Make a splash and encourage your little ones to embrace the pool
Babies as young as 12 weeks can be brought to swimming lessons
Classes build up towards full ‘submersion’ for babies, which many parents may find nerve-racking. Photograph: Thinkstock
Instinctively, and for good reason, we’re afraid of drowning. It’s a fear that compels many parents to make swimming the first lifeskill they teach their children. Getting started early usually kickstarts a love of the water that can last a lifetime.
Baby swimming experts are agreed that swimming comes instinctively to babies, who have a natural affinity with water. However, before you strap on a swim nappy and head for the pool, there are some actions you can take that will make sure your baby develops a love, rather than a fear, of the water.
Amanda O’Beirne, who runs BabySplash swimming classes and teaches baby-swimming instructors, says the most important point parents need to remember is to take it slowly: for them and for the baby.
“It’s really important to work at the baby’s pace, because it means they are not going to be upset in the water,” she says. What’s also key at the start is to ensure the parent is relaxed in the water too, according to O’Beirne.
“Babies are very tuned in to their parents’ emotions so if you are a bit panicked about taking them in the water, they will pick up on that and it can make them upset,” she says.
She advises nervous parents to take a trip to the pool on their own to get rid of their fears so that they are coming into the classes relaxed and at ease with the water.
Don’t bring your baby swimming when they might be tired or hungry, says Carol McNally, who runs the Waterbabies franchise in the Dublin area, because it can set them off on the wrong foot. “If they are tired before you start, they will be exhausted afterwards, says McNally.
“One of the main points about babies and swimming is that it gives them a whole body workout. Most babies when they start are quite small and don’t move around much, but in the pool they are using their whole body, which they are not used to.”
According to modern parenting wisdom, you are never too young to learn a new skill, and swimming is no different. Both BabySplash and Waterbabies classes cater for babies as young as 12 weeks and/or weighing 5.4kg (12lb). And it’s perfectly safe for babies to start swimming from birth before having their immunisations. HSE guidelines state that the diseases babies are vaccinated against are not carried in water.
However, McNally urges caution on swimming with very young babies. “You need to use a hydrotherapy pool for very small babies to ensure they do not get too cold. That’s why we suggest the 12 week/12lbs limit. The water temperature is warm – at least 30 degrees – and it means the babies will not get too cold while they swim.”
You won’t find your baby zipping up and down the pool with a perfect breaststroke after the first few lessons, but they do “swim” underwater, after a fashion.
O’Beirne from BabySplash says the classes start by teaching the babies verbal cues, working up to full “submersion”. It may seem nerve-racking, but the parents push the baby gently under the surface of the water head-first at a 45-degree angle, and then release them. The baby’s “diving reflex” kicks in, causing the epiglottis to close over and block the throat so no water can get through. As soon as the baby is underwater, they will begin to kick their legs and glide up to the surface, where you lift them out for a cuddle.
If you’ve past the baby stage and want to teach your preschooler to swim, then you need to do some homework before you get to the pool, advises swimming coach and tutor Amanda Mooney.
By the time they reach four or five years old, many children will have developed views on whether they like water. But Mooney believes patience is the way forward. “One of the most difficult things when children start learning to swim is dealing with goggles. You can pre-empt that by using them at home in the bath and shower. Put them on if they don’t like water in their eyes when they are washing their hair, and make it a game for them.”
One of the easiest ways to get a child to put their face in the water is to ask them “Do your goggles work?” and 90 per cent will put their face in the water to check, Mooney says.
Often the water is not the first issue that can spook a small child at swimming lessons, according to Mooney. “Swimming pools are very noisy, echoing places and can often intimidate a child who is nervous anyway.”
You can soothe the nerves with a visit to the pool. Have a walk around the centre, maybe buy a treat and watch what is going on in the pool, listen to the noise and discuss what everyone is doing in the water, Mooney suggests.
Teaching preschoolers to swim is all about guided discovery where they have ownership of the experience, according to Mooney, and it makes for less stress on them and their worried parents. Ordering or insisting children get into the water can create a battle that a parent will never win, so making the experience about how they feel and what they think can be more successful.
“Little children need to feel in control, so tell them at the start they do not have to get in if they don’t want to: it takes the pressure off. A first visit lasting 15 to 20 minutes is more than enough, maybe with a game about how they will get in and out of the water. They can use the ladder, get out on the side, go up the steps: the most important thing is that it is fun.”