Swim classes for babies are offered across the country by the Canadian Red Cross, local recreation departments, YMCAs and private swim schools. The programs are usually for ages six months and up, although some allow younger babies, as long as they can hold their heads up.
During the half-hour “waterbabies” classes in a warm-water pool at Aquaventures Swim Centre in Vancouver, children learn skill-building routines that include assisted back floats, lying on top of a flutter board as a parent pushes them along and, eventually, “Humpty Dumpty dives” (a parent lifts them into the water from the edge of the pool). As lessons progress, babies are even briefly dunked under water. Until they learn the verbal cues (“ready, swim!”), the trick is a quick puff of air to the baby’s face, which causes him to reflexively inhale and hold his breath before he’s submerged. Program owner Sharron Crowley, a swim instructor certified by the Canadian Red Cross and National Lifeguard Service, says most babies quickly relax in the pool. “Early exposure to water is so great because the kids have no fear at all. They just take to it naturally, and they love the freedom of movement.”
Crowley and other proponents of swim classes for babies say they have many benefits. Movement in the water can help with a baby’s motor development, coordination and balance. While some babies might cry or be uncomfortable at first, the vast majority become at ease as the classes progress.
Baby swim classes do pose a few challenges, such as chilly change rooms that can leave little ones wailing, and the logistical feat of getting yourself and your wriggling baby into swimsuits at the same time. Some pools require parents to leave strollers outside the change room, which means juggling both the baby and your gear. Most facilities also require that babies wear a swim diaper, available at many drugstores.
However, parents should not assume that baby swim classes will make their infant safer in the water, warns Lynne Warda, an associate professor in the department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Despite plenty of YouTube videos and swim programs that claim they can teach toddlers to float independently or flip onto their backs if they accidentally fall into a pool, Warda says parents should be skeptical. “There’s no evidence that these types of programs prevent drowning.” Warda, who helped research the Canadian Paediatric Society’s statement on swimming lessons for infants and toddlers, says kids don’t begin to retain skills such as independent floating or kicking until around age four. Swim programs are simply a way to build your baby’s water confidence and to have fun.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline “Water babies,” pp.76.