As children grow, they can spend hours being entertained by the joyous wonder of water. Sabine Warren looks at why it’s so important to introduce your baby to swimming at a young age by speaking to Brendan Varrie, infant aquatics, swim safe certified instructor and trainer, and Alison Ritchie, owner of Aquaducks Swimming School.

Water naturally attracts babies. It has magical qualities – it pours, it splashes, it moves, it’s cool and it’s fun. Swimming is a vitally important part of a baby’s development, but it also holds dangers, so it’s important to introduce babies to water the right way.

Of course, water safety is a pre-requisite. It is a life skill and should be introduced and acquired as young as possible. Apart from keeping them safe, it allows for endless fun and entertainment for your little one.

Babies develop in water in the womb, and their little bodies have a similar density to water, as well as a natural buoyancy, enabling them to float on the water in a natural way without drowning.

Until about six months of age the mammalian dive reflex will stop water from getting into a baby’s lungs.

How to begin

Introducing your baby to water should be a positive and stress free experience, with no anxiety attached. This should lead to a love for, and a confidence in water, that will stay with them into adulthood.

Begin by gently putting the warm water over their faces and heads at bathtime. Give them time to splash and play in the safety of the bath. Calmly introducing your baby to a warm (if possible) swimming pool from the age of three months, when their vaccinations are completed, is encouraged.

If, however, you as a parent feel anxious about the water experience with your baby, it is best to hand them over to a professional, who will put them at ease. A baby’s inherent ability to float dissipates with time as anxiety creeps in.

Why learn to swim?

“Water is an extension of the infant’s land environment, simply another place to learn and explore. In a country like South Africa, with its weather, and the amount of time families spend swimming, this is an environment that infants need to be exposed to and need to master for their enjoyment and for their safety,” says swimming teacher Alison Ritchie.
“Water is a rich medium for learning through play, as children love to play with water. Infants who are consistently given the opportunity to interact with this aquatic environment, will develop the skills necessary to master this medium, much like the tummy time given to help infants learn how to crawl. The more opportunity given the better for their development.”

Swimming is a very important part of a baby’s development. As swim school owner Brendan Varrie states, “Our relationship to water is important and we need to learn mastery of this medium as early as possible. Any child will move in water, but what they need to learn is the ability to be still, allowing flotation, which enables them to spend time in water safely.”
He starts his infant programme at six months and begins with an intensive course that involves four lessons a week for four weeks. This ensures the child is able to rotate face up and float even with heavy clothing.

Varrie adds, “The closer the infants are to six months, generally, the more relaxed they are in the water, allowing them to master an independent back float more easily. However, even though in an emergency situation the impulse for air will always be the most powerful trigger that ensures that they will rotate to breathe, this is a practised skill and needs to be maintained especially as infants grow and their weight distribution changes and they become more mobile. They will respond to this impulse for air even if the water is extremely cold, and we have had infants reaching their float safely in water as cold as five degrees.”

“Swimming is a whole body exercise and involves crossing the mid-line. It also develops and maintains core strength, and as such is an excellent activity to continue,” Ritchie emphasises.

“Depending on when the lessons start, children can swim independently at the age of three if they begin very young, although most children will become competent in freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke as they start school up until Grade 3, and butterfly in Grade 4.”

Final thoughts

However, don’t become complacent around the water just because your child is said to be water safe. Even children who swim can drown, so ensure you watch them like a hawk, and ensure your swimming pool is fenced off and child safe.

Always ensure that a love for water is as important as the skill of swimming or safety in the water. Your child needs to feel confident and comfortable. If she is taken to lessons at the age of three and suddenly handed over to a complete stranger in the water and reacts badly, do not be surprised. Up until now, she has been warned to be careful or stay away from open water.

Persevere. Trust and reassurance needs to be developed first. This should be done without the child developing a fear of water. The love and enjoyment should be the priority. In the long term, a child will only hate or fear the water if they don’t develop the necessary skills and confidence to negotiate it safely.

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