What to do when your child hates having their hair washed?

Written by Amelia Swan, Occupational Therapist

Many children don’t like getting their hair washed for several reasons. This could be due to the sensation of the water, not liking the smell or the feeling of shampoo or conditioner on their hands on their head, or even the fear of getting water in their eyes. Despite the reason, we are here to help! We have multiple strategies listed below that you can try out to help decrease the stress and tears when it comes to bath time. This may be a process of trial and error as each child is different, with their own likes and dislikes and sensory preferences. As such, there are so many strategies that you can try to assist them that it may be overwhelming; use a process of elimination to find what works best for not only your child but your whole families routine.

  • Play! Make playing with water fun. Outside of bath time, do some water play which encourages tolerating liquids near the head, e.g., face paint. Encourage play in the bath as well by using bath toys to model getting your hair washed.
  • Choice and control. To reduce anxiety, let your child choose the shampoo/conditioner they want to have. Maybe it’s scented nicely, or maybe it’s their favourite colour. Letting them have some control over this process helps to reduce some anxiety at bath time.
  • Protect the eyes. Many children hate getting their hair washed due to the fear of shampoo/conditioner getting into their eyes and being painful. There are several ways to stop this happening, including encouraging your child to hold a dry washer over their eyes, wearing goggles, using a jug with a silicone lip, and shampoo visor.

This is a $5 jug from Target that helps to keep water out of the eyes. Baby Shampoo Rinser – White | Target Australia

This is a is a Shampoo Visor from Kmart that can also help keep water out of the eyes. Shampoo Visor – Grey – Kmart

  • Vestibular sensitivity. Some children may be hypersensitive to vestibular input, meaning if they are consistently extending their head back to get their hair washed, this may cause them distress or discomfort. In this scenario, lean their head forwards while washing their hair or get them to lay flat in the bath.
  • Outline the process. Some children need extra reminders of what the hair washing process looks like to decrease anxiety. This may include stepping through the process with them before hand, watching a video, or having visual prompts for the steps of the hair washing routine in the bathroom.
  • Let them help. Providing your child with the option to assist and with as much control as possible throughout the hair washing process can help decrease their anxiety when hair washing. This could include letting them put the shampoo/conditioner in their hair, scrubbing the shampoo in or out or passing you the shampoo.
  • Tactile sensitivity. The sensation of water in their ears can be distressing for some children. In this instance, try using ear plugs at bath time. Here are some examples from Rebel Sport or Priceline: Zoggs Junior Aqua Plugz | Rebel Sport, Buy Ear Plugs 3 Pairs by Putty Buddies Online | Priceline.
  • Make bath time relaxing. Help your child feel relaxed as possible for bath time to make the experience more enjoyable. This could include using a variety of relaxation strategies such as doing some breathing exercises beforehand(for example, 5 finger breathing) or having a playlist of their favourite songs to listen to and sing along with at bath time. Completing some proprioceptive activities such as wall push-ups, hand presses and bear hugs can also support children to feel calm. Encourage your child to choose what
  • Too much light and sound. Some children are hypersensitive to sound and light, and by reducing these stressors you may make washing hair easier. As adults, we enjoy having baths with little noise and light surrounding us, so it makes sense children would like that too. Try decreasing the brightness and the noise in the bathroom, and encourage quiet time for the family before and during bathtime.
  • Co-regulation. Children are very attuned to their parent’s emotions and so if you as the parent are stressing about bath time, your child will notice. If bath time is particularly tricky, try to stay relaxed to help your child relax with you. Try having an activity which is enjoyable for both you and your child to participate in together following bath time.
  • Tear free shampoo/conditioner. Use a low foam/tear free shampoo to reduce the discomfort experienced by your child if water does happen to get in their eyes. These products work by using different surfactants, which are less irritating on the eyes. The following links are some examples Johnson’s Baby Conditioning Shampoo 500mL | Woolworths, Buy Cetaphil Baby Gentle Wash and Shampoo 400ml Online at Chemist Warehouse®. Try encouraging your child to select their preferred shampoo by smelling the products and asking them which one smells nice and assist them to pay for this at the counter. Make this an exciting experience so when they get home they are keen and eager to try it out!

We hope that you find a strategy that works for your family. If you require further support, please do not hesitate to reach out to our Occupational Therapists. Please remember, like anything at bath time, each of these strategies should be implemented under the close supervision of a parent or guardian.

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