Giving your toddler a haircut might seem like a routine task, but it can quickly turn into a real struggle. The little chairs, buzzing clippers, and unfamiliar setting can overwhelm a toddler’s senses, making it tough for both parents and hairdressers. Toddler haircuts become a sensory battleground where scissors meet squirming resistance, and the smallest details matter in determining success.
For toddlers, getting a haircut is like riding a sensory rollercoaster. The feeling of hair falling, the hum of clippers, and the touch of a stylist can trigger anything from anxiety to full-on meltdowns. Occupational therapy, which focuses on sensory stuff, can help tackle these challenges. In this blog post, we’re diving into the world of toddler haircuts, looking at the unique sensory hurdles and sharing practical tips from occupational therapy to make the whole experience smoother for toddlers and their parents.
The majority of kiddos that I evaluate and work with, whether they have a condition such as Autism or not, have sensory sensitivities or needs – or not, find getting a haircut difficult. Let’s face it, even we as adults can find it uncomfortable. Sitting in a chair and not moving for a long time. The warm vibrating buzzer. Hair that pokes our skin and makes us it. It’s no wonder that kiddos don’t like it and it can be one of their worst activities. And for us as parents (I’ve been there myself), eventually haircuts are something we need to address and when we do, it can feel like borderline torture to our children.
So how do we even get our kiddos to get haircuts, especially if you have tried in the past and now they have a negative association with even the sight of razor or a pair of scissors? Just like everything in life, there is no one right approach. And every kid is different. Let’s talk about the sensory stuff first, as children such as those who are Autistic find this to be one main reason that they do not like haircuts.
Toddlers and haircuts often make for a challenging combination due to the sensory overload that can accompany the experience. The sensory needs of toddlers are distinct, and factors like touch, sound, and visual stimuli during a haircut can trigger discomfort or even anxiety.
Firstly, the tactile aspect of getting a haircut can be overwhelming for toddlers. The sensation of hair being touched, combed, or cut can be unfamiliar and, at times, unpleasant. Many toddlers are sensitive to changes in texture or pressure on their heads, and the sensation of hair falling on their skin may provoke a strong reaction.
The auditory element is another significant factor. The buzzing sound of clippers or the snipping of scissors can be startling for toddlers with sensitive hearing. The unfamiliar and often loud noises in a salon environment can contribute to a sensory overload, leading to stress and resistance.
Moreover, the visual aspect plays a role. Toddlers may feel uneasy seeing themselves in the mirror during the process or may be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar surroundings of a salon. The combination of these sensory inputs can create a perfect storm of discomfort, making it understandable why many toddlers resist or dislike the haircut experience.
In recognizing and addressing these sensory needs, parents and caregivers can take steps to make the haircutting process more tolerable for toddlers, ensuring a more positive and manageable experience for everyone involved.
Here are some of the strategies that I have used (with much success) that can help with this process to tackle haircuts (sensory and non-sensory strategies include):
- Sometimes the words we choose to use can invoke fear to the kiddo surrounding haircuts. So instead of using words like “cut”, try something like “get hair done”, or “get hair pretty”, or “get hair handsome”, or “get hair nice”.
- Preparation and Desensitization:
- Gradual exposure to the sensory aspects of a haircut in a controlled environment can help desensitize toddlers. This might involve introducing them to the feel of combs, the sound of clippers, or even the sensation of hair falling in a calm and reassuring manner.
- Sensory-Friendly Tools:
- Occupational therapists may recommend the use of sensory-friendly tools, such as vibrating clippers or scissors with rounded tips. These tools can provide a more gentle and less intimidating experience for the child.
- Sensory Diet Activities:
- Incorporating sensory diet activities into the child’s routine can help regulate their sensory system. Activities that involve touch, proprioception (body awareness), and vestibular input can contribute to an improved overall sensory threshold.
- Visual Supports:
- Providing visual supports, such as social stories or visual schedules, can help toddlers understand and anticipate each step of the haircutting process. Knowing what to expect visually can reduce anxiety and uncertainty.
- There are haircutting books and videos (e.g., Daniel Tiger) about getting haircuts you can watch on YouTube or purchase.
- Use of Weighted Items:
- Weighted vests or lap pads can provide deep pressure input, which can have a calming effect on a child’s nervous system. Using these items before and during the haircut can help regulate sensory responses.
- Sensory Breaks:
- Incorporating short sensory breaks during the haircut, such as allowing the child to touch a preferred texture or take a brief movement break, can help prevent sensory overload.
- Parental Involvement:
- Encouraging parents to be actively involved in the process, such as holding the child or providing comfort through touch, can create a sense of security and familiarity, mitigating some of the sensory challenges.
- Social Learning:
- “Social learning theory, proposed by Albert Bandura, emphasizes the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others.”
- One of my parents shared a success story with me. Social learning can be a powerful learning and motivating tool for children. One of my kiddos that I see for occupational therapy became more comfortable with the idea of getting a haircut using my strategies. They were able to see the razor, hear the razor, be near the razor, and even sit in the chair. However, the moment the razor made contact with their hair, they started to become dysregulated and upset.
- Their mom had a great idea to have the kiddo watch one of their peers (who is OK with the haircut) get a haircut. The next day (so this carried over 24 hours, into the child’s learning), my client was able to patiently sit in the chair and get a haircut! So there is something about a child watch someone like them get a haircut from the third person, see that it is okay and there is no danger, and be able to do it themselves – even if they have a condition such as Autism. So the lesson I learned as an occupational therapy is not to underestimate the power of social learning (Bandura).
- Try modeling a haircut with yourself, or even better, have your child or client watch a peer get a haircut and then have them try it themselves. The key is not to wait too long in between observation and the challenging activity.
- Try role playing or pretend playing with dolls, toys, or have your kiddo play haircut with you.
- You can also show your child videos of you, family members, friends, or YouTube kids getting haircuts.
Prior to the actual haircut, prepare your kiddo for the big day:
- Schedule the time of day your child will likely be most calm and also when the salon will be least busy.
- Bring your child to the actual hair salon to familiarize them with the environment.
- If the hairdresser who will cut your child’s hair for the appointment will be there, introduce them ahead of time to your child.
- Pack anything that will make your child more comfortable ahead of time: a favorite or familiar cape, toys, heavy weighted blankets, a favorite toy, an iPad, noise cancelling headphones for the clippers.
- Download a visual timer or bring one that your child routinely uses to the appointment.
- Don’t forget their favorite snack or beverage.
- Have your child participate or engage in sensory activities that make them more calm, e.g., going outside, to a park and running/jumping/bouncing/swinging/etc. – before their appointment.
Navigating toddler haircuts proves to be a sensory challenge, with the unfamiliar setting, buzzing clippers, and tactile sensations creating a battleground for resistance and anxiety. The tactile, auditory, and visual aspects of the process can trigger discomfort, explaining why many toddlers develop a negative association with haircuts. Occupational therapy introduces practical strategies like gradual desensitization, sensory-friendly tools, and sensory diet activities to address these sensitivities. Additionally, visual supports, parental involvement, and the power of social learning play key roles in making the haircutting experience more tolerable, ensuring a smoother process for both toddlers and their parents. Good luck!