Care and Feeding

My 5-Year-Old Stinks and Refuses to Do Anything About It

Is this a phase?

A bathtub and a boy with eyes widened.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old son refuses to take baths. It’s become a nightly power struggle.

My two other boys (8 and 3) take showers and baths without issue. My husband is content to let my 5-year-old take one “big” bath a week. I mentioned this to my pediatrician, who, instead of backing me up in trying to instill good hygiene, said that once a week is fine and better for his skin. But the kid is smelly, gets sweaty and grimy, and he howls whenever his little toe touches even lukewarm water.

Is there anything I can do? Is this a phase? A middle child thing? Is he just trying to assert his independence? Or is he going to grow into one of those kids who doesn’t use deodorant and won’t wear clean clothes?

— Smelly Kid

Dear S.K.,

Did anything ever happen to make your son feel unsafe in the bathtub? Does he have any specific complaints about bathing? Does this aversion to water extend to hand washing, or playing in the pool?

Continue to try and make bath time into a safe, fun activity—gather waterproof toys and books, put a favorite beverage in a water bottle, use bubble bath. Before attempting to get him back in again, sit next to the tub alongside him and play with water and toys that are in the actual tub. Talk to him about what bothers him about bathing and address those concerns: if it’s water temperature, let him dictate when it’s perfect; or perhaps he doesn’t like the feeling of the water running while he’s in the tub.

Be very clear with your son that smelling bad or being grimy is not in his best interest, and that he will have a hard time at school and beyond if he doesn’t have good hygiene. Expose him to some unpleasant smells and ask him how he feels about being the source of one.

This isn’t something you want to just let go. Your pediatrician may not be terribly concerned with the social ramifications of not bathing, but you should be. If his issue with bathing continues over time, you may consider having him speak to a psychiatrist. In the meantime, purchase some rinse-free cleaning wipes designed for people who are unable to take a traditional bath, and wipe him down so that he isn’t musty.


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