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My 22-month-old daughter absolutely hates getting her hair wet.

At bathtime, she complains (crying, but without tears) when I pour water on her head in preparation for washing her hair (even if I'm careful not to get the water in her face and ears). She doesn't mind when I wash the hair. Rinsing is the same. Wetting her hair by having her lean back into my hand and dipping the back of her head is the same...she's very emotionally uncomfortable in this position. (Once, I even put her on her back in the empty bathtub before turning the water on, and she panicked and got up very quickly.)

I imagine this goes back to something we must have done earlier - my wife suggested that we might have gotten water in her ears when she had ear infections. Either way, the real question here is, what can we do to help her overcome this?

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Update: at 30 months one day I gave her a shower instead of a bath (she'd been playing in the sandbox). It was her first one and I think she liked the novelty and the fact that it's what mommy and daddy do. During this shower, I managed to get her to tilt her head back ("look at the ceiling") and rinse her hair with the shower head. I think I sprung it on her quickly enough that she didn't have time to think it over. Anyway, it's definite progress... –  Kelsey Rider Apr 25 '13 at 14:17

7 Answers 7

up vote 17 down vote accepted

We had exactly the same situation with our daughter, until very recently (she is three years old now). The best recommendation I can give you is:

  1. Patience..
  2. Patience..
  3. Patience...

We were always firm about washing her hair regularly, even though she protested quite strongly. On the other hand, we always told her before, that we would wash her hair today (like, at noon, when we usually bathe her shortly before night-time, and repeatedly during the afternoon). That did not make her like it any more, but I believe that it is important to be honest to your child in those things. When it was time to wash her hair, we informed her again of what was about to happen, and addressed her protests ("I know you don't like it, but it has to be done, I'm sorry sweety") instead of ignoring them. I believe that this is important, because we want our child to know that we listen to her, so that she can confide in us.

It went like this for almost two years, and suddenly, about 6 weeks ago, she started rinsing her hair herself. Miracles do happen... ;-)

Anyway, it your daughter's reaction does not necessarily have to be caused by something you did earlier, maybe she just doesn't like it, period. Don't beat yourself up because of this, thinking that you are bad parents, because you aren't!

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I tend to agree with the last paragraph, our daughter never had water in her ears or something like that and still didn't like water on her head when we moved to the big bath tube (instead the baby bath) so guess it's just an unpleasant feeling for toddlers. Thanks for the reassurance though! :) –  Shadow Wizard Aug 13 '12 at 6:22
Why does it have to be done? My daughter has only had her hair washed a handful of times in her 4.5 years of life (mostly because she used to be afraid) and she has beautiful hair. Hair is quite capable of taking care of itself. –  jemjabella Apr 4 '14 at 12:59

With my 22-month-old son, the complete opposite approach works best. If I take water in a pitcher and shout: "Wooooo SPLASH!" as I let it all fall on his head, he laughs and asks for more. If I try to do it slowly and patiently, he complains.

In general, I find that adding sound effects to the activities he dislikes helps a lot (such as going "bzzzz CLIP! bzzzz CLIP! bzzzz CLIP!" when cutting his nails). It might be worth a try if you run out of patience :) Of course, back off immediately if it doesn't work. But in any case, you can try to make it into a game in some other way that she might enjoy.

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Yes! Making a show of things being fun is better than demostrating that you're trying to be (over-)careful. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 13 '13 at 22:02
+1: This approach worked for us in other areas. One negative side-effect, however, is that now I tend to add sound-effects to activities when my son isn't actually present. This gets me odd looks at work... –  Kramii Apr 23 '13 at 9:04

I have dealt with this fear as a babysitter and this always works. Kids never cry when I wash their hair. First get or make some bath puppets. Puppets make a great distraction and kids would rather have the puppets washing a rinsing their hair. Buy a unbreakable mirror. At lunch or anytime way before bathtime show your son the puppets have them talk to him about having fun in the tub and allow him to play with them a bit. Tell your son you understand why he doesn't like to wash his hair. Tell him you know a way to keep soap and water out of his face that is fun. Tell him that you will use a puppet to wet his hair. He gets to make coyote calls. Demonstrate how. Tell him this will make all the water and soap stay out of his face. Also tell him you will be making him soapy animal ears and have him pick out what kind he wants eg cat, dog,. Tell him you can looka at them in the mirror. Have fun! You can do animal ears, puppets, coyote calls, and toys in 20 minutes or less and no screams

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This is actually a really good idea. –  ChristopherW Apr 2 '14 at 1:42
Cute idea! I'll give it a try. –  Kelsey Rider Apr 2 '14 at 8:17

Treb makes some wonderful points that I hope you find reassuring. In addition to these, we had the same problem with our little one for awhile too. The way we solved it was by giving her a choice to let us do it or she could do it while we monitored and made sure all of it got rinsed. She learned how to lean back somewhat and use the a cup while she sat up (this required a lot of time because we had to say the parts she'd missed and help her learn to angle her head so she could get them). She eventually realized how hard it was for her to do it herself with the cup and became okay with laying back and rinsing it (herself).

It really worked out wonderfully because now she is that much more independent and the fact that she'll lay back made learning to float on her back in the water feasible too.

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Wetting her hair by having her lean back into my hand and dipping the back of her head is the same...she's very emotionally uncomfortable in this position. (Once, I even put her on her back in the empty bathtub before turning the water on, and she panicked and got up very quickly.)

It may be possible that it is all about the "position" in which you make the child sit while bathing, since lying down completely in someone's arms or in front of someone is a way of surrendering.

In India, we don't usually have bath tubs in houses. We have taps. So, I have spent all my life by now by sitting in the squatting position on a Chowki with my head bent down. I shut my eyes tightly. Bring the hair down and try to keep it all in front of the ears rather than behind or over them. This way when I put the water with a mug on my head, I know exactly how much quantity can I tolerate at one go, and how to put the water carefully so that it doesn't get in the ears, when to stop and when to start etc.

Give her the control and see if that helps.

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Giving her control doesn't work - I can tell her to wet her hair, but she refuses to do anything beyond wetting her hands then putting them in her hair. –  Kelsey Rider Apr 25 '13 at 14:09
@KelseyRider That's probably because she is already afraid from her past experiences. Did you try to force her to try doing it herself "at least once"? –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 25 '13 at 22:31
Not sure how to force her to do something that she must voluntarily do, but she generally panics even if she gets wet accidentally. But like I commented above, she's been getting better. –  Kelsey Rider Apr 26 '13 at 14:49

I believe the child is afraid of suffocation or rather a blocking of air by the water. She goes into panic mode in different positions because she doesn't have any control over the amount of water you are going to pour on her.

Have you ever experienced gasping for air when too much water falls on your head? That is a panic moment. I experience it even now (at 28 years old) whenever I pour excess water on my head. As a small child, from one of her past experiences, she is afraid about water blocking her breathing.

I would suggest to rub the water down her nose as soon as you have poured water on her head so that her nose is cleared. And please make sure to pour little amounts of water in one go.

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Hmm, I don't think it has anything to do with suffocation. She'll flip if we get water in her eyes, even if they're closed. She also doesn't like water in her ears. –  Kelsey Rider Apr 25 '13 at 14:14

We had this problem for long long time, and it only became worse in each passing day.

Week ago we started combination of two suggestions we got from friends and it appears to be working so going to share here.

  1. Put water in small plastic glass, either from the tap or directly from the bath and tell the child you are going to use the water to clean his/her head.

  2. Slowly spill the water on the child's head. As it's not a stream of water and is done with a glass the child knows from before and maybe even love using to drink from, the child would probably not protest.

  3. In case water reach the child's face, ears or eyes and he/she is about to cry use small towel to instantly dry the water and tell him/her that you "fixed" it.

  4. Repeat steps #2 and #3 as long as needed, both before and after using shampoo.

The combination of glass and towel appears to be working fine, although it cause the time spent in bath to increase dramatically, think it's worth that time and the effort. Head gets cleaned, and much less tears.

Update: for couple of months now, we are using something called Waterproof Eye Shield Cap Hat Shield and I can wash her head without a squeak as no water leaks through to her face.

For those interested, this is how it looks like: (not my kid, just a cute pic I found :))

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