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Managing Hair Time With a Young Child

Hair time can be a nightmare when we're working with really young babies and active children who'd prefer to be elsewhere. I was really overwhelmed with my first. Whenever I asked other mothers what worked for them, I was told to wait until my baby was sleeping to style their hair. Unfortunately my daughter always woke up the minute I started manipulating her hair, and if you're anything like me, you'll take a messy head over missed sleep any day.

I've used different methods at different ages. Below is a list of suggestions to consider while grooming your baby's hair, followed by older children. When picking a style always have a realistic expectation of how long your child is physically able to sit for the style. Expect some interruptions. You may have to break the styling session up into several segments. Try to avoid waiting until you have to be somewhere in a short amount of time before moving to style your child's hair. How much maintenance does the style require? Will you be touching it up in several hours or can it last a week or two? Also factor in the added time it takes to add beads, barrettes etc. to decorate the style, if you like. Personally, I've been relying more on part designs and colorful headbands to jazz up my daughters' looks. They are quick and easy to use and cause no damage to the ends of their hair. Once you've chosen a practical style you like, try the following:

Babies 12 months and under who aren't walking yet, and babies under 18 month who will accept being temporarily restrained
1. At this age your grooming session should take no longer than 20 minutes at a time--MAX. This means it may take you several sessions to get from removing a style, washing (if the hair is dirty), detangling and grooming your child's hair. You must plan for this in advance.
2. Once you've chosen a style you can finish in 20 minutes, have your child sit in a high chair or bumbo seat--so that they can't move away from you, but you are able to move all the way around their head. I'm assuming your child is able to sit well, because I don't do much styling beyond adding a barrette or head band to my babies before they are physically able to sit. See my post about leaving babies alone. Younger babies look fabulous with their natural fros left as is, or decorated with one or two clips or puffs. A head band to match an outfit is also a quick and easy choice, and easy to add while the baby is in your arms.
3. I offer my babies finger foods or crackers while I hurry to style their hair. I watch their tray carefully for any falling hairs. If you are uncomfortable with offering that, you can also offer one or two toys reserved strictly for styling. My babies have enjoyed measuring cups or spoons, rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, and an occassional "big kid toy" with no tiny parts like the rubix cube. I watch them carefully to make sure they don't stick anything sharp down their throats. Offer the toys/snacks one or two at a time. If you offer too many, your baby may be overwhelmed or become quickly bored--leaving you with nothing more to offer. Expect interruptions--try to keep your expectations low. Take this opportunity to laugh and get silly with your child. None of this has to be perfect.

At this age I do big corn rows--no more than a total of nine on their head. I do four to eight big afro puffs. I try to plan for a style that can go at least three to four days to a week.

Mobile children 18 months to 7 years
In my house we mainly watch television on the weekends. Occassionally we'll break this rule for sickness, a special treat or schedule event like the Olympics or March Madness. This means my kids are riveted when I do offer them a video. As a result, I have been able to turn our grooming sessions into something my daughters really look forward to. They especially love the fact that whoever's hair I'm styling gets to choose the video we watch. At about 18 months of age my babies will sit still for a video. This means I can get through taking down a style and putting a new one in at once. I still choose quick and simple styles though because children this age spend much of their time rolling around the floor in play. They muss up their styles with a plethora of costumes with head dresses. We don't want to be too concerned about them ruining a style we spent a long time to create.

Check out my styling session with MG3 and how I manage to keep Mocha Baby entertained.

If you don't want to offer videos, I've also been successful with coloring books, pop up books, play dough and cutting projects. Small children can sometimes entertain themselves for long stretches by cutting a sheet of paper into tiny pieces--if you don't mind the clean up.

Children 8 years and older
By the time my daughters are eight and older they are vested in the styling process. They will sit for as long as I like if they really want a style. Having gone through the different grooming stages from their infancy, they already know what to expect. They can read a book as well as enjoy a video to pass the time. They are also much more carefully about preserving their styles. At this age, I am happy to invest the time in doing small twists, braids, corn rows and combo styles.

With some practical planning and flexibility we can all stop dreading grooming sessions. Things usually fall apart when we're trying to do too much too soon with not enough time and resources. I hope you find these suggestions helpful. Please leave a comment if you have more suggestions to add.


  1. Natacha, I have a new question for you. I went out to buy some coconut oil and was surprised to find that it was solid, not liquid. When I put a dollop in my hands, it melts easily, but I'm wondering, did I buy the right stuff? Do you put the coconut oil in directly with your hands or do you dilute it in water somehow?

    (I also learned this week what happens to the coconut oil if I leave the container in the hot car. I think I might have ruined my jeans forever! That will teach me to be more careful when I take the lid off!)

  2. Oh no Terri! Coconut oil does melt quickly in warm temperatures--hopefully your jeans are not ruined forever.

    Yes you did buy the right stuff! It is solid at first and I melt it my hands. Since it's an oil it won't mix easily with water and if the water is cooler than it's melting point, it will float in little solid bits on the surface of the water. The hair I'm applying it to is damp.

  3. I'm so late to this post, but I just found you in hairblog land. :)

    We just adopted a sweet baby girl who is now 9 weeks old. Contrary to almost everything I'm reading/seeing, she already has very tightly coiled hair that is impossible to detangle without a pretty slippy product. Do you have any tips for keeping a teeny baby happy while you detangle? Her hair is about 2 inches long when stretched, but curls right down to her head. She *hates* any kind of messing with her hair, other than a little scalp massage (which she loves). Her hair is long enough to do some things to it, but we're very happy with a teeny weeny afro for now. Thanks!

  4. @bean
    I have to say I pretty much left Mocha Baby's hair alone until it grew so much the back would just flatten like a pancake where ever she leaned her head. I didn't use much product for her and i did very little detangling. If anything,I ran my fingers through it while it was wet making sure to coax out any snarls. I let it shrink right up. I think the fro is the best style for a baby. The most I did this time was add a head band. She wore one maybe 5 times her entire life. Her hair has grown so much, we're doing puffs now.

    I often recommend applying unrefined coconut oil to damp hair. A little goes a long way.

  5. I got some interesting comments from people always making suggestions about what i should do with Mocha baby's hair--since she had so much. I'm sure they weren't saying her fro looked bad--they were just itching to get in there and style it. Looking at how strong and beautiful her hair is now, I'm so glad i left it alone as long as I did. I kindly thanked those people and went with my gut.

  6. Thank you, Natacha!

    I will keep her darling fro and I'm going to try detangling less. She'll be thrilled with that. :) We've been using the coconut oil and love it - for her skin too.

    Thanks so much!


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