It’s vital that little ones learn to swim for safety, fun and long-term health. But when should baby take to the water? We asked Olympic swimmer and six-time World Champion Mark Foster for his expert advice.
Recent statistics revealed that almost half of primary school children cannot swim a length of a pool.
While swimming is the UK’s most popular participatory sport, it’s in decline, and, as Mark says: “This is something that needs to be reversed. All children should be able to swim - not just for their own safety, but because it is a fantastic activity for fitness of the body and the mind.
“The key is to get children loving the water from an early age - and there are a number of simple ways parents of babies and toddlers can help with this.”
When can babies start in the pool?
"I think the younger the better, although it is up to each parent. If in any doubt, check with your GP or health visitor before you start, just to put your mind at rest.”
What’s the first step for baby swimming?
"Introduce water gradually - it may still take a few sessions for your baby to feel at home. Get in with them. Show them you are happy by smiling lots and making eye contact. They need to feel safe and relaxed and they learn this from you above anybody else.
"Before moving in the water, help them get used to water on their faces. Gentle splashes and blowing bubbles helps with this. Hold them under their arms and move them side to side so they can see your face at all times (this tends to come naturally to both adult and baby). Play in the bath lots at home to help build the enjoyment of water.”
What about older children?
"As children get older, they can start proper swimming lessons. These vary in style - some invite parents in the water, some have you watching from the side. They key is to make sure that the lesson you choose is one that your child enjoys. Schools who provide swimming lessons for pupils tend to do it at around the age of seven, but you cannot rely on your child’s school to teach them to swim.”
Why are swimming lessons important?
“Good lessons with specially trained, professional instructors teach your child to relax in the water first and then learn the strokes. It’s not about achieving a distance, it’s about enjoying the water for life. This is something that can never be forgotten. By teaching breathing, flotation and balance first, lessons will result in children always being safe in the water.
“My advice is to book lessons that have the teachers in the water with the child, with small groups. Every child has different strengths and weaknesses - one size cannot fit all.”
What kit should I take for swimming with children?
"Goggles are really helpful for some older children - they often naturally like to swim underwater but pool water can sting their eyes. Other than that there is no particular kit needed. The key is to help your children to enjoy themselves and learn to swim effectively and beautifully. Swimming is great exercise and good fun for the whole family.
“Learning water confidence from a young age means that as they get older, children will grasp the different strokes more easily. If a child learns water confidence, they will always enjoy swimming - and hopefully pass that enjoyment on to their own children.”
Mark is an ambassador for Swimming Nature which creates bespoke classes tailored to pupils, taught in private and public pools across the UK. Find out more at swimmingnature.com