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Teach Your Preschooler the Correct Way to Bathe Herself
PHOTO BY hanapon1002/iStock
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  • Bathing your child can either be fun or a chore, depending on his temperament, but there will come a time when he has to learn to do it himself. “It’s important to teach children to bathe independently so that they gain self-confidence and an increased sense of responsibility,” says Rebecca de Guzman, an occupational therapist at the Child Development Enrichment Center in ManilaMed, Manila. Self-bathing is also a good opportunity to teach kids about body safety, and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate touching.

    When to start
    Between the ages of three and five, children will start to participate in bathing, whether it’s just using the tabo to pour water onto their chest, or rubbing their soapy hands together. As they get older, they will become more independent. Since kids learn best through imitation, parents can encourage self-bathing by taking showers together with them.

    Another way to introduce the topic is through play. “Have them ‘bathe’ their dolls and action figures, the same way that the parent would bathe the child,” suggests De Guzman. “Show them how to do it and coach them through the steps. Give verbal cues like ‘Now we will scrub our arms, later the legs.’ This increases the familiarity of the actions, and the corresponding sequence of steps,” she adds. 

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    Steps to self-bathing
    Whether you’re using the shower or a pail and tabo, De Guzman suggests this bathing sequence: 

    Gather the bathing items.
    The soap, shampoo, and towel should be easily accessible for the child. Parents may opt to give the child his own basket for these items, so that he can bring them into the shower area and pack away afterwards with ease. 


    Remove clothes.
    You can even make a game out of where he will put his used clothes (i.e. “Shoot the shorts into the basket!”)

    Step into the bathing area.
    Teach him to mind the threshold (raised area that separates the bathing area from the rest of the bathroom). 

    Wet self.
    Teach the child to turn on the faucet to fill the pail. If using a water heater, instruct the child to ask you to do it for them. Teach him to check the temperature if it’s “just right” before pouring it on himself or stepping under the shower spray. If using a tabo, tell the child not to completely fill the cup to make sure he can lift it on his own. It would be helpful to specify how many cups to pour onto himself, and to pour on both the front and back of his body. Emphasise to the child that it’s bathing time, not playing time, so he should direct the water towards himself, and not use it to knock things over, or flood the floor. Once adequately wet, teach him to turn off the water.

    Apply shampoo onto hair and lather.
    Tell the child how much shampoo he should use by showing him on his palm. Useful cues would be to say “It’s a little bit only, like this” or to tell him it’s the size of a coin. If he does not have the motor skills to efficiently grasp and squeeze the correct amount, transfer the shampoo into a pump bottle. If the pump dispenses too much, wrap a rubber band around the base of the pump to serve as a stopper which will cut the dispensed amount in half. Specify a time frame to lather the shampoo (“Rub your hair for 10 counts!”), and tell the child to stay away from the eyes to avoid stinging.

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    Put soap on body and scrub.
    Teach a top-down approach to make sure the child doesn't forget a body part. Bring in a mirror the first few times, to show him where and how much they've soaped. Remind them to wash behind the ears! Like with the hair and wetting the body, try to specify how long he should spend on a body part (“Rub your arm five times!”)

    Again, do not fill the cup to the brim. Remind your child that the “bubbles” need to be “all gone,” and it’s once again helpful to specify an estimated number of cups to pour on himself (aside from checking for remaining suds).

    Dry self with towel.
    The towel should be large enough to wrap around the body, but not too big that the child would have a hard time moving it around. Like in soaping the body, he can go top-down in patting himself dry to make it easier to remember how to do it. 

    Initially, you can teach the child by guiding his hands in performing the motions. After a few times, let go and talk the child through the steps (“Time for soaping the feet”), and watch over the child. Give immediate and child-friendly feedback (“That was only four times, we need to scrub five times remember?”) and let your child know when they’ve done a good job.

    Later on, you can opt to step back and just provide supervision in the bathing area. Call out reminders (“Done with the hair? What’s next?”), or just provide assistance during the harder parts. Eventually just check on your child when he says he’s done.

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    For those with daughters
    De Guzman suggests that parents teach their girls to wash their private parts by, first, using dolls, and then later by guiding the child’s hand in washing. Wet the area, lather mild soap in her hands, and then perform the rubbing motions. Supervise the child while washing and provide cues if necessary (“Did you do it front to back?” “Did you rinse properly?”)

    Safety reminders
    De Guzman says you will know you can leave your child alone in the bathroom if he can bathe himself safely (i.e. he doesn’t lose balance when the bends over, he does not play), and efficiently (i.e. he adequately scrubs, lathers and dries himself, and finishes within the expected time). Just make sure you or any responsible adult is within hearing distance so that you can easily go to him if he calls for assistance. 

    Also, make sure your bathroom is geared for safety, i.e. the tiles have non-slip mats, or the child can reach for the shampoo/soap/knobs/towel without having to tiptoe or go on a step stool. Adults should also be responsible for heater controls until the child is older and can be trusted to gauge temperature safely and correctly.

    “Self-bathing should be a fun learning experience,” De Guzman says. “It’s a gradual process, so don’t expect your child to do it perfectly right away; rather, focus on teaching them how to do it safely and well. Before you know it, he’ll be bathing on his own.”

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