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 asked me for tips about instilling their baby with confidence in the water. Specifically, when should babies enroll 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 when Molly was born… hence, the birth of this very blog!)

Thanks to this new family of 3 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 you remember (cuz mom brain is real)
  • 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 empower you to feel comfortable with the water, and to teach your baby or toddler to love the water. Babies can definitely learn foundational swimming skills and water safety in the bathtub. We all know WHY swimming is an important life skill, so I’m here to peel back the layers for developing these skills.

Swimming should be fun and feel good. The foundational skills babies and toddlers can learn with parent support sets them up for success NOW – makes bath time easier when your kid is willing to rinse her own head – and carries forward to swimming lessons when they are a little older. (To learn more about my swimming background, click here.)

Timeline Lite: Summary of Each Stage
In the early months, lay a sensory foundation for your baby. Clean warm water on her head, face, eyes, and in her ears is safe. Very young babies are typically open to gentle experiences in the water, and will let you know with facial expressions and body language when they begin to feel stress. Crying signals a need for comfort, and doesn’t necessarily indicate they dislike bath time. Your baby might need your help developing stamina for baths.

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 benefit from clear and enforced structure and boundaries as they embrace their independence to play and explore movement in shallow water. Routines let kids know when to anticipate things will happen, such as “first we wash your body, then you can play.” (Or vice versa.)

As parents, we’ve found we benefit from flexibility, and allowing our expectations to evolve appropriately as our child grows.

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
AKA: When should babies start swimming lessons?

I have a multi-part answer:

  1. It depends on when you want to start
  2. It depends on what programs are available in your area; schools require age minimums depending on their services
  3. In general, babies who are developmentally about 6 months old have the physical abilities to attempt many of the skills instructors teach
  4. 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)

All babies, especially when they’re enrolled in formal lessons, need free playtime in the water to explore and discover; plenty of positive experiences are the key to developing a love for the water.

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

  • Time and money: time commitment & cost of infant swim lessons
  • 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 towels and swim diapers, preparing snacks, laundering towels and drying swim suits, time in the car – didn’t appeal to me when I had an infant. Molly continually progresses through supervised play and guidance in the bathtub anyway; if she didn’t, I’d reevaluate our situation.

Swimming lessons for babies and young toddlers entails consistent supervised time adjusting to sensations in the water and practicing guided positions. Babies can practice these foundational skills in the bathtub.

Devote bath times to getting comfortable in the water. In true comfort with water, one will develop trust, a sense of safety, and a healthy respect for it. I have tremendous faith in the effectiveness of play as a “teacher” and that babies learn in their own time when offered the opportunity to move through the right experiences. In our world, this means the majority of the time in the bath is hers to play while I watch closely, support, and occasionally coach her and keep her safe.

Playing in the bath supports building foundational skills and confidence in the water, both in preparation for swim lessons and as a supplement with infant swimming lessons.

Hopefully the hows and whats and whys are reflected here in my posts on the Pool Mom blog and on Instagram. I want you to have the tools to feel confident and purposeful about baby’s bath time, too!

If you want to know more about formal lessons, there are some great programs for infants these days that offer a variety of structures, from one-on-one instruction to small group to budget-friendly (larger group.) Swimming with your baby and an instructor can be a wonderful bonding experience, whether you’re a working parent who wants to build in an activity to do together, or a mom or dad who wants to build up their own confidence baby-handling in the water with a certified teacher.

Infant swim lessons will not replace the benefits of frequent supervised playtime and guided practice in the bathtub.


Loving that water life

{Side note: swim skills and water safety are life-saving, regardless of where you live or your personal sense of urgency on the matter. The fact that you are here tells me you’re probably feeling the right amount of urgency. 😉 Let me also add that my family lives in the Pacific Northwest where our club swimming pool opens in mid-May and closes mid-September; Molly isn’t at-risk for falling into a someone’s pool on the daily. I can’t say how I’d feel if we lived in a sunnier climate where everyone had backyard pools and year-round heat, 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!)

Medina writes that humans give birth at about 40 weeks because our babies’ brains, and our babies’ heads, will otherwise grow too large to safely pass through the birth canal. The first 3 months after birth (or baby’s due date) is referred to as the fourth trimester. It’s in this period that we watched as Molly seemed to ‘wake up,’ becoming more alert and engaged.

During this time, Molly loved being reminded of the comforts of “home.” We could soothe her using techniques akin to life in the womb. Swaddling, white noise, feeding on demand, and warmth: all womb-like. Guess what else is womb-like… warm baths!

Molly’s first bath was co-bathing with me in the tub after her belly button healed. A lot of new moms and dads are advised to give gentle, cozy sponge baths; I personally am in favor of warm submersion baths instead (waterline at baby’s chest or shoulders) – see the study on stress levels and first baths – whether in the baby tub or with a parent in the big tub. Click here to read how to give your baby the best first bath.

Keep bath times quick in the beginning. Sometimes less than 5 minutes. We limited swimming pool time to 10 or 15 minutes on the warmest days, cuddled her closely, and waited to submerge her head for the first time until she was four months old (we could have waited even longer.) We introduced simple sensory experiences with the water, 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 warm, gentle, sensory playtimes. Pour water so she can see and feel it. This is the window of opportunity to get those babes comfortable laying flat on their tummies and backs (with your hands supporting), and with water in her ears. 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 only one thing you practice, make it back floats and keep it up. Back floating is a life-saver.

Another sensory experience necessary for feeling comfortable in the water is the feel of (clean!) water on her face and in her eyes. Soap will sting her eyes; water will make things look blurry but shouldn’t hurt. 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 support herself sitting upright, fill the tub with a few inches of water and let her play and explore at her own pace. Celebrate happily when she dunks her own face (and then soothe her if she’s scared.)

We spent this time in Molly’s babyhood normalizing water as a comfortable place to play. We set our confidence in her abilities high, and she thrived. Molly experienced times that made her cry: unexpected splashes to the face, accidentally putting her face under, tipping over into the water… these “accidents” are crucial experience. In these scenarios, talking to her and helping her back up like I would if she had tripped and fallen on the ground helped me reduce any anxiousness I felt. Responding with empathy, retelling what happened, and naming their emotions helps kids move past moments that might otherwise root deeper and lead to fearfulness.

If you feel panicky when your child goes underwater, notice that. Your emotional energy will affect your child’s feelings, too.

Molly’s first summer landed in this age zone. On hot days, we took Molly into the pool for up to 20 minutes at a time. We cuddled her in the water and once she could sit up on her own, we were glued to the shallow end.

Walkers (around 10+ months)
Prior to this busy phase (which only gets busier, by the way!), I recommend choosing and setting some ground rules. One habit I’m practicing is stating what I want her to do, instead of what I don’t want her to do… for example, “Walk” instead of “Don’t run.”

Another habit I’m practicing is stating expectations right before an event as well as projecting into the future. During bath times, I might say, “It’s time for a bath! We will wash your body, and then you can play.” It also sounds like this: “We move carefully when we stand and sit in the tub.” I talk more about choosing words wisely in my post about setting boundaries in the boat. (Teacher mom much?!)

Snapped a pic of our girl before making her sit!

Molly overflowed with joy for the water at this age. Some days, Molly swam in all three of our options: the tub, the backyard kiddie pool, and our swim club!

Learning new things requires energy; swimming is also tiring physically, and requires constant adult supervision. By laying the groundwork early for Molly to be ultra comfortable in the water, she evolved as a “swimmer” into this age at which we could focus some attention onto consistent reinforcement of appropriate behavior around the pool and tub, as well as practicing life-saving skills. Pre-walkers can’t run off yet like older toddlers can… familiarize your child with expectations and you’ll have words ready when you need them (even the times your kids behave impulsively anyway.)

One of our expectations, for example, is “ask permission before getting in the water” (any water!) No, this rarely happens in actuality, but I make her ask anyway. She needs to learn to look for and anticipate adult supervision and lifeguards. It will take years before she will hold herself accountable, so I want this to be a habit as familiar as sitting in her car seat and wearing a seatbelt.

This age range was happened to hit us at the end of her first summer. We had barely begun self-rescue skills and buoyancy in deeper water before our pool closed for the winter. Then it was a return to back floating in the bathtub.

By Molly’s second summer (16-20 months), she was eager to learn self-rescue techniques; it’s as if it fueled her independence. Some of those skills included grabbing and holding onto the the wall, using her hands to “walk” along the wall, back floating and kicking to the wall, and rolling over to breathe, as well as consistent practice in a life jacket on the boat and in the lake.


Thanks for the Messages!
YOU and your little babies are the driving force for Pool Mom. You are the reason it exists. I love hearing about everything, from your successes big and small to answering questions. We’re so lucky to live in an era of technological communication to spread ideas and find help. I hope bath time with your baby becomes a time to take each other in with delight. Leave your phone outside the door, use the old fashioned camera if you need to take pictures, and have fun with each other!

All the best for growing happy water babies,

Published by Pool Mom

Hi, I'm Jenny! Educator, swim instructor, and mom.

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