Swimming is an important, life saving skill every child should learn. Swimming also happens to be an excellent form of exercise that’s a lot of fun. The road from feeling comfortable in the water to actually swimming is a process and there are many effective teaching techniques. There and also approaches that hinder, derail or prolong the process toward water safety.
The best thing you can do to start the process off right is to get in the pool with your child without a floatation device. Paying for Intro-to-Water lessons may sound better than putting on a suit yourself, but your child feels more safe and comfortable with you than anyone else. Once your baby is two months or older they can accompany you in a heated pool. Water play should be loving, pressure free and close contact. Drip water on baby’s face and let them get your face wet. Sing, bounce and splash. Getting your child comfortable with water is the foundation for learning to swim.
Starting at two years old, a child can be put into a ‘water walker;’ a snug fitting intertube designed to hold them upright. Three good ones are the Learn to Swim Tube Trainer by Poolmaster, the Swim Tee Trainer by Swimline or the Swim Sweater Step 2 by Swimways. These give a child a sense of buoyancy and help them develop leg strength while figuring out how to navigate. I like these three because the tubes are small and allow the child to have their arms and hands in the water. Similar designs with larger diameter tubes or canopies prevent the child from splashing, getting their hands and face wet. This can result in the child developing an aversion for a wet face that becomes a problem when trying to progress to underwater safety.
A toddler can graduate to a back and chest padded ‘wet suit’ like the Aqua Leisure or Body Glove one-piece Float Suit. These suits are great because they allow the child to submerge their face. Thin pads can be removed to lower buoyancy helping the child develop leg strength. Pads can be removed from just the front side allowing you to angle the child forward into a freestyle float, making them more incline to stroke. These suits foster confidence for the child rather than making them feel dependent. This is the tricycle stage for swimming.
A child who is ready to start swimming can graduate to the Step 3 Power Swimmer by Swimways. Removable pads decrease buoyancy as they gain strength. The design allows complete arm and head range of motion and puts the child in a position to swim. Like training wheels on a bike, your child will gain confidence and skill to the point they no longer need the assistance and once removed, they will be a regular fish in the water.
Pool Floats to Avoid
Water wings and life vests hinder progress toward swimming. Both discourage putting the head underwater. Water wings pull the arms upward and out from the body making stroking difficult and unlikely. Arm strength goes underdeveloped, prolonging the process toward water safety. Similarly, a life vest gets lodged under the arm pits, limiting the range of motion of the head and arms. Life vests are overly buoyant and keep a child in a vertical position (by design…they are for saving a life, not learning to swim). Life vests delay the development of leg and arm strength. It is a good idea to avoid noodles and kickboards until your child is swimming. With the hands occupied, children are unlikely to stroke and don’t have to kick very hard to stay up. Goggles are another crutch to avoid until your child is swimming. A child who is considered water safe, may drown after falling into a pool because they panic or are disoriented without goggles. Accidents rarely happen with a full compliment of accessories, so make sure your child is confident without them.
Swimming in one of the best ways to keep kids active during the hot summer months. Playing in the pool is a total body workout! Floatation devices are helpful for building leg stamina and independence, but limit their use to 25-50% of the pool time. Children need to feel their own weight in the water and spend time going under. Dive rings are great for this. As you enjoy the pool this season, remember that even children who are water safe need vigilant supervision when in or near water. Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death for children under the age of five in the US.
Danielle Federico, M.P.H. is the author of “MOMMY FABULOUS: Complete Pregnancy Fitness and Nutrition Guide, Designed to Deliver a Fabulous Postpartum Figure.” (amazon.com) She holds a Masters of Public Health from UC Berkeley and is a personal trainer and nutritional counselor. Danielle’s popular blog www.dani-fabulous.com provides nutrition, health and fitness information for anyone looking to lead a healthier life.