New parents have no shortage of questions about what’s best for their children, and other parents and experts have no shortage of answers. When it comes to the question of when a baby should start swimming lessons, the answers are as diverse as you might expect, but in our professional opinion there isn’t a single answer, but many.
What’s important to remember is that learning to swim is a process. Swimming lessons for babies don’t begin with learning the freestyle, or any series of coordinated motions. The first steps shouldn’t even involve a pool. The first lessons are about comfort and trust, and the first teachers should be the parents.
Water acclimation can and should start as soon as you get home
New parents receive lots of good instruction on bathing their babies, but what they may not realize is that this first introduction to water also contributes to learning to swim. We aren’t talking about submersion or floating – those are more advanced skills for future months.
But simple things like letting a baby experience some water on his or her face by pouring small cups over the head, ideally as part of a game and positive interactions with a parent, can lay the foundation for feeling more comfortable and confident around water. If a child never feels liquid water on their face, or parents are anxious during bathtime or minimize water play, the child may not form positive associations with water.
There’s also no reason to make baths the only water time for a baby. Splashing and playing with toys in a water-filled container while under close supervision from an adult is fun and novel to a baby. Parents can hold a baby in the shower so the child feels water spray, another new experience.
“In-pool” classes can start when babies (and schools) are ready
When a baby should first start swim classes with a teacher depends on several factors. One obvious answer, which varies by school, is whenever the school is ready for them – depending on the lessons and activities involved, different school may be set up to accept children of different ages and development levels.
The milestones involved are babies who are interactive with their parents, laughing and responding to stimulation; are healthy and robust; and are not at risk of ingesting too much water.
This readiness may come earlier or later for different children, but at Foss we use six months as a good starting point. We just suggest taking the time at home to get really comfortable with water before baby swim classes begin.
Learning to swim follows naturally, and in small steps, when acclimation is complete
Most baby swim classes are actually all about comfort, bonding and first exposure to new experiences in water, and should always involve the close one-on-one supervision of an adult. The instructor is the guide to those experiences and helps the parent introduce experiences in a natural, gradual progression – from first being held in the water, to dips, holding breath, going underwater, floating and so on.
These are all needed and natural steps, and gradually will progress to what adults would recognize as swimming (although the child experiences it as play.) Toddlers and even younger children can start to learn to control buoyancy and propel themselves, but there isn’t a set age by which this should happen – it should follow from the child’s comfort and ability.
One key to progression is repetition. Babies are learning what is normal and what they are capable of every day – simply checking a box that a skill has been demonstrated once isn’t enough to say they are ready to move on to the next step. Since they may only be getting in the pool once a week, they may need to practice the same skill for several lessons in a row to really be comfortable and may need a referesher when the next class begins.
Some mythbusting: No, babies aren’t born knowing how to swim
It’s true that infants have some instinctive reactions that can help them move in the extreme circumstance they find themselves in deep water, and some babies even instinctively hold their breath, but this is not safe in practice. Trying to build on those instincts will not result in positive water acclimation or a joyful experience for children.
Instead, build up to swimming by teaching love of water from a young age, using it as a chance to bond with and be close to your child, and then enroll in baby swim classes when both you and your baby are ready. That’s the best way to start a lifetime of fun, development and safety around water!