, time to hop to the bath now so we can have time to read that book after”.
- Recruit them to help pick out what bath toys they get to have in the bath tonight (it helps if you switch out bath toys to keep it exciting, maybe you could switch between the different GloPals characters!)
- Utilize a visual schedule and visual timers throughout the day. Even if your toddler is already speaking, visual charts and visual schedules can help them process the day, even if it’s the same schedule everyday. Remember, their executive functioning skills are still developing, and visual supports help them.
How to create a sensory friendly bath time
So you get your toddler in the bathroom and now it’s time for the headlining event: bath time.
When you have a toddler who hates bath time due to sensory issues, it’s important for you to understand that they are actually having a hard time tolerating the sensory input (see sensory trigger list earlier). They are not just being dramatic. Their brain processes the tactile, auditory or even visual input much more intensely than you or I.
That meltdown they’re having right before bath is not just about a power struggle, it’s about their brain perceiving danger from the sensory input related to bath time. While your logic of “it’s okay, you’re safe” script won’t help your toddler, the best thing you can do for them is try to make them feel safe, as much as possible.
To do that, make sure the environment is calm and regulating. For example
- Consider having the lights off and using gentle night lights, or the glow from GloPals
- Put on calming music (or no music at all if they are sound sensitive)
- Think about ways you can pad your bathroom with plants, rugs, towels, wall decor to decrease the echo
- Use calming scented essential oils or sprays with scents like lavender or vanilla
- Consider allowing your child to wear goggles if they fear water in their eyes
- Add stickers and decals to the walls and even the ceiling to give them something to focus on and look at while they have to tip their head back.
Always make sure you have some preferred, fun and engaging toys to include in the bath, such as:
- GloPals Sesame Street light up sensory cubes: These light up cubes offer just enough light to help you get through all the bath time tasks while allowing your child to engage and play in a more calm and dimly lit environment. They can stack the glow blocks, play with the Sesame pals and just let their imagination (and visual stimming, if that’s what they’re into) run wild.
- Any sort of scoopers. My daughter loves bringing in measuring cup scoopers and a bowl, that’s it!
- A safe, unbreakable mirror- not only do kids love seeing themselves, but this can actually help a child who is tactile defensive process some of the input that they are afraid of from the bath.
- Food coloring. Bath time is less boring when it’s pink or purple! (Use diluted food coloring to avoid staining)
Between bath time: creating positive associations with the bath
When all of the “tricks” don’t quite work and you’re still noticing a fear and avoidance of bath time, that’s a sign that you need to focus on creating a positive association with the bath, outside of bath time.
Think about it. If your sensory sensitive or anxious toddler only ever steps foot in a bathroom when they need to take a bath, and it’s always a negative experience, their brain neurons are going to classify bath (and everything that comes with it, like the sound of bath or hearing you talk about bath) as something that’s dangerous.
To “decrease the scare factor” of the bath, you need to offer your child some neutral play experiences outside of bath time.
Here’s what this could look like:
- Playing in the bathtub without water using their favorite toys
- Playing in the bathtub with a very low amount of water while they’re in their bathing suit.
- Playing in the bathroom standing outside of the bathtub using the bathtub as a giant sensory bin (fill it with glo pals, scoopers and let the child stand outside the bath tub scooping and playing)
Unlike an actual bath, you can end these activities as soon as they start showing signs of dysregulation. This should always be a positive experience, and you shouldn’t force your child to engage with any activity. It’s better to end the activity on a positive, regulated note than force them through it and create another negative association with the bath.
This isn’t an overnight win. It takes consistency and repeated positive exposures to a regulating experience. Overtime, hopefully these continued neutral and positive experiences with the bath will override the negative experiences so that instead of entering the bathroom with their heart pounding, pupils dilated, completely dysregulated, they’ll enter the bathroom with a calm, regulated body.
Please note that if your child has extreme fears or extreme sensory sensitivities to bath time and other daily tasks, they could benefit from additional support from an Occupational Therapist.
In summary, here are my top tips if your toddler hates bath time:
- Make the transition to bathtime fun/involve heavy work
- Create a sensory-friendly bathroom
- Fill the bathtub with preferred toys (my favorite: GloPals sensory water toys)
- For extreme avoiders: spend regular playtime in the bathroom/bath tub to get used to the environment
Looking for more tips on supporting your sensory child through daily tasks? Click here to consult with me 1:1.