Do babies really need swimming lessons?

Swimming is as Aussie as a beer and a pie at the footy – but how early is too early for baby to learn to swim?

dad teaching toddler to swim in pool

Ask yourself, would you be gullible enough to sign up for a course titled ‘Teach Your Baby to Count Cards and Beat The Casinos’? Or ‘Teach Your Baby Aikido’?

So why do so many of us sign up for ‘Teach Your Baby to Swim’ classes when babies are about as good at swimming as you are at sleeping inside your wife’s stomach?

I went to one of my son’s first baby swimming lessons and, while it sure was something to see all those newborn babies bobbing in the water, and the acoustics of the indoor pool magnified all the screaming magnificently, I was left with just one big, gnawing question: how much are we paying for this? Because I could stand in the pool and smile at him for free.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to agree with me, advising against teaching babies and toddlers to swim. But it reversed that position in 2010, citing studies that found children under the age of four who’ve had some kind of swimming training are less likely to drown. Fair payoff.

The AAP now says children aged one to four can benefit from learning to handle themselves in the water, but it still does not recommend any formal water-safety program for babies under the age of one.

Clearly, I’m not an expert. And plenty of people who are will tell you it’s not only a good idea to teach newborns to swim, but vital. In Australia, we like to chuck them in as early as possible, and you’ll find plenty of support for the idea on sites like bubhub.com.au.

They’ve got an intriguing list of basic principles for bubs, like water familiarisation, learning breath control, submersion, free floating, propulsion and breathing.

I reckon I’ve got ‘submersion’ and ‘water familiarisation’ covered, because we own a bath, but the only baby I’ve seen working out the propulsion part was on the cover of Nirvana’s enduring classic, Nevermind.

Baby swimming nirvana

I’m certainly not going to argue with the great, and very shouty, swimming coach Laurie Lawrence, though, who tells us that “the learn-to-swim process should start at birth” because babies are like little sponges (soaking up information, and hopefully not pool water).

And that “after being contained, protected and immersed in a watery environment for nine months the new baby is ready to learn” – which makes me wonder why we’re not all born with gills.

Lawrence, who has been working in the infant learn-to-swim area for more than three decades, does admit what I thought was a particularly relevant point, which is that “children do not have the fine motor skills to perform the correct freestyle action until the age of four.”

Is it just me, or would that make, say, four a good age to start swimming lessons?

Lawrence, however, says babies can be independently mobile in the water well before that age, using primitive movements and a “dolphin-like wriggle” to propel themselves.

All of which makes me realise that I may have pulled my son out of his baby swimming lessons too soon, and that just because it looked like they were as effective as teaching piano to a tortoise, it doesn’t mean they were.

So,I’m ready to accept that I was wrong. It’s time to get educated.

Where, and when, should you start?

Not surprisingly, you can use the bath to get your baby used to the water – experts call this ’water familiarisation’.

As Lawrence puts it, babies learn through having their senses stimulated. The bath should be a place of fun, enjoyment and learning, so be sure to provide plenty of cuddling, playing and communicating opportunities.

Newborns have no fear of water, apparently (although they sure scream when you put them in it sometimes), which means they should be happy to take part in the conditioning process that will prepare them for their first out-of-womb immersion experience.

Conditioning is a ‘stimulus response method’ – like clicker training for a dog, you’re teaching your baby to respond a certain way when you do a particular thing. In this case, you’d be teaching a baby to hold its breath in response to a verbal trigger. Using this method you can, apparently, teach your baby breath control on command.

If you practice regularly in the bath, your child should be ready for a ‘trauma-free submersion’ by four months of age. Meaning you can put them under and they won’t just inhale the bath water.

You know we hate saying “don’t try this at home” – after all what dad doesn’t love a good DIY project? But, if you are going to attempt to DIY this, we recommend you read up very carefully at Lawrence’s swimming school website – he offers 13 modules to give you the tools to help make your child’s swimming lessons both fun and effective.

Ages and stages

As with all things developmental, when it comes to babies, there will be certain activities they can and can’t do – and all babies develop on different timelines, yada yada.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s a general run-down on what swimming lessons can teach a baby to do at each stage.

Four to eight months: Babies can submerge, free float, back float, grip and kick. (To be fair, even rocks can ‘submerge’, aka ‘sink’).

Eight to 12 months: Your increasingly bouncy but immobile child can now free float long distances, and pull up independently on a shallow ledge and will start turning around in the water.

12 to 18 months: Children can swim short distances unaided, turn unaided to an adult, and turn unaided to a ledge.

18 to 24 months: Children start being able to swim longer distances, turn unaided and even climb out of the pool, swim independently around adults, and pick up rings off the bottom of the pool.

Two to three years: By now, chatty little children can kick using a kickboard, float on their backs independently, and swim and breathe independently.

Three to four years: At this stage children begin to gain better control over their body movements, and will refine their swimming skills and start learning freestyle.

Just do it

In the final analysis, no matter how unlikely it may seem, the expert opinion seems to be that you can teach babies to ‘swim’ from a very young age, and there’s no arguing that even teaching them to float as young as possible is a good idea.

This is Australia; there’s an awful lot of water around the place when you live on an island, and there’s a backyard pool in 12 per cent of homes (even if you don’t have one, your family or friends likely do).

We also used to be quite good at swimming in the Olympics, and we all have a responsibility to bring up a Kieren Perkins or a Susie O’Neill if we can.

It’s certainly not in dispute that babies absolutely love the lessons and seem to have a great time splashing about and staring into the middle distance.

It’s a great way to meet other dads too who seem to line up to finally do a fun/action based activity with the baby without your missus losing the rag that “he’s too young for that” or “you’re over stimulating him“.

And when the time does come to learn freestyle, bub will at least be comfortable in the water.

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