Last night after a long day exploring a nearby bustling city, my Lydia (age 6) desperately needed a bath. Not only was she covered in city “dust”, but somehow a chocolate shake found its way down her leg. When she emerged from the tub, still sudsy and smelling like lavender, I helped her dry off, slathered a layer of lotion on her arms and legs, and popped her Hello Kitty jammies over her head.
It seemed a perfect way to the end a wonderful day together. I recalled her infant and toddler years when I gave her nightly baths as part of her bedtime routine. While she still has a good bedtime routine, baths are rarely part of it anymore. Her bathing has become more unpredictable. Sometimes she has baths on Saturday night so she’ll be spiffed up for Sunday Mass, but on weekdays I usually (but not always) put her in the tub in the morning to let her play while I get a little schoolwork done with her older siblings. She loves to pretend that she’s swimming and often takes in a snorkel and goggles. So, her bathing has become part of our school routine instead of our nighttime routine.
Of course there’s nothing really wrong with that, but last night I did think about the unique benefits of the nighttime bathing routine of her little years.
1. Baths Calm Kids and Help Them Sleep
Most of us give our small kids baths at night in an effort to get them to sleep (sometimes an effort born of desperation . . . ). We know from trial-and-error experience that a bath calms them down and helps them fall asleep once they are in bed. There is a simple scientific explanation for this. Warm bath water lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles, which is a very calming. It also slowly increases the body’s temperature, then when our child gets out of the tub, his body returns to a cooler state which releases melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep.
2. Baths Reduce Bedtime Conflict
Bedtime is extremely stressful in many families. Some kids resist going to sleep. They seem to possess some super-human ability to stay awake while their parents are so tired they can barely speak in coherent sentences. These parents dread bedtime because they know they are about to engage in a battle that leaves them depleted. This isn’t good for the parents’ well-being or for their relationship with their child.
The first thing any parenting expert recommends to such parents is developing a consistent bedtime routine, including baths, brushing teeth, and stories. Routines provide young children with a sense of certainty and safety, which is necessary for their psychological well-being. Small children in particular benefit from knowing what to expect. When there’s too much unpredictability, kids can develop behavioral issues. When kids become accustomed to their bedtime routine, they are more willing to go with the flow the evening, including transitioning to bed. Routines don’t just help the parents get the kids into their bed; they help the kids ease into sleep. One study in particular showed that bedtime routines not only help with the onset of sleep, but with the number of night wakings as well.
3. Baths Can Heal Irritated Skin
My two older children had eczema when they were younger and I know it affected their sleep. Many studies have shown that adult eczema patients have much higher rates of insomnia. I’ve never read any such studies that focus specifically on children, but it makes sense that kids with skin issues would have a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep because they are distracted by discomfort and itching. I think night time baths can help, especially if you include bath salts. I’ve been taking salt baths for years, and I recently learned about the benefits of salt baths for children so I’ve switched to salt bathing for Lydia. Salt baths are particularly great for kids who have skin issues. You can even get bubbly sea salts now so that your kids don’t have to miss their bubbles.
4. Baths Are Fun!
Baths provide us with a fun, easy way to connect with our kids right before bed. The sky is the limit for bath fun. Give your kids strainers, cups, spoons, building blocks, bath crayons, and lots of bubbles. When my kids were small, I even read to my kids while they were in the tub.
Fortunately, we no longer have any resistant sleepers in our house and we have a consistent bedtime routine. My husband is the star of the night time routine. He gives our kids a snack, helps the small kids brush their teeth, reads them all a story, and tucks them into bed. But he has never been one to give them baths. When they were little, I would bathe them before he got home from work, so they were in their jammies and ready for Daddy’s routine. But now Lydia is the only one who takes baths; the others all shower. But when I remember the benefits of bathing not just for babies and toddlers, but for older kids and even grown-ups, I think I might suggest it to them, especially when they’ve had a long or hard day. At the very least, I’ll let Lydia snorkel in the tub at night instead of — or perhaps in addition to — the morning from now on!