My Three-year-old Freaks Out and Refuses to Take a Bath or Change Clothes. Help?

Updated on December 07, 2011
L.J. asks from Reston, VA
10 answers

My son hasn't always hated baths. It goes in phases. But for the last month or two he absolutely screams and freaks out if he has to go anywhere near the bathtub. He wants to keep his clothes on, and sometimes I've even let him do that for part of the bath. The problem is that then he wants to wear the wet clothes to bed. If he lets me take his clothes off, he wants to put the same dirty clothes back on after the bath and will cry for as long as an hour about it. I try to say yes to my son as often as possible, because I don't want to be one of those parents who just says no for the sake of saying no, but I can't let him stay filthy all the time and I can't let him wear clothes that are horribly soiled (he's even wanted to keep pee-soaked underwear on!) He gets very attached to whatever he's wearing. I've tried giving him lots of choices and alternatives, and nothing seems to work. After his bath, sometimes he wants to get back in the tub, to "get the dirty back on." It almost seems as though he's just rebelling against whatever he "has" to do. I've tried everything I can think of: getting in the tub with him, having him shower with me instead, just bathing him while he sits on the side of the tub, every bath toy ever made, water play, etc. Nothing has worked. Any fresh ideas?

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answers from Detroit on

I would stop offering him so many options, and just lay down the law. Pick a time when it's not bath time and not time to change clothes, so it's a more calm and less emotionally charged moment, and let him know that these are the rules: He will take a bath whenever he is dirty, or whenever you feel it is needed. He will put on clean clothes every day, and after the bath. He will wear clean underwear every day and he will get clean underwear to wear if he soils the ones he has on. He will not be wearing clothes in the tub, getting back in the tub when it's done, or wearing wet clothes to bed. That's all just ridiculous in my opinion and not teaching him about how to take care of himself or practice good hygiene and common sense. If he starts to pitch a fit about something that you've already talked to him about, remind him that these are the rules, and he needs to listen, no questions asked. This is not the time to have a philosophical discussion about his need to express himself. You would not let him have a choice about wearing a seat belt or playing with matches - this is no different. He needs you to set boundaries and be the parent and be more firm with him. He's only 3 years old - he does not get to call the shots. If you don't expect him to cooperate with you now, what is he going to be like when he's 12?

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answers from Charlotte on


3 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

An x boyfriend of mine recently shared that he had had a strange aversion to showering. He went away for a weekend with family friends to a vacation home where all there was was a stand up shower. Everyone else used it, and so did he. He came back home, and was willing to shower.

Is there any chance that you can send your son over to an aunt, or a playmate with older children? If he sees that everyone takes a bath and changes their clothes without protest, it might help.

other thoughts - maybe you could change bathtime to the morning. so he has to get out of jammies, take a bath, and put on clothes.
maybe there is some sort of elmo book or video about this.
maybe hubs can take over bath duty.
maybe you can ask him to bathe the dog in the tub, or bathe a truck (make him responsible for the cleaning. or in a similar vein - ask him if he can give you a bath. wear a swimsuit if you feel uncomfortable.

Good luck to you and yours,
F. B.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Norfolk on

I can think of a lot of skin problems that can start up from being damp for awhile - fungus, yeast, etc.
Pee soaked underwear can burn skin if the pee is concentrated enough.
Itching and needing ointment for it is not going to feel good.
He's got to be clean and dry - that's non-negotiable.
He's got to wear clean clothes - also non-negotiable.
If he has some favorite clothes - then get lots of repeats, but he's got to wear clean every day (he can have 7 of the exact same shirt so it looks/feels the same, but he wears a clean one every day).
Make sure what ever detergent you wash with is not causing him skin irritations (my washer has a double rinse cycle so I know the soap is rinsed out very well).
When he's calm, tell him he's got to get clean once a day and he can pick bath or shower, but to get through it as quickly as possible (and because fussing and fighting in a wet bathtub or shower is slippery and dangerous - more kids chip their teeth from falls in a bathtub than anywhere else) there has to be no fussing.
It might be a sensory issue but since it's only been a month or so when the trouble has started up it (and he use to like bath time) sounds more like a terrible 3's issue and he's likely to get over it sooner or later.

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answers from San Francisco on

You can't give a three year old "lots of choices and alternatives." It's too much for them. They need calm simple directions and no more than two choices: you may take a bath OR a shower, which would you like?
As far as the clothes, that's just non negotiable. Soiled underwear? wet, soiled clothes to bed? As others have said, you need to speak to his doctor as he MAY have some kind of sensory issues and you can get help for that. In the mean time, you can bathe him every other day so it's not a daily battle, and let him wear his clothes AS LONG AS THEY ARE CLEAN. But I still think he needs to change his underwear every day, and I think you need to say no in this situation a LOT more than saying yes. Kids who repeatedly scream and throw fits usually do so because they have learned that this is an effective way to get what they want. Be consistent and over time the screaming and fit throwing will diminish as he learns that kind of behavior does not work any more (nor should it!)

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answers from New York on

Since this is a new issue, I don't think it's a "sensory issue", meaning that he needs therapy. Magical thinking is really common at this age so maybe he associates the dirty clothes with the fun he had and wants to hold on to that fun. I don't think it's bad that you give in sometimes. A couple times a week my son doesn't want to take a bath. I say ok, but tomorrow night you have to. Then he does. No battle because I then remind him that he agreed and in our house, we keep our word. Is his bath fun? Can he take a toy with him or play with shaving cream while in there? What about a special treat after the bath. I would not let him wear clothes into the tub though because you are just delaying the issue because as you said, he then wants to wear the wet clothes to bed. As for the soiled clothes, I would not let him put anything other than pjs on after his bath. Can you buy pjs that have characters he really likes on them? Maybe he can go pick them out. My son responds very well to "deals". In this situation I would lay out exactly what is expected of him first. Then say, you can pick out any pajamas you want at the store (make sure only appropriate choices are available) and then after bath you will wear them. Put the dirty clothes in the hamper and stick to your guns. Distraction works really well here.

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answers from Columbus on

Can you try breaking it into smaller parts throughout the day? If you do bath before nighttime, how about switching it up to doing bath in the morning (if this is possible) and then he picks his clothes (you say which shirt do you want, X or Y)?

Or, change his clothes right before (or after) dinner and then he gets to put those same clothes back on after bath.

Also, if it helps, maybe have him see you do laundry. Pick yesterday's clothes and have him help get put the soap in the washing machine, watch it swish them around. Then when it's done, show him the clothes and put them in the dryer, and show him again when the dryer is done.

If he won't let you do a bath, try doing a wash up with warm wet wash cloth.

Also have you tried making it fun, like having specific toys he can use in the bathtub (my son has a small set of dinos that he LOVES playing with in the bathtub). Try finger paints (though, I guess maybe he would want to "keep" the paint on...?), bubble bath, etc.


answers from Norfolk on

Hi, L.:
What is he afraid of?
Call your local child development center.
Ask them what they think.
Good luck.


Hi, L.:
What is he afraid of?
Call your local child development center.
Ask them what they think.
Good luck.


answers from Denver on

Have him tell you a story about bath time, dirty clothes, and clean clothes. You may find out some interesting things about his thought processes. Having him tell the story with some toys could give you some real insight into the workings of his young mind. He may have developed some irrational, fearful thoughts and pictures around bath time and clothes and dirt and playing it out will allow you to understand what he is thinking so you can address that as much as his behavior.

Too often as parents we expect our children to think like we do. They literally can't. Their brains are just developing. Small children think much more concretely and the world totally revolves around them.

When you have him tell you the story also see if you can get him to play the mom (or monster or whatever shows up in the story) that is trying to get the child to bathe and see what solution he might come up with all on his own.

Now this all may be simply about a power struggle between him and you. I would recommend "1-2-3 Magic" by Thomas Phelan. Keep in mind that you are the mother and your job is to teach not necessarily be liked. Your children will get upset, sad, unhappy, scared, etc. These are all normal and they need the opportunity to learn how to deal with different emotions.

Too often as moms we only want our children to be happy and that actually robs them of creating good emotional intelligence that will benefit them throughout life. We have many emotions, instead of teaching him to ignore, deny, and stuff his emotions, you can teach him how to appropriately express them. (Of course, this requires us as moms to learn to do the same so that we can model it for our children and be okay with them having all of their emotions.)



answers from Washington DC on

My older toddler went through a phase when she refused to wear ANYTHING! I couldn't figure it out for almost a whole week. Then I realized that it was just a motivational thing -- I had to work up the clothes as something she WANTED to wear.
Here are some ways to work up the desire to wear a particular outfit:
Play dress-up with stuffed animals. Put the kids' real clothes on them (even if too big), or doll clothes, whatever. Have your son help, especially with the fasteners when possible. Talk about how it's a new day, time to get dressed! Or give the bear a pretend bath, and now it's time to pretend to dry off and get new clothes on!

Help your kid choose clothes that are a favorite color or have a favorite character or theme on them (Superman shirt, etc.). When wearing a superman shirt, it's fun to pretend to save stuffed animals from nearly falling off the table, etc. This works really great if daddy or mommy has a matching kind of shirt (even a matching color).

Pretend to put your kid's clothes on yourself and find that they are not right... let your kid help you fix it.

Let your kid help plan out what to wear after bath ahead of time. Hang it in a special spot on a hanger where he can reach. (on a doorknob, etc.) Try in any way to empower your kid.

Make sure that he is dressing himself without any help -- if there are buttons on his clothes, get other clothes that don't have buttons.

Get new clothes with your son's help. Have him try them on in the store. New clothes are a great motivator.

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