Washing Toddler Hair: A Parent Survival Guide

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My best tips for washing toddler hair. How to wash toddlers hair without getting water in eyes and without tears! 21 toddler hair wash tips. If you find yourself wondering how to clean my toddler’s hair without crying, this article is for you!

Washing toddler hair is well and truly one of the worst parenting tasks. (See also: brushing toddler hair, brushing toddler teeth, and dealing with potty training resistance).

Our daughter’s hair seems to be constantly filthy. Some days, it feels like all I do is wipe apple sauce, pasta sauce, yogurt, paint, and mud out of her hair with a wet wash cloth.

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

Which brings me to washing your toddler’s hair.

Many Toddlers Dislike Having Their Hair Washed

Generally speaking, my daughter puts up a huge battle before every wash. She employs her entire arsenal of avoidance techniques to delay or avoid a hair wash!

While we can usually get her into the bathtub with promises of bath paint and bubble bath, it’s an ordeal.

You don’t have to wash your toddler’s hair during every bath time. However, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get it done.

Which can make bath time stressful for you and your child.

Knowing something will upset my daughter, and that I’ll face a battle, is never a fun feeling!

7 Reasons Many Toddlers Fight Washing Hair (& Tips to Deal with it)

In my experience, toddlers can be rather unreliable communicators. When my daughter’s upset or doesn’t want to do something, it takes a lot of coaxing and consoling to find out why. If we ever get an answer.

The lack of why is one of the reasons parenting a toddler can be so frustrating. It involves a lot of guessing and detective work.

And the same applies when it comes to figuring out how to wash your toddler’s hair…without screaming.

If your toddler dislikes it when you wash their hair, chances are they’re sure of one thing. They hate getting their hair washed.

They might not know the why of it. Or they know, but they can’t express why.

As a parent, it’s your job to help identify and solve the problem for your little one.

And trust me on this one: taking a bit of time to do so can make washing their hair less painful for everyone involved.

Below, you’ll find some of the most common reasons your child might battle getting their hair washed. I’ve also shared tips to help make the whole process more fun. Less stress and fewer tears is always a good thing!

I hope it helps.

They Hate the Shampoo/Conditioner Smell

A selection of fragrance free and lightly fragranced bath products for kids on the edge of a bathtub in an article about washing toddlers hair without tears

Adults have scent preferences, so there’s no reason to expect toddlers wouldn’t too.

Some kids shampoo, conditioner, and bath products have strong, cloying scents.

It’s entirely possible your toddler dislikes these scents. But it’s also possible they cause a physical reaction. Some people get a stuffy nose or headache from fragrance. Others are generally sensitive to smell sensory inputs.

In our house, we try to use products that are lightly scented or fragrance free.

This is an easy choice for us, because I happen to dislike strong scents. But it also minimizes our exposure to phthalates, and reduces the chances of reacting to a scent.

If your child cries when it comes time to wash their hair, try switching to fragrance free.

You could also let them choose from different shampoos at the store to find a scent they prefer.

They Got Shampoo in their Eyes & Still Remember the Sting

If, during a past hair wash, your child experienced the sting of shampoo in their eyes, they might associate washing hair with owies in their eyes. And of course they’ll have a bit of fear around the whole process!

If you have an older toddler, you can usually ask them whether something is owie or whether it bothers them.

For younger kids and those without language skills, you might have to do a bit more work. Show them getting their hair washed doesn’t have to hurt and calm the fear.

In situations like these, I like to use the “magic bottle” technique. Start by buying a new shampoo they’ve never used before (make sure it’s a no tears formula!). Make a big deal about the new shampoo being “magic no owie” shampoo. And then do your best to string together a few hair washes that don’t have any owies.

I’ve used this technique when we buy new detangler or conditioner. I explain it’s magic helping cream/spray so there are no owie tangles during brushing.

You might also need to adjust how you wash. Add accessories to prevent water or shampoo from getting in their face and give them a bit more control.

A sun visor can serve as a makeshift toddler hair washing visor. You can also buy a special hair wash shield for toddlers if you don’t have a visor hanging around to repurpose.

If that’s not enough, swimming goggles can help protect their eyes.

Wearing goggles in the bath is also a bit silly. It can transform washing their hair into something that’s a bit of weird fun.

They Hate Being Tipped Back

Being tipped back is a common reason kids don’t like hair washing.

If you’ve ever done a trust fall, you might relate. The feeling of tipping back, when you’re not in control and can’t see how far back you’ll go, is indeed unsettling.

Be on the look out for this with any child. But be especially alert for children with inner ear issues or sensory issues. If your child dislikes swinging, climbing, spinning, rocking, chances are they’ll dislike tipping, too.

The good news is there are plenty of workarounds for kids who don’t like to tip their head back.

Look Up, Sprinkle Sprinkle Method

This low tech, simple solution is what we do in our house. We tell our daughter to look up at the ceiling, and use stacking cups with holes in the bottom to rinse (the cups linked are the same ones we have). The cups slow the water flow so it’s not too much at once, and is never an overwhelming gush.

We’ve also used a kitchen strainer, which essentially makes a temporary rain shower. The benefit of this method is it’s a silly thing to use for hair washing, and cuts some of the tension.

Prior to trying this, tipped our daughter back and used a toddler hair rinser (we tried the Moby Whale, to match our faucet cover). But this method was always stressful, and she fought us on it.

A moby toddler hair rinser cup and two cups with holes in the bottom on a bathtub ledge to illustrate different rinsing techniques when washing toddler hair

If your child won’t look up, get creative.

Put wall decals on the ceiling. Or glow in the dark stars. Or use a kids ceiling projector to project shapes or scenes onto the ceiling during rinsing.

Washing Toddler Hair in Sink

Washing toddler hair in the kitchen sink gives you a few more positions to try. This is especially so if you use something like the shampoo buddy.

Try having them sit in a chair, and lean their head back into a shampoo buddy. This will give more physical support than leaning back in the bathtub.

Alternatively, they can lie flat on their back on the kitchen counter. With the Shampoo Buddy attached, their head can overhang into the sink for washing.

Toddler Hair Washing Chair 

If the sink method doesn’t work for you, you can try using a toddler hair washing chair.

It looks a bit like a mini sun lounger, which lets them feel supported when tipped back. They simply lie back in the “lounger” with their head overhanging. You can then wash your child’s hair without any scary sensation related to tipping back.

Washing Toddler Hair in Shower

Finally, you can get them out of the bath tub and into the shower.

Make sure you have a non-slip mat for them to sit on, or a sturdy, low chair that won’t slip. You’ll also need a removable head that extends down far enough.

Some towels for them to hold to their face, and possibly a toddler hair washing shield can also help.

If possible, switch to the lowest water flow. It will take longer, but will give you more control over how much water goes near their face.

They Hate The Scrubbing Sensation on their Scalp

Lots of kids have touch and pressure sensitivities and preferences. Your child might prefer either firm or light pressure when you scrub their scalp.

If this is the case, you can always ask them, or try different levels of pressure before bath time.

Pretend scrub their head with two different pressures, and ask them which is better.

They Hate Getting Water on their Face

This is one of my daughter’s issues. Whenever we try the “get it over quickly dumping water rinse,” she screams until she’s managed to dry her face.

If this is the case, some of the strategies above and below should help.

A shampoo rinse cap or hair washing chair can get them in the right position to not get water on their face. Using something to slow the flow of water will make it less uncomfortable and scary. For this, stacking cups with holes, a kitchen strainer, or a small watering can work well (most kids gardening sets have small ones).

Over time, they’ll also learn to hold their breath, which helps.

They Hate The Sound of the Water

Many toddlers are sensitive to sound, and may hate the sound of the rushing water

If this is the case, reduce the gushing sound by reducing the flow of water during rinsing.

Alternatively, you can block out the sound with kids swim ear plugs.

They’re Exerting Control

At some point, kids want to independence and say over what happens when. Many toddlers also don’t like to be surprised, preferring routine and predictability.

For this, we set Siri on our Apple Watch or iPhone (but any timer will do). We set a timer for 2 minutes before bath time, and get our daughter to agree that when the timer goes, it’s bath time.

You can extend this for when you’re in the bath, too. Set a timer when it’s time for shampoo. Set a timer for rinsing. You get the idea.

You can also give them a mirror to hold so they can see what’s happening. Suction cup mirrors meant for shaving work great, too. Install it at your little one’s eye height, or even a few of them.

Another option is to get your toddler to help. Give them a wet washcloth to wipe shampoo away from their hairline. Or teach them how to rinse, while looking in the mirror.

Other Tips to Make Hair Washing it More Fun and Less Stressful

Toddler hair washing can be pretty stressful. If you need some additional tips and help, keep reading for 10 more ideas.

Ask Them: Is it Owie or Do You Just Not Like It?

My two year old can usually tell me whether she doesn’t like something because it hurts, or because she just doesn’t like it.

If your toddler identifies something as owie, probe a bit further to find out where. Shampoo in eyes can be fixed by ensuring you’re using no tear shampoo, technique, and positioning, for example.

If it’s bothersome, however, that’s helpful to know, too. You can then employ different strategies to make it a bit more tolerable.

When in doubt, ask your toddler how you can make it better for them. They might surprise you with their own ideas!

Make it Fun

Do your best to make bath time fun with plenty of bath toys they can use during washing and rinsing.

We always have random loose parts to play with in the bath. Slotted kitchen spoons, measuring cups, spray bottles, and turkey basters work well.

loose toys and kitchen utensils in a bathtub empty of water

We also make use of bubble bath and bath paint frequently!

Make Sure They’re Comfortable

Ensure the water temperature is appropriate, and use a thermometer to get it right.

Water should be warm, not hot.

Young kids have sensitive skin, and anything hotter than 95 to 102 degrees F will likely be uncomfortable.

Social Stories, Pretend Play and a Game

My daughter loves using social stories, pretend play, and games when she is gearing up for a big change or transition.

Since we’re currently working on potty training, we read lots of potty books. And she’ll often play with her toys by having them go to the potty.

Give your child a doll and have them wash the doll’s hair while you wash theirs. Being engaged in pretend play and engrossed in a task can help them calm down. Plus, they can take part in the process, and make it more like a game.

Don’t Wash Too Often

If hair washing stresses your kiddo out, there’s no reason to do it all the time.

Our daughter enjoys bathtime every second day or so, but we only wash her hair once a week or twice a week.

On days we don’t need to wash her hair, we tell her it’s a bath with no hair washing, so she doesn’t worry.

We also skip hair washing on special baths, such as an oatmeal soak for itchy skin.

Having lots of baths without hair washing will prevent kids from resisting all bath times!

Is it a Sensory Processing Disorder?

If these strategies down’t work, or you’re concerned your child’s hair wash resistance is related to a sensory processing disorder, talk to your paediatrician.

Final Thoughts About How to Wash Your Toddler’s Hair

I hope you found this helpful. And I hope these tips make tub time and the whole process of washing toddler hair a bit more fun, easier for your child or children, and with fewer tears.

If you know a parent or caregiver who’s struggling with their toddler’s hair, I hope you’ll share this article with them!

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