More than half of kids recently polled would like to brush their teeth without supervision, per a survey by Philips Sonicare for Kids. Kids with special needs want bathroom independence, too, only they can have challenges achieving it. My son, Max, has cerebral palsy and issues with fine-motor skills, so regular toothbrushes with their skinny handles can be difficult to grasp. He also has some oral sensitivity, and so he’s not a big fan of brushing his teeth. I’ve made some discoveries over the years that have helped him with bathroom tasks, and bathroom fun, too.
1. Make tub time easier.
Squeezing out shampoo or soap can be tricky for kids with disabilities. So I use ones with pump dispensers. If your favorite kids shampoo doesn’t come with a pump, pour it into an empty hand-soap dispenser. I also keep a large plastic cup handy that Max can use to rinse out shampoo. He now knows to tilt his head backwards but when he didn’t, I’d put on of those plastic head visors to keep shampoo out of his eyes. We also use poufs, because they’re easier for Max to hold than a washcloth.
2. Make play easier, too.
Rubber ducks have never been Max’s thing (squeezing = challenging). But he loves coloring, a great activity for encouraging dexterity. I’ve spritzed shaving cream on our tub tiles for him to draw with, and let him play Picasso with bath markers and crayons. Hot tip: Give your child a clean scrubber brush and let them have at the tiles. Good occupational therapy for them. Cleaner bathroom for you!
3. Get kids a toothbrush they can use.
Max has had no trouble holding the chunky handle of the Philips Sonicare for Kids we received; in fact, it’s ergonomically designed to better enable kids to brush on their own. The vibrating motion gives his hand sensory feedback, further encouraging a good grasp. Max actually likes the way it feels in his mouth, a major brushing breakthrough.
The toothbrush is really good quality: a super-soft head, a brush that delivers 500 brush strokes per second (plaque doesn’t stand a chance), plus a timer. Also: Hello, fun! There are sounds to encourage kids to brush the front and back parts of their upper and lower teeth and eight interchangeable stickers. The brush is suitable for kids ages four and up.
4. Have a dedicated bin.
This is a great suggestion from organizer Carolyn Dalgliesh, a professional organizer who’s mom to two kids, one with sensory needs, and author of The Sensory Child Gets Organized. A labeled caddy provides open storage, giving kids visual cues for bathroom routines.
5. Make sure your mat is non-slip.
I love me an extra-fluffy bathroom mat, but for kids who have issues with stability they can be a slipping hazard. So I keep a rug pad beneath ours.
6. Create a visual story.
Special needs or not, kids feel more confident when they know exactly what to do. You can put together a schedule or storyboard for brushing teeth, bathing and toileting. Just get it laminated! There are also ones for purchase, like this bathing activity board for kids with autism from eCrater.
7. Reward kids for a bathroom job well done.
Positive reinforcement: always a winning parenting ploy. When Max has done a particularly great job in the bathroom, I’ll let him pick a prize from a little basket of treats I keep under the sink. It’s mostly stuff from the dollar store, including colorful plastic funnels and little capsules that expand into foam bugs, animal and dinosaurs when dropped in water. And for a Mommy treat, I wrap Max in a big towel when he comes out of the tub, perch on the rim and hold him close. Few parent pleasures compare to breathing in the scent of your just-cleaned child, snuggling and taking a minute to chill together. Bathroom caddy photo source: Mike Egan/Egan Images; from The Sensory Child Gets Organized (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster)