How to Detangle (& Prevent) Matted Hair on Kids

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Matted hair and ratty toddler tangles…oh my. My best tips for detangling toddler hair without tears, and preventing matted hair from happening in the first place. Whether you’re dealing with curly hair or straight, girl hair or boy, toddler hair care doesn’t have to be so darn hard.

I remember being a little girl, screaming as my parents brushed my long ratty hair at day’s end.

They were as careful as they could be. But sometimes they had no choice but to yank through the knots and matted hair clumps without mercy.

When I think back, it’s a bit of a surprise I still have thick curly hair left on my head.

The experience of having ratty hair tangles during my own childhood left me vow I’d never subject my own daughter to the same.

Until I actually had a daughter.

Now, I’m deep into the “parenting a toddler” years. And I know first hand that toddler hair care is really difficult.

Over the course of a day, my kid’s wild, loose curls degenerate into a tangled, matted hair mess. We brush it in the evening, but the next morning she wakes up with …. more tangled ratty hair.

Some days, it feels never ending.

The back of a toddler's head shows wild and tangled toddler hair
Actual footage of my child’s hair one morning

Tangled Hair and Toddlers

Young kids’ fine hair has a tendency to tangle quickly. Part of this comes down to their finer-than-adult hair texture.

But lots of it comes down to their daily activities, and their opinions and what they will and will not tolerate.

My kid rolls around while playing and sleeping, and has no qualms about wiping sticky peanut butter or yogurt hands in her hair.

Just by living her best life, the strands clump together and create a hairdo worthy of Bigfoot at times.

And, of course, she adamantly resists us brushing and styling it most of the time. Which makes each knot even more stubborn.

Over time, I’ve picked up some tricks to alleviate and make the detangling process as easy and pain free as possible for my toddler…and myself.

If you’re dealing with a toddler tangled hair mess, keep reading for my best tips for how to deal and get through even the worst tangle and most severe knot.

10 Tips to Detangle Matted Hair on Your Toddler (without Screaming, Tears, etc.)!

Before getting into my top tips to deal with your preschooler’s matted hair, it’s worth being realistic about expectations.

Are you going to transform your toddler’s tangled hair into Rapunzel-esque luscious locks?

Probably not.

But I hope these hacks will help you both deal with the traumas of trying to comb through your toddler’s matted hair. And make each new knot somewhat tolerable to wash, brush and deal with on a day-to-day basis, going forward.

Whether you’re working with straight hair or curls, blonde hair or brunette, boy hair or girl hair, these tips should make your toddler’s worst tangled hair a bit easier to comb and style.

#1 – Brush your Kid’s Hair Regularly

This should seem obvious, but you need to brush your child’s hair regularly.

We’ve found twice a day, once in the morning and once before bedtime, is manageable, although some situations require a bit more.

Whether they have short or long hair, curly or straight, regular brushing stops tangled and matted hair from forming in the first place.

Morning in our house is particularly tricky. Our toddler often wakes up somewhat grumpy, with wild bed head, and we’re usually in a hurry to start the day and get out the door.

Because of all of this, we mostly try to get a cursory brush in during mornings. It doesn’t necessarily detangle the big tangles that formed over night, but it prevents new ones from starting and makes her look presentable.

Then at night, we detangle, usually in combo with our bath routine and the help of conditioners and detangler spray.

Toddler tangled hair is covered in conditioner in the bath, view of back of toddler's wet hair in the bath

Sometimes, you may need to brush a bit more during the day. If your child has had a particularly wild session at soft-play or preschool, for example, it’s worth trying to get a quick brush in to untangle the strands and stop bigger tangles from forming.

#2 – Use the Right Kind of Hair Brush

There are so many types of hairbrushes, it’s easy to get confused figuring out which to use on your child’s hair.

Adult hair brushes are designed for different purposes: adding volume, for curly locks, for detangling, etc.

For your kids, just getting the knots out is enough.

Use a brush that’s specifically suited to your child’s hair, and don’t expect to be able to re-purpose your adult styling brushes for your kiddo.

We have a few different combs and brushes that we use, depending on the situation.

In the morning, we use a horsehair brush. It gets at lightly tangled spots, and smooths hair so it’s a bit more presentable.

In the bath and right after, we’ll use a combo of a wide tooth comb and something similar to the Tangle Teezer brushes on wet hair. We find the wide comb and the brush work well when she has conditioner in her hair, but we need to alternate between both to get tangled vs “normal” sections properly brushed out.

#3 – Brush Hair From The Tips To Roots

When brushing fine matted hair, you need a technique that won’t hurt your child. Start at the ends of the hair, and focus on a small section at a time. Gently brush through each small section, working your way up towards the crown.

If you try and run a hairbrush directly through from root to tip on matted hair, you’ll just end up with a screaming toddler, a tangled hairbrush, and all pretences of having fun out the window.

When working on a particularly knotted and tangled section, use one hand to support the hair at the mid point, so that it won’t pull directly on their scalp, and the other hand to brush the ends. I usually do this in the bath, or right after when she’s having wind down time and is engrossed in a quiet activity.

Work on small sections to untangle each section at a time, until the hair is manageable enough that you can brush through completely.

#4 – Distraction is Better Than Screams

I’m all about moderation. While some families have hard and fast no TV/no technology rules, we are not that family.

My greatest successes in distracting my daughter from matted hair detangling are during bath time, when she’s painting or playing with soap dough, bath toys, or bubbles, or after, when she watches Peppa on a tablet.

Allowing your little one to watch a cartoon while you navigate tangled sections works, and makes it a bit more fun for everyone.

Without a distraction, your child might be more restless, causing them to wriggle and move around. This can lead to unexpected pulls and ouchies if they can’t keep their head still. And can get a bit unsafe if they get too wild. If you’re worried, make sure you have a faucet cover to prevent bigger bumps, and follow all the standard bathroom safety precautions!

Figure out a distraction that works for your family, and work on the most tangled bits of hair then.

#4 – Brush Hair Before Bath Time

A lot of tangled hair issues come from washing your child’s hair.

And toddler hair care is actually a lot easier if you start with mostly tangle free hair, before you wash.

This is especially true of children with curly hair, which is more prone to tangles and mats than straight hair.

If this seems impossible, don’t be afraid to use a bit of coconut oil on their hair before washing. Put a tiny bit on your fingers, and then work it into the tangled spots, letting it sit for a minute or two before combing. It will help with the worst tangles, and the shampoo will take care of any greasiness.

#5 – Refine your Hair Washing Technique

Children’s hair doesn’t have as many natural oils as an adult hair does. This means your toddler hair washing technique doesn’t need to be as aggressive as with adult hair.

Start with the right hair products for your little one. We like using natural, non toxic shampoos and conditioners with no tears formulas.

Then, use the right amount. You only need a small dollop of shampoo, about the size of a nickel.

Rub the shampoo between your damp hands to begin, and gently move your hands across your kiddo’s scalp. Don’t worry about washing the entire length of their hair, unless there are obvious food/mud/paint/etc clumps in it. Just focus on the roots. When you wash it out, the shampoo will naturally fall along the strands, giving a gentle wash that doesn’t cause more tangles.

Shampoo alone clean hair, but conditioner helps prevent tangles from forming, and reduces breakage as you comb. Use a conditioner on the ends of the hair only, not on the scalp, and spread it through the length of their hair with your fingers or a wide tooth comb.

We do all this at the start of bath time, so our daughter can play in the bath while the conditioner works its magic. I often manage to get some combing in while she plays and is distracted, while the conditioner is still in. Just make sure the bath water temperature is comfortable as time goes on, and use a thermometer if you’re concerned it’s getting too cool for comfort.

Rinse conditioner with fresh water before leaving the tub.

#6 – No Towel Drying for Fine Hair

Once out of the bath, it’s tempting to rub your kid’s wet hair with a towel to remove moisture, and to get it to dry quicker.

This is a no-no for toddler hair that mats and tangles easily (and even more of a no on curly hair!). The rubbing process can cause fine hair to knot and tangle more.

Instead, first comb through wet hair using a wide tooth comb and a detangling spray. If you need to use a towel to remove excess moisture, take small sections of hair and squeeze directly onto the towel to remove the water. Don’t rub the hair in either direction with a towel.

To fully dry toddler hair that is prone to being matted, use a hairdryer on a cool, low setting and brush through hair as you dry. I’ve managed to blow dry my 3-year-old’s hair exactly once. Mostly, we just let it air dry, since preschooler’s aren’t known for their patience.

#7 – Use Detangling Spray for Toddler Hair

A kids hair detangler spray is a great addition for managing unruly hair. It helps loosen tight knots to make it easier to comb through.

In our house, we use both conditioner and detangler, and call the conditioner the magic no owie cream, and detangling spray the magic no owie spray.

While detangling spray is good, I find it works best after also using conditioner. And it’s not a total fix. You still have to be careful and gentle as you undo any tangles you come across. The spray just makes it easier.

We’ve used both the Honest Co and the Attitude detangling spray, and both have worked well for us.

You can also make your own detangling spray to help detangle matted hair in a pinch. In a spray bottle, mix one part no tears conditioner with 5 parts water, shake, and hey presto, you’re ready to go! You can also add a little natural coconut oil to the mixture too for fragrance and moisture.

#8 – Trim the Ends

Regularly trimming the tips of fine toddler hair helps to prevent tangles from forming.

This is especially true with curly hair, which is easier to trim when wet, just after you’ve washed it.

Hair that’s a little shorter is much better than long matted hair! It will help hair stay healthy too, with fewer split ends.

#9 – Tame Long Hair with Cute Hairstyles

Hair styles are pretty hit or miss in our house. While we are pretty good at the basics of toddler hair care (washing, detangling, brushing), getting her hair into a braid, pigtails, or a pony tail really depends on the day.

Back of a toddler's hair with a braid to manage and prevent matted hair and toddler tangled hair

However, if you can style your toddler’s hair, do it. And especially try to go for styles that help prevent tangles from forming in the first place.

A braid or two is best for knot prevention, especially for little ones who are very active. The problem with a braid is that it does take longer to do than other hairstyles. So if you really can’t get your kids to sit for a longer time, stick to simple styles.

A ponytail will help keep hair under control, or if hair is still a little short, split it into two ponytails on either side of the head, or a top pony that feeds into a low pony. Be aware, some kids (aka: my kid) really hate having a mid-head pony when it comes time to get into the car seat, so high, low, or side may work better.

I also love fun clips, and fortunately my daughter tolerates clips on most days. We use clips for the curly and wispy baby hairs that frame her face.

Also worth noting: avoid finishing products like you would usually use on your own hair, such as hairspray or gels. They’ll just create more knots that can be even more difficult to untangle. Some products may also be too severe for your little one’s gentle skin and lungs.

#10 – Sleep on Satin Pillowcases (Especially for Curly Hair!)

Our final tip for really extreme bedhead cases, or for wild natural curls, is to invest in a silk or satin pillowcase for your toddler to sleep on.

A satin slip helps prevent matted hair from forming, and will not pull as they twist and turn in the night.

Final Thoughts on How to Detangle Matted Hair

I hope this article has helped, and you’ve picked up some techniques to detangle matted hair on your toddler with ease, and without the screaming and tantrums that hair brushing can invoke.

Feel free to share this article with other parents and carers of children you know who have kids with unruly hair, too.

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