My toddler hates getting his hair washed

child-bathQ. My son was three last month and he refuses to have his hair washed. He will happily have a bath and loves playing in the water, but once I try to wash his hair he will stand up and scramble to get out of the bath. Usually, I give up trying but his hair becomes so matted that occasionally I force the issue and this ends up in a mess, with his hair half-done and him very upset. I don’t like doing this at all. Is there any way that I can help him to accept or even like having his hair washed?

A. The first thing to do is to take a step back from the problem and to try to understand what it is he does not like about having his hair washed. For most young children, they don’t like the sensation of water going in their eyes – which triggers a reflex fear of being submerged. For others, the shampoo can irritate their eyes, though this can be avoided by using a no-tears baby shampoo.

Teach him
The important thing is to try to explain to your son about the purpose of hair washing and then to coach him in doing it in a way that does not upset him and which he is in control of, for example, by holding his head back and closing his eyes so the water keeps well away from his face. Given his age it can be helpful to explain this using a picture book or by re-enacting it with some dolls or figures. For example, using a doll, you could tell the story of a dashing prince with long shiny hair that had become dirty and needed cleaning. You could show him how to wash the doll’s hair and enact the doll holding his head back to make sure the water stays away from his face. If he has an older sister or brother, you can show this happening “live” when you wash their hair. The goal is to help him feel reassured and in control when you wash his hair.

Fun distraction
In addition, once you start to wash his hair, you can employ some fun distractions, whether you give him a special toy or show him how his soapy hair can be turned into spikes or shaped like a shark’s fin. When you pour the water to rinse, you can give him a special face cloth to cover his face or ask him to watch a special rocket in the sky as he holds his head up. You could make a game of counting down or singing during the time he closes his eyes. Make sure to keep the hair washing quick and followed up with play time in the bath so he gets a nice reward.

Alternatively, you could approach the hair-washing as a gradual step-by-step process. Using a jug and sponge, you could first start with just washing the bottom part of his hair, where there is no chance of water going into his eyes. If he relaxes about this and you get his co-operation, you can praise and encourage him before trying to move up to wash the crown of his head. Using a jug, you may have to accept having only “partially” washed hair the first few times you do this.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.