How we introduce babies to water can prevent them from approaching bodies of water with fear. Often, a child’s fear stems from early bathing experiences. Parents’ instincts are to be quiet, gentle and calm in the water, but in the early stages of learning to swim, it's best to make a lot of noise and turn it into a lively event. Here’s how you can start:
1. Get your baby's eyes wet. In the bath, gently trickle water over your baby’s eyes. Do not wipe it away. Blink your own eyes, and show them to do the same, to clear out the water.
2. Be playful. To ease any discomfort, it’s always a great idea to play with your child, as this reinforces the idea that time in the water can be fun. Singing is a great practice during bath time, as well as games like “water the flower” which you can play by using a toy watering can to sprinkle water over different parts of their body, including their head. Then take turns and pretend that you’re the flower, and let them water you.
3. Get your baby used to wetting their ears. As you cradle your baby on their back, very gently, lower them so that their ears become submerged. This will help them overcome any fears of the sounds and feel of water in the ear—an exercise that’s especially useful when beginning swim lessons.
4. Shake things up.It’s helpful to splash around and make noise, so your child becomes more comfortable in their surroundings.
5. Smile! Remember this is supposed to be a fun experience for both parent and baby to bond—and your positive reactions will go a long way to impact how they feel in the water.
6. Gradually introduce your baby to showering. Showering, versus bathing, can also help your baby feel more comfortable in the water. When you get started, carefully holding their body under the showerhead, while making sure the water temperature is comfortable. This takes time for babies to get used to, particularly getting their head and face wet, and should be a slow process. You can try this as early as when they are few weeks old, and be sure to incorporate showers in their routine once your baby is able to firmly hold up their head. The earlier the better.
7. Enroll your baby in swimming lessons. Consider signing up to a program as soon as your baby demonstrates they are comfortable in the water. Most swim schools offer “parent and tot” classes for toddlers and infants—some as young as three months old—where they’ll start to learn the foundation of key survival skills such as back floating, swim strokes, leg kicks and reaching a safe place.
Rita Goldberg is the founder and CEO of British Swim School and a former Olympic-bound swimmer for Britain and swimming instructor.