At the ripe old age of 6 months, I put my daughter in the water. I love to swim and I wanted my baby to swim as soon as possible. However, this article and my method is not about swim lessons. Instead, I set the stage for my daughter to teach herself. These methods are ideal for children ages 6-24 months. Read on if you’d like to know more about how to prepare your baby to swim.
Consider taking a CPR and Water Safety or Lifeguarding class at your local YMCA or with the Red Cross. Not only will you feel more confident, which will resonate with your child, but you will be prepared in the unlikely event that your child needs help. In my experience, this knowledge has been most useful when I help other parents and children who have sucked in a bit of water.
Our precious babies mean the world to us. So when we see them slightly uncomfortable, it’s easy to try to rescue them. When we see imminent danger, it’s easy to overreact. But these reactions are exactly what can cause a child to think water is dangerous rather than super fun.
The first step for your baby to swim is to prepare yourself. Stay calm no matter what happens. Try to smile as your first reaction, even if you’re lifting them up out of the water and they’re coughing.
Consider your Goal
My goal was not to teach my daughter to swim. My goal was to prepare her to swim and let her teach herself. I wanted water to be fun. Just as importantly, I wanted her to realize that water could be dangerous without having to tell her. This meant I wanted her to explore water in many different ways. Overall, my goal was to give her experiences with all types of water so she would be ready in her own time to swim.
What’s Your Goal?
A Variety of Water Experiences
There are many different water experiences we can introduce our babies to. Some of them prepare our baby to swim and others are just plain fun. Here are some typical ways that you can introduce your child to the water.
Before the umbilical cord is off, it is important to only sponge bathe your baby. Once it’s gone, though, consider floating your child in deep water in the sink. I know all those bathing tubs are adorable. Who could resist the spongy sunflower and how damned cute my daughter was in it? I mean, look at this thing…it’s amazing!
After a while, though, I got tired of the hassle. Filling the sink with water was, honestly, just laziness. I could help her float with one hand and wash her with the other. When I was done, I just drained the sink.
An unexpected result was that she would fall asleep. I can only imagine that surrounded by warm water, floating the way she did in the womb, was comforting. Almost every time I bathed her this way, she relaxed and slept so well afterward.
Once your child can sit up and crawl, it’s time to get them into the big tub. At this stage, make sure not to fill the tub any deeper than they can crawl around in. You want them to be able to lay down, roll over, push up, and crawl all without being underwater. But, you want them to understand that they can lay in the water.
During bathtime, make sure not to avoid pouring water over their face. If you always avoid pouring water on their face, they will think it isn’t supposed to get wet. When it’s time to swim, they will try to keep their head out of the water. In order to float, and therefore swim, they’ll need to get their face wet. Might as well practice now.
But my child HATES water on his face!?!
Understood. Every child is different. Work up to pouring water by first pouring on other parts of the body. Then pour on the back of the head. Then practice counting “1-2-3!” before pouring over their face so they know to expect it. It’s not foolproof, but it can help.
Deep Water Baths
When your child can pull up to stand, maybe even walk, it’s time to increase the water in their bathtub. So often, in a world of safety rules, we end up overprotecting our children. Remember our goal? Water experiences that prepare our baby to swim is our ultimate goal. It makes perfect sense to create a “swimming pool” in your own bathtub.
Whatever is the deepest tub in your house will work the best. We had a two-person soaking tub, which I’m so grateful for now that my daughter can swim. I filled it all the way to the top and she would float-walk in circles. When it was halfway (filling or emptying) she would also practice self-assisted floating on her back.
Man, I wish I had a picture of that to show you. Watching her figure out the physics of water with her tiny body was such a joy.
Deepwater experiences teach the child principles of floating and their greatest center of buoyancy. This experience will pay off in dividends later.
Consider Limiting Water Toys
I am in no way telling you to throw away all your bath toys! But…I have noticed this:
With bath toys = Child plays with the toys
Without bath toys = Child plays with the water
What I mean by “playing with the water” is that they use their bodies to play with the properties of water; the water itself IS their toy. They cup water in their own hands to pour on their heads. They wiggle their own fingers through the running faucet water. When the water is shallow, they float their bodies either prone or on their backs. The water itself becomes the toy with their imaginations providing creativity.
Try rotating between toys and no toys when you take baths. Encourage play with the washcloth or sponge, run the water faucet and feel the water, or cup water in your hands and blow bubbles. Teach them how to squirt water using your fist.
When you do use toys, try to limit how many you put in so there isn’t a stark contrast between toys and no toys. If you are already using a lot of toys, slowly decrease how many there are, or set up a small pile of toys and let your child choose which toy from the pile to bring to the bathtub.
Splash Parks and Beaches
Splash parks and beaches are fantastic ways to have fun in and near water. Young children watch older children playing, splashing, getting super wet and learn how much fun it is. You can bring buckets and pouring-toys to fill with water. Those same buckets can be used in the sand. Young children who can walk love carrying water in a bucket to fill a small hole in the sand.
Backyard Baby Pools
So much fun, they make a million styles of these now. There are even hard-sided ones that can be 1.5-2 feet deep! Consider getting one of these for fast, summer cool-offs and fun experiences with neighbor kids. This is the PERFECT time for water toys.
**Note: Please be careful and always drain the pool. Not only does this kind of pool get scummy quickly, a 2-foot deep pool unattended in a backyard can be a drowning hazard for your child and others**
Zero Entry Swimming Pools
Zero Entry Pools are A M A Z I N G! These are the pools where one side gradually slopes up until it reaches the surface. So, the water gets deeper very slowly as you enter the pool, rather than requiring stairs. They emulate a beach sloping into the ocean or lake—minus any waves. This is a fabulous way for your child to practice walking in varying depths of water and push the limits of where they can touch down with their feet.
Let your child explore the very edge of a zero-entry pool where they can no longer touch down. This might mean that they temporarily go under water until you pull them right up again. However, it will teach them that there IS a point they can no longer reach. This gives them the invaluable experience of trying to walk forward when the water is as high as their chest.
Place some objects under the water either in the tub or in the pool, just at a depth where they can reach but they may have to put their chin, ears, or even mouth into the water. This teaches them to close their mouth when it’s covered with water, in preparation for holding their breath, while being submerged.
I did actually try a swim class—we went once. I hated it. It was crowded, loud, there were 4 other classes going at the same time. More importantly, Daecklyn was bored! All she wanted to do was play with the massive, attractive floating toys! She was used to playing in water and freedom. Now, I had to hold her and all her experiences were reliant on me. It just didn’t work for us.
I’m not saying that you can’t find some swim lessons that would be fun. Just make sure that they are focused on fun and independent experiences in the water. If you have to hold them the whole time, you aren’t really preparing your baby to swim.
Skills to Watch For
While teaching your baby to swim, make sure to check for these skills along the way. It’s so much fun seeing the progression, even if swimming hasn’t yet happened.
- She lays on her stomach, holding her body up with her arms and floats.
- She has started to do this on her back, slightly letting the back of her head get wet.
- When transitioning from floating, she temporarily lets go and doesn’t realize she’s floating on her own while she turns over. Eventually, she’ll realize it ?
- She jumps and glides to me from the deep step, going slightly underwater until she reaches me.
- Without my help, she crawls out the side of a pool of deep water.
- She jumps back into my arms from the side of the pool rather than leaning and waiting for me to reach her.
- She clings to my back while I swim breaststroke.
And THESE are some of the frustrating things she did that seemed like they would NEVER go away!!
- She can blow on hot food, she can blow on the surface of water, but the second her mouth fully touches water SHE DRINKS IT! Ahhhhhhh. Nothing we’ve tried has worked yet. Every once in a while, she’ll actually blow a bubble. Otherwise you’d think we never give our baby water the way she guzzles it in a pool or bathtub.
- She HATES when we try to float her on her back. She clenches her stomach muscles to sit up every time, even though she’ll float herself on her back no problem.