Like so many parents-to-be, when I was pregnant, I looked forward to wonderful moments spent bathing my little one. I recalled bubbles and giggles in our bathtub at home when I was little, and I was eager to create treasured memories with my own child. But after my son was born and became big enough for me to bathe him in a full-size bathtub, I found that bath times were often stressful and confusing. As is common with children who have sensory processing issues, my son Cole had extreme reactions to being bathed. It seemed he was always crying and fighting me or was so giddy with excitement that I didn’t feel I could keep him safe. Cole would start jumping, screeching, and hand flapping, and I desperately tried to steady his slippery little body. Afterward, when I towel-dried him, he would hug me so hard and so long that I wondered, What is up with this child? Why can’t he be this calm in the tub? I had yet to develop sensory smarts—the understanding of how my child’s different way of processing sensory input was affecting him and what I could do about it.
Sensory issues can make a child’s bath time experiences very intense. The tactile input of warm water, foamy bubbles, and slippery soap mixes with the smell of shampoo. The sound of splashing water bounces from the ceramic tiles to the porcelain sink and tub. Children with a sensory processing disorder have brains that can’t sort all of that out to make sense of what is happening. The intensity and quality of the sensations themselves can be distressing to their differently-wired brains. The result? Kids can become overwhelmed and respond with fear and resistance. They can shut down completely and refuse to cooperate.
Fortunately, there are ways to make bath time fun and keep kids regulated so they aren’t too active or too distressed to follow your guidance as you help them bathe.
Think about creating a spa-like environment. You do not have to bathe your child by candlelight or set up tabletop fountains in the bathroom as if you were at an actual spa. However, altering the sensory environment of the bathroom can absolutely help you relax your child at bath time. Take the brightness down in your bathroom: install a dimmer switch or leave the bathroom light off entirely and have only the light from a hallway or the windows illuminating the space. Use an aromatherapy diffuser to fill the air with the scent of an essential oil that your child finds soothing. Tune into your child to see what works best to create a quiet, relaxing experience for his/her unique sensory needs. Ask your child what he/she likes.
Protect sensitive ears. Have plenty of fabric—such as towels, curtains, and bathrobes—in the bathroom to soften any sounds that bounce between hard surfaces. If possible, fill the tub with the door closed and your child out of the room so that the harsh sound of water furiously hitting the bathtub does not distress him/her. Bathrooms that echo can be a big problem for children with sensory issues.
Provide heavy work before bathing. Heavy work, such as having your little one push a carpet sweeper toy or climb up and down stairs, can help calm him/her before a bath. Hugs can work, too, if your child tolerates them. A little rhythmic bouncing on a mini trampoline is another way to provide proprioceptive input, or heavy work, that can prepare the child for some sensations that he/she might not be fond of but that are unavoidable, such as having slimy shampoo rubbed into the scalp.
Give your child a sense of predictability and control. Children with sensory issues are less likely to get anxious or overstimulated if they trust that they will not be surprised by unpleasant or intense sensory input. Talk your child through what will happen first, second, and third. Consider having a waterproof ‘To Do’ list with simple photos or line drawings of getting into the tub, playing with toys, washing up, washing hair, rinsing, and getting out of the tub. Seeing instead of just hearing what comes next can help your child stay calm. Offer him/her the opportunity to wash or rinse his/her own hair so there is a sense of control. Have your child count off to rinsing away shampoo. Let him/her choose products that smell good to him/her or have no scent. Don’t give too many choices—just two or three.
Offer toys that keep your child engaged. Children often enjoy cause-and-effect toys, such as windup toys that move through the water. Provide different-sized plastic cups, containers, and funnels. Demonstrate pouring water from one container to another, and ask your child to guess whether one will overflow. Some children will enjoy imagination toys and making up voices to animate dolls, puppets, and action figures. Others will prefer to have you keep your voice the same as you gently show them how they can have the spaceman talk to the clown fish. Try to provide toys with different textures in order to encourage your child to explore and appreciate a variety of sensations against his/her skin.
Help your child to feel secure during hair washing. Tipping the head back to have the hair rinsed can upset a child with sensory issues who has gravitational insecurity, meaning he/she does not feel safe and steady. To avoid this problem, you can try having him/her sit with eyes closed while wearing a foam visor or swim goggles as you pour water over his/her head. Your child also might be more comfortable leaning the head forward as you rinse. Or, have him/her hold on to you as you rinse the head, or encourage your child to operate the showerhead himself/herself. Experiment with using a small pail, a big cup of water, a showerhead, or a garden sprinkling can to rinse. Very often, children with sensory issues have a strong preference for a certain level of water pressure when their hair is being rinsed.
Think about moving bath time. If baths tend to be stimulating for your child, think about moving bath time from before bedtime to earlier in the day.
Consider a shower or being in the tub with your child. Some children find baths more unpleasant than showers, and if you get into the tub and shower with them, you might be able to have them shower with you. You might do a mix of sitting in the tub and using the showerhead. Use a tub mat for safety if your child tends to jump around, and think about whether you need to be in there to keep him/her safe.
Keep the temperature just right. What feels a little too cool or a bit too warm for you might be just the right bathwater temperature for your child. Start with lukewarm water and adjust from there if your child is uncomfortable. If you heat up the room before bath time begins, he/she may not need such warm water. Also, check your water heater’s setting to make sure it is at a safe maximum level, given that your child might try to play with the faucet.
Find what works and build on it. Every child with sensory issues and/or autism is different. What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for another. Figure out through experimentation and talking with your child what makes him/her most comfortable in the bath. Pay attention to your child’s body language in order to gauge if he/she is enjoying or disliking the bath. Notice what is working for your child. Maybe you started speaking more slowly and quietly, which made him/her settle down. Maybe you reminded your child that it was face-washing time and asked him if he/she wanted to do it alone or have you do it, and having a sense of control soothed the child. You will not learn instantly what makes your child comfortable. However, as you work with your little one, you will not only be discovering the best way to make bath time fun and pleasant for you two—you will also be developing those happy bath time memories. What a gift to any child!
Nancy Peske, the Sensory Smart Parent, began learning about sensory issues when her son was a toddler and diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and multiple developmental delays. With her son’s occupational therapist, Lindsey Biel, OTR/L, she co-wrote the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Issues. Nancy speaks to parents and professionals about practical ways to help kids with sensory issues. For more, see www.SensorySmartParent.com @SensorySmartMom1 on Twitter, or Nancy Peske on YouTube.
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This article was featured in Issue 60 – Sensory Tools For The Future