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Ask Dr. Sears: Sudden Fear of Baths

Q. My 15-month-old has always loved being in and around water, and usually enjoys bathtime. However, she's recently developed an irrational fear of water and refuses to go near the tub. What could be the cause of this sudden fear, and what can we do to help her overcome it?


A. Your child's sudden fear of water is just another example of the many unexplained and passing quirks of childhood, and it's actually quite a common one. Though you may never know what exactly triggered it, it's likely due to a new developmental awareness of her environment or some change in family routine. When one of my children developed a sudden fear of baths, we traced it to his new awareness of water going down the drain  -- he imagined himself getting sucked down the drain, too. The good news is that, with time and maturity, your daughter will overcome her bathtime fears. And except for the diaper area, most 15-month-olds don't get that dirty anyway! Here are some tricks to get her splashing happily once again.

Entice with a toy. Fill the tub with water and her favorite floating toys. Let her play with the toys while outside of the tub (under your supervision, of course). She may not want to get into the bath, but at least she may want to play with the toys. Also, reserve a few special toys solely for bathtime.

Enjoy a bath for two. Have your partner hold your daughter while you get into the tub yourself and play with her toys. Be sure to exaggerate your enjoyment of the toys. Blow bubbles and splash around in the water, too. She'll eventually want to join in the fun. Once she gives you the cue, have your partner hand her to you. Minimize the washing until you've gotten her used to thinking of bathtime as fun time again.

Massage rather than bathe. Get your baby used to infant massage inside and outside of the tub. It's a relaxing, contact-rich practice that's also great for baby bonding. If your daughter likes being massaged, wash her with long, gentle strokes so that she feels she's getting a wet massage rather than a bath.

Turn routine into ritual. Make her bath part of an overall ritual, such as a bath followed by a massage and a story, and then snuggles before sleep. This trick capitalizes on the developmental quirk of infants to expect a whole ritual. She may not like the bath, but once she realizes it's part of your nightly ritual, she'll accept it to get to the massage and story. My wife and I developed a rather unusual ritual that eventually solved our toddler's bath phobia. Our son was still nursing, so my wife would put him to her breast and I would carefully assist the nursing pair into the bath. If your baby is weaned, try a similar technique by holding her skin-to-skin in your arms while your partner helps you both into the tub. (I recommend having your partner assist you for safety purposes.)

Use a different "bathtub." Perhaps baby is getting bored with her current bath. Try a plastic tub in the backyard, or the kitchen sink (confining her to a smaller area may make her feel safer). Or try showering with her instead.

Sign up for infant swim lessons. Getting your toddler to enjoy a pool is a big step toward getting her back into the tub. Once she learns how much fun it is to play around in the water again, you'll find that her bathing fears will soon be washed away.

If none of these tricks conquers your daughter's current phobia, stick to sponge-bathing her twice a week (taking extra care for the diaper area) and washing her hair once a week. With time, this phase will pass and she will be ready to return to the tub.

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