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After every meal it’s a battle to wipe off my toddler’s face. He really fights it (This paints a pretty good picture). I’ve observed this to be quite common for toddlers. Is there an easier way to clean a toddler's face which is just as efficient? And why do they hate it so much?

I vaguely remember it as a child and yes it’s uncomfortable for a few seconds but I would think they would at least get accustomed to it just like they do with other uncomfortable things, like diaper changes.

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    Why would they not hate getting their face cleaned off with a wet washcloth? I'm an adult and I'd hate getting a wet washcloth shoved in my face too. – Cubic Jul 12 '18 at 10:45
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    “Because it feels like water boarding” – JoeTaxpayer Jul 12 '18 at 13:15
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    Nobody particularly likes being handled (well, perhaps apart from the occasional adults-only exception). Make them choose: If they don't want their face washed, they can go to the bathroom with you and wash their face themselves over the sink (provide a stable stool or omething so they can reach it). Playing with water is fun. – Peter A. Schneider Jul 12 '18 at 13:32
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    Weirdly, my own kid LOVES this and actually asks about it.... too much, even. She takes a bite, asks for a cleanup, takes another bite, asks for a cleanup, etc. – Patrice Jul 12 '18 at 14:23
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    @Patrice It really depends on the person wiping the face. Some people like to use a really damp cloth and smother the child, starting with the nose and mouth (no chance to take a breath). This is almost like someone trying to suffocate you, hence the reference to water boarding (a torture method). – Nelson Jul 12 '18 at 17:25

14 Answers 14

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Two things I can think of up front:

  1. Are they expecting you to wipe their face off, or does it just come out of the blue? If they're not expecting it, it may surprise them, thus the entire process becomes a battle. Let them know beforehand. "Hey, that sandwich must've been yummy because you're super messy. I need to wipe off your face. Let me know when you are ready."
  2. Have you thought of involving them; after all, it is their face. Give them the choice to wipe their own face. After they finish, if they have any left over, give them a choice of you wiping it off for them, standing in front of a mirror so they can see, or you telling them where to wipe so they can wipe it themselves.

Both of these options have choices. Kids like choices and a little control. Give them that and I'm sure they'll start getting used to it.

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    +1, your answer pretty much nails it. With our daughter we realized early that she would appreciate if she knew beforehand that something wet (and possibly cold, depending on when we are) will touch her face. And now at almost two years old she wipes herself first and then mommy or daddy give it the finishing touches (same for washing hands). – iulia Jul 12 '18 at 7:08
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    For your option 2, I've always had good results from my son for everything if I say "have a go yourself, and I'll finish off any bits you've missed". Still works at age 7, just it's different things now. – Graham Jul 12 '18 at 10:34
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    That's what we did and never had trouble with our two kids. Always describe what you are doing (help with learning language also) and let them wash their face first (teach independence) then do a "checkup". – the_lotus Jul 12 '18 at 11:31
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    "kids like choices and a little control" --> if you do it without telling them or without giving them that "little control/choice" then you get a battle. When you give them the "little control/choice" and you are polite then usually you don't get the battle. – syn1kk Jul 12 '18 at 12:46
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    3. And give some consideration to temperature. Nobody likes taking a cold (or scalding hot) washcloth to the face. – aroth Jul 12 '18 at 14:44
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They hate it because it's slightly uncomfortable and not something they want to do. I made it a game.

I have four boys who are now ages 16 to 11. When they were little and needed their faces washed (which happened quite often) I would make it a playful time. I would take the washcloth in one hand and hold the back of their head in the other. Then I would show them the washcloth for a second, goofy smile at them, and then would place the washcloth on their face (most of the time not covering their eyes), move it back and forth gently but quickly, moving their head slightly as well, while saying in a funny voice "Faaaace!". The whole exchange would last maybe 3 seconds and then I would repeat as necessary. They loved it and most of the time would laugh.

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    Yes. Make a silly noise as you wipe (gently) and it's all a silly game. – Phil H Jul 13 '18 at 10:19
  • I'll try this today! That's something I haven't figured out how to clean my 2-year old boy face without a battle! – gmauch Jul 16 '18 at 19:59
  • Life is about style ... – t_plusplus Jul 17 '18 at 10:14
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It's totally understandable that toddlers hate this, adults would too. Having your face wiped is potentially uncomfortable - cold, scratchy, wet. Their skin is sensitive too and it's easy for an adult to press uncomfortably hard when trying to remove a stubborn stain. And it's happening to them without their control.

Do whatever you can to engage them as others have suggested.

  • Show them their face in a mirror
  • Ask them to point to the bits that need wiping
  • Ask them what the stains are
  • Let them have a go at wiping their own face.
  • Let them have a go at wiping your face (you may need to help guide them to avoid injury)
  • Use an 'aeroplane' face cloth that dives in the with sound effects to dab away a stain and then flies away immediately to circle round their heads until it returns unpredictably.
  • Anything you can imagine to make the face wiping a silly game, the more ridiculous and surreal the better (a generally good technique for anything boring and contentious like nappies, clothes, car seats etc.).

And make it more comfortable. Let them judge whether the cloth is too warm or cold or just right and help choose cloths that are comfortable for them.

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Toddlers don't like cold wet washcloths, but they do like warm ones. Just take a little bit of time and get some warm water out of the tap.

I do it like it's like a hot towel at the Barbers. Put it over their entire face (they like this, it's wet peekaboo) give a quick squeeze and all the gunk is gone.

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One additional thing to consider is the washcloth itself. Many washcloths of the sort I'm used to calling a washcloth are very scratchy; that's a benefit to an adult, as it means they more effectively abrade the things you're trying to wash off, as well as some skin cells.

But for a young child, the texture matters a lot. Some children really dislike scratchy washcloths; they need something smoother that won't irritate them as much. Some children actually need a less smooth washcloth, as they dislike the texture of a smooth one. You might try a few different washcloths, just to see which works better for your child.

My oldest likes the smoother washcloth for example, while my youngest has gone back and forth, sometimes liking smoother sometimes liking rougher.

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The approach makes all the difference. This overlaps with the suggestions of forgivenson and SomeShinyObject. My own kid acts like he's drowning if I just attack his face with a wet rag, but with slow, gentle dabbing and calm talking he's fine.

As to WHY, a book I read suggested that children process things much more slowly than we do. I think it's more accurate to say that they have much more to analyse because their logical reality is still being built. If you've ever visited a region where you only know a small part of the language and customs, I imagine that's a fair analogy. Either way, we need to remember to work at a speed that allows them to take in what's happening.

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    Can you give the name of the book? – Anne Daunted Jul 12 '18 at 20:09
  • I'm sorry but I don't recall. I believe it was just a minor comment in a Montessori-related book, but it was months ago and with a toddler around I don't get much sleep. ;) – Change Machine Jul 19 '18 at 1:39
  • I think that book was Montessori From the Start. – Change Machine Mar 6 at 17:34
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I've found that making it into a game/being silly can really help. While you wipe, try doing things like:

  • Acting like you are tickling their face with the washcloth.
  • Touching their nose with the washcloth in a playful way, then wiping some, then touching nose/etc.
  • Actually tickling them, wiping, tickling, wiping.

You mentioned diaper changes and how they get used to it. Mine still throws a fit many times during diaper changes, and doing things like I mentioned above has helped with that as well.

Source: I have a 2 year-old.

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Allow your toddler to clean your face with the same/similiar washcloth. If they know everybody has to do it, and also see how you react (maybe show mild discomfort in a funny way) they might be more ok with it.

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How is this act normally performed? Well, in the household where I grew up parent grabbed back of child's head, held firmly, took cold wet washcloth, and forced it into child's (my) face. Yeah - what's not to love about this? Oh, and accompanied by annoyed, loud statement like, "Now, JUST HOLD STILL!" Or "This will just take...stop! STOP IT!!". Or, if you're in Scotland or a Pink Floyd album, "STAND STILL, LADDIE!!!". :-)

OK, so, basically, from my vague 60-year-ago recollections of this, it sucks bigtime. Large person with loud mouth is now going to force a cold wet rag into my face, smear it all over, and get angry with me. I'm going to fight it because, well, that's what we DO as kids - we fight back! STAND UP TO THE MAN! EVEN IF HE'S A WOMAN!! DON'T LET THE MAN BRING YOU DOWN!!! YOU GOTTA FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT TO PAAAAAARRRTY!!!!

So, how to handle better? Well, #1 - cold and wet ain't cool. And #2 - being forced ain't cool neither. Toss a damp paper towel in the microwave for 10 seconds, make sure it's not burning hot, then hand it to child and ask them (ASK them!) to wipe their face. If they say "No!", and they will, smile and say "OK", pick up the towel, and walk away. From a kid's point of view, THIS IS EMPOWERMENT! YEAH!! I DONE STUCK IT TO THE MAN!!! OR THE WOMAN!!! WHATEVAH!!!! But...now my face is icky and sticky and...WOMAN?!? WHERE'S MY TOWEL??? I DEMAND YOU BRING MY TOWEL HERE, THIS INSTANT!!! And don't be givin' me no jive about "But I thought you didn't want it, dearest?"!!! I WAS JUST TESTIN' YOU!!!! WHERE IS MY TOWEL?!?!? I BETTER BE GETTIN' MY TOWEL HERE AND PRETTY DANG QUICK OR WE ARE GONNA BE HAVIN' US A LOADED DIAPER, MOMMA!!! UH-HUH!!!!!

Basically, you trick 'em. You offer, they refuse, you take away. Maybe toss in, "Say bye-bye to Mr. Towel" so they know the towel - THEIR towel! - is now going away. Fastest way to get 'em to want something is to give it, then remove it. Basic child-and-executive psychology. :-)

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I can't remember the source but I read that toddlers have poor sequence memory. But https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhv1h3V8Nz4

So they're good at isolated memory - e.g. memorising words to repeat for you.

But not so good at this-follows-that - e.g. when I walk in the kitchen I fall down the step.

If you were cleaning my face I'd think: well, it might not be pleasant but at least my face will be clean. Because I can remember the sequence: sticky face, wiped with a cloth, not sticky face.

But to a toddler what they're experiencing is: UGH! NOT ONLY IS MY FACE REALLY STICKY BUT NOW YOU'RE WIPING IT TOO!

I turned it into a game. That fixes most things for toddlers.

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I have a 9 month old boy with the same problem. He often has a runny nose and I think he fears that it might block his breathing if I wipe his nose or clean his mouth.

One solution for me was to skip the towel and just go to the bathroom sink, where I hold him flat on his belly, he puts his face up and I can just splash some water in his face with my hollow hand. He enjoys this, gets cleaned up pretty well and after that we just do a quick drying with a towel, which he tolerates pretty well.

Making a Joke and making noises and wiping your own face first helps too!

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They don't. What they hate is having someone 4 times their size, shove a wet, rough, cloth in their face and mushing it around on them. I mean really think about it.

What works for me is giving them the cloth, and screaming "dirty face" or "runny nose" (in a playful manner). They giggle and wash their own face. If I want it cleaner then that I can come back around and clean it up, or better yet, just let it go.

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My 1, 3, and 5 year old girls often need cleaning after a meal. We sometimes do a washcloth as listed above, but usually just take them over to the sink and they look in the mirror. I have to hold the 1 year old, and the 3 year old uses a step stool. I help them scrub but also show them how to use the running water, and a little bit of soap. After spaghetti, for example, a washcloth may not cut it anyway. (Admittedly, I grew up in a paper towel generation, so I have an implicit bias against washcloths.)

What has been helpful is that it drives behavior you want to teach them in other contexts. Now that we are potty training it also reinforces washing hands after using the toilet. As an adult if something's on my face or hands, I usually don't use a washcloth to wipe it off. I go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and rub soap & water until it's gone. Why not train them how to take care of themselves?

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Might be too simple, but I skipped the wash cloth for cleaning. For my toddler, I just wet my hand with warm water and wiped his face to loosen everything up. Having the face touched should feel good.

Then, use a cloth to dry his face, which feels good. Blot the water off instead of wiping.

Bonus: This works better than tissue paper for a runny nose as well; especially for kids with sensitive skin.

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