Bathtime Struggles

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GROWING CONCERNS: A childrearing question-and-answer column with Martha Erickson of the University of Minnesota.


Recently our 4-year-old has been very resistant to taking a bath. Every evening when I tell him it's bath time, he starts whining and complaining and thinking of 100 things he needs to do instead. I'm tempted to just give up the battle, but without a bath he's gross!


The solution to your dilemma will depend in part on the reason underlying your son's new resistance to bath time. Has he developed a fear of water? Does he want to delay bedtime? (Most children do.) Has he discovered that staging a power struggle over bath time hooks you into giving him lots of extra attention? Is he experiencing the dawning of feelings of embarrassment to have mom or dad see him nude?

Whatever the reason, here are some suggestions that might help. First, I'd suggest that you give him choices about how and when he bathes: morning or evening; with help from mom or dad; bath or shower (showers often feel like a step toward being more grown-up) or, if he's afraid of water, maybe even a stand-up sponge bath, followed by a good, gentle rinse with bowls of warm water. Generally, when children feel that they have some control over a situation, they feel less need to resist.

Second, each evening give him advance warning that it will be bath time soon (for example, at the end of his favorite TV show or when the big hand is on the 12). For four-year-olds, abrupt transitions from one activity to another can be difficult, but advance notice can help.

Make bath time a special time of water play with mom or dad. For example, get a special bath toy, use bubble bath or sudsy body paint, let him give a favorite doll or action toy a bath or give him
swim goggles and let him pretend to be a diver. Or, if he prefers a quiet time with mom or dad, get an inflatable bathtub pillow and let him soak in a bubble bath while you read him a story.

Finally, instead of giving him attention for the fuss he raises about bath time, lavish him with attention when he cooperates and when he's all clean and sweet-smelling after his bath. For example, as he begins his bath, let him choose a favorite book, game or music tape that you will use during a special after-bath time with mom or dad. Then, as soon as he's all scrubbed and dry, snuggle up and enjoy!

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.


The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
© 2000 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
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