As soon as the Little Monkey turned 6 months old, I signed him up for Baby Swimming Lessons. I was counting down the days, as I wanted him to be a swimmer like the Big One. He’s taking lessons again this summer, and he’s not learning freestyle or the Butterfly, but he has been learning how to get ready to really swim. The lessons have been helpful to me too– I have learned what I need to do to facilitate the Little Monkey’s success in the pool and with swimming. It has been a joy to watch the Little Monkey, as he loves the water. Since starting his lessons, we’ve had several parents ask us how he’s such a good “swimmer.” I thought I’d share what I’ve learned. I really must say that this is the information that I have gleaned from the instructors of the Baby Swim Lesson classes, and from watching the other families in the lessons.
Most importantly, you need to think about your baby’s safety in the pool, and always be right there next to them in the water. If you are pool side, you need to have both eyes on the baby or toddler and be able to grab them in a moment’s notice. Never assume that the life guard is watching your baby!
1. The Edge of the Pool Is the Safety Zone
One of the first messages that I got when starting swim lessons at 6 months was that babies and toddlers need to learn that the edge of the pool is the safety zone. If they can learn to hang on the pool’s edge. If, God forbid, they fall in the pool, they will know to get to the edge and hang on. Every time I put the Little Monkey in the water, I have him practice hanging on the side of the pool. The instructors spend a great deal of time enforcing this in his lessons. Now, he can nearly pull himself out of the pool once he’s hanging on to the edge!
2. Splashing it Good!
I hate being splashed by kids in the pool, don’t you? I hate it when I’m just relaxing in the pool for a minute to cool off, and some little kid does a cannonball next to me, and my hair gets soaked. Well, one of the things that I’ve learned that I need to do with the Little Monkey is to communicate that getting splashed and wet is okay. Hey, if you don’t want to get splashed, you shouldn’t be in the pool! This helps him get ready for swimming under the water.
3. Pour Water on their Heads
At bath time, we also allow vigorous splashing too, as long as most of the water stays in the tub. More importantly, we don’t use a little washcloth to wipe his hair and face. Instead, we pour water on his head without ceremony or any tool to protect his face. I do let him know before I pour the water over him that I am going to be rinsing his hair. He knows that it’s coming, and he closes his eyes.
It is very important to me that he is not afraid of getting his face wet. (I know some parents worry about soap in their little one’s eyes, but let me assure you, if you pour a quart of water over their head, very little soap will get in their eyes!) Sometimes he pours water over his own head and face, and we always clap and praise him for doing that too.
4. Use Counting Words
This is one of the things that the instructors have emphasized in our lessons. Before I dunk or have the Little Monkey jump into the water, I always count to three. The Little Monkey knows what the counting means now, and before I get to three, you’ll see him get ready to go under water. He’ll close his eyes and hold his breath right before I get to three. Little ones thrive on predictability, and they like knowing that they are about to go under. A baby is more likely to swallow a mouth full of water if they don’t know before they are going under.
5. Use a loose hold
I’ve learned that little ones do better if they can have some mobility in the water. I am always holding the Little Monkey. He’s always with me in the pool, but I hold him loosely and away from my body (most of the time). This allows him to practice floating and moving in the water. I’ve seen a lot of mothers hold their babies very tightly in the water, and that communicates fear.
6. Keep them Covered with Water
Sit down in the water, so that both you and your little one are in the water up to your shoulders. Why? Most importantly, you’ll stay warmer. The more of the toddler/baby that is covered with water, the more of the toddler will be warm. Too frequently, I see parents standing in water with their baby on their hips. The little one is turning blue because she is just up to her tummy in the water.
The other reason that this is a good idea is that it helps the baby get comfortable with being in the water. I don’t know about you, but when I swim, almost ever part of me is under the water. When your little one really “swims,” he’ll need to be ready to immerse himself in the water. Practice early by sitting lower in the water.
7. Take Deep Baths
Well maybe not THIS deep, but deeper baths allow them to practice their swimming. The Little Monkey loves to fill up the tub, pour water on his head, lie on his tummy while kicking his feet, and I’ve even seen him blow bubbles. By filling the water a little deeper, a toddler gets a greater sense of his own buoyancy. When you do this, obviously for safety reasons, you need to be in the room with your little one, within arms’ reach.
8. Toys and Props Make Swimming Fun
I didn’t even consider doing this with the Little Monkey until I saw how well he responded to the balls and rubber ducks that they were using in class. Now when we go to the pool, I try to bring something that floats that will engage him. Usually it’s a rubber duck, and I have him throw it several feet ahead of us. Then I ask the Little Monkey to swim to it, and he’ll reach and grab for the duck. I hold on (loosely) and let him guide us to the toy. This is one of the easiest ways to get him practice reaching, pulling and kicking– all skills he needs to really swim!
9. Pick the Right Time of Day
This is probably an obvious tip for most parents, but I think it’s important to include. If the Little Monkey is tired or hungry, he’s not going to cooperate in the pool. I remember in our first round of lessons, a mother mentioned that the class was right around the start of the baby’s morning nap. Guess what? The baby tended to be clingy and irritable during the lesson. It’s much easier not to try to do this on your schedule, but work with your little one’s internal clock.
10. Keep Calm and Swim On!
The biggest mistake that I have seen in the Little Monkey’s swim lessons is the transmission of anxiety and fear to the babies and toddlers from the parents (usually mothers). In each class series, I’ll see it happen with at least one mama-baby pair. Babies and toddlers know when their parents are afraid, and use their parents’ fear to assess the safety of situations. If you are afraid or anxious in the water, it is likely that your little one will be afraid too. It’s a new situation for babies and toddlers, and they need your confidence and assurance that everything is going to be okay. Even, if you are a little worried, you’ve got to pretend that you aren’t and put on a brave face for your little guy!
I’ve tried to understand why parents (usually mothers) fret so much about their babies swimming. It seems like there is a worry that the baby is going to drown, even when holding on to the little one. Honestly, I would worry more about the baby falling in and drowning when you aren’t in the pool! Little ones can be nervous the first time they go under the water, or jump into the pool. That’s normal, but their apprehension isn’t a reason not to do something. It seems to work better to encourage the little ones to try, and then praise their success, rather than tell them that they don’t have to do it if they are afraid.
Again, I do want to say that some children have a very fearful and anxious temperament. If your child is unusually fearful of LOTS of things, you might want to modify my suggestions.
We did have to take a break from swimming during the months of ear infections this winter, and I worried that we’d be starting over when I re-enrolled him in lessons. (That’s why he’s wearing ear plugs– the water in his ears bugs him a lot more.) Thankfully, he seems to have the same enthusiasm, and remember the water, even after a long hiatus! Noticing that makes me feel like it’s even more important for little ones to become comfortable in the water– it will help make real swimming when they are older much easier! For your added enjoyment, I’ve included a brief video of the Little Monkey swimming last summer.
The Little Monkey Swimming Nine Months