Tips for playful parenting: bath and shower time

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

Bath time may be relaxing for some children, but others run a mile the moment they hear the word.

A child's "bad behaviour" around bath time isn't usually that - they might be afraid of things us parents haven't considered. Being sucked down the plug hole, slipping, getting soap in their eyes or bedtime (which comes after bath) are just a few. Try out some of the tips below to troubleshoot your little one's fears - and make water time a bit easier, and more playful.

Communicating transitions

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  • Tell your child clearly and repeatedly if they are in the middle of something else, like eating or playing, that bathtime is up next. Sometimes children cry on the way to the bathroom because they are cross that they have been interrupted and want to carry on, not because the bath is the issue. Giving them a heads up helps.

  • Prepare them similarly when they have to get out of the bath, especially if they are enjoying it. One trick is to let or help them take out the plug, and watch the water go down. This signals bathtime is over.

Supporting a fearful child

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  • If your child doesn’t like bathing or seems scared, don’t force him or her to sit down in a tub of water. Rather, sponge a child down while they stand in a baby bath / small bowl of water and gradually transition to a bath with a similarly low level of water. Praise your child’s bravery and encourage them - best of all, take a bath with them to model how enjoyable it can be.

  • Let your child have as much autonomy as possible in the bath - they will feel more in control of their watery environment. For example, let them play with the shampoo or soap, or let them turn on the taps with you. Talk them through the process of what is happening.

  • Similarly, let your child know when you will pour water on his or her head, and try and do it with a cup. Children quickly develop a loathing for hair washing when water pours down their faces or they get any type of shampoo in their eyes (even the child-safe ones).

  • Let your child wash your hair in the bath either in the bath together or at another time. Tell them what shampoo is and show them the difference between soap and shampoo (unless you have an all-in-one!).

Playful learning

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  • Give your child empty cups of different sizes to play with when she or he is little. Babies love filling and pouring cups of water, and the process teaches them different skills, like hand-eye coordination and cause and effect.

  • Give your child some sponges small enough for their little hands - even cutting up a large one into smaller bits if necessary. Your child will squeeze water from a sponge (or a toy if it has a little hole) and this helps to promote hand and finger strength. 

  • Give a toddler some non-toxic bath paints to play with during bath time and encourage him or her to finger paint and mix colours. If your child does paint in the bath, hand him or her a little cloth or sponge when the bath is over to help clean it off. This reinforces the message about tidying up after play.

Comforting routines 

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  • Try and bath your child at a similar time everyday. Many children find warm water and bath time relaxing, so it is helpful close to bedtime. Young children like and need daily routines because it gives them a sense of control and understanding of what’s going to happen to them next.

  • However, if your child loves bath time and you’re having a rough afternoon with a cross toddler, feel free to pop them in at a time they don’t normally - more for play than for cleaning.

  • And if you don't have a bath, and your child doesn't have a skin allergy, pop a few drops of lavendar oil under a running shower to fill the bathroom with calming aromatherapy.

Water buddies

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  • Bath time is a real bonding opportunity for parents and children -and full of learning through play moments! If you have a toddler, instead of just watching, talk to him or her about what sensations. This might be the feeling of the warmth or cold of the water, seeing toys float up and the sounds water splashing makes. This stimulates your child’s sensory awareness. 

  • Put toys and waterproof books in the bath, or let your child select some to take with to the bath from playtime. A plastic figurine or doll is great for your little one to wash. This is a lovely way for you both to connect - through shared parental roles! 

  • Bubble bath is usually a winner, but some kids don’t like it. Measure a capful and let your child pour it into the running water. Get bubble bath which is child friendly, both to avoid stinging eyes and drying out their skin (most adult bubble baths don’t contain anything that moisturises skin). 

Shower power 

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  • One of the advantages for babies who shower is shower cuddles! And for a parent, holding your baby in the shower means you both get clean at the same time - if your child doesn’t mind having water wet their hair and face from above. Gauge this for yourself, and if it doesn’t work out, take the showerhead down and wash your child separately.  Keep a small towel handy in case they get upset over a wet face. The downside? You will have to use a temperature that’s probably a little less warm than you’d like!

  • To prevent falls, place a non-slip mat in the shower, and watch them carefully if they can stand. Another option is to shower sitting down holding your child - not necessarily the most dignified option for you, but a safe way to get two bodies clean in one go! You can easily pop the baby tub into the shower and let a small child sit in it with some toys.

  • Enjoy the sensory experience of showering with your child. Point out the sensation and sight of falling water. If you detach the showerhead, aim the water at your toddler’s toes or next to their hands, and gradually make the temperature go from cold to tepid. Let your toddler touch it - it’s a great way of demonstrating.

  • Short on time or space? Clean out the kitchen sink and remove nearby drying rack items, and put a baby in the sink with tepid water and bubbles. It prevents back ache for you leaning over and is just as good as a special baby tub.

  • And, if the weather is great, feel free to give your baby a bath in the tub outside, and fill it with tepid water. Cleaning doesn’t have to be limited to the bathroom!

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