I can vividly recall sitting in the bathtub as a child, peering at the drain with equal parts fascination and horror. When all was placid, and the stopper was in place, bathtime was bubbly magic. That all changed the moment my mother lifted the lever of the drain, and the water began to swirl and disappear. The tub became a comedy of horrors, luring me to my doom via the swirling, draining remnants of my bathing. My toddler self was terrified of that locus of my nightmares, but why? Why are toddlers afraid of the bathtub drain?
As is the case of many childhood fears, it is rooted in the unknown. If it cannot be immediately intuited, then it is left for the imagination to understand, and that can produce a devilish idea. That apprehension, cultivated by a lack of understanding and the vivid thoughts of a toddler, combine to make toddlers believe the worst, noted Dr. Sears. He wrote on his website of his own experience with this phobia in his children — which has been replicated by millions of other children the world over. "When one of my children developed a sudden fear of baths, we traced it to his new awareness of water going down the drain— he imagined himself getting sucked down the drain, too," he said.
The fear of the drain appears to be spectacularly common. I spoke with my husband about taking baths as a kid, and his recollection was even more vivid than my own. He grew up deep in urban Brooklyn in a very old apartment building. His tub was one of those baths that would have seemed as deep as a swimming pool to a toddler, and just as dangerous. Heavy and iron, the drain was precariously stopped with a flimsy piece of rubber affixed to a chain that was welded to the bottom of the spigot. I have seen this tub in pictures, and it was an avocado colored nightmare, rife for the induction of toddler panic.
"The drain would gurgle and bubble, and the water would swirl all the way from the surface," my husband tells me. "As soon as my grandmother pulled up that chain, I could not get out of that tub fast enough. I thought that my tub was going to suck me down into the sewers with the alligators and rats."
Thank goodness toddlers are too young to know who Pennywise is, or else things could be much, much scarier.
But why are toddlers afraid of the bathtub drain, even if they can see they're bigger than the drain itself? Parenting website Today's Parent argued that in this case, logic does not matter. Toddlers are not the most rational beasties to begin with, so it only makes sense that they are unable to make the logical connection between their size and the size of the drain. The website noted that toddlers cannot explain what's happening in their world with any clarity beyond cause and effect. That's why "a toddler might, for example, see bathwater go down the drain, but not understand how this works. What looks like fear of water might actually be a fear of getting sucked down the drain."
It's up to the parents to make children understand that they're not going to be spirited away to some watery underworld via the drain in the bathtub. You need to show them it's safe. One way to do that is to fill the bath a bit and scatter objects (larger than the drain holes) in the tub, and then pull the drain. Show your child that the drain does not siphon the toys into it, but rather leaves them in the tub, wet, but no worse for wear.
Drains are the scary unknown for toddlers. It's reasonable for them to think the worst, but thankfully they have us to show them it's not quite so terrifying, and that bathing isn't actually risking your life.