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Learning to Love the Water

Learning to Love the Water: From Bath Tub to Swimming Pool

By Elizabeth Huebeck

Getting acclimated to the water often begins in the family kitchen sink-turned-bathtub. How babies react to their early experiences in the water–anxious, indifferent, or playful–depends largely on their parents’ comfort level with the situation. Do you tentatively trickle water over your baby’s head, careful not to get any in her eyes and frantically wiping away any dribbles the instant they flow near her lashes? Or do you sing a playful song as you pour a cupful of water over her unassuming head and smile at her when she looks up at you in wonder the first time she gets splashed?

As parents quickly discover, infants pick up on every signal that mommy and daddy send. So try to make these first bathing experiences fun. If you do, your child will probably begin to treasure bath time as her favorite part of the day. What’s more, a child who loves splashing around in the tub is likely to feel more at ease when taking that first dip in the swimming pool. Mine did.

Infants and toddler swim programs

Infant and toddler swim programs are soaring in popularity. And when you consider that babies float around in amniotic fluid for 40 or so weeks before making their debut on the outside world, it makes sense that they would enjoy skimming through the pool, especially in the arms of someone they love and trust.

As a fan of the water, I was excited to introduce my daughter to the swimming pool yet apprehensive about how she would react to it. I waited until she was six months old, the age at which most Infant and Toddler swim programs suggest babies be before taking the plunge. After just one class, my doubts dissolved. Holly cooed and splashed during class and slept soundly afterwards. I was ready to sign her up for more.

Veteran swim instructor Annie Lawler of Meadowbrook Aquatic and Fitness Center, headquarters of the North Baltimore Swim School (NBSS), teaches the class my daughter and I attended. Initially, the lively and fast-paced class seemed a bit overwhelming for such a young baby. But as I soon discovered, the class’s quick pace is just one of many strategies Lawler executes–expertly, I might add–to get babies get acclimated to the water.

What infants do in the water

Fast paced or not, 30 minutes seems like a long time to spend with a baby in the swimming pool. So just what takes place in the span on one Get Wet class? Plenty. From the start, seasoned instructor Lawler moves babies quickly through one activity to the next. Parents and babies sing and splash to familiar nursery rhymes, especially those that lend themselves to getting wet. Babies practice blowing bubbles, a stepping stone to the all-important swimming technique of breathing under water. They also glide on their fronts and backs, supported by their guardian or the instructor. They also spend plenty of time kicking and splashing, chasing after buoyant toys and even bravely ducking under the water. And for the nervous parent, Lawler is right there to ease worries away.

Getting babies and parents comfortable with the water

“A child’s comfort level and progress in the water often depends on how comfortable his or her parents are around the water,” Lawler explains.

Lawler facilitates this comfort level by making the class a fun time in which parents can bond with their babies, get acquainted with other babies and their mommies and daddies, and learn how to handle their children in the water. For example, Lawler demonstrates the proper holding technique so parents can seamlessly switch baby from a front to a back glide.

Lawler also demonstrates how best to submerge an infant under the water without child (or parent) getting upset. As I watched anxiously, she took Holly in her arms and quickly dipped her under the water. I was on the brink of losing my composure, but Holly maintained hers beautifully. As soon Holly popped out from under the water, Lawler encouraged me to hug her and praise her bold step. “In the Get Wet program,” explains Annie, “we’re just gooing with positive reinforcement.”

Preventing and alleviating fear of the water

The all-important theme of getting comfortable with the water continues to dominate swim lessons beyond the toddler age group. Fear, after all, is often what prohibits children from learning to swim. Just where does this fear stem from?

“Often, it’s the parents who put the fear in them,” explains Colette Kelly, a Baltimore-area swim instructor who has been teaching children to swim for over a decade. If, for example, a child wanders near the water and a parent runs after the child frantically screaming “no,” the child quickly learns that the water is dangerous.

Kelly suggests that instead of steering children clear of the water, parents allow them to explore the water–cautiously, and with supervision. “If a child goes near the water, let her put her feet in or her arm,” says Kelly.

What if a child does happen to get out from under the watchful eye of a parent and unwittingly fall into the water? Again, cautions Kelly, don’t panic. “Quickly pick your child up, start clapping and reassure him or her that everything is okay,” offers Kelly. And of course, explain that it is okay to get in the water but only with an adult.

Without a doubt, falling into the water when you can’t swim can be a traumatic experience. And, according to Kelly, it takes just one such experience to instill long-lasting fear into a child. But how a parent reacts to the situation can turn the scenario into an unforgettable nightmare or a valuable learning experience.

Giving children room, and time, to learn

All parents are eager to watch their child succeed. But, insist all swim instructors, once children are past the toddler stage, close parental observation during swim lessons becomes a detriment to their child’s progress. For parents who balk at this philosophy, Kelly remarks: “You don’t go into your child’s kindergarten class every day and observe, do you? So why do it at swim lessons? If you don’t trust the instructor to be alone with your child, then you’re in the wrong program.”

As with every milestone, learning to swim takes time. Some children gravitate naturally to the water and swim like fish as young as 5 years old. Others get in the water and instantly sink. And still others fear the water despite the positive cues they get from their parents. But most children who persevere eventually become comfortable enough in the water to enjoy a soak on a hot summer day.

So if your child clings to the side of the pool for dear life, be patient. As Cathy Lears, director of the NBSS program which teaches hundreds of kids to swim annually, says. “We don’t believe in being ‘hurry up’ oriented. We want to develop kids’ trust and confidence in the water so they’re still swimming when they’re 90.”

Sidebar: Tips for Teaching Children to Swim

Avoid water wings (children become too reliant on them)

Bring only bathing suit, towel and goggles to lessons. Save the fins and snorkels for the beach.

Choose lessons with a small instructor-to-student ratio

Don’t wait until summer for lessons–start them in January or March

Find an instructor who likes children and can demonstrate the requisite skills

Let your child decide on whether to pursue advanced lessons or swim team

Practice diving in a minimum of 8 feet

Work on breathing from day one

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