When I was asked to write an article on baby swimming I had to consider very carefully just what do people want to know about it?
You have all seen pictures of these amazing miniature human beings gliding gracefully through the water and probably thought ' Wow! That's amazing - how do they do that?' The answer is - very easily. It comes naturally to those babies allowed to pursue their inbuilt instincts. So there's the dilemma - how do you bring yourself to place a tiny baby, so reliant and dependent on you for their safety and well being, into water over their heads when you know this will go against all your natural instincts as a parent?
Swimming, boating, diving, snorkelling etc.etc.etc. More and more families enjoy the magic and enchantment of a water feature in the garden. We all love watching a meandering stream or a rippling river.
And because so much emphasis is placed on water these days, we are unfortunately seeing a greater number of child drownings, all of which could have been prevented. As a survivor of a near drowning myself, at the age of eleven, I know how important it is to learn to swim at an early age.
But what does all this have to do with small babies, who are not likely to leave the safety of their mother's arms, let alone be allowed near water? The answer is FEAR, or lack of it, in the case of babies. A three-month-old baby has no concept of fear. Babies accept every new experience they are introduced to and respond by smiling or crying, relying on the empathy of their parents to guide them through the maze of discovery.
Training babies in water relies very heavily on this empathy and awareness on the part of the parent. A calm, relaxed approach achieves far better results than an anxious, fearful one. Placing a baby under the water for the first time can be a traumatic experience for the parent, especially if they themselves do not know how to swim. Quite often that first underwater 'dunking' of their precious child evokes the worst feeling ever! But as they watch, they see this tiny creature enjoying every moment and coming to no harm whatsoever! Gradually the parents begin to enjoy themselves as much as the child and eagerly await each new development and milestone in their baby's water training.
The science of baby swimming is a simple but critical affair. I like to describe it as re-introducing them to the warmth and comfort of the womb.
As a baby is born, the airway opens and the lungs inflate with air. Baby cries and goes on to develop and grow into a healthy human being. But what if we were to place them back into the fluid of the womb - or in our case, warm water? How will they respond? Amazingly well. A baby's airway automatically closes as they enter water. It is a completely instinctive reflex. This reflex stays with them until they reach six months, by which time it becomes less active unless the baby swims regularly. Put simply, the earlier baby starts going underwater, the easier the process for baby and parent.
Babies can hold their breath for quite a considerable time, as any breast-feeding mother will testify! Bottle fed babies tend to have the teat removed by the anxious parent willing them to take a breath between mouthfuls!
So from that first dip, the babies go on to longer and deeper swims as their inner ear development and cardiovascular systems increase in strength.
Most importantly, as their bodies grow in strength and size, the babies are taught to turn underwater, reach for the safety of a wall or a bar at the side of the pool and then to wait for the next instruction from their delighted parents! To see the obvious delight and confidence of these children is amazing, but the most crucial point I am trying to make here is that these tiny children absolutely love the feeling of being in water. There is no fear, no tears, no clinging to Mummy or Daddy at the slightest splash. Compare this to the frightened four year-old in armbands who has never experienced the joy and freedom of baby swimming.
No child is ever drown-proof and should always be watched around water, but with my baby training methods they stand a better chance of survival if they were to fall into water accidentally.
Sid and Jean Shepherd opened the Dolphin Swim Centre in February 2001. They were by then running the most successful swim school in South London, teaching adults and children of all ages and abilities. I was one of those adults, and I do what I do thanks to them. Fortunately for me I have been able to watch as tiny babies have grown into water-confident toddlers and I have been as amazed as anyone at their talent!
I know that there are still people out there, who will disagree with my methods, but seeing is believing and for me, there is no greater reward than to watch these little wonders move so confidently through the water.