August 10, 2016
After more than a decade teaching kids to swim, I’ve learned that children who are confident around water learn to swim more quickly than those who fear water. This may seem fairly obvious, but it’s worth considering before you sign your child up for swim lessons. If your child is timid when it comes to pool time, building confidence at home may save you countless hours and dollars spent on unproductive lessons.
The American Red Cross recommends waiting until your child is 6 months old to start formal swim lessons. Even then, recommended lessons for infants 6 to 24 months old consist of parent-child games, songs, and very basic skills like blowing bubbles in the water or reaching for objects. You can practice all of these tasks at home to build water confidence with your infant or toddler.
It’s crucial that you help your child form a positive association with water. If your child is two years old or younger, this can be as simple as taking a bath. Bath time is the ideal opportunity to introduce infants and toddlers to the fun of water! When your baby is in the bath, use a cup to pour water over their body and head. Don’t react with concern when water drips in the eyes, nose or mouth — in fact, it’s better if this happens. Just continue smiling and remain calm. Remember: Your child is watching your reaction and making judgments accordingly. Two studies by the Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences conclude that infants as young as 15 months old are able to interpret adult reactions and form opinions based on this perception. When your face or tone expresses anxiety over water on your child’s face, she’s learning to associate water with that same anxiety. Your child will model your behavior in new situations and environments, so maintaining an air of calm or playfulness can positively shape your child’s relationship with water.
Beyond simple water-play, you can also use toys in the bathtub. One exercise that I like encourages kids to lean forward, experience the water’s buoyancy, and extend their arms away from the body. When your child is comfortable with leaning forward to a toy, show her how to blow a “hole” in the water with an exhale, creating a temporary dent in the water’s surface. You can also use a light-weight toy to practice this. Place a ping-pong ball or other floating toy in the water and encourage your child to move it across the tub using only her breath, not her hands. This will prepare her to blow bubbles as a breathing technique when she later learns to swim.
If you have access to a swimming pool, bring your child into the water frequently. At this age, most children aren’t ready to “swim” on their own, but can practice fundamentals that aren’t possible in the tub. Splashing with the legs, laying in a prone position, and relaxing into a back float can all be done with a parent’s help and will prepare your child for formal swim lessons later on.
When practicing in the pool, bring along the toys you use at bath time to smooth the transition from bathtub to pool. I find that many of my students can perform skills comfortably in their tubs at home, but have a harder time when they are suddenly introduced to the vastness of pool swimming. By making this transition a part of your regular practice, you can build comfort and confidence around larger bodies of water.
If your child is fearful around water, be sure to reward her for each attempt. Rewards don’t need to be a physical gift; verbal praise and affection are often enough to reinforce a child’s efforts. Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics advise parents to take note of good behavior — in this case, attempting tasks that you’ve laid out — and to give verbal praise for those attempts. They also recommend reinforcing your child’s efforts by repeating an encouraging praise every time she practices her new skills. Children who aren’t provided with positive reinforcement have no incentive to keep trying, and may shut down or ignore requests to continue trying.
You should never pressure your child to do anything she is not ready for, nor should you punish her for not doing what you want. If your child is resistant, continue to provide positive feedback and steady encouragement, but don’t be pushy. This will only serve to weaken the trust that you and your child share, both in and out of the pool.
Also be mindful of your own actions in the water. Keep in mind that your child is skilled at detecting your fears, and may internalize them. Make this a fun experience for your son or daughter by acting silly, making up games, and rewarding your child for trying each task. Once your child feels confident in the water, you’re ready for the next step: Swim lessons!
This article was written by Lizzy Bullock, a Red Cross certified swimming instructor (WSI) with a decade of experience helping children overcome fear and swim independently. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.