Counting little fingers and little toes, splashing around, and laughing together can fundamentally improve our children’s growth and development, optimize our own bodies and brains, and impact longevity. Did you know that how you engage in daily activities like bath time can actually help you and your child live longer?
There’s a health-promoting cycle that takes place in our body (for both adults and children) when we practice something called autonomic co-regulation together. Here’s how: we engage our five senses with someone we love, while expressing ourselves emotionally, which co-regulates our nervous systems. This physiological and emotional connection is not only wonderfully calming, it activates internal systems that boost immunity, ease gut inflammation, improve brain function, increase stress resilience, and protect heart health.
When children have the chance to develop these internal systems from a place of connection, it sets them up for lifelong health and can dramatically affect their social skills and school performance.
Co-regulation needs sensory stimulation to turn on. Baths are a sensory circus—little feet kicking the water, bubbles everywhere, toys bobbing on the surface—so it’s an especially fruitful way to engage in co-regulation. To get the most out of it, join your child in the fun of the experience. The more senses you engage together, the better. Here are some suggestions:
- Let bath time be cooperative and sensory: Ask your child which temperature they prefer—a little warmer or a little cooler? Would they like bubbles? Tell them how you like your baths!
- Smell the soap and shampoo and notice together how they’re different.
- There are lots of opportunities for touch: wash their body with a washcloth or gentle hands, and pour water over their head (be careful not to get soap in their eyes!). When you’re done, lift them out, wrap them in a snuggly towel, and hug them.
- Hand them toys in a way that leads to eye contact. Have lots of materials and colors available to play with. A sponge, a spinning wheel, and a silicone duck all look and feel different. Anything that floats can be a toy! No need to buy anything special.
- Have fun: you can be animals, or pirates, or scuba divers! Drum out songs on the surface of the water, listen for whale sounds, or make silly hairdos with shampoo suds.
- When kids are relaxed and having fun, conversation is easy (this goes for adults, too).
After all this lovely co-regulation, transition away from bath time gradually. If you yank a kid out of the bath, it will dysregulate them, their behavior will change, and bedtime will be harder. Bathtime can be a phenomenal way to transition kids from day to night. The warm water is relaxing, the toys are fun, and all of this downregulates their stress system and primes their bodies for deep sleep. And if you are co-regulating, your child will be more cooperative. To maintain their state of calm, support them patiently and lovingly through this transition from play to bedtime:
- Give them a heads up that bath time will be ending soon.
- Speak positively about the next fun thing you get to do together (reading a book, singing a lullaby, cuddling in bed).
- Try not to let them get cold: have a warm towel ready, put on cozy pajamas, and snuggle.
Bathing someone is an act of love as old as civilization. When someone is too young (or too old) to fully bathe themselves, helping them can be a tender and lovely way to spend time together. Bath time can just be one of the things you need to get done today, or it can become a ritual that fundamentally helps your children develop and thrive in body and in mind. Remember, this practice only works when there are at least two people; no one can do it alone. When you and your child co-regulate, you benefit equally. Co-regulation feels great for both of you, and makes you want to spend time together.