The Mighty Logo

When Bathing Is an Issue for Your Child With Sensory Processing Disorder

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

My son has never been one for baths.

It was evident from the start.

When he was just a couple of weeks old, he was admitted to a children’s hospital. He was desperately ill, and no one knew why.

We were there for more than a month. At some point a nurse came in, took one look at him and said in total disgust, “You had better give him a bath. You can’t just let him be dirty like that.”

Shame and embarrassment flooded by body. I had been trying my best to use little washcloths to freshen him up, but I had no idea how to actually give him a bath in the hospital room.

I asked her how.

She looked at me like I had two heads, then pointed to sink and walked out.

As soon as she left, I started to sob.

Call it postpartum depression. Call it sheer exhaustion. Call it craving a bath of my own after living in that hospital room for weeks. Call it never having given an infant a bath in a sink and being terrified of doing it.

Call it reality hitting me – I am the mom. I have to figure this out. Good moms don’t have stinky babies.

Through tears, I got the water to a good temperature and dipped my child in.

To say he didn’t like it is an understatement.

The entire floor of the hospital heard his wails.

A different nurse ran in, thinking he was in serious medical distress. When she saw the scene, and my tears, her face softened.

She grabbed a blanket, expertly swaddled him, and led me over to the chair/bed thing that is standard for moms staying with their infants in hospital rooms.

She said, “Some babies need to feel safe when bathing. They need their bodies to be wrapped. Here is how I do it.”

She washed him carefully, keeping him covered, warm and swaddled tightly everywhere except for the small part she washed with plenty of Baby Magic and water.

Every towel, blanket and crib sheet was sopping wet when she was done.

But he was clean. And he had not cried once.

She smiled and said, “You can do it next time,” and walked away.

And I did.

And it worked. At least for the first few years or so.

And then, not so much.

As a toddler, he was fascinated by the water. As long as I filled the tub before he entered the bathroom (the noise bothered him even then), he was fine. But somewhere around 4 years old, bathing became a nightmare – for both of us.

The temperature changes. The feeling of the water on his skin. The bathroom lighting. Being naked.

All of it was uncomfortable for him at best. Painful at worst.

We tried bribes rewards with inconsistent results.

We tried allowing him to purchase any body products he could think of. Trip after trip to Lush, smelling all the bath bombs, shampoos and body washes – it helped us establish at least an irregular routine.

Then puberty hit.

And his need for showers increased just as his ability to tolerate one decreased.

Twelve years after that desperate hospital bath, I posted this on the Not The Former Things Facebook page, feeling desperate again for help.

“What are your best tips for helping kids with sensory sensitivities shower?”

The following is a list of recommendations from all the comments. Some are from moms like me, trying to figure it out. Some are from adults living, and living well, with sensory processing disorder.

1. Change to a “rain” shower head. It will help ease the sensory overload of the shower water “feeling like needles.”

2. Change to a “rain” shower head. This will cut down the noise of the water beating down considerably.

3. Take a bath instead.

4. Warm up the bathroom ahead of time to make the temperature changes less dramatic.

5. Install a handheld shower nozzle. This allows our children to have a sense of control.

6. Don’t worry so much about it. We have a cultural expectation that is very different from most places. Body spray and a quick wipe down will help.

7. Dry shampoo works wonders.

8. Dim the lights. Sometimes the lighting is half the sensory battle.

9. Set a schedule and stick to it. The more it becomes a standard expectation, the easier it will be for both of you.

10. Try different times of day. First thing in the morning or last thing at night can be the toughest times for our sensory systems.

11. Buy lots of baby wipes and allow him to use them instead.

12. Let it go. Many teenage boys fail to shower regularly. You have bigger fish to fry!

We are slowly working our way down this list. It’s a really good one.

I am so grateful for the help, and I am conscious of the fact that this list just doesn’t exist anywhere – except in the hearts and minds of those who “get it.”

This list, and so many more like it, are born out of real life.

Time and time again, I find the ones who are living it have the most practical suggestions, mixed with a ton of grace and lots of encouragement.

If you are like me, struggling with the feeling that you are all alone in the day-to-day, please let this list remind you that sometimes we just need to ask for help.

Sometimes we need to raise our hands and ask the question.

My son and I will figure this bathing thing out, of that I am certain.

And when we do, I’m just as sure there will be more questions to ask.

I am so grateful y’all are here to answer.

Follow this journey on Not the Former Things.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: October 15, 2015
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home