Everyone knows how beneficial the water is to pregnant women, both before birth and during labour, but what about babies? Sam Pope spoke to Hank Starrs, baby swimming coach, about teaching babies to swim, underwater and on top!
Why is swimming great for babies?
It’s the only activity really where babies are completely independent, especially before they can walk or crawl unaided. The water supports their weight and they are free to move their legs and arms as much as they want. They love it! It’s also a great bonding experience for dads and it’s something he can do alone with baby.
How old does my baby have to be to start?
We generally start them at around three months. Some classes prefer your baby to have had all their vaccinations but we have no ruling on this since no baby has caught polio, for example, in a pool in more than 100 years. However, we always advise parents to check with their health visitor on this and also to go with what they feel most comfortable with.
Is underwater swimming safe?
Absolutely. When a baby goes underwater their ‘diving reflex’ kicks in. The same sort of thing happens as when you swallow – the epiglottis closes over and blocks the throat so no water can get through. That’s why you often see picture of babies swimming underwater with their mouths open! This reflex lasts up until 18 months of age so, from around 16 months onwards, we teach toddlers and older children how to swim in a different way to babies.
There are, however, some general points to bear in mind. If your baby is unwell or has a cold, don’t go swimming as this might make symptoms worse. Also, once you’re in the pool, if your baby starts shivering, take them out and wrap them up warm. Babies should not be in the water for longer than 30 minutes and it helps to gradually build up the time they spend in the pool.
What should my baby wear?
A swim nappy of some kind – either a reusable one or disposable one. These should keep little accidents to a minimum but don’t worry if something happens – staff at the pools know what to do!
What should I take?
Obviously you’ll need a towel, for both yourself and your baby to dry off with, and a swimsuit for yourself while you’re in the water with your child. Babies get hungry after a session in the water so make sure you have a bottle of milk to offer afterwards, if you are bottlefeeding, as well as some snacks if your child is eating solids. Some toys or books might come in handy if the other parents go for a cuppa afterwards!
How do I know if a class is good?
There are various things you should look out for. First of all, the pool should be at least 31 degrees centigrade to be comfortable for babies. There should be a sign somewhere saying what the temperature is and when they last checked the water’s chemicals (e.g. chlorine etc). Secondly, ask what qualifications the teacher has who is taking the class. They should at least have a life saver certificate, and preferably the Red Cross Mother and Baby certificate. Thirdly, classes should ideally not have more than ten babies in them. Once they get larger than this, you get less attention from the teacher, which can compromise safety.
Which class is best for my baby?
Underwater swimming doesn’t suit everyone. Some people prefer classes where they can go and splash around and play with their child, which is fine. Our classes tend to be much more structured as we are teaching a child a skill. Also, if you as a parent don’t like swimming, or are nervous in the water, it’s generally not a good idea to take your child to swimming lessons. Children pick up on fear and anxiety and that’s when they get upset in the water, so I would advise you either forget about baby swimming for now or ask a grandparent, who likes the water, to take your child instead.
General tips – making water fun
- Use bath time to show him how fun being in the water can be. Gently splash water over his body or move him gently through the water on his back.
- Visit your public swimming pool off-peak, 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.
- 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 him further away from you, still looking into his eyes, and try swishing him around gently.
- 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.
- If your baby is around six months old, and able to sit unaided, sit her on the side of the pool and sing Humpty Dumpty to her. As you sing ‘Had a great fall’ lift her down into the water with a gentle splash.
Where to next?
- For further information on swimming for babies, visit www.babyswimming.co.uk