When Should Babies Start Swimming Lessons?

Some college friends recently gave birth to their first baby (!), a beautiful girl. They follow Molly’s swimming shenanigans on our Facebook and Instagram feeds, and recently asked me for tips about instilling their baby with confidence in the water, too. Specifically, when should they enroll her in swimming lessons? (In case you haven’t read my post where I describe Molly’s first bath, I started thinking about these exact same questions around the same time… hence, the birth of this very blog!)

Thanks to them for motivating this post. It’s just for you, my new and expecting mammas!

Today, I’m sharing the Pool Mom Timeline for babies 0-1.5 years. This includes:

  • Timeline Lite, a summary of each stage for babies and young toddlers
  • Pin-able infographic to help make remembering easier
  • My thoughts on when to start infant swimming lessons
  • A rundown of what to expect from your baby in the water at different ages
  • Linked list of books & apps I compiled for you that I mention in this post! They’re of the brain development / parenting variety, for those of you who love learning, too (Mama, Phd.! Here we come!)

8 months: holding the step… & bouncing!

The premise of the Pool Mom blog is to help you teach your baby or toddler to love the water, and foundational swimming skills and water safety, starting from a very young age in the bathtub. It’s a no-brainer why it’s important, but how we actually get from point A to point B might feel a bit mysterious.

Swimming is fun, feels good, and most importantly, the foundational skills babies and toddlers can learn with parent support sets them up for success NOW and in swimming lessons when they are a little older. (To learn about me and my stance on swimming, click here.) FYI, we’re planning to enroll Molly in swimming lessons the summer after she turns 3. The time between 0-3, though, will most definitely NOT be dry!

Timeline Lite: Summary of Each Stage
In the early months, lay a sensory foundation for your baby. Water on her head, face, eyes, and in her ears is natural and safe. Very young babies are very open to gentle experiences in the water, and will let you know with facial expressions and body language when they feel stress.

As babies gain strength and control over their bodies, they learn that the body moves differently in the water, along with cause and effect of their actions.

Finally, early walkers and toddlers need clear and enforced structure and boundaries as they embrace their independence to play and explore movement in shallow water.

Bath times feel fun and safe with kind and responsive caregivers who talk to their babies about the events of the bath and give constant close supervision.

Starting Infant Swimming Lessons
This blog won’t replace the benefits of eventually enrolling your child in swimming lessons, but it serves as a guide for building foundational skills and confidence to use NOW and in preparation for that day or along with infant swimming lessons.

After all, swimming lessons for babies and young toddlers mostly entails consistent supervised time adjusting to sensations in the water and practicing guided positions. Babies can learn these foundational skills in the bathtub. Devote bath times to having fun and getting comfortable in the water.

All babies, even when they’re enrolled in lessons, need playtime in the water to practice and discover the water world for themselves. There are some great programs for infants these days and they offer a variety of structures, from one-on-one instruction to small group to budget-friendly (larger group.)

To answer the question about when to start lessons, I’ll give a three-part answer:

  1. Babies ~6 months old can physically attempt what instructors want to teach
  2. It really comes down to your ‘wants’
  3. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “children are not ready for formal swimming lessons until after their fourth birthday,” but to teach your baby or toddler to “love the water.” (AAP)

If you decide you want more hands-on coaching than what you glean from the blog, enroll yo’self! But, infant swimming lessons will not replace the benefits of frequent supervised playtime and guided practice in the bathtub. You don’t have to enroll in swimming lessons for your baby to learn swimming skills and water safety, unless you really want to! Swimming with your baby and an instructor is a GREAT activity for working parents to look forward to, and for moms and dads who want to build their own confidence with a hands-on coach.

A few of the points to consider while weighing your options are:

  • The cost of infant swim lessons & time commitment
  • The style and intensity of the program and instructor
  • Your baby’s stamina… swimming quickly makes babies hungry, tired, and cold

Personally, I prefer to keep our daily schedule simple and streamlined, so adding an extra class to our week – along with packing a swim bag, laundering towels, and time in the car – didn’t appeal to me when my plate felt already full. Molly continually progresses through supervised play and guidance in the bathtub anyway.

TBH, I have tremendous faith in the process and that babies learn in their own time when offered the opportunity. I watch, support, and coach Molly to help her grow in what she can do while keeping her safe.

All of my posts stem from what I know:

  • Teaching Molly to feel confident and “safe” in and around water
  • Teaching swimming lessons for 15 summers
  • Teaching elementary school for 7 years
  • Studying early childhood development

I want you to have the tools to feel confident and purposeful about baby’s bath time, too!

Loving life

{Side note: Regardless of where you live or your personal sense of urgency on the matter, swim skills and water safety are life-saving. Let me also add that we live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest where our club swimming pool opens in mid-May until mid-September; Molly isn’t at-risk for falling into a someone’s pool on the daily. My sense of urgency is not the same as it might be if we lived in a sunnier climate with backyard pools and year-round heat – no guarantees that it would change either – but this circumstance influences the tone I take in my writing.

All babies benefit from consistent supervised playtime in the water to develop a foundation for learning to swim. We use our bathtub to facilitate teaching these early skills, and hope you’ll give the ideas on Pool Mom a whirl.}

The Fourth Trimester (Newborn & Infant 0-3 Months)
I read about ‘the fourth trimester’ for the first time in Dr. John Medina’s book, “Brain Rules for Baby.” (Highly recommend! If you just want the cliff notes, the condensed version, “Zero to Five,” is a fast, informative read, too… I own both!)

Medina writes that humans give birth at about 40 weeks because our babies’ brains, and our babies’ heads, grow too large to safely pass through the birth canal. During this fourth trimester, the first 3 months after birth (or due date, if baby debuts early!), we watched as Molly seemed to ‘wake up,’ becoming more alert and engaged. Many babies at this age feel soothed by techniques akin to living in the womb. Swaddling? Womb-like. White noise and shushing? Womb-like. Feeding on demand? Womb-like. Warmth? Womb-like. Guess what else is womb-like… a warm bath!

Generally, pediatricians recommend a gentle, cozy sponge-bath until baby’s umbilical cord falls off, and then a warm submersion in a bath. However, a study conducted by delivery nurses collected data on the stress levels of newborns during sponge baths and submersion baths, and based on the outcomes, recommended submersion bathing. Click here to read how to give your baby the best first bath. Coincidentally and unintentionally, our situation combined the two.

Bath times are short, short, short! Sometimes less than 5 minutes. We limited pool time to 10 or 15 minutes on the warmest days, and cuddled her most of the time. We introduced simple sensory experiences with the water, such as pouring small amounts on her scalp and back floating with her ears submerged.

Rollers & Sitters (3 to 9 Months)
Once your baby is strong enough to hold herself up, sit, and roll over, the game is on! Make bath times about warm, gentle, sensory play. Pour water so she can see and feel it. This is the time to get those babes comfortable laying flat on their tummies and backs (with your hands supporting.) For more info about water on the face, check out my detailed post here.

A powerful skill to introduce early is back floating with support. The easiest way I found to do this was in the tub with Molly. As you hold your baby’s head and body from below, keep her mouth above water while you let the water cover her ears. If there’s one thing you practice, make it this and keep it up. Back floating is a life-saver, literally.

The second thing to develop and keep up is feeling comfortable with water on her face and eyes. She might startle and that’s a natural response. You can help this by starting with a soaked washcloth and squeezing it on her head (or pour water from a cup.) As she becomes strong enough to sit in a bigger tub, fill the tub with a few inches of water and let her play and explore at her own pace. Toys that sink to the bottom might add some interest! Celebrate happily when she dunks her face (and offer comfort if she’s scared.)

We spent this time in Molly’s babyhood making water all about a comfortable, normal place to play. We set our confidence IN her abilities high, and she thrived. Molly certainly made mistakes that made her cry: unexpected splashes, accidentally putting her face under, tipping over into the water… most of these “accidents” are crucial to their understanding and for growth, and we responded calmly, like we would if she had tripped and fallen on the ground. Then we took things easy for a few days.

Responsive parenting also helped Molly move past any moments that might have developed into fears. Talking about what happened and naming her feelings (aka, emotion coaching) specifically helps us support her through emotional situations. Check out “Whole-Brain Child” by Daniel Siegel or “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child” by John Gottman to learn about emotion coaching.

On hot days, we took Molly into the pool for up to 20 minutes at a time. We cuddled her in the water until she could sit up on her own.

Walkers (around 10+ months)
Prior to this busy phase (which only gets busier, by the way!), I recommend choosing and setting your ground rules. We talked to Molly about our expectations during bath times before she needed them, and it was good practice for us. Instead of falling into ‘don’ts,’ we had our words already ready! I talk about choosing words wisely (goll, I sound like a MOM…) in my post about setting boundaries on the boat.

For example, one of our rules is “sit down in the tub,” not “don’t stand in the tub.” Unstable legs mixed with ceramic walls and floor AND water is – obviously – a recipe for pain. As it turns out, this rule helps when we visit hotels that have much slipperier tubs than the one at home. Once Molly could  walk sturdily, we felt comfortable letting her stand in the shower or bathtub because we have a textured floor that helps her feet grip.

Snapped a pic of our girl before making her sit!

At this point, playing in swimming pools together is great fun. We couldn’t wait for our pool to open for the summer. We have a terrific shallow end for Molly to play in. She also loves playing in her classic little backyard kiddie pool and the bathtub. Some days, Molly swims in all three! We are obsessed with the water.

My experience with Molly and the other children I have taught is that learning something new takes a lot of energy; it is important that Molly has the brain space to devote her energy to learning about the rules that help keep her safe. We laid the groundwork early for Molly to be ultra comfortable in the water. Our focus now is consistent reinforcing of rules around the pool and tub, and life-saving skills.

For example, she must always ask permission before getting in the water (any water!) No, this rarely happens in actuality, but I make her ask anyway. She is also learning what her body does when she jumps into deeper water, something we couldn’t accomplish in the bathtub. At 18 months, Molly is beginning learning how to self-rescue: we are working on grabbing the wall, back floating and kicking to the wall, and rolling over to breathe. I’m finding the need to think and move faster just to keep up!

 

Book List
In order of appearance, all linked for you! I added 4 other favorites in the second row; I love them so much, I couldn’t NOT share them with you, too.

The Wonder Weeks app is a big red square with a baby in it (it’s $1.99… worth every penny.)Molly just went through her 18 month leap… clingy, cranky, waking up 3 times in the night (after having been a decent sleeper.) The app tells you what to expect from the growth leaps your baby will go through, and how to support them!

       

      

Thanks for the messages! YOU and your little babies are the driving force behind Pool Mom, and I love hearing about everything, from your successes, big and small, to helping answer your questions. We’re so lucky to live in an era of technological communication to spread ideas and find help… I hope you also settle in to time with your baby, away from your phone and computer each day, and really take each other in with delight.

All the best for growing happy water babies!

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