It depends on the child, the parents' expectations, and the experience you want for your child.
Take babies in the pool as soon as you are comfortable doing so, after the umbilical cord has fallen off and the navel is healed. Walk with your child in the water, hold him tight, pull him through the water (head out), talk to him in a soothing voice and make him feel comfortable and secure.
If you are uncomfortable taking your baby in the water, pay an instructor for a private lesson, but only if you have disposable income and it is something that is important to you.
Mom and Baby/Tot classes are GREAT! Mostly this is a social experience, but parents learn how to hold their child in the water, skills they can work on with their child, and the child is introduced to the water with the security of the parent being with him (this is important, especially in the case of separation anxiety).
Some children are ready for private or group swim lessons without the parent around age 2 years-old.
Most children are capable of learning how to swim and how to breathe around 3-4 years-old. This is my preferred age for children to begin swim lessons. Children at this age more easily get over their fears of swimming (if they have any), they typically have less separation anxiety, and they are physically capable of swimming. It is important at this age though, to continue lessons, even if the child is scared. See- What to Do if My Child is Afraid of aswim Lessons. Make sure you have a gentle, experienced swim instructor to help get your child swimming without instilling fear in your child by pushing him too hard, too fast.
If your child is older than that and you have not yet started lessons, don't worry- it's never too late, but the sooner the better!!! It is WAY easier to teach younger children to swim than older children, especially if there is a fear factor.
This is my opinion based on 27 years of teaching swim lessons. There are certainly other philosophies out there, but I believe in introducing children to the water in a way that will allow them to love the water forever, without causing any necessary fear. There is no such thing as "drown-proofing" a child, no matter how skilled he is. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends swim lessons for children between the ages of 1-4 years old. Children who have taken formal swim lessons "may be less likely to drown." https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Gives-Updated-Advice-on-Drowning-Prevention.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR:+No+local+token
The question of group swim lessons verses private swim lessons comes up a lot. Most of the time, the benefits of group lessons heavily outweigh the benefits of private lessons.
In group lessons, your child will see other children preforming swimming skills. If your child is nervous or scared, it is usually helpful to see other children doing it and having fun. If your child is more advanced than the other children in the class, she can demonstrate the skill to the others in the class. It always feels good to be a leader! Group lessons allow time for the children to rest in between each turn. Thirty minutes of non-stop swim instruction can be too much for younger children. And of course, the cost factor weighs heavily in favor of group lessons.
If your child is on swim team and needs to perfect a skill or stroke, a few private lessons can be very beneficial. If your child has problems learning in group settings or if your time constraints don't allow for group lessons then private lessons may be the answer. If your child is absolutely terrified, private lessons may be part of the solution, but try group lessons or talk with the instructor first. I have taught many children who come to class crying and screaming for a lesson or two who are perfectly happy ever after. In a few rare cases, I have recommended private lessons for children who are afraid, in order to get them over a hump. Almost all of them have then successfully gone into group lessons afterwards. Honestly, I can only think of one student who did not go into a group lesson with me after private lessons due to fear, but that's because his family moved just as he was getting comfortable in the water. For adults, private lessons often work well due to the lack of adult swim lesson opportunities, specific needs, and time constraints; however, I have taught a lot of adults to swim in group swim lessons.
When considering private lessons, only do it if you have very specific needs; otherwise, sign up for group lessons.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided to take ballroom dancing. I should tell you, I don’t like dancing. I am never sure what to do with my arms or legs and I feel as though there is a spotlight on me as I flail through space. I went to these lessons without a partner and stumbled through dance moves stepping on the instructors’ toes and bumping into them. I couldn’t practice at home as they suggested because I couldn’t figure out which direction I was supposed to move in class; knowing which way to move at home was hopeless. I never did learn to ballroom dance. I stopped going after four classes.
I have a lot of respect for adults who come to me and want to learn to swim. Sometimes I have adult clients who never learned to swim because they had a bad experience when they were younger; sometimes they never had the opportunity to learn; sometimes they can swim, but have a hard time with the breathing or want to learn better technique; and sometimes I think they feel like there are too many steps to remember them all.
Adults have a tendency to overthink things. Children generally are more willing to just give it a go. Adults want to know exactly where to place their hand, how much to kick, how to breathe, how to not get water up their nose, and how to stay afloat. I have learned, in teaching adults, to break down the elements of swimming into very small parts. Once I had a lady who could kick on her back with a kickboard very well, but when it was time to stop, she didn’t know how. I told her, “Just stand up.” I helped her up and then decided to try it myself. The truth is, you don’t “Just stand up.” You have to tuck your chin, bend forwards at the waist as though you are going to sit down, right yourself by using your arms to push yourself vertical, and then get your feet on the pool bottom. I simply took it for granted because it was something I never “learned.” When teaching adults, a good teacher will break down a skill into parts that a student can practice outside of the lesson time. It must be something a student can remember and something he/she is comfortable practicing. Not everything done during the lesson is safe to practice alone, so a good instructor always make sure the student knows which things they should work on before the next lesson.
Adults who really do want to swim (unlike me in ballroom dancing) and who practice their assigned “homework” on their own, generally learn to swim in a short amount of time.
My mother was a non-swimmer. Really, she could swim, but only in water shallow enough for her to stand. I remember as a child, trying to coax her into the deep end, telling her that swimming in the deep end was exactly the same as swimming in the shallow end. To her it wasn’t. It was not the same because she was afraid. Having never experienced any fear of the water, I couldn’t understand the problem. After many, MANY years of teaching, I have not experienced that fear, but I have learned to work around it and help others overcome it. If my mother were still living, I have no doubt she would be swimming! I hope that any adult who wants to experience the joys and benefits of swimming will have the opportunity to do so (and more staying power than I had in dancing).
A couple of moms have asked me lately, "What do you recommend in regards to swim lessons for a fearful 3-4 year old? Should I wait until he is ready? Should we sign up for private lessons?"
Here is my long answer:
I think group lessons are typically better. It's rare, but I occasionally find a child who is better off in private lessons or better, at least to start in private lessons, and then transition to group lessons, but it's very seldom.
It is best to get your child going now. It is WAY easier to teach a fearful child between the ages of 3-4 than it is an older child, and they get over that hump much faster. It's crazy what a 3 year-old will do for a Dum-dum!
The best thing you can do as a parent for your fearful child is to tell him that you are signing him up for swim lessons because you want him to always be safe AND because it's fun! Don't discuss it if you have a child who will do anything to negotiate his way out of things. Just tell him that he needs to learn to swim then change the subject and refuse to discuss it.
You can also help your child by checking out books at the library about swim lessons. Just pick up one or two along with some other books so that your child doesn't see that you have an agenda:) Read Froggy Learns to Swim by Jonathan London or watch it read aloud on youtube- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OJVsBmqnLw or at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqv4tFpbIjs. Other book suggestions: Ruby Learns to Swim written by Phillip Gwynne and illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie; The Deep End written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Mitch Vane; The Deep End by Rebecca Patterson; Freddie Learns to Swim by Nicola Smee; or do a quick google search- there are too many to list!
Make sure you put your child in a class with a good, knowledgeable, experienced, kind instructor. Praise your child for going to lessons. Celebrate every milestone. Acknowledge that trying new things can be scary, but tell him that once he has done it a few times it will be easy-peasy. Lastly, don't give up on lessons until he is swimming! If there continue to be tears and anxiety, talk with teacher. Make sure the teacher is aware of your child's anxiety, but tell your child that learning to swim is not an option. It truly is a life skill if your child will ever be near water; it is something he must know how to do.
Sad story- My husband, twins, and I were canoeing a few years ago when we came upon a drowning accident where a 24 year-old male had been walking a path along the Chattahoochee River with friends who were horse-playing. He was bumped into the water and could not swim. None of his friends could swim. He was an arm-length away from the rocks and surfaced, but then sank and did not resurface. Those boys had not planned to go in the water.
You want your child to be strong enough and skilled enough to save himself should he ever have to.
My mother-in-law required all five of her children to swim on swim team for 4 years. When she first told me that, I sort of thought she was crazy (but I aspire to be like her, so crazy is good!). Her reasoning was that if they had swum on swim team for 5 years, she wouldn't worry about them if they were ever around the water. As I thought more about it, I began to see the wisdom of her advice. What one person calls "swimming" may or may not be enough skill to be life-saving. A number of years on swim team will ensure a competent level of swimming.
Every year, I have several parents ask, "At what age should I enroll my child in swim lessons?" Generally, I believe that children are most suited to begin lessons between the ages of 3-4 years. If parents are not able to or are not interested in getting in the water with their baby, then I suggest starting swim lessons at age 2 years.
I start with water adjustment skills and basic swimming skills (kicking with me, holding on to side, kicking with kick boards, blowing bubbles, kicking on back, and more kicking). We continue to work on those skills and add pushing off the wall to the instructor, streamlines, and then actual freestyle. Children between 3-4 years-old generally have the coordination and strength to accomplish these skills without too much difficulty. The difficulty lies in the fear factor.
Some children are fearful by nature. These children are usually easy to spot. They are afraid of shadows, ants, stuffed animals, noises, new people, and definitely swim lessons! These children must be handled delicately. It takes consistency of the instructor, positive reinforcement, and gentle coercion. Bribes (I mean incentives) are helpful too. It's crazy what a 3 year-old will do for a lollipop! At the age of 3-4, children who are afraid, overcome their fears more readily and it's easier physically, to get them to try things. Try kicking the legs of an 8-9 year-old child in the way I described in an earlier post.
Children under the age of 3 years can, and do swim independently. You can watch u tube videos and advertisements of babies swimming. It's amazing! But really, do we care if our 9 month old is swimming? There is no such thing as "drown-proofing" your child. It is the parent's responsibility to keep their eyes on their child at all times when in an unsafe environment. Would you take your hands off and look away from your child in the middle of a busy street or in a crowded shopping mall? Of course not. And while it is neat to see videos of babies who are swimming, I am more interested in developing children and adults who are as passionate about the water as I am. Swimming should be FUN! And while it is not always fun when learning (especially for the fearful child), it should be kept as fun as possible.
So, in deciding when to start swim lessons, consider... Do I take my child to the pool? If not, consider a mommy and me class or a couple of private lessons for the instructor to instruct you on what to do with your child in the water. If you find that you aren't interested or able to get in the water with your child, consider lessons for your 2 year-old. But for most children, 3-4 year of age is the best time to start.
Taking a baby to the pool can seem like a daunting challenge. After all, getting out of the house with a baby is sometimes challenging enough! Here are a few tips to get you started.
First, buy a non-disposable swim diaper. These can be ordered for very little at swimoutlet.com. Go ahead and order two! That way, you can keep a dry one in the car or in the diaper bag. With my first children (I have 4), I went for convenience and bought the disposable swimmy diapers at the grocery store. Talk about throwing away money and filling up landfills! Not to mention, some pools will not let babies in the pool without a rubber pants cover. The non-disposable diapers are lined and come in cute prints!
This next tip is helpful if you have a baby with a toddler in tow. If your baby is used to being carried in a front carrier, buy an extra one at a consignment sale. Use this carrier to hold baby close to you in the water and free up your hands to keep hold of other little ones.
Once you make it to the pool, have baby dressed, and are ready to get into the pool, remember that the first goal is to make sure baby is safe and secure. Enter the pool by way of steps if possible. Hold baby close to you. Enter the water slowly, especially if the water is cold, to let the baby's body adjust. I always start by holding baby with his head near my head, facing me, with both arms wrapped around him in an embrace. I talk in a soothing voice and let my enthusiasm for the water be known. Smile and tell baby how fun swimming is. Walk around the shallow end; gently bounce up and down; swish gently through the water. Once baby seems relaxed, you can work on other skills.
Try turning baby facing outwards. Hold baby high on your shoulder and move his legs up and down in an alternating, kicking motion. Babies tend to draw their legs in towards their body, so you want to help them stretch them out a bit. Hold your baby high in the water and show him how you blow bubbles. Walk around and talk about what you see (I always make notice of the lap swimmers and swim team swimmers!).
Next- what to do with older babies...
Early introduction to the water is very important, but that does not mean you need to rush out and sign up for Mommy and Me swim lessons this summer. Most babies are very comfortable in the water, especially when introduced to it in a gentle way. Start with bath time.
I was given a really cool baby bath tub for my baby shower last year. It was extremely cool! Unfortunately, it didn't get much use. That's because I know that little babies are much more comfortable in the bath when held close by their mom or dad. Yes, this means you must get in the tub with your baby. But it's only for 6 months or so. By the time your baby is sitting without assistance, he or she will be comfortable being placed in a bath without you in the tub (under CLOSE supervision, of course). Once your baby is is sitting (without constantly toppling over), fill the tub with toys. You want the water to be something the baby associates with fun and excitement. Bath toys should be bath toys. This means that you leave the bath toys in the bathroom when bath time is over. It will give baby something to look forward to (as though the warm water isn't enough).
Spend the first 10-20 minutes in the bath holding or playing with your baby. Then, in the last 5-10 minutes, soap up and do the washing. That way, you'll keep from getting soap in his eyes so easily and it won't be a drying on his skin.
It's that time of year again. With the warm weather and the school year coming to an end, folks begin to think of swimming. There is always a mad rush to sign children up for swim lessons just before, and at the start of summer. I have always been an advocate of swim lessons during the school year. I know it's "another" activity for families who are already over-committed, but of course, I think it should be a priority.
Here's the beauty of it. If you swim once each week, over an extended period of time, your children have the benefit of physically developing, and thus being more capable of preforming certain skills. This is not as important for the older swimmer, but can be critical for the 2-5 year old. Think of the milestones children reach at earlier ages; what they can't do one week, they've mastered the next month. Also, if you take lessons once each week during the school year, or even for a couple of months, and then take a break, and then sign up for another few months, your children will be way ahead of the game come summer time. While all of those other parents are scrambling to register their children for lessons, you can relax by the pool, confident that while your child is not taking lessons, he or she is practicing skills that have been learned already.
Summer should be a time for swim team or for vacation or for relaxing by the pool. So, if your child has not been swimming recently, go ahead and sign them up for lessons this summer. But when summer draws to an end and school begins, don't stop the lessons! You don't want to be the parent calling me the day the pool opens to say, "My child was swimming last summer, but he seems to have forgotten everything!"
Babies love to spend time in the pool being cuddled, watching other children play, watching the lifeguards, and splashing. I always spend time in the water pointing out things and telling baby about them. Lane ropes can be of great interest, and a good way to practice naming colors (blue, white, blue, white, and so on).
There are other skills that you can introduce your baby to as he develops (or she- my youngest just happens to be a he). Kicking, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is of utmost importance. While most of the competitive strokes rely mostly on upper body strength, the kick is fundamental to body position in all strokes. Babies and many children tend to pull their knees in towards their body or bicycle kick or kick with a really, really big kick. It is important to help babies get the feel for a flutter kick early on. I start this by putting the baby high up on my shoulder, so that I can rest his body on my upper arms and can place my hands on his thighs. In this position, I can control his legs and gently kick them up and down in a small, quick motion. We do this as we motor around the pool to get a toy. I toss the toy and then we kick to get it. Some babies will resist this position at first. I do it for 20-30 seconds and then stop; move baby into a position that he prefers for a bit then try it again. As I move baby's legs, I praise baby for a good kick. I ask if he can do it. I stop moving his legs and encourage him to try. Any noticeable attempt gets great praise!
Another skill to focus on from the beginning is getting/jumping into the water when you give an okay command. This is to help prevent baby from jumping in when you are not looking or not in the water. I start by placing baby on the side of the pool (hands on baby at all times) in either a sitting or standing position. I say, "Let me see you jump on the count of three. 1-2-3-GO!" Then help baby to "jump" into the pool. I keep my hands on baby at all times and do not actually let baby go under water- at least in the beginning:) As baby gets older, you can play a modified version of "Ready-Set-GO." Tell baby that he is to jump when you say "Ready-Set-Go." Then try to trick him by saying "Ready-Set-Snow" or "Ready-Set-Don't-Go" or anything else that might trick him. I always give lots of praise for being a good listener. This is a great game!
Pretending to be a monkey is another great game/skill builder. I often follow a "jump" with having baby hold on to the wall and pretend to be a monkey. See how much of the baby's weight he can hold. Encourage baby to wrap fingers over the ledge of the pool (some pools are easier than others) and traverse the wall by being a monkey. Make baby keep both hands on the wall as he slides one hand and then the next in order to move towards a ladder or set of stairs. With lots of practice, older babies/young toddlers are able to do this without support. You should always be their shadow (standing right behind them, ready to scoop them up) in the case their hands slip. To liven it up, talk about what monkeys say. Do they say Mooo?! Do they say Meow?! Now we are learning about animals too:)
Coach Mandi has been teaching and coaching swimmers at the USA, summer league, high school, and Masters