Bathing is a self-care skill that all children need to learn. It is not as simple as telling them to wash behind their ears and calling it a day, as water safety is a big issue. How do we teach our kids to bathe themselves? And once they have learned to wash themselves properly, at what point is it safe to stop supervised bathing?
First things first — safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that young children should not be left alone or in the care of another child while in the bathtub. Furthermore, bathtubs should be fully drained when not in use. Bathtubs can be a waterworks haven in a child’s eyes, and they can seriously hurt themselves if playing around in a slippery tub — drowning can occur in just inches of water. The faucet can be so tempting for little hands, and that water can get hot fast! Prohibit your little one from turning on the water until he can properly understand how to test and adjust the temperature. There are many cognitive and motor skills that children need to safely bathe on their own.
There is more to bathing than meets the eye. It is a precise combination of gross motor skills (like getting in and out of the tub, rinsing off soap and towel drying), fine motor skills (such as holding slippery soap, opening the shampoo bottle and massaging it into the whole head) and sensory processing skills (determining proper water temperature and tolerating water in their face/eyes). There are a lot of steps, and it is a lot for your child to comprehend. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning of Vanderbilt University advises that parents provide children with clear and simple instructions with positive and specific encouragement when teaching self-care skills. Katie Kirkpatrick explained that her 8- and 9-year-old daughters have both been bathing independently for a few years. Kirkpatrick began describing step by step what she was doing (covering their eyes to prevent water from getting in and tipping their heads back so the water goes down their backs) once they could understand what she was saying. “The whole thing is a slow process of getting them used to the stages — first you put the soap here, then the water goes here,” she said. “Anything you teach them that they can accomplish on their own gives them life skills, confidence and independence.” Once they got a hang of the process, Kirkpatrick said she let her girls bathe themselves, although she would periodically check on them and go through the checklist to ensure they did not miss any steps.
The age that you can stop supervised bathing can begin depends heavily on each child’s abilities and maturity. A 2007 survey published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine stated the average age that caregivers believe children can bathe without an adult present is roughly 6 1/2. According to an article by Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, child/parent psychologist and specialist in childrearing and child development, the typical age children begin washing themselves is 4 and they typically master the skill by 6. Again, this varies from child to child. Parents should keep track of their child’s development and consult their pediatrician to determine when it is appropriate for their child to start bathing unsupervised.
Checklist for Soaping up Safely
- Adjust your water heater so the water cannot get hotter than 120 F.
- Set the water temperature for your child and show him to always start with cold first and make the water warmer as needed.
- Keep his bathing needs within his reach (nothing on shelves or where they need to climb)
- Place a towel within easy reach of the bathtub.
- Install a shower mat in the tub and a non-slip mat outside to avoid falls.
- Keep razors, medications and toiletries out of sight.
- Put bath products in distinct bottles or label them so your child does not confuse the soap with the shampoo.
- Electric appliances should always be kept away from the tub and any other water source.