Around the time my daughter turned 1, she became adamantly opposed to taking a bath — she even got upset by water running when I filled the tub. Our former routine of singing and splashing dissolved into screaming and scratching as Lena desperately tried to get out. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to alleviate her anxiety. Then, after months of bathtime battles, Lena’s fear abruptly disappeared.
It’s normal for toddlers to develop all kinds of kooky anxieties around 12 to 15 months, mostly because that’s when they start walking, a major milestone that sets off a cascade of cognitive and emotional changes. “For the first time, a child can purposely move away from Mom, from safety, into new situations with a new vantage point, which is exciting as well as scary,” explains Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., creator of babyshrink.com. “It would be similar to suddenly being able to fly as an adult. It would be amazing — but freaky,” she says. To help you comfort your kid through this fear-prone time, we spoke to the experts for the best soothing strategies.
TODDLER FEAR: THE BATH
What’s Behind It: Your child may feel his equilibrium is off in the tub, and he’s worried he might slip — or get sucked down that mysterious drain. Plus, he’s separated from you by a big divider.
Overcome It Give him a bath in the kitchen sink for a while, as long as he can fit. Turn on the faucet and let your kid get comfortable splashing around as you wipe him down with a washcloth, suggests Dr. Wittenberg. Another technique: As your toddler looks on, run a bath and then start coloring the tub with bath crayons or chatting with a rubber ducky, giving him a funny voice. More often than not, your kid will want to get in and join the fun. You might also make the bath feel safer by hopping in with your child and waiting to drain the tub until later when he is out of the room. If none of these strategies work, cut back on baths — two to three a week should be plenty — and give your child lots of reassurance when he does test the waters.
TODDLER FEAR: LOUD NOISES
What’s Behind It As your kid begins to explore the world independently, she’ll want as much control over her environment as possible. So a loud noise that she can’t immediately identify or stop — like a clap of thunder or an automatic-flush toilet — can be startling.
Overcome It “Toddlers are just wise enough to know that there are dangers out there, but not which ones are worth worrying about,” says Ellen B. Braaten, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. “By labeling your child’s emotion and the noise, and then reassuring her that it’s not a cause for concern, you can take away some of her fear.” You might say, “I know you’re afraid of that sound, but it’s just the vacuum and it won’t hurt you.” If your little one is talking, give her the language to communicate her fears, says Joseph Campos, Ph.D., a psychologist who conducts infant and toddler research at the University of California-Berkley. So teach your little one to say “scared” when she’s fearful and she’ll be able to tell you what’s troubling her. When she’s calmer, revisit the source of the noise and let out an encouraging laugh. This will help your child connect your positive emotion with what she found so frightening, says Dr. Campos. And until the fear passes, do your best to save tasks like vacuuming or using the blender for when she is out of the room.