In part one of this blog on baby and toddler swimming, infant swimming guru, Terje Stakset, explained that the goal of early lessons should be about helping young children to develop an affinity for swimming and learn the very basics in order to be ready and confident to join traditional swimming lessons later on in life. He also explained the aim of infant swimming should be to help children to develop a life long love of water.
In this, the second part of the blog, Terje looks at the more technical aspects of how baby swimming lessons should be approached by parents and teachers for the best outcomes for children.
I think babies can start swimming lessons from when they are three to four months old.
As mentioned in my book (Swim With Love), a newborn doesn’t have any control over his/her neck and the neck cannot support the head. But by three to four months of age, most babies can hold their head up themselves.
It takes up to three months for a baby to develop the necessary visuals to enjoy being in a swimming lesson environment. Newborns have a blurred vision and colours are undefined. However, between 3-6 months of age, they should:
i) Have a wider field of view
ii) Have the ability to focus their attention almost across the room
iii) Like looking at reflections (there are plenty of reflections in swimming pools)
iv) Move eyes independently from their head (like adults)
Babies under three to four months cannot express themselves accurately because they lack the skills needed to identify the cause of distress. For example, if a baby’s stomach is rumbling and there is also noise of thunder storm in the background, a baby cannot differentiate between the external and internal noises and figure out where the discomforting noises are coming from.
Swimming pools are challenging environments. Even some adults find swimming pools too noisy. Now try to put yourself in a newborn’s shoes: blurred vision and unidentified noises from various directions. This is a potentially frightening situation for a baby to be in.
I think there are plenty activities that parents/carers can do at home. Introducing newborns to water at home during bath time is the best approach, since this is where babies feel safe and secure.
When babies are developed physiologically and psychologically enough to be relaxed in a swimming pool, then they can start attending baby swimming lesson with confidence.
As explained in my book, using trickle exercises (introducing water to a baby’s face by running just a few drops of water at a time over it) is the best way to prepare a baby or a child for water.
Start off by doing only a few drops and then build it up. Use bathtime to do trickle exercises consistently and gently. Prepare them for what’s coming with cues such as ‘ Ready, Steady. Go’ so the water becomes a game and not a shock.
Babies who have learnt how to control their breath through trickle exercises, normally show positive facial expressions like closing their eyes and brining their chins down when their faces are close to the surface of the water. Parents and teachers need to understand and read babies facial expressions which could indicate that they are not distressed by immersing their faces in water.
I personally believe submersion is not teaching anything to a baby or a toddler regarding how to swim. Swimming is about the ability to travel in water whilst maintaining your balance and staying afloat.
Even if a baby or toddler is happy to be submerged during swimming lessons (without showing any sign of distress like shouting or crying), later on when it comes to teaching them to swim properly, those children have to go through the process of de-learning first and then re-learn the basics. The reason being, if a child has learnt repeatedly that every time he/she is free in the water in order to travel, he/she has to glide under the water, rather than through the water, then that is all they want to do when they start being taught how to properly swim by a teacher.
However, we all know that swimming is not about travelling under the water.
So a swim teacher has a huge task of helping a child to de-learn the habit of automatically going under the water and ‘swimming like a fish’ before teaching the very basics of swimming which are floatation and an ability to travel on the top on the water.
In my experience, those children who have started with a gentle approach to baby swimming being taught the basics like how to stay afloat and travel on the surface rather than gliding under the water, learn swimming with proper stroke technique at least one year earlier than children who learned to swim with submersion as the core.
In general, forcefully submerging an infant could do more harm than good.
Over the years, many parents who approached us, especially after our programme built up a reputation in Norway for not including any forceful submersions of babies and toddlers, had one thing in common; all had done baby swimming lessons in other swim schools and their babies had been traumatised by it. They were often concerned that their children were four or five years of age but very nervous of water. I have a bank of letters in my office received from parents whose children have been put off swimming because as a baby or a young child they were forcefully submerged.
Between the ages of three and four years children can start to learn the basics of competitive strokes like Front crawl and Backstrokes. This is the age at our swim school in Norway when kids start moving out of our ‘Parent & Child’ classes and move into having lessons with a teacher independent from their parents.
Babies and toddlers read the facial expressions of adults and for them they are the main source of communication. A smiley face would provide a sense of reassurance and security.
Good baby swimming teachers never just rely on the information which they were given out during their teacher training courses.
They must always be seeking to gain more information in relation to teaching swimming (i.e, by observing other teachers) and the topic of ‘child development’ in early years (0-5 years old), by going on to further training programmes and workshops.
A good infant swimming teacher should be capable of reading the babies and toddlers. Young children rely so much on communicating with adults through their facial expression and their body language. An infant swimming teacher should be very good at reading different messages that babies and toddlers communicate through their faces and bodies. For example, when a baby arches his back and turn his face away, normally this is a sign that something is distressing him/her and (avoidance sign).
Good teachers generally can think on their feet. All healthy babies and toddlers have mood swings. It is completely normal for them to feel happy one minute and sad the other. Children don’t have the cognitive skills to regulate their own moods and their moods could change very quickly. Simple factors like lack of sleep, fear of unknown places and teething pain are commonly known to affect a baby’s mood.
Also, little children transmit their moods to other children very easily. If a baby starts crying in class, within a minute other babies start crying too.
Since a child’s mood has a huge effect on how engaging they are with others in the class, a good swim teacher should know how to handle a class when things don’t go to plan.
An ability to keep clam and make changes quickly in a lesson whilst thinking creatively are must have skills for a good baby swimming teacher.
With a big ‘Thank You’ to Terje for sharing his expertise with us. Did you enjoy reading this blog? If you are interested in our blog and receiving teaching tips, you can sign up to our newsletter.