With babies spending nine months suspended in fluid, it’s no surprise that they love the sensation of being in the water. If you’re taking your little one to the swimming pool for the first time, making sure you’re fully prepared and feeling calm will help you both get the most out of the experience.
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.
How to hold your baby in the pool
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.
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.
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.
Getting your baby used to the water
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.
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.
How to have fun in the water with your baby
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.
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.
You can also 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.
Another fun idea is to 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is unsure of the water
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
Rebecca Adlington’s three best games to play when you take your baby swimming
Encouraging your baby to blow bubbles in the water with you is great fun and a good way to help her feel confident putting her face in the water. Becky explains, “The best time to introduce this game is once your baby can hold her head up and is confident floating on her back. Place her gently on her front facing you and hold her under her arms, then blow bubbles in the water and encourage her to copy you.”
Holding your baby under both arms is ideal for playing lifting games, says Becky. “Summer loves it when I lift her up on to the side of the pool then back down into the water. You could put a towel down on the side of the pool so it’s not too cold. You can also lift your baby up and down in the water as she’ll love the motion and it will help her get used to the sensation of being in and out of the water.”
Splashing in the water
“Summer really likes splashing and smacking the water with her hands, which helps her get used to the texture of the water, as well as helping her feel happier getting water splashed on her face.
“I hold her round her waist with both hands so she’s facing me. This helps us keep eye contact, which is reassuring for her, and also leaves her with both hands free to splash about.”
How to teach your baby to swim
1) Pick a quiet time
Swimming pools can be quite noisy especially as their high ceilings mean the echoes bounce round the room very easily. Pick a special baby and toddler session, ideally during the week, or go early on the weekend to avoid the crowds.
2) Prepare your baby
Before you head to the pool, make sure your baby is well fed and not tired. If he’s due a nap when you’re there, he could end up getting upset and link feeling tired and grumpy with the pool.
3) Check the temperature
It’s worth ringing up your local pool to make sure the temperature is suitable for your baby. It needs to be at least 30C for a baby older than 12 weeks (or heavier than 12lb) and above 32C if he’s younger or smaller. If the pool isn’t warm enough, and your baby starts getting cold, you’ll know because his lips and his fingernails will start to turn blue, so quickly get out and wrap your baby in a towel.
4) Get the right kit
Disposable swimming nappies are designed so that if they get wet, they won’t expand to soak up the liquid like a regular nappy. You can also get swimming nappy covers, which fit snugly round your baby’s legs to prevent any leakages. If you’re worried about your baby getting chilly while in the water, or you want to provide a bit more flotation support, you can buy neoprene wetsuit-style swimsuits that have built-in floats.
5) Have a shower first
As well as being more hygienic, a quick splash of warm water will help get your baby used to water before you head into the pool, although don’t let his head go directly under the shower stream as most babies don’t enjoy it.
6) Take it slow
Start by sitting on the edge of the baby pool, holding your baby and showing him the water. Then gradually slide into the pool, maintaining plenty of eye contact and talking calmly while you hold him gently under his armpits. It’s really important that you are calm and positive as he’ll take his cues from you. (Image: Waterbabies)
7) Get the hold right
Once you’re in the water, dip down so that your shoulders are almost completely submerged, but so that the water comes up to his chest. Through the session, try alternating between holding your baby very close, with lots of reassuring skin-to-skin contact, then at arm’s length so he can move freely and feel a bit more independent.
8) Embrace the splashes
If your baby’s energetic splashing means he gets water on his face, smile and laugh rather act concerned so he knows that it’s ok to get wet.
9) Know when to save it for another day
If your baby is well fed and not tired or ill but is having a wobbly every time you get in the pool, it’s better to give up before he begins to associate the pool with being upset. He may be having an off day and you can always try again later in the week.
10) Pick the right floats
Very young babies don’t really need armbands or rubber rings as they’re being held safely and securely. As your baby gets older, he’s better off using float jackets or foam ‘noodles’ (the long, thin floats that you can rest under your body to keep you buoyant). Arm bands mean that your toddler’s arms are out by his side, which makes it difficult to develop a swimming stroke. (Image: Waterbabies)
11) Blow bubbles
Once your baby is used to swimming, try blowing bubbles on the surface of the water and encourage your little one to copy you. It’s great for developing his breathing abilities.
12) Take a bath toy
Bring along your baby’s favourite rubber duck or boat to the pool so he links fun times in the bath with being in the pool. (Image: Waterbabies)
13) Join in
Children love copying their parents, especially when it comes to swimming, so if your pre-schooler is tip-toeing around on the edge of the pool before he jumps in, show him how it’s done and with any luck he’ll be in straight after you. He’ll probably want to hold your hands at first as he jumps in, but it’s great for getting him used to splashes and getting his face and hair wet.
14) Don’t worry about baby jabs
NHS guidelines now say that you no longer have to wait for your baby to have his jabs before you take him swimming. But if your baby was born premature or has been ill recently, it’s worth waiting until after he’s had his injections.
15) Keep it short
For very young babies, you shouldn’t be in the water for longer than 20-30 minutes otherwise he’ll start to get cold. Older, energetic toddlers and pre-schoolers can stay in for longer as they’ll probably be splashing around which creates more body heat. But you’ll find he tires quickly, so don’t overstay. (Image: Waterbabies)
16) Take a changing mat
If you’re worried about whether your baby will roll off the changing room bench while you’re trying to squeeze out of your swimsuit, bring a plastic change mat so you can easily change him on the changing room floor without him getting cold or dirty.
17) Bring plenty of towels
Pack a towel to have by the pool so you can wrap your baby up as soon as you get out and then another one for when you’re getting changed. Damp, cold towels do not make for a happy baby.
18) Pack a post-swim drink
Splashing around in the pool could leave your baby or toddler feeling dehydrated, so pack a drink in your bag. It’s also a useful distraction tool to keep him quiet while you’re getting back into your clothes or drying your hair.
19) Dress right
Save the tight jeans and fiddly tights for a non-swimming day. There’s nothing worse than trying to shimmy into those jeans that you have to lie on a bed to do up. And the same goes for your baby or toddler – jumpers and tracksuits are the easiest clothes to get in and out of with minimum fuss.
20) Start now rather than later
The sooner you take your baby to swimming classes, the more normal the pool and water will be. Babies and children under one have no fear and are more accepting of new experiences although he may go through stages where he doesn’t enjoy swimming. So as long as you’re there to provide plenty of smiles and encouragement, you may even have a little Rebecca Adlington/Michael Phelps on your hands…
Real mum Natalie Brown took her 12-week-old son Maximilian swimming.
The first time I set eyes on my son Maximilian he was underwater. He was born in a hospital birthing pool. I pulled him to the surface, where he nestled in the crook of my arm. So, I thought it would be great for Maxi to have his first swimming lesson at 12 weeks.
But there was a list of potential minefields, ranging from the mildly serious ‘what if he screams throughout the entire thing and ruins it for everyone?’ to the really quite-serious ‘what if he swallows too much water and is ill in the night when I’m asleep?’.
Then there were the logistics. I’m not very good at negotiating slippery floors at the best of times, never mind carrying a baby. And how would we shower afterwards?
I found a host of companies offering baby swimming lessons. I opted for Puddle Ducks (puddleducks.com), who run a 30-minute newborn ‘floaties’ class for babies from birth to six months in a private pool close to where I live.
Sensibly, I changed into my costume before we left, but Maxi still ended up lying precariously on the bench in the changing room while I stripped down. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring in the baby car seat like the other mums had. I put Maxi in a swimming nappy and a waterproof ‘over nappy’ which were provided by Puddle Ducks.
Before entering the water I was shown the default position for holding Maxi. His back was against my chest with my hand across his tummy to enable me to bob with our shoulders under the water with my feet on the bottom of the pool.
I then lay Maxi down on a non-slip mat at the side of the pool under the supervision of the instructor, Katherine. I got in the water then picked up Maxi. The water was a comfortable 32℃. Puddle Ducks allow a maximum of 10 babies with a parent per class.
Maxi loved being in the water. He kicked, splashed and beamed brightly. Various activities followed, including walking backwards in a circle with Maxi on his back in front of me, first supported by both my hands and then by just one hand, allowing his body to float freely in the water. I was worried about this because Maxi is a wriggler. But Katherine was there to help, and she demonstrated what we were going to do with the help of a doll.
Next the babies had to go underwater. With Katherine’s guidance I held Maxi firmly under his arms, tilted slightly forward so water wouldn’t rush up his nose. I counted to three and said his name as a cue, then dunked him for a count of three. None of the babies in the class cried when they went under the water. Being immersed like this means they don’t develop a fear of water.
The lesson introduced Maxi to the swimming pool safely, so we were both confident. We spent a happy half hour in nice warm water together. I hadn’t bargained on how much of a bonding experience it would be with all the skin-to-skin contact.
Should you try baby swimming lessons? It depends on whether your baby enjoys bath time and being free to kick and splash. I’m not sure a clingier baby would enjoy it as much as Maxi did. It also depends on the size of your wallet. Thirty minutes was £13, and you pay per term, in this case a total of £156.
New health and safety guidelines for keeping babies safe in swimming pools
New national guidelines to ensure baby and toddler safety during swimming lessons have been launched by Parliament.
The Baby and Toddler Swimming Teaching Safety Guidelines have been developed in collaboration with the BSI, by key industry players Water Babies, Splash About and the national governing body for swimming, the ASA, to keep these children safe in swimming pools.
The guidelines are intended to provide a standard for all British baby swim schools to adhere to and for parents to rely on.
According to the ASA (Amateur Swimming Association) almost half a million babies and toddlers aged up to 3 years will take part in swimming lessons this year.
Baby swimming is increasingly popular, not only because it is one of the few physical activities that can be done from birth, but also because of its potentially lifesaving nature. This nationwide rise in baby and toddler swimming lessons has also seen a corresponding reduction in the number of deaths by drowning in children aged 0-4 years with a drop of 25% since 2010, according to the WAID (Water Accident and Incident Database).
As well as providing crucial guidance for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of babies during swimming lessons, the guidelines also give recommendations for appropriate swimwear and underwater photography.
They advise that children under 4 years should wear a leak-proof neoprene swim nappy cover over a disposable or reusable swim nappy to ensure pool water is clean for all swimmers.
The recommendations also cover best-practice teaching methods and a focus on pool operation including temperature and hygiene.
Thenew guidelines provide reassurance for parents and carers that important quality aspects for baby swimming lessons and underwater photography have been carefully considered. Here’s a simple summary of what to look out for.
Teachersshould have an industry-recognised swimming qualification specific to teaching babies and toddlers. There should also be a trained lifesaver and first aid member of staff available at all times throughout the class.
Allemployees who work directly with children should have undertaken relevant criminal records checks, have attended a Safeguarding Children in Sport course and have been trained in its swim school’s safeguarding policies and procedures.
Health and hygiene
Allchildren under four should wear a double-nappy system for their swim class - a disposable or reusable swim nappy, with a snug-fitting neoprene nappy on top with close- fitting leg and waist ribs.
Pools should be heated to at least 320 for children 0-3 months old, 300 for children 3-12 months, up to a maximum of 350. Pool safety
Swimschools should monitor pool conditions closely to ensure its venues are maintained safely and efficiently. They should carry out risk assessments at each pool to ensure they operate to the highest health and safety standards.
Swim schools should be fully insured, with both Public Liability insurance and professional indemnity protection to £10 million.
Some swim schools offer a highly evolved programme with clear aims and objectives, while others offer something that’s rather less developed, so make sure you know which you’re getting.
Taking a baby underwater is an important part of a lesson structure, but it should never be the main focus of the lesson.
Lessons should always evolve at your child’s own pace, and place emphasis on both of you having fun.
The person who will be swimming little ones under the water at the photo shoot should be a fully qualified baby swimming teacher who’s been trained in the act of intentional submersion.
Babies should only be submerged at a photo shoot when they have experienced previous submersions and are comfortable with the process.
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