Before your child can begin learning how to swim, it’s critical to build their water confidence and remove any mental barriers they may have developed. If your child exhibits fear of the swimming pool, you’re not alone.
Many children experience water anxiety that can impede progress during swimming lessons. Fortunately, this mental block can be overcome. In this article, I’ll discuss how best to deal with children who are nervous around water to help your child on the path toward proficient swimming.
For new parents, I’ll also cover some common mistakes to avoid that can help prevent problems when it’s time to teach your child how to swim.
Born to Swim
You might be surprised to learn that babies are natural born swimmers. Just like adults, children’s bodies are naturally resistant to water. The same reflex that prevents infants from inhaling milk while breastfeeding protects them from choking on water while swimming or in the bath.
If you’ve ever blown sharply in your baby’s face, you may have observed a natural mammalian diving response; a baby will automatically close their eyes and hold their breath. This is known as the bradycardic reflex and is present in infants up to one year old. Also remember that your child spent the first nine months of their lives in a veritable lap pool.
They understand buoyancy and most infants don’t fuss at all about being taken into the water as long as it’s not too cold.
Since fear of the water is a learned behavior, children who are apprehensive about swimming have typically had a childhood experience that caused that apprehension. Many of my swim students who started class with an existing fear of the pool had doubts simply because a parent instilled those doubts in their child, or the parents were overly cautious about getting water on their baby’s head and face when bathing.
Most of these parents are well-meaning and did what they thought was best for the child at the time. Unfortunately, this teaches the child to be nervous around water and can lead to resistance when it’s time to start swimming.
Take It Slow
If your child has already started showing signs of water aversion, such as resistance, crying or refusing to go in or near the pool, it’s important to take it slow and proceed with caution.
Don’t try to force the issue before she is ready to tackle the challenge on her own terms. Otherwise, you could end up facing an uphill battle with strong emotions like panic, crying, and sometimes, deepened fear.
Start With Bath Time
As the adult, you have the divine knowledge that water is completely harmless for your child. When it’s bath time, your job is to be a calm and confident parent. Use a cup to scoop water from the tub and pour it over baby’s body and head. Don’t be hesitant or express worry. Don’t make a big deal out of it by telling your child to hold her breath and count to three. And, most importantly, don’t shield your child’s eyes and face from the water. If you’re concerned about soap getting into her eyes, do an initial rinse with her head tilted back and a second and third rinse straight over the head.
Let the water flow over her eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Remember that children learn to react like their parents and peers do. The same way that we inadvertently teach children to scream at the sight of a cockroach, we often teach them to be afraid of water too, sometimes just by showing outward nervousness when our children’s faces get wet.
Capitalize on Interpersonal Relationships
I’ve found that a role model can be tremendously encouraging for a child.
If your kid has an older sibling, cousin or friend who can swim, take everyone to the pool together so your younger kid can see how exciting it is to swim independently. Often, this is enough to stimulate a non-swimmer to want to start lessons. In fact, I often teach dual-level lessons to allow for a more advanced child and a beginner to share pool-time. When the novice student sees their older brother or best friend excelling, they’re more likely to try skills they wouldn’t have attempted had they been on their own. Or, if you have two children at the same level, you can try them in a class together as well.
Though some siblings have a harder time concentrating when their counterpart is around, others are encouraged by natural sibling rivalry.
Make Pool Time Play Time
If you have your own pool or you take regular trips to a community aquatics facility, you’re already on your way to helping your child overcome their water anxiety. If you plan to sign up for lessons, there’s no need to work on any specific skills in advance. Just allow your child to get used to the water’s feel and buoyancy. Bring some pool toys along to make the experience a positive one. When shopping for pool toys, let your kids help you decide. After all, they’ll be using them more than you and you want them to be excited about a new game before they get to play it. There’s really no wrong toys. Any toy that floats can be tossed out into the water and “rescued” with your help; anything that sinks can be placed on a step and reached down to while you encourage them to blow bubbles into the water.
Even toys that aren’t meant for the pool will often work as long as they don’t have holes that water can get trapped inside and grow mold. Among the odder things in my toy bag, I have a water-tight baby doll, ping-pong balls and artificial flowers with fishing weights attached to them so kids can “pick the flowers” off the bottom.
It’s important to keep pool toys separate from the regular stash so that kids don’t lose interest in them before you make it into the water. Essentially, you’re loading the toy with value by allowing your child to choose and by withholding the toy until you get to the pool. Refocusing their energies on playing takes the stress out of swimming and associates pool time with positive feelings.
Flotation Devices: To Aid or Abet?
While swim aids make a good initial confidence builder, be careful to limit their use so they don’t become a crutch. I’ve had students who told me with absolute authority that they couldn’t get in the pool because they didn’t have their “swimmies” on. As a side note, if you’re going to use a flotation aid, use a junior-sized flotation belt rather than floats that go on the arms (often called “water wings”). Arm floats create buoyancy in the wrong place, and can make it difficult for children to adapt to the correct body position for swimming later.
If you opt for a flotation belt, make sure your kid only wears it during designated games and nothing else. For instance, with a flotation aid securely on, throw a squirting toy into the water and race your child to it. The first one to grab it gets to squirt the “loser.”
When the game is over, remove the belt so as not to create a dependence.
Survival Swimming VS Natural Progression
You may have heard of survival swimming or infant self-rescue (ISR) classes. These programs claim to “drown-proof” your child, but usually do more harm than good. These classes use a “sink-or-swim” approach, which usually involves tossing a fully-clothed child into the deep end of the pool on day one. While many children do learn the lifesaving skill of rolling to their back as soon as they hit the water, the more common result is the development of deep-seated anxiety toward the pool and swimming. This can make it especially difficult when it comes time to teach the child to swim because they’ve already learned to fear the water due to the negative associations that have been built around swimming lessons.
Children who have been through these programs usually require a great deal of backpedaling to undo the psychological harm before they can begin to succeed with standard lessons.
As an alternate to survival swimming, I always use the Red Cross Swimming Lessons Progression learning method in my classes. Instead of forcing children before they’re ready and sabotaging your child’s relationship with you and the pool, this method introduces children to the water gently by building confidence. Once they are confident getting into the pool and getting their face wet they can then advance at their own pace, usually quite fast due to their newfound love for the water.
Keep It Positive
When you’re at the pool, always make sure your kids are having fun.
As you work with your child to overcome their fear of water, remember to always provide positive reinforcement. A hug or a sticker will do. A kid with a positive attitude always catches on more quickly and becomes more confident than one who is forced to comply. Even when lessons go poorly, a child needs to know that you’re still behind them.
Above all, never throw a child into the pool. Never reprimand a child for not learning at the pace you desire and always be supportive, not pushy, in encouraging advancement. Remember: when you’re patient, calm, confident and supportive, your child will follow your lead and their own confidence will grow. Once your child is comfortable and confident in the pool, you’ll both be well on your way to a lifetime of swimming success.
About The Author
This article was written by Lizzy Bullock, a mother and WSI-certified swimming instructor with over a decade of experience working with infants, children, and adults. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.
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Also published on Medium.