The soft, loopy baby curls are gone. So are the days of a quick shampoo and comb out in the bathtub safety seat. Now you have a toddler with a head full of thick, coily—all right, nappy—hair, who runs from the sight of you holding a comb and cries at the mention of the word “shampoo.” Hair grooming has become a nightmare for you and your little girl, and friends and relatives have been dropping hints about having her hair done. Maybe you’ve been wearing straight styles or a short natural for so long you’ve forgotten how to care for any length of natural hair. Or maybe this is your first experience dealing with kinky hair and you’re tired of the superior looks you get from your husband’s family just because you didn’t grow up getting your ears burned by the hot comb. The idea of applying dangerous chemicals or heat to your precious baby’s hair makes you nervious, but what else can you do?
Plenty. Kiddie perms and pressing combs can damage a child’s self-esteem as well as her hair. Your little girl needs to know that her hair is beautiful just the way it is. She doesn’t need to be made to feel that her curls and coils are an embarrassment that needs to be pressed or relaxed into respectability. She doesn’t need to be endangered by overzealous stylists working tirelessly to make her hair bone straight. She doesn’t need a phobia about getting her hair wet and her pressed hair “going back.” So how do you care for—and teach her how to care for—her hair?
First, you need the right tools. Proper tools make all the difference, as I found out when I exchanged a fine tooth comb for one more appropriate for thick, super curly hair. You need a sturdy plastic wide tooth comb for detangling, plastic hair clips, and cloth wrapped scrunchies. Don’t put barrettes with metal clips or plain, uncoated rubber bands on your child’s hair—these stress the hair and cause breakage.
You don’t need any special shampoos—baby shampoos with conditioners are fine. You can dilute any shampoo by half with water and it works just as well. Better even because the water makes the shampoo lather more easily. Leave in conditioners and natural oils are good for detangling and keeping the hair supple. Avoid hair styling products with petroleum jelly like VO5. They won’t hurt the hair but they don’t condition either. The just coat the hair with a layer of grease and make it difficult to style. If you use natural oils like almond oil or jojoba oil, you’ll need to shampoo every other week. The oil goes rancid otherwise, and that is definitely not attractive.
Now that you have the your tools, you need to find a place to shampoo. The kitchen and the bathroom are the obvious choices. A small child can lay on the kitchen counter as you hold her head in the sink. I shampooed my daughter’s hair in the kitchen for about three years and was highly amused to find her “shampooing” her teddy bear’s head in the play kitchen sink.
A child can sit in the bathtub for a shampoo (a visor can help here). Use a tall drinking up to rinse—it’s just as good as a spray nozzle. An older child can bend over the bathtub or kitchen sink for a shampoo.
After you wet the hair thoroughly, apply the shampoo liberally throughout the hair (you’ve diluted it, remember?) and massage it gently on the scalp with the pads of your fingers. Use an in-an-out motion because rubbing in circles will tangle the hair. Clean the scalp, then work the shampoo through the hair. Use your sense of touch to determine your progress at getting out the sand that inevitably finds its way into your child’s hair. (Most of the sand can be brushed out with your hands on the playground.)
Rinse gently and thoroughly with a tall drinking cup or spray nozzle. Lift the hair to rinse underneath. The last thing you want after settling down for the comb out is to find a soapy patch behind the ear that you neglected to rinse.
If you’ve done a thorough job of shampooing and rinsing you may proceed to the comb out. Personally, I think that the instructions to lather, rinse, and repeat are designed more to sell more shampoo than to get your hair clean. Unless your child’s report that little Brianna really did dump a bucket of sand on her (your child’s) head at the playground turns out to be true judging from the amount of sand going down your drain or your child was the victim of a cake and ice cream incident at a birthday party gone bad, once is enough. Especially if your child is wailing as though you’re cutting off her head instead of merely applying shampoo and water.
Before you comb out, you must first find an activity to occupy your child while you work. This is important. Boredom will cause your child to howl with pain more than any pulling on tangles. Think of it this way, your stylist leaves magazines for you to read while you’re getting your hair done. Why not offer toys, crayons, or videos for your child.
After you’ve sufficiently distracted your child with an activity and she’s sittiing in her chair happily watching Sesame Street, work in the leave-in conditioner or oil into the hair. Divide the hair into sections small enough to fit in your palm and begin detangling the ends of the hair. Grasp the hair firmly so that your child can’t feel the comb pulling. Pull the comb through the hair with quick, gentle strokes. Comb higher and higher as you work your way up the hair to the roots. Be the roots extremely gently until you comb far enough down to cushion the pulling with your grip. If you run into any stubborn tangles, stop combing and gently separate the strands with your fingers. Use the same technique you’d use to untangle yarn or shoelaces. After detangling a section, loosely twist the hair or secure with a scrunchie.
After you’re finished the comb out, it’s time to style the hair. Here’s where you can get creative. If your child will tolerate the blow dryer (my five-year-old won’t), you can blow the ahir dry. This makes the hair easier to comb and gives you a few more styling options.
Work with the blow dryer on its warm setting—never hot, especially on very young children. Use a sturdy comb attachment (I have comb eating ahir and have broken more than one tooth off my comb attachment), and gently comb through the hair. Always aim the drying away from your child’s scalp, face, ears, and neck. Once you see what a little heat and oil do to your child’s hair, you may be tempted to turn up the heat and blow dry the hair for all it’s worth. You may get results as good as a light press with the hot comb, but don’t push it. Heat is heat and is best used sparingly.
Once you’ve blown dry the hair, you can part it down the middle, ear to ear, or any other way you’re inspired, and make two to four braids. You may, if you choose, secure the braid near the scalp with coated rubber bands or ponytail holders. Don’t pull too tightly or you’ll end up with breakage or a receding hairline over time.
When it comes to hair baubles, less is often more. You can braid firmly and simply tie a ribbon at the base or the end of the braid. You can find inexpensive rolls of cloth ribbon at a craft or fabric store. If you make more than five or six braids, you only need a couple of ribbons and barrettes stylishly placed near the face. If you put too many barrettes or bows on the base of the braids you’ll create a visual distraction. If your child has long hair, you can get away with more baubles on the ends of the braids, but there’s no need to overdo it.
In addition to regular braids, you can make trail braids. Starting from the face, make plaits, braiding the top plait into the next. Continue until you’ve finished all the braids. You can also do a center part and make two cornrows, what I call the “Heidi look.”
If you don’t want to blow dry your child’s hair, you can do styles with many braids or twists. Divide the hair into half inch to one inch sections and braid or twist the hair. For many cornrows, divide hair into quarter inch to half inch rows. To create a pretty cornrow style, part the hair down the middle and angle the rows towards the shoulders.
Styles with many braids or twists can last up to two to three weeks. They require little or no maintenance between shampoos and are excellent styles for swimmers.
You may be wondering about creating a dreadlock style for your child. You can lock a child’s hair and it will look adorable, but keep one thing in mind. Locks are permanent and cannot be combed out. More often than we may like to think about it, children find themselves in need of a fine-tooth comb. Although children with straight hair are more likely to come home with a colony of critters setting up camp in their hair, it can happen to those with kinky hair as well. If your child comes home with head lice in her locks, you’ll have no choice but to cut them off. Take the chance if you like, but I recommend waiting until your child is a teenager before starting locks.
Once you learn to care for your child’s hair and create styles well-suited to ultra curly, coily hair, you’ll both gain an appreciation for this natural beauty.
Copyright © 2004 by Allyson Denise Walker-Lawrence. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form, written or electronic, without the permission of the author.