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Sensory Processing, Part 5: Bath Battles

I was terrified of water as a kid. I'm also pretty sure my mother was afraid that CPS was going to show up at some point because of my screaming during bathtime. And wouldn't you know it, I have a child who has struggled with baths. So let's break down the why's of bathtime struggles and what you can do to end the battles.

What's So Hard About Baths and Showers?

Baths and showers are a sensory explosion. There are sounds, smells, light touch, and deep pressure all at once. So it's not surprising that kids with sensory sensitivities can struggle with baths.

As I've said before, the secret to dealing with sensory sensitivities is understanding the issue. So there's some detective work to be done. If you're trying to figure out the exact issue, here are some things to explore.

  • Sound: Is the anxiety better or worse when the water is running? Is it worse in a particular bathroom in the home? Bathrooms are echoey places, and the running water with the reverberations can overwhelm a sound-sensitive child.

  • Smell: What soap, shampoo, and conditioner are you using? Is there an air freshener in the room? Is there mildew or mold? Does your water smell? (That might sound weird if you can't smell as well as your child. But I can verify that our water has a slight sulfur smell. It's a thing.)

  • Light touch: Showers are just a million little droplets of water hitting you over and over, which can be too much for sensitive skin. Soap bubbles leave a coating that can be felt. Washcloths touch all kinds of body parts that are usually left alone and can be quite unpleasant (especially when operated by someone else). And once you're out of the tub, there's that wet, cold feeling and a rough, scratchy towel. So many kinds of touch.

  • Deep pressure: If showers are a barrage of light touch, baths are an immersion in deep pressure. Water pressure can be soothing for some but overwhelming for others. Hair washing is another deep pressure sensation that may be a big issue when compounded with the feeling of water on the face.

Making It Easier

Like other kinds of sensory overload, bathing needs to be managed with consideration for the discomfort it causes. Some things are easily fixed. Let your child choose a bath or a shower, and if they have a preferred bathroom in your home, let them use it. Clean and air out your bathroom regularly. Engage your child in picking the fragrances you use on their bodies, and try to minimize other smelly things in the room. Likewise, pick washcloths and towels that are comfortable for your child. A lot of problems can be avoided by allowing some control over the details.

For those children whose needs aren't met by simple changes, you'll need to get more creative. Try to remember that young children don't need to bathe every day. Sometimes twice a week is enough. And immersion in water, whether tub or shower, isn't necessary to clean the skin. A soapy washcloth followed by a clean, wet one will suffice for most things. If they'd like to wash one body part and dry it before moving on to the next, then do that. Find a good dry shampoo to extend the time between hair washings. And allow the child to work out a way to wet and rinse their head to reduce stress.

Anything you can do to encourage autonomy and independence is a good thing, even if it's a little outside the box. Most of all, remember that your child will be an adult one day, and will choose their own way of bathing. Don't get caught up in the trap of how things "should" be done, and you'll find that bathtime gets a lot easier.

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