In. Out. Shake it all about.

Man versus bath time - the evolution of washing our children.

First, a little jazz on the radio – for some smooth, tuneful tranquillity.

Next, a portable heater – to make things… extra cosy.

A lamp – for softer, soothing illumination.

Fill the bath with water.  Mmm, nice and warm.

And then everything is perfect.  I turn to Emma, beckoning…

“Have you brought the duck?”

All that trouble for Alex’s first bath at home.  Hard to believe now.

We wanted to get it right.  It all felt right.  We set the baby bath on the dining table and adjusted the atmosphere according to research and instinct.  Music and heating.  Low-level lighting.  Baby bath thermometer.

In the shape of a duck.

We prepared the subject and lowered her carefully into the water.  Afterwards we lifted her out and slowly, tenderly, patted her dry with the softest new towel.

Two years later, veteran parents with a newborn son to freshen up, we found ourselves in the same room, same bath – but on the floor, not the table.  No music.  No heater.  No soft lighting.

Dunk.  Scrub.  Rinse.  Dry.  “Chuck a nappy on this one, love, he’s done.”

We’d learned a thing or two.  Babies need cleaning, not spa treatment.

As it happens, today is bath day.  My turn.  Emma’s in the garden.  Alex is downstairs.  Adam’s in their bedroom.

I’m in the bathroom.  Procrastinating.

When our children were born, we bathed them once every three days.  Twice a week.  Newborns don’t do very much – keep both ends clean and the rest remains acceptable.

We shared the responsibility, taking it in turns.  I was on duty every six days.

When Alex was six months we began to bathe her more regularly.  She was moving around.  Less likely to stay clean.  Emma argued for every day, but I negotiated us down to every other.  Yes, Alex was more active, but not that much…

…and maybe I wasn’t keen to increase my share from once a week to seven days a fortnight.

When Adam arrived, the schedule was well embedded.  It made sense to bathe them on the same day, every other day.  That’s what we’ve done ever since.

But not at the same time – I like to make things easier, not the opposite.

Anyway, first I have to clear some space in the bathroom.

In the beginning, we bathed them in the kitchen.  Our bathroom is narrow, so for more room during these introductory sessions we opted for downstairs.

But afterwards there’s a huge tub of water to dispose of.  How confident are you that you can get it to the sink, toilet or garden without spilling some or – the horror – dropping the whole thing?  It didn’t take long to realise that the most convenient place for the baby bath was in the bath.  Cramped, yes, but so much easier for clearing up.

And closer to everything else you need.

Yes, right, what do I need?  First: clean the bath…

Before Alex was born, my brother and sister-in-law gave us their baby bath.

I accepted their offer without hesitation or consideration of alternatives.  Yes, it was free, but its design and features appealed to me: it folded flat – easier to store; it had a plug – easier to drain; it was lightweight – easier to carry–

                (Not when full of water, though, on account of all that folding flexibility.)

–and it was a good size – I hoped the children wouldn’t outgrow it quickly.

I could also see future potential.  As a camping sink, for example…

They donated their fabric bath support as well, which proved invaluable in keeping our infant bathers comfortably propped up while we washed them.

Alex and Adam outgrew them both when then were about three months old.

For Adam, we simply transferred him to the main bath, which we were already using for Alex.  Two years earlier, though, we were not as confident about casting our infant adrift in the open vastness of the bathtub. 

We didn’t want to buy a bigger baby bath, if we could find one – we talked about using a large storage box for a while – but Alex was still a baby.  Could not yet sit.  We felt uncomfortable doing then what came so easily two years later.

So instead we joined her in the bath.  Whoever’s turn, on went his or her swimming costume and into the bath with Alex they climbed.  We washed her cradled on our laps in the water.  More nervous than before about any call of nature she might suddenly receive.

Today, they’re both comfortable using the main bath, while we kneel on the floor beside them.

Now, I’m always happy to use the bath without cleaning it – unless encrusted with used Lush products – but we’ve always wiped it over before bathing the children.

And here comes Adam, offering to help me.  After we’ve wiped it down and rinsed it off – and I’ve rinsed it again with the shower, causing Adam to run away yelling that he doesn’t want a shower – it’s time to run the bath.

With plug closed and water pouring, I grab the bath salts and pour in a good measure.

We added nothing to our newborn baths, as is best practice.  After two months, I was allowed to add specially formulated bubble bath.  A bath without bubbles is not a bath, as far as I’m concerned, and I was convinced that mountains of froth could only make bath time a more positive experience for everyone involved.

Once able to talk, both requested an end to bubbles.

Disappointing, but with substantial silver lining: solid accidents can lurk long undetected beneath a surface thick with bubbles.  Waiting to wreak havoc.  Like a moray eel.  Or a shoal of piranhas.

For a while we simply added a squirt of shower gel, but recently Emma introduced bath salts, with which the children seem content, and no less clean.

But I’ll stick to my bubbles, thank you very much.

While the bath is running, I stalk our upper floor, hunting everything I need.

A flannel…

I detest cotton wool.  It’s fiddly and its texture sets my teeth on edge.  Unfortunately, cotton wool was imposed upon us as the most appropriate implement for cleaning baby.  Slaves to instruction, we bought huge bags of cotton wool balls.

I’d kneel beside the bath, a dry pile on one side, a mound of drowned, spent ones on the other, and a few escapees floating in the bath.  One at a time I plucked them from the dry pile and, pinched between thumb and forefinger, wiped each one around the baby.  Trying not to lose it.  Ignoring how it felt and the straggly tail of cotton wool that dragged along behind the sodden lumps.  When finished, I squeezed it dry and jammed it onto the spent pile.

I was not sad to say goodbye to cotton wool when Alex was two months.  The time had come for something simpler, and we turned to natural sponge: marvelling at how it dried into a fossilized lump after use, then returned to its squidgy state back in the water; enjoying a very middle-class frisson of satisfaction that we were using natural sponge.

But natural sponge is more expensive than synthetic sponge, and less resilient, tending to disintegrate sooner than one might like.  They also lost their softness over time, becoming rough and scratchy.

And so, I’m afraid, we surrendered to cheaper, synthetic convenience.

We introduced flannels alongside sponges, using them for faces while sponges took care of everywhere else.  Last year, Emma said, “Let’s just use flannels for everything,” and it worked just fine.  It’s cheaper than buying sponges all the time, and you can give flannels a good laundering in between baths.  Unlike sponges, which need to be replaced or sterilised every few weeks.

On the downside, it’s critical that you keep them soft and fluffy.  Children do not enjoy robust exfoliation.

…a towel…

Towel drying babies is easy.  Lift them from the bath; place them on the towel; rub every surface, nook and cranny to ensure absolute dryness; put on a fresh nappy.  Any towel will do, as long as it’s soft and fluffy.

Yes, everything must be soft and fluffy.

We received several baby towels when Alex was born – the smaller, square kind with the triangular cap in one corner.  Other than making Alex look like a freshly-bathed wizard, they offered no obvious advantage over regular towels, and Alex grew out of them quickly.

Towel drying a toddler, on the other hand, is like towel drying a cat.

To encourage cooperation and maintain a pleasant mood, towel drying became part of the play.  Adam crawls under the towel and pretends to be a hedgehog.  I pretend to be a predator of some kind, trying to extract him from his den.  Alex, on the other hand, liked to be wrapped up tight in the towel and carried into her bedroom, where we had to sing ‘Rock-a-bye baby’ several times over while cradling her back and forth

An indulgent palaver, I know, but everyone ends up happy and dry, and sometimes that really is the best you can hope for.

Sometimes they tire of routine.  Craving adrenaline, they squirm out of the towel and escape to damp, mischievous freedom.  Dripping and cackling like demented water sprites, they tear around upstairs while I try to recapture them.

…a nappy…

Taking a baby’s nappy off for any length of time is deeply unnerving, but bathing baby nappy on is not a good idea.

After all, two of your primary target areas lie beneath that dense, absorbent cladding.

There is no alternative but to remove the nappy and leave your baby entirely naked throughout.  You are entirely at the mercy of chance – playing the odds at your own risk.  I estimate an average ten mid-bath urinations for every forty baths, per child over the course of the first two years.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, but consider that (a) depending on your hygiene tolerance, you may feel compelled to yank baby out of the bath, drain the water, disinfect everything, then run another bath, every time, and (b) my estimate is based only on those instances that I know about.

I’ve probably immersed myself in wee-water more times than I care to think about.

Thankfully, the other kind of accidents are much less frequent.  Those do require an emergency hygiene response, though.

Before your child is potty-trained, the passage of bath time can feel excruciatingly slow – like a round of Russian roulette – every second heavy with dread, praying there’s a blank in the chamber.

You’ll want a new nappy close to hand, so you can shove baby into it as soon as possible.

…and the moisturiser.

We have always applied moisturiser after every bath.  If you thought holding a water-wet child was difficult, try restraining one after lubrication with baby lotion, coconut oil or body butters.

The moisturised child is like a greased chimpanzee – fast, loud and impossible to hold. This part of the process is usually a raucous frenzy of catch-me-if-you-can and come-here-or-I-will-get-cross.

Once everything is assembled, I attend to the depth and temperature of the bath water.

I like my baths luxuriously deep and ridiculously hot.  For baby, however, total submergence in a steaming bath is not a soothing experience.  Rather than tossing my children into a bubbling cauldron, therefore, I run their baths to the appropriate depth and temperature.  The bath-lover in me is appalled by ‘just enough to wash in’ and ‘body temperature’, but shallow and mild are safe and bath time is about getting clean, not relaxation and indulgence.

For over two years we used a baby bath thermometer to correct the temperature.  By the time Adam was born, the original was knackered and we bought a new one.  We’d run the bath and throw in the duck, waiting for his reaction.  He was impossible to please.  Always, “Too hot,” or, “Too cold,” never “Just right.”

But happy ducks do not a happy child guarantee.  For every occasion without issue, there was a time they shrieked and thrashed as though plunged into sodium hydroxide or liquid nitrogen.

We retired the duck during Adam’s first year, deciding to have more faith in our own judgement.

Now the bath is ready.  I drag Adam back into the bathroom, prepare him then lift him into the tub.  He points out that I’ve forgotten the bath mat and I am ordered to correct this error before he will enter the water.

Once bathmat and child are happily installed in the bath – and I am trapped in the bathroom, keeping a very close and responsible eye on him – it is time for washing.

Alex was still in hospital when we bathed her for the very first time.  Under the close supervision of a neonatal nurse, I cradled her in my left arm, suspended above the basin.  Gently, I dipped cotton wool into the water and wiped her clean from her little head to her tiny toes.

For a while we washed her that way, not completely in the water but held above or at the surface.

Both of us present because bathing a baby with only one hand is a pain in the ass.

When she became too heavy for the cradle hold, we continued to support her, but resting in the water.  When that became too difficult we withdrew entirely, laying her down on the bath support.

For Adam, we skipped straight to the bath support.  He was born to term.  More robust.  And we were much more comfortable with it.

We have washed them in exactly the same way ever since – scrubbing face, ear, neck, shoulders and so on – whether they tolerate our interference or not.

Mischief and tantrums aside, washing a child in the bath has always been relatively straightforward.

Except for the hair.

Apprehensively, I reach for Adam’s shampoo and ask him how he wants to proceed…

If children had no eyes, we wouldn’t have a problem.  Other problems perhaps, but not this one.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like shampoo in my eyes either.  But I know a simple trick to stop it from happening.

Close. Them.

Children are incapable of keeping their eyes closed during a shampoo.  A newborn has no idea what’s going on, of course.  A toddler can at least understand, “KEEP THEM CLOSED!  KEEP THEM CLOSED!” but something prevents them.  Nervousness, perhaps.  They become frantic with dread and loathing.  They just can’t do it.  Any more than I can when instructed, “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

Argh – shampoo in the eyes.  Gasping and screaming.  Shaking and flailing.  Lots of squinting.  Bath time halts until the crisis is over.

I have not yet discovered an effective solution.  Not for want of trying.  Various positions of the body.  Various angles of the head.  Various implements to mop, sprinkle or pour.  Various ways of shielding or covering the face.  Various combinations of all the above.  None overwhelmingly successful.

At least when it’s over, it’s over.

Oh wait, conditioner

When all washing is complete, I announce, “Five minutes of play.”

We’ve kept a simple rule, since the children grew old enough to fight tooth and nail to avoid bath time: five minutes of play after washing.  Yes, bath time means getting washed, but it also represents an opportunity to play.  In a pool of water.  With toys that are off limits unless you are having a bath.

While I am sometimes required to play with them – much more so when they were younger – they are usually content to play by themselves.

Sat beside the bath and momentarily forgotten, I briefly consider how I might use this bonus ‘me time’ most productively, then entertain myself via smartphone.

Once playtime is over, so is bath time.  I pull out the plug.  And Adam.

Time for towel and moisturiser.

I’ve bathed my children many times, but have no love for bath time.  Each individual part of the process is tolerable, but I find the sum of them to be rather taxing.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my hygiene.  More often than not, when they need a bath, they really need a bath.  And cuddles are much sweeter when they’re freshly bathed.

First and foremost, though, it’s a chore.  Like washing carpets.  It takes time and commitment.  Close attention and care.  Patience and tolerance.

And a lot of crouching and kneeling.

According to the available literature, bath time is intense and demanding – fraught with physical and psychological danger.

And that’s just for baby – it’s not always a barrel of laughs for us either.

And yet, these same books also recommend bath time as soothing, magical ritual that guarantees a swift transition to the land of nod.

Before Alex was born, we knew no better.  We implemented bath time intentionally to induce a more relaxed state conducive to sleep.  For eighteen months we strived to make it happen.  After that we gave up the goal, but continued the practice out of habit.  Only during Adam’s first year did we finally wake up to the fact that it didn’t work and wasn’t necessary.

Bath time affects our children in one of two ways: it traumatises them, leaving them upset and inconsolable; or it winds them up, making them more excited than a ferret in a chicken coop.  Not only that, but adhering strictly to pre-bed bath time, crowbarring it in no matter what, can cause all kinds of stress.

Recent experience suggests that the best time for bath time is when you’re all in the mood and have the time.

There’s no avoiding it, though.  Babies are not self-cleaning.  Neither are toddlers.  Four-year-olds still require assistance.

Speaking of which, once I’ve caught Adam I need to call Alex upstairs.

Here we go again…

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