Infant Swimming and Water Safety

Swimming - Matthew Bester 2

We all know about drowning. It’s a huge concern, for most people. And for those of you with toddlers – the toddler drowning rate is 3 x higher than in any other age group.

Well, I’m here today, to give you some great news… toddlers CAN save themselves from drowning. They can learn to swim well enough, to save themselves, should they fall into water.

Now, when I say “swim”, I’m not saying your 2 year old is going to do beautiful technical front crawl, but yes – your 2 year old can get from A to B, in the water, while breathing normally.

When we look at swimming, we need to understand that swimming ability follows developmental stages, just as developmental milestones are followed on land.

Let’s look at toddlers who are just starting to walk:

They start off standing wobbly, and take their first tentative steps.

Then they become steadier;

They walk, squat and stand, and walk;

They start changing direction.

Then they start to run.

Then they hop, jump, skip

and eventually, they have the motor skills to run fast and efficiently.

They could, one day, become elite athletes.

But, look at where those athletes started.

It would have taken years from those first steps as toddlers.

And, not years of sitting in front of a TV, but years of practice and dedication.

So, the same can be said of your toddlers, who you would like to become elite swimmers…

First, if they start lessons a couple of months before they can walk, they can learn to float.

Older babies, especially toddlers, will learn to manage in shallow water first.

They walk, squat, stand.

Then they’ll start to learn the beginnings of changing direction. (we do this by exploiting their love of spinning and playing at spinning in the water) .

* This is especially life-saving if they have learned to turn back to the side / point of entry.

Then they’ll roll onto their backs, to breathe.

Then they’ll start propelling with their legs, and then with their arms.

Then they jump in, dive in, kick to the bottom of the pool

And eventually, they have the motor skills to swim fast and efficiently.

To reach this stage, can take years. Years of being allowed to explore in water.

If you kept your toddler in a chair, and never allowed him to stand and fall, and cruise, how would you expect him to learn to walk independently?

If a child is allowed to consistently interact with an aquatic environment, as they interact and develop on land, they can swim before their third year of life.

So, if your child is going to attend one swimming lesson every few weeks, he will not master those motor skills required for him to learn to swim.

Some of you may have already put your little ones in Playschool. Or, when your child is old enough, you will start looking. When you choose a playschool, there are certain things you check, before deciding to leave your child in their hands:

a) you make sure the teachers are appropriately qualified

b) you ensure the environment is safe and hygienic, with possible hazards / risks identified

c) you look at how many children are in a class

d) you understand what you can expect your child to learn from their curriculum

So, please, when you look for a swim school for your child, check the same things. In fact, because of the associated risks of water – drowning, traumatizing your child – be even more picky when you choose a swim school.

a) Appropriately qualified teachers:

An infant swimming teacher needs to be trained to teach infants. Babies and toddlers are emotionally, physically, socially different to older children. They cannot be taught in the same way.

The average age for a child to be ready for proper front crawl is 5 ½ years old. If your toddler is unable to throw a ball overhead, surely the teacher is wasting time, frustrating your child and possibly increasing his risk of drowning, if they are spending lessons working on making big arms out the water?

Encouraging a toddler to venture to the middle of the pool, when he is unable to get back to the side (because that’s where he can practice stroking) OR

Letting a toddler jump into the water without being given the cue to jump (because it looks wonderful that he’s not scared to submerge) …

Does it sound like that teacher is helping that child? Or does it sound like that teacher may be increasing that child’s risk of drowning?

An infant swim teacher needs to constantly keep a balance between over familiarity of water, and respect of water.

A child must respect water enough to know the consequence of just jumping off the step, or letting go of the side. BUT, they need to learn this respect WITHOUT being traumatized. A child should never be forced to submerge.

b) A safe and hygienic environment, with possible risks identified

There is NO regulation as to water purity and hygiene at swimming schools throughout South Africa.

So, if your child is in a pool where common waterborne germs are present, their swimming lessons may be at the expense of their health. Toddlers may not cope with waterborne germs as well as older children do.

Infants under 6 months of age should not be exposed to public swimming pools at all. This is because their immune systems are too immature.

Before 6 months, you can do things in the bath, or in your home pool. In fact. in utero, babies are in amniotic fluid, so the sooner you re-introduce your child to water after birth, the more harmonious the transition from the natural environment to the aquatic environment. BUT, parents need to know how to go about playing in a swim-directed manner. Non-directed play. E.g.. Putting your child in water wings, or holding them too far out of the water where they cannot feel their buoyancy, can be counter productive to later swimming lessons.

HYPONATREMIA and HYPOTHERMIA are risks you also need to know about.

Hyponatremia is a potentially fatal condition and comes from swallowing a large quantity of water in a relatively short period of time.

Diluted blood passes into the brain cells and can result in swelling of brain tissue.

This can cause seizures.

How do we avoid hyponatremia? … children need to be taught mouth control before they can initiate their own submersions. Excessive submersions should always be avoided.

Hypothermia is more common in infants, than in adults. Infants lose body heat much faster, because they have a larger body area in relation to their body volume. They lose most of their heat from their heads. An infant’s immune system is compromised even when an infant is only mildly hypothermic.

How do we avoid hypothermia? … the water temperature needs to be 32 degrees Celsius. Use hooded towels to cover their heads when you take them out of water.

c) Size of the class

Toddlers learn best in a group. It is more fun and relaxing for them to be in a group.

A parent or trusted adult must accompany them in the water. Developmentally, they are not ready to be separated from their parents. Learning to swim always holds some element of anxiety, and to separate infants from their parents, when they are anxious, will just add insult to injury. Besides, an anxious child cannot learn.

The teacher needs to always have control of the class, and needs to always be able to see what everyone is doing. The class, therefore, cannot be too big.

The ideal class size will be 4 to 6 parent – tot pairs.

d) What can be expected

Swimming lessons should always be enjoyable. Young children should learn in a play-directed manner, and should never be under pressure to attain a certain level in a set time. If the pace is too fast, the child will not want to come back for more.

Activities should be age-appropriate, allowing your child to progress through their developmental stages.

Babies that have had regular lessons can float on their backs at about 7 months of age.

By the time they are mobile, they are potentially able to flip onto their backs and stay afloat until picked up, should they have tumbled into the water.

They can master submerged swimming and turning on their backs to breathe any time from about 14 to 15 months of age.

They are capable of getting around in a doggy paddle from about 16 months of age.

Please note: There is no such thing as drown proofing. In fact, ‘drown proofing’ usually refers to the traumatic forced submersion techniques that were / are still used.

Even if your child is considered ‘water safe’, they must always be supervised. This supervision must be what we call ‘touch-type’. I.e.. An adult must always be within an arms reach of a child.

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