July, 2010

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Mastering a Toddler’s Curls (How I learned to tame the fuzz)

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Early in my marriage a patient of mine spied my wedding photo on the back of my badge.

“Where is your husband from?”

When I told her Tanzania she said “If you have a daughter one day you are going to have to learn to do her hair. You can always tell the ones with white mothers who never figure it out.” She was half black so I figured this was a topic she knew and cared a lot about. To drive her point home she whipped out her digital camera and flipped back to some photos of her daughters’ friends whose mothers’ did their hair all wrong.

Esther's hair with just oil, cute but fuzzy and only works with short hair

The lesson stuck with me as I raised my daughter, especially as her curls began to appear and fill in at around a year and a half.  I tried all different products and techniques recommended to me. One patient recommended rosemary essential oil mixed with jojoba oil to strengthen and moisturize the curls; then an olive oil lotion. I liked the oil, which I applied after her bath and before she went to sleep. The lotion smelled so strong, though and was a little stickier than what I was wanting. Plus, I couldn’t get it to define the curls.

Esther with the Olive Oil lotion, good hold but a bit sticky and not as defined

Softer curls work well for short hair but her hair is getting longer and it is getting out of control. My search continued until I came across the website Tightly Curly which was started by a mixed race woman (black and white) who lives here in Seattle. Her technique looked easy enough and cheap so I thought I would give it a try. Better yet, she had just released a book that I was able to pick up from the library called Curly Like Me.

On her website and in her book she goes through 7 steps for taming the curls. She gives different options in each step so I will go through the ones that I use.

1. I quit using shampoo on her hair. Hair this curly is so dry, it does not need anything else to dry it out. She recommends using a light conditioner to wash out dirt (and as is often the case with us, food). I use a kid conditioner because it is light and I had it on hand, but any light conditioner will do.

Fuzzier curls which were good with shorter hair but easily went unruly quick

What I use on Esther's Hair - about $5 a bottle

2. Once the hair is wet, pour out a handful of conditioner (at least filling the palm) and rub it through the hair. It will look like too much conditioner but a whole big glop of it works really well. In the book and on the website she recommends conditioners with the right properties for this step. I tried Tresemme’s Smooth and Silky. It works great and is cheap.

3. Once the handful of conditioner is massaged through the hair, take a Denan Brush (a very well made British brand) and begin combing through the curls, section by section. I usually pinch the section in my fingers and start with combing the tips so there is no painful tugging. There will be lots of white conditioner in the hair and some may come out with brushing but don’t try to brush it all out. You want quite a bit left in there. It will disappear as the hair dries. You are not rinsing the conditioner out. That is the key to this technique!

3a. Most of the time Esther has a bath before bed and I don’t go through this whole technique since she is just going to sleep on it. I will condition and comb it in the bath then either rinse it and put rosemary/jojoba oil on (a few days a week) or I’ll comb a smaller amount of conditioner through and leave it in. When she gets up in the morning what I do is re-wet it with a washcloth (she isn’t a fan, but I try to do it when she is playing with something good) then put the big handful of conditioner in it. With shorter hair it doesn’t have to be soaking wet before the conditioner so the wet washcloth works well enough.

4. Once we finish the combing it is time to define the curls. With Esther’s thinner toddler hair the finger separating method works fine, just running fingers through to separate the curls (see the 7 steps page for more details). I am still getting the hang of separating the curls well enough so I don’t get a “chunky” look like in the last photo below. The most important point – once the curls are separated do not touch them while they are drying!! What a lot of white moms miss (because it is not the case with our hair at all) is that super curly hair should not be played with or really touched much at all, especially once it is styled. Even with this technique if a section of Esther’s hair gets rubbed into a frizzy mess, I reapply conditioner to that section and carefully comb the conditioner through it. I know, it is a hassle and requires me to carry a small bottle of it and a small brush but I hate those sections that get all fuzzy – like on the back of the head. All you moms know what I am talking about!  The main problem time is in the car seat and taking a nap. I started putting a satin scarf on the back of the car seat and using satin pillowcases on her pillows (an easy find at a thrift shop). These help, but usually a little touch up is on order if I am taking her somewhere where I want her to look presentable. So far I have had OK results with sun hats if I use enough conditioner and really let it dry.

5. In the book the author recommends braiding the hair into little twists to sleep in then unbraiding and touching up the curls in the morning. Braiding little twists into a two year olds hair as she is running around the bathroom and getting into everything is such a hassle, I don’t usually bother.

Esther with braids before bed

Addendum: As Esther’s hair has gotten a little longer I have tried out this technique of twisting it at night and have had good luck with it – better than I expected! I used to just re-wet and reapply conditioner and re-comb each morning but it became a hassle to air dry. Now I can fit about 5 twists in her hair and hold them with little rubber bands. I take them out in the morning, spritz with a little water and rub a small amount of conditioner through. The curls look thick and great.

Esther's hair twisted up before bed.


While I don’t do this technique every single day, I have a feeling that as she gets older and her hair becomes thicker it will be the only technique that will work. Does anyone else use this technique on a toddler? What are your results? She gives more advice and examples on her Tips for Little Ones page

Here are some example photos of Esther. Note that her hair has been dry for hours in these photos!

Esther's Curls well defined with this method

Esther's Curls, well defined.

Defined curls, but I didn't separate the sections well enough. This won't be as much as an issue as her hair grows thicker.

Esther's hair after having it twisted all night then spritzing with a little water and running conditioner through it in the morning. I like how thick it is the next day!