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. It will also provide lovely bonding time for you both.
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 experience from when her daughter Summer was a baby.
When can babies go swimming?
According to the NHS, 'You can take your baby swimming at any age, both before and after they have been vaccinated. It does not matter if they have not yet completed their course of vaccinations.' So really, the choice is completely yours.
"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," explains Rebecca.
"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 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.
Have a trial run
M&B expert Alison Duff, director of a swimming facility for pregnancy to preschool in Cambridgeshire (calmababy.com), says: "Babies can go swimming at any age but because public pools are busy and noisy, you may want to start the process of preparing your newborn baby for swimming at home. A relaxing bath with him the day after birth can be a wonderful welcome to the world."
Rebecca agrees: "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."
Fill the bath 20cm to 30cm deep with warm water at 32°C to 33°C, and ensure the bathroom is warm (above 24°C). Get in the tub and have someone pass you your baby. Spend some time cuddling him on your chest and enjoying the skin-on-skin contact.
Then try laying him on his back. Cradle him initially, keeping him close to you and bringing his hands to the midline of his chest. If he’s happy, gradually lessen the amount of support and offer him the freedom to float with you, placing one hand under his head, and the other under his bottom. Let his ears submerge and use just enough support to stop his head sinking underwater. Take a breath, relax your arms and shoulders and let him float.
Trust your instincts about how he’s responding to the experience and adjust the position or amount of support you’re giving him as necessary. Ten minutes of fun in the bath is plenty for the first session.
Typical responses to newborn floating can be intense eye contact, kicking, wriggling, smiling, crying and even complete stillness. But don’t worry if your first session isn’t a wonderful experience. If your baby cries then get out, wrap him in a warm towel and try again another time.
After a few weeks, and before going to a public pool, seek out qualified baby-swimming teachers to help you introduce your little one to the water.
When you’re confident enough to visit a public pool (check the temperature is no less than 32°C), choose a quiet time. If he’s unsettled, keep him close, use a rhythmic bobbing motion and ensure his ears are submerged when back floating to help filter out any noise.
If your baby was born prematurely, then be sure to consult your health professional before visiting a public pool.
Things to think about beforehand
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," says Rebecca. "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 young babies under three months."
Don't be put off if you don’t have anyone to go with. "I often took Summer on my own and it’s absolutely fine!" says Rebecca.
It's also worth asking 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.
A swimming costume or baby wetsuit.
A snack if your baby is weaning. Swimming is hungry work!
A bottle of milk if you're bottle-feeding.
A changing mat and your changing bag.
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 in the water, so cradle her body close to you, so she can see you. And chat to her all the time to reassure her.
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," reassures Rebecca. "Let her float on her back at first, so she can see you. Summer preferred being on her front when she was crawling. To support her, I put a hand under her tummy and one under her chin, so her face didn't go in the water."
Getting your baby used to the water
Building water confidence before your baby hits the pool will make the transition easier.
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 had a toy that rains water and we took it in the bath every single night to trickle water over her head and face," says Rebecca.
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 onto her head. Even wetting your hand and rubbing it against her cheek will get her used to the sensation. "When Summer was older, I would dip her and quickly lift her back up, so she felt confident having her whole head underwater," says Rebecca.
Once your baby is comfortable floating, try putting her ears under the water. The best way to do this is to 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," reassures Rebecca. "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 had one bath toy that she absolutely loved, so I took that to the pool and she associates it with the bath and having fun," recommends Rebecca.
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. Feel free to ask Nanny or Granddad, or aunties or uncles, if they want to take your baby one week - we bet they'll be chuffed! 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.
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 the right amount of time in the water 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.
Rebecca Adlington’s three best games to play
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 loved it when I lifted her up onto 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 liked splashing and smacking the water with her hands, which helped her get used to the texture of the water, as well as helping her feel happier getting water splashed on her face.
“I held her around her waist with both hands so she was facing me. This helped us keep eye contact, which was reassuring for her, and also left her with both hands-free to splash about.”
Baby swimming lessons
If you would like some in-person support when taking your baby swimming, why not see if your pool offers swimming lessons or classes? It's a lovely chance to meet other parents and for your youngster to see other babies in the same situation as her.
There are also plenty of swimming programmes available especially for babies all around the country. Here are a few to look into: