Contrary to what the “experts” say, you can teach your baby how to swim. When I say baby, I mean 12 months or older. Six-month-olds can be taught to flip over and float, but it is a bit trickier. Most parents are led to believe by well-intentioned pediatricians or swimming instructors that either they have to be at least 3 to start or that they must be taught by a professional. I am here to tell you that I have taught all four of my children to swim, and it is very do-able.
There are a few things to consider when you are preparing to be a swimming instructor for your own brood. Number one: You have to understand that swimming is a skill, like any other that your child undertakes to learn. Like learning to walk, there will be times when the baby is apprehensive. However, after a while, as he or she gains confidence, frustration and tears diminish and delight and enjoyment take their place. Number two: There will be people who disagree with you for attempting to do this and who will try to persuade you to stop. I know it sounds crazy, but I am reminded of several occasions in which I was literally accosted by onlookers who did not have an understanding about what I was trying to accomplish. This can be avoided by choosing a private setting for your lessons.
Before I go any further, let me just comment on floaties by saying this right up-front: If you want you baby to learn to swim, you must never put even them on their little arms. Floaties provide a false sense of security to a young child. I will never forget one day at the public pool in Kirksville, Missouri when a young child about 4 years of age jumped right into the water next to me at a depth of 4 feet and proceeded to sink straight to the bottom. Luckily, I was right there and I grabbed him before the lifeguard even had a chance to jump in the water. His mother apologized and said, “He usually has his floaties on. He must have forgotten that he can’t swim without them.” I held my tongue then, but now you know. The other thing about floaties is that they encourage an upright position in the water which is counterproductive to the learning of the swimming posture which is horizontal.
The lessons themselves should be short-ten minutes at the most. Your baby will be working very hard during this time, so keeping it short will control for the fatigue that will naturally take place. Be disciplined about this. Make sure that you have a clock to keep the minutes for you. The lessons should also be frequent. I like to do four or five days a week whenever possible. If you have more than one child, you can have them sit out while you work with each one until they can swim well on their own. I make it a rule that they cannot interrupt each other’s swim lesson. Also, make sure that your little swimmer has not just eaten and that he or she is not over-tired (nap-time).
In waist high water (for you), start out by making sure that your baby can grasp the wall at the side of the pool. Do this a few times so that they understand that their job is to get the wall. Move away from the wall an inch and tell your baby to get the wall. If she slips under the water, that is okay. Just watch that she reaches up and grabs it again. By this time, she may be crying. That is okay, too. Now you will be able to hear when she takes a breath more easily and will know when to have her grab for the wall again. Tell her what a clever baby she is for getting the wall. She is learning that she cannot breath under water and that she must hold her breath. She is also learning that the wall is where she is safe. Sometimes the water level is too low, so that it is too far for the baby to reach the edge. This is easily corrected by talking to the owner of the pool.
Three times catching the wall is plenty for this first lesson. Later, you will introduce variations like turning her so that her side is facing wall so that she must turn to get it, having her “fall” into the water with her back towards the wall so she has to turn all the way around before she can reach it and even trying different orientations to the water (ie. head first, entering on her side, etc) when she gets really good.
You want to take her out to the middle of the shallow end now and, holding her on one shoulder, show her how to kick her legs. Do this for a few minutes while saying “kick, kick, kick.” Then hold her out in front of you, pulling her through the water towards you and tell her to get your hand under the water. Right after she inhales a breath, release her and let her glide toward you for a brief one or two seconds. Praise lavishly. Two more times, and that should do it for the first lesson.
Do this for several days until your baby is holding her breath predictably and you feel comfortable taking cues from her. After a week or so, you should be able to tuck her legs under her and let her push off against your thighs to propel herself toward the wall. From that point, you will be able to end her lessons with one or more of these “big swim” to the wall. Your baby will be swimming, and you will have helped her learn.
At that point, you can add more variation to the swim routine. You can add a flip over to a back float to take a breath in the middle of her swim to catch your hand. You can also add floating on her back and flipping over to resume her swim to catch your hand or the wall. By this time, she will be having so much fun, she may even jump in to the water from the side and swim over to you. This is fun to show off at the public pool, especially if you have been shunned there before. I have had people who criticized me when I started come up and remark what wonderful swimmers my children were and that they were surprised at how much they could do at such a young age.
Of course, no matter how well your baby and children can swim, you will never stop watching them very closely around the water-but you knew that. If any of this makes you feel uncomfortable, by all means don’t do it. This is certainly not what I think you should do. All I am saying is that if you really want to teach your baby how to swim, you can. I did. Four times.