Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington shares her top tips for taking your baby swimming, and her advice for helping your little one love the water, with the help of her baby daughter, Summer.
As you might expect, I was really keen to take Summer swimming. But even though I’m used to being in water, and have spent more time in a pool than most new mums, I was still nervous about whether she would like it, never mind remembering all the extra stuff she’d need.
I was so used to getting myself ready for training that we’d be out the door and I’d suddenly think, ‘I haven’t packed an extra nappy!’ But we soon got into a good routine.
I first took Summer swimming when she was three and a half weeks old. It sounds really early, but it’s fine for your baby to go in the pool at that age. Lots of people were shocked when I said I’d taken her swimming before she’d had all her injections, but the NHS guidelines say that you don’t have to wait until your baby’s had them.
Most baby swimming classes won’t take you if your baby hasn’t had her jabs, but to be honest you don’t need to go to a class the first few times, as you’re only in the pool for about 10 minutes.
If you’ve had a c-section, or a difficult birth, it’s best to wait until after you’ve had your six-week check before going in yourself, but encourage your partner to take your baby.
It was nice for her dad, Harry, to be able to take Summer to the pool and bond with her.
Swimming is one thing we do every week as a family. Babies often fall asleep when you take them out, so when Summer was really small we said, ‘Oh there’s no point taking her, as she’ll just fall asleep.’ But she’s so awake during swimming and it’s lovely to engage with her.
Before you take your baby swimming for the first time
We started giving Summer baths as soon as she was born to get her used to being in water. She loved being in the bath. Wait until your baby’s confident in water before going to the pool.
Taking your baby swimming for the first time is nerve-wracking, so take it one step at a time. Start by buying swim nappies and a swimming costume, so your baby’s ready. Then find out what’s at your local pool.
I’d been to ours loads, so I knew it was warm enough and had baby-changing facilities.
If you haven’t been before, ring first or pop down and have a look. It makes it less daunting when you take your baby for the first time. Also, ask what the temperature of the water is. It needs to be at least 32˚C for babies under three months. And don’t be put you off if you don’t have anyone to go with. I often take Summer on my own and it’s absolutely fine!
Ask for a swimming timetable
There’ll be all sorts of stuff going on, including toddler sessions, inflatable sessions and even music sessions. Different experiences will mean she’ll do different things. Perhaps she’ll need to hold her breath or blow bubbles, and she’ll be so involved she won’t even realise she’s learning.
Getting your baby into the pool
Most baby pools have big steps that go straight into the water, so it’s easy to carry your baby into the pool. When you go down the steps, hold her in a sitting position with her chest against yours, and support her bum with one hand and, if she’s really little, her head and neck with the other. Just treat it the same as carrying her downstairs at home.
Keep your baby facing you the first few times
If she’s facing outwards she’s going to think, ‘Where are you taking me?’ If she can make eye contact with you, she’ll know everything’s fine because she can see you’re relaxed. Keep smiling and say, ‘Where are we?’, so she knows it’s OK. If the pool doesn’t have wide steps then, depending on how confident you are in the water and the age of your baby, gently lay her on the side of the pool (make sure you have a towel with you to put down first), then slip in the water and quickly pick her up again. If you don’t feel confident, or the pool only has steep steps, ask the pool attendant for help.
Hold your baby safe in the cradle position
To start with, keep your baby on her back, as it’s how she is in the bath, so the pool will feel like a similar environment. Make sure your baby’s head is supported by your arm, and cradle her back and bum with your hands. It’s important that she feels safe, so cradle her body close to you, so she can see you. And chat to her all the time to reassure her. When Summer first went she would get a bit gaspy and panicky in her breathing, but she’s a lot more confident now.
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Encourage your baby to experience buoyancy
Stand behind your baby, so her head is resting on your chest. Put your hands under her back, so the rest of her body is floating. She’ll soon begin to move her arms and legs about and enjoy the feeling. Let her float on her back at first, so she can see you. Now Summer prefers being on her front, which I think is because she’s crawling. To support her, I put a hand under her tummy and one under her chin, so her face doesn’t go in the water.
Get your baby’s face wet
Let your baby get used to the feeling of water on her face when she’s in the bath by gently trickling it over her head. Summer has a toy that rains water and we take it in the bath every single night to trickle water over her head and face.
To try it when you’re in the pool, sit on the steps and put your baby on your knee and hold her around her waist so she is facing towards you. Let water trickle off your fingertips on to her head. Even wetting your hand and rubbing it against her cheek will get her used to the sensation. Now Summer’s older, I dip her and quickly lift her back up, so she’s confident having her whole head underwater.
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Get your baby used to their ears being underwater
Once your baby is comfortable floating, try putting her ears under the water. The best way to do this is hold her lengthways across your body with one hand under her head and one supporting her bum. Slowly lower her head so her ears are underwater. It’s a new sensation for babies, as the water muffles their hearing.
We practised by putting Summer’s ears underwater in the bath. She wasn’t sure at first, so don’t worry if your baby is a bit squirmy: she’s just trying to suss out what’s going on. Try it for a couple of seconds to get her used to the feeling. It’s a really good way to prepare her for putting her head fully under the water. Just keep reassuring her with lots of eye contact and encouraging smiles.
Give your baby freedom in the water and play games
Summer’s got one bath toy that she absolutely loves, so I take that to the pool and she associates it with the bath and having fun.
If you just stand there simply holding your baby in the water for too long she will get cold. Babies feel the cold a lot more than adults, so keep moving as much as possible and swap positions. Swoosh her in the water and bounce her up and down.
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As your baby gets a bit older you can start to allow her a bit more freedom to move around in the water. Holding her under both arms is great for playing lifting and splashing games.
Sing nursery rhymes
Humpty Dumpty is great for getting her to sit on the side of the pool and jump into your arms. Swoosh her around to Ring a Ring of Roses. Pour water over her head to Incy Wincy Spider.
Invite the family
The last time I went to our local pool with Summer, a granddad was there with his granddaughter. They were both having just the best time, it was honestly the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. So ask Nanny or Granddad, or aunties or uncles, if they want to take your baby one week. Go too, if you want to, but sit in the spectators’ seats. Other family members will do different things with her, and she’ll really enjoy all the attention.
Secretly progress her skills
Kids learn best when they’re having fun, and you can use the fun to help them learn. Summer loves being gently thrown up and caught in the pool. But as I’m counting, ‘One, two…’ I slowly sink her down in the water, so that her mouth is under the surface, to get her used to that feeling. She’s so busy thinking about the ‘three!’ coming up that she doesn’t even notice!
Set a mini-challenge
Each week when I take Summer swimming, I do something that’s a little different to last time, to progress her skills in some teeny-tiny way. It might be to trickle water on her head five times or pop her underwater three times. It means I’m not just holding her and swooshing her around every week, and it gently expands the boundaries of what she can do.
Persevere with the tricky things
If there’s something that your baby hates, don’t avoid it. Instead, do it every time you visit the pool, but just once, and move quickly on to doing something that she loves. Summer hates lying on her back, but we do it every time we go, then I quickly spin her round and sit her up, so she’ll slowly get used to it.
Share her journey
The very best thing for your child’s water confidence is for you to do everything she does with her. So go down under the water and blow bubbles together. If you’re not confident enough in the water to do this, then now is the perfect time to learn by doing everything in little steps with your baby.
Visit a different pool
It’s easy to just go to your nearest pool, but explore other pools near you – they might have a little slide or a toddler pool. I take Summer to three different pools, and she does different things in each, which is great for her water skills.
Always take her a drink
Pools are hot and because of all the water, you might forget about giving her a drink. Give her a hydrating snack, such as a piece of fruit, afterwards too.
If your baby’s unsure about the pool
If your baby gets distressed once she’s in the pool, there’s usually a reason why this happens. Maybe it’s too cold for her or something else is going on, like she’s hungry or needs a poo. If she cries, hold her close and let her see you, so she feels safe. She’s probably getting grumbly because she’s ready for a feed, so don’t assume she doesn’t like the pool.
Getting out of the pool
Babies soon get tired when they’re in the pool, so don’t keep her in for too long. Ten minutes is about right when she’s under three months, then build to around 20-30 minutes when she’s about six months. It’s best to get out the same way you got in, so hold her close to your chest, with your arms around her and carry her up the steps. Wrap her in a towel as soon as she gets out, so she doesn’t get cold.
I set up Swim Stars to help children aged three and over learn swimming skills. We give a lesson each week and develop through the stages until the kids can swim 25m (a length). Parents sit on the side and there’s a teacher in the pool for every six kids. Fifty per cent of primary-school leavers can’t swim, which is about 1.1 million kids a year. That shocks me, as swimming is a life skill, and it’s not an expensive thing to do. For more information, visit beckyadlingtonsswimstars.com
Becky is a regular columnist in Mother&Baby magazine - click here to download the M&B app and buy the latest issue