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May 26

Baby’s First Splash: the whens & wheres of teaching kids to swim

This post is sponsored by Sunuva, the luxury children’s UV swim and beachwear brand. All writing, opinions, research and snake stories remain entirely my work. 

One of my most vivid childhood memories is from the summer I learnt to swim. Aged around six or seven I was on a family holiday camping near a pretty French lake. I was splashing about half-heartedly, trying to avoid weed wrapping itself round my feet when someone asked casually ‘is that a snake swimming over there?’ Cue mad panic and wild thrashing of arms and legs. Suddenly I was a swimmer.

These days using tales of watery serpents to encourage weak swimmers is generally frowned upon and swimming is normally taught through formal classes. Despite the passing of years, when, how and where to teach your children to swim remains a fuzzy topic for parents, with little official guidance.

Even relying on school is not an option for many children. Swimming classes are part of the National Curriculum  but time and budget pressures mean only 2% of state schools are dedicating the recommended time to swimming. In May 2013 a survey of 3501 schools highlighted that over half of 7-11 year olds (around 1.1 million children) could not swim 25 meters (one pool length) unaided –  the target distance for primary school leavers. Given that so many of us enjoy beach or pool holidays and that drowning tragically remains the third highest cause of accidental death in children in the UK, these are worrying statistics.

baby swimming

Pool swimming in France with Roo on the holiday she learnt to sleep through. Not a snake in sight!

There are no legal requirements for swimming teachers to hold a professional qualification either making choosing a good swimming class hard. Search engines turn up the most commercial baby swimming classes with their offerings of underwater photography and branded swimwear, There are equally good, less flashy and less pricey classes  but they often require calling local pools or word of mouth to track down.

For some children swimming begins almost as a continuation of being born! Infant swimming is increasingly in vogue with classes available for babies of just a few weeks old, although doctors generally recommend holding off until after their first inoculations at 12 weeks so that babies’ immune systems have time to strengthen.

At this age, babies still have a natural response to hold their breath, open their eyes and to close their epiglotis when in contact with water.  These reflexes fade as we age so starting young gives the chance for infants to learn to purposefully recreate them, free from the fear that so often creeps in as baby becomes a toddler. Babies are also more buoyant and many believe that having been so used to fluid in the womb, babies take to water much more naturally than older children. Add into this the advantages of increased water safety, confidence, motor skills and even intelligence, not to mention the chance for new parents to socialise and it’s easy to understand why some classes have long waiting lists.

When Roo was 12 weeks old I signed her up. I’m afraid I wimped out on the new friends bit and went swimming with a group of lovely mums I had met in antenatal classes. With my baby belly wobbling about in an unflattering swimsuit, Roo breaking the decibel meter as I wrestled her into hers and my constant fear of her vomiting in the pool (she had awful reflux), making new friends was the last thing on my mind. In retrospect, a quick glance round the changing room would have revealed that I was by no means alone.

Roo loved swimming and I enjoyed the unexpected extra bonding time that those early swimming lessons provided. She was in her element in the water from the start and before long she was equally as at ease with quick dips underwater. This progress had the added bonus of making hair-wash days and using the shower with Roo a breeze.

baby swimming

Taking Roo to one of her early baby swimming classes.

Another noticable early benefit from baby swimming with Roo was safety related. As a baby she quickly mastered the command of ‘hold tight’, supporting her full weight unaided by holding onto the side of the pool -a skill, the teacher pointed out, that is equally as useful in the sea should children get unexpectedly out of their depth or if you lose your footing. Just being around the pool, even just on family swimming trips, teaches children safe behaviour near water and classes build on this, teaching them how to enter water safely, to swim back to the side and hold on if they fall in or to float on their backs should they get into trouble.

What if you don’t teach your kids to swim early though? Learning to juggle two children has meant that Beth has only just begun swimming at 15 months old. After a promising start, Roo was forced to stop her classes for over two years after repeated ear infections, croup and other lurgies made all the missed swimming lessons just too expensive to justify. She has only just restarted swimming classes at the age of 3 ½.

Both girls have missed the boat on non-arm band swimming – think the swimming equivalent of using a balance bike instead of stabilisers that helps some children swim unaided by toddler-hood. Despite this their slightly later start doesn’t seem to have otherwise set them back. Beth has gone from being very wary of bathtime dunkings to instantly taking to swimming and she has no problem going under water when in the company of giant plastic ducks. Roo wears armbands and goes in without me. She is unfazed by being in the bottom group of young beginners in her class – something that might faze older children. So far she’s mainly just bobbing about, joining in with action songs and retrieving toys but she really enjoys it and seems confident. Soon she will transition to a float-suit or jacket, positioning her forward in the water and allowing her arms to move freely. From there, in time, she will learn to swim completely unaided.

There are a few arguments in favour of delaying children swimming. Traditionally children were not considered physically developed enough to learn to swim until around the age of four or five although guidance has since changed. There is also research that suggests chlorine in pools can put children who are naturally sensitised to allergies at increased risk of developing asthma. Given the complex nature of the disease though, more research is required to provide any conclusive evidence. I can’t help feeling that encouraging healthy children to enjoy a form of exercise that will be available to them throughout their whole lives, even through pregnancy or frailty, far outweighs any risk.

Snorkelling in Cuba and baby swimming

Learning to swim early will hopefully open up, quite literally, whole new worlds to Roo & Beth. This is me (not being frightened by sea snakes!) snorkelling with the fish in Cuba whilst 5 months pregnant with Roo.

For me, getting our girls swimming as preschoolers is a no-brainer. I hope that by starting as young children, unlike me, they will not remember learning and that swimming will feel natural to them. Being a confident swimmer opens up a whole world of holiday fun, school competitions and water-sports and means children can concentrate on mastering different strokes or new sports in school swimming lessons rather than struggling to learn the basics at an age when children can be heartlessly cruel.

What’s more, I know that every week I will have a blissful hour to myself after baby swimming class whilst Beth snores, exhausted by a mere 30 minutes in the pool. Swimming every evening for a week taught her big sister to finally sleep through the night and now it seems to be teaching Beth the merits of a morning nap. Children’s swimming lessons are worth it just for that.

 

Key References:

Amateur Swimming Association – http://www.swimming.org/asa/

Swimming Kids are Smarter, Griffith University – https://app.griffith.edu.au/news/2012/11/15/swimming-kids-are-smarter/

NHS Behind the Headlines – http://www.nhs.uk/news/2009/09September/Pages/SwimmingAsthmaRisk.aspx

Australian Swimming Coaches & Teachers Association – http://www.ascta.com/

 

 

As a topic that’s so important to me, especially in the run up to a hopefully water-action packed summer, I’m linking this post up to the wonderful Honest Mum’s Brilliant Blog Posts linky:

 

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

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5 comments

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  1. Emma T

    I totally agree getting children swimming early, although I do despair over how long it’s taking N to actually make good progress and swim unaided.

    He did Water Babies from 3.5 months old – started off ambivalent to it, then at 9 months started water wobbles which meant a painful year of moaning/crying during lessons. We stopped for a term for a break, then started again and the last week of term he had a turnaround and then loved it. Of course only on his terms – so hated being on his back, no star floats, moaning at underwater etc. But it was great to see how he progressed, despite him being one of the only children in his final class not to swim get his 10 metres badge unaided.

    Now he swims at the same pool in their normal swimming classes. We were lucky to get on the courses, but he loves them, despite me worrying that he wouldn’t go in without me. But no problems, and he does everything (pretty much, when he’s not day dreaming) that the teacher asks. It feels a bit like going backwards because he now has a float belt (well, cord with a 4 float bars on), but the confidence, safety, listening and swimming skills he is learning is brilliant. I’m hoping that by the time he starts school he will be down to 1 bar or none as he gets stronger.

    It’s been a great (if slow) journey, but is so worth the money. Just a shame there aren’t more classes for all the children that want them. They’re very hard to come by at larger leisure centres if you don’t start at the baby stage.

    1. Kate Limburn

      Sounds like it has been worth all the patience and hard work! Not used a float belt before – did he mind having to wear it? Know what you mean about slow progress though…when I first started baby classes with Roo I must admit that wafting her through the water to a few nursery rhymes really didn’t convince me at first but suddenly realised just how much she had been taking in without me realising. We forget just how many baby steps are involved in something we take for granted sometimes.

  2. Penny

    I can’t believe swimming is such a low priority in schools – it’s so important, plus is such a great way to keep fit (ironically I am probably the un-fittest person on the planet, haha, but even I know how to swim and it’s good because you work all your muscles at once) which you’d think they’d also want to push in this day and age.

    Love the photos of you swimming while pregnant in Cuba – a perfect example of what being able to swim can allow you to experience!

    #brilliantblogposts

    1. Kate Limburn

      It does seem crazy doesn’t it? Those stats shocked me too first time I saw them. Swimming is really important for so many reasons. I guess schools have so much pressure on these days though and getting large classes of children changed and in the pool is always going to be both time consuming and budget draining. Maybe they need summer swimming school for a week after term ends!

  3. susanna

    I think the low priority just comes down to low funding. Swimming is VERY important. x

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