How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums at Bath Time

Bath-time with a toddler can be bliss or hell on earth. Many toddlers develop strange fears about the most harmless things. A beloved toy can suddenly inspire terror. A favourite play area may become a no-go zone for no apparent reason. These fears are very common amongst toddlers and need careful handling if they are not to become a major issue. Fear of bathing and water is very common and the following are a few useful strategies for dealing with a bath-phobic toddler.

Keep calm – Although this may not seem to obviously help the situation, a parent who remains calm, reassures and does not lose either patience or temper is going to diffuse a toddler tantrum much faster than a stressed or angry one. Angry reactions and dismissive attitudes will only heighten a toddler’s distress. Parents need to keep the voice low-pitched, steady and calm whilst maintaining an authoritative tone.

Belief – A child with any kind of fear is not ‘acting out’ and should not be treated as such. The child will genuinely believe that the bathroom and bath hold terrors they do not want to face. No amount of dismissive attitude, however kindly meant, by a parent will remove this genuine belief. Such reactions will only cause greater distress as the child tries to convince the parent. Come down to the child’s level, listen to them whilst making steady eye-contact and let them explain what exactly is scaring them. Once the parent is aware of the reason for the terrors they can begin to deal with it.

Think like a child – As adults, parents are aware that the bath drain is not going to suck them down with the water, but to a child, without these grown-up understandings, the notion is perfectly plausible. Shadows cast on a shower curtain could very well be the bogey man. All those bubbles could really be hiding a sea serpent under the foam. Children have incredible imaginations and anything is possible, and believable to toddlers. Think like a child and use that angle to understand why the child is reacting with tantrums at bath-time.

Show me – Sometimes, the only way to convince a child that there is no danger is to completely eliminate the cause. For example, if the child is afraid of being sucked down the drain-hole, remove them from the bath before pulling the plug out. Take a loofah and beat the shower curtain, pull it back and prove there is no monster – which will probably require many repeat performances as children need repetition to reinforce ideas. Whatever the cause of bath-time tantrums the parent needs to show the child that their fear, although accepted as genuine, is unfounded.

Two in a tub – A child will usually respond positively to a parent climbing into the bath with them. If mum or dad is present to protect them their fear has no power – every toddler believes their parents to be superheroes who can take on any monster and win. Bathe with the child, distract them with toys, games and lots of laughter. When the child begins to display less of the tantrum behaviour, allow them to enter the bath first, alone, but stay close enough to reassure. Gradually withdraw from sharing the bath as the child becomes more confident.

It will pass – Sometimes there is simply no reason for the tantrum and it is a phase which will pass. Frustrating as this can be, it needs to be endured until the child moves on to something new. Remain calm at all times, firmly tell the child that it is bath-time, brook no nonsense and get the action out of the way. Using a quick wash down at the sink can be a way to avoid the bath for a while, but try to avoid given up on the bath at all as this sends the wrong signal, allowing the child to have the power. Teach that tantrums will not have the desired effect by simply continuing to bathe the child, even if it’s only a wash and brush-up. A firm attitude and consistency can do wonders as far as defusing tantrums go.

Ring the changes – Changing bath-time routines can also be a way to distract a child from the nightly tantrum. Have a bath in the morning instead of the evening. Have a shower instead of a bath (with an adult always present). Have a selection of bath toys and books and renew them every week. Change parent. If mum always does bath-time, swap to dad for a while. The impact of having a different face can be all it takes.

The key to dealing with all tantrums, including those associated with bath-time, is calmness and authority in the adult. That, combined with some of the above techniques, should get most toddlers over one of the difficult phases of growing up.


Ask Dr. Sears–’s doctor gives advice on dealing with bath-time and toddlers.