We all know that swimming is a great form of exercise for children and adults, but did you know that it’s also great for babies (and their parents as well!).
It’s the first activity babies can undertake completely independently, even before they can walk or crawl unaided. With the water supporting their weight they can thrash their and arms and legs around to their heart’s content! It's also a great bonding experience for both parents and is something even one parent can do alone with a baby.
When to start?
Around three months old is generally reckoned to be appropriate. Some classes prefer your baby to have had all their vaccinations. The best advice is to check with your health visitor and then to make a decision you are comfortable with.
Is underwater swimming safe?
Yes it is. When a baby goes underwater its “diving reflex” kicks in. This works in just the same way as when you swallow and the epiglottis closes and prevents food from entering the trachea. That's why you often see picture of babies swimming underwater with their mouths open! This reflex continues to function up until about 18 months of age. Consequently, from around 16 months onwards, toddlers and children are taught to swim in a different way.
There are some important points to bear in mind. If your baby is unwell or has a cold, don't go swimming as this could make the condition worse. Also, don’t let your baby get cold. Get out of the water if your baby starts to shiver and wrap the baby up. You are recommended not to keep your baby in the water for longer than 30 minutes. It is also advisable to build up the time they spend in the pool gradually.
What should my baby wear?
Get a swim nappy for your baby, either a reusable one or disposable one. This will help keep accidents to a minimum. However, don't worry if something does happen because pool staff are trained and know exactly what to do!
What else do I need to take with me?
You’ll need a towel for yourself and a towel for your baby, and of course a swimsuit for yourself. Splashing around in the water is likely to give your baby an appetite, so make sure you have a bottle of milk for after the swim if you are bottlefeeding, as well as some snacks if your child is already on solids. If you go for baby swimming sessions with friends and like to enjoy a cuppa afterwards, it’s a good idea to bring some pool toys or books to keep the babies occupied.
What should I look for when investigating swimming lessons?
Make sure that the pool maintains a temperature of at least 31 degrees Celsius to ensure it is comfortable for babies. The pool should have a clearly visible temperature display. It may also show when they last checked the water's chemicals (e.g. chlorine etc). Also, be sure to ask what qualifications the teacher has who will be taking the class. They should at least have a life saver certificate, and preferably the Red Cross Mother and Baby certificate. Finally, enquire about class size. Ideally there should be no more than ten babies in a class. Once classes get larger than this, you get less attention from the teacher, which can compromise safety.
Which class is best for my baby?
You will find that some classes are aimed at splashing around and having fun whereas others are more structured and serious. It’s really down to how your baby responds and what you want your baby to get out of it. One more point to bear in mind. If you don't like swimming or are nervous in the water yourself, you may not be the ideal person to take your child to swimming lessons. Children can pick up on your fear and anxiety and that's when they get upset in the water. In this case, get your partner or a grandparent who is comfortable in the water to take your baby.
Other hints and tips for making water fun:
1. Use bath time to show your baby how much fun being in the water can be. Gently splash water over their body or move them gently through the water on their back.
2. Visit your public swimming pool at off-peak times, when it is likely to be quiet, as babies can get stressed in noisy, crowded situations. Ask another friend with a baby to come along too.
3. In the pool, make sure you keep your baby's face close to your own and maintain eye contact. It's important for them to feel you are close by in an unusual situation. When you are both more confident, gradually move your baby further away from you, maintaining eye contact, and try swishing them around gently.
4. Blow bubbles in the water. This helps to show babies what they should do with their mouths and breathing in the water, as they can't inhale water if they are blowing out.
5. If your baby is around six months old, and able to sit unaided, sit them on the side of the pool and sing Humpty Dumpty to them. As you sing 'Had a great fall', lift them down into the water with a gentle splash.