Let Your Child Learn to Swim Safely

By Gillian Düsterwald

Many tears ago, people were intrigued to hear of babies falling into water, then floating on their backs, their lives having been saved. The more we heard about this phenomenon, the more notorious the method of ‘drownproofing’ became, with horrendous stories of  babies’ hands being tied behind their heads to force them to float,  and screaming and vomiting during the lesson. In many cases the method resulted in children who were later too traumatized to go near a swimming pool, let alone learn to swim properly.

Thankfully, times have changed, and although we learnt from these early experiences that babies can float and, indeed, swim, the methods used today are far more baby and parent friendly.

Baby floating in water
Backfloat. A great start for eight month old Catherine.

The emphasis has shifted from teaching only one skill – that of floating – to teaching many different, age-appropriate skills, any of which could help a very young child to cope in and around water. The bonus is that, along with these lifesaving skills, babies actually learn to swim much earlier than was previously thought possible. Children as young as 18 months can be taught to swim a short distance with breathing. Younger children can be taught to float. Most children, exposed to water regularly, and in a guided way, will be swimming soon after they are two years old. Even better, these children have fun while they are learning!

Most programs include parents, and often a few other babies, in heated (about 30 deg. C) water, at least until the child has reached a basic level of safety. This reduces the tension associated with young children being handed over to a stranger and allows them to get to know the instructor in a non-threatening environment. Learning is always more efficient when there is no associated fear. Having parents in the water also trains the children not to go swimming on their own, as does ensuring that children are appropriately dressed for swimming (swimming daipers and UV sun suits are important for pool cleanliness as well). Other children in the water can be invaluable for taking the pressure off the individual child and encouraging them to copy their friends.

So, what skills do we teach babies in water?

children learn to swim
Oodles of noodles. Aged just 18 months, these little people learn to push off in shallow water and then hold onto noodles for safety.

Children are taught simple things, like walking, sitting and pushing up in shallow water and climbing safely into and out of a pool, as well as turning back to the side of the pool where they fell in and holding on. Since the children we teach are very small, they usually have no prior experience of deep water and thus have to be guided through these skills, which most older children instinctively know.

There are few things more dangerous than a baby swimming teacher whose sole emphasis is on babies swimming straight into the middle of the pool without showing them what to do next!

Once the children feel a bit safer in the water, more traditional swimming can be taught. Once again, the emphasis is on fun and teaching the children to use their natural buoyancy in the water . They learn to drift, then to wriggle their legs and pull with their arms and, finally, for those who haven’t mastered the backfloat, to drop their legs and allow their chin to lift to take a breath – very little effort or strength is required.

And what about the scariest part? Babies underwater! This is a necessary part of swimming and allowing the babies to feel their natural buoyancy. If the process of submersion is done with a sensitive and experienced  teacher, at the baby’s own pace, no harm or distress results. When children are allowed to tumble naturally into water and are then guided into their parent’s arms with the help of their own buoyancy, they simply see the whole process as being part of what happens in water – just like things are a bit different in a playground to the kitchen.

So, if you are looking for a swimming teacher or school, what should you look for?

It doesn’t matter what the age of your child is, you want qualified, experienced and approachable teachers and a clean, safe and hygienic teaching environment You should be allowed to watch the lessons, even if you are asked to ‘hide away’!

Word of mouth is often the best way of finding a good teacher, so talk to your friends and the parents at your child’s school or pre-school. Ask your neighbors.

One final word of caution: NO-ONE IS EVER DROWNPROOF. Be vigilant at all times around swimming pools, tragic accidents happen very quickly – even with competent swimmers.

This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of NSPI Swimming Pools & Spas

 

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