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Baby Steps: Fountain of Youth

Q. I have an 8-month-old son who is afraid to go in any water except when he takes a bath in the bathtub. He won't even go in an inflatable tub in the garage. He also yells when I wash his hair -- even if I use one of those little caps that keep water from his eyes -- and reaches to get out of the tub. Does this mean he will be hydrophobic in the future?

A. Fear of water is perfectly normal at this age. Throughout his first year, your baby's senses are continuously getting refined, and this sharpening of awareness widens his world, just as bringing a picture into focus allows a richer image to be seen. His ever-expanding world offers your son many new things to like, as well as a few things that seem less welcoming. Because it is all new to him, don't expect his likes and dislikes to make sense to you. Just as his fascination with the television remote may be incomprehensible to you, his fears of certain things like water, the food processor, or a wind-up toy may not be predictable. That does not make them any less real to him.

That said, although it may seem like they are the same, there are actually many distinctions between the bathtub experience and other water experiences. Any one of these differences -- or a combination -- could be enough to turn your little guy off to the whole other-water experience. The water in the bathtub is comfortably warm, but pool water often is not. The walls of the bathtub are high and can make him feel contained and safe, but the openness of the inflatable pool (or the waves at the beach) may be frightening. The feel of the inflatable pool is different, too, and that may make the experience different enough to be distressing. Remember, new experiences in and of themselves can be frightening for some babies, so even though aspects of the inflatable pool may be just fine, the very fact that its different is a strike against it.

Similarly, many children do not like having their hair washed, even though the rest of the bath is a joy. Some are worried about water in the eyes, others don't like the sensation of holding the head back or having the scalp rubbed, and still others don't like the lack of control.

In general, forcing your baby to confront his fears will not make the fears go away. It is better to wait and let him approach the water at his own pace. Rushing him will only mean unhappiness for you both, so you might consider passing on the inflatable pool for the time being. If the pool or the beach are a big part of your social life (because of older siblings, for example), just let your baby sit with you and watch the others play. Seeing the others have a good time may, ultimately, entice him in, but in the meantime, sitting it out will allow your baby to adjust to the new situation on his terms. In the same way, if the hair washing fear is particularly strong and is affecting the rest of the bath experience, you can just skip hair washing for a few weeks to allow your baby to forget his fear. Until then, simply wipe his head down with a damp cloth.

Above all, relax. It is unlikely that your son will be hydrophobic simply because he is resistant to playing in inflatable pools. Many factors contribute to phobias, including heredity, temperament, parents' attitudes, and traumatic experiences. In the absence of a certain group of events and characteristics, it's unlikely that your son's fears will become a phobia.