Baby buoys: The benefit of getting children swimming from a very young age
Steer your baby down the right lane early on for a fun way to learn a vital skill for life, writes Claire O'Mahony
Parenting often throws up questions to which there are no definitive answers. Should you go with baby-led weaning or not? How can we get baby to sleep through the night? What is normal crying? But one question that doesn't have an equivocal answer is whether or not you should take your baby swimming. The overwhelming evidence is that early swimming has many physical and cognitive benefits with studies indicating that little swimmers are stronger and more coordinated than their peers who don't swim and that they reach developmental milestones earlier. The skin-to-skin contact also helps the all-important bonding with baby, it improves cardiovascular fitness and the warm water relaxes babies and stimulates their appetite. Vitally, it also teaches children about water safety.
Sarah Keane is the CEO of Swim Ireland, the national governing body for swimming in this country. "Probably the most obvious benefit is that very young children are comfortable in the water. Interestingly, the fear of water is acquired as children grow older: the longer a child is kept away from water, the more likely the child will develop aqua-phobia," she says.
"Children less than a year old accept the water more readily than older children and the freedom of movement through water is a new experience for them without the limitations that a floor or mattress presents, just look at how freely they can move their limbs in the bath!"
Parents often wonder if babies need to have their immunisations before they are taken swimming but the HSE states that babies can go swimming before they're vaccinated.
Carol McNally of Water Babies, which has baby swimming classes throughout over three quarters of the country, says that based on her experience, three to five months is the ideal age for children to start.
"The babies are still quite young, they still have memories of water in the womb and being suspended and just seem to relax much better. The bonding is excellent at that age," she says.
The classes at Water Babies are kept small, with up to 10 babies or toddlers plus a parent or carer and they last 30 minutes and all of the pools are heated to a minimum of 30°C, and to at least 32°C for babies under 12lbs/5.5kg or 12-weeks-old. They also operate a double nappy system, which involves a paper swim nappy with an approved neoprene nappy over that because as every parent knows, accidents will happen.
Most children love being in the water but parents also need to prepare themselves for the 'water wobbles' at some point.
"This can happen between 10 and 15 months as their little personalities are developing and they learn to say no at times," Carol McNally says. "It's also coupled with separation anxiety. It can be tied in to when they're crawling and when they're moving from crawling to standing, they begin to develop a depth perception whereas before the water would have been of no consequence to them.
"You have to build up the trust. It's not that they don't like it, it's just that they don't want to! You have to go with them. You can't force it but usually when they come through the wobbles they're even stronger than at the start."
Parents can also suffer from lack of confidence in the water too. McNally says it's very common. "A lot of our parents do Water Babies because they have a fear of water from when they were young and they don't want their children to have it too," she says.
"A lot of the skills that we do with the baby, like holding the baby in the water, parents can stand at all times. Towards the end of the first term we encourage them to put their heads under the water to see their babies swim under the water and most times the adults will get over their fear to see their child under the water, but it's never something that we push."
As well as the short-term benefits, you're also laying down the foundations for your baby's future well-being when you take them swimming. Research undertaken by the ESRI in 2013 showed that swimming accounts for more than 40pc of all the activity taken up under 12 years that is still participated in after 40 years of age. In contrast, only 2pc of sporting activity consists of team sports taken up after the age of 17.
"Providing children with the experience of swimming as a fun activity that all the family enjoy together will build the basis for how they will continue swimming as they grow. We will always do the activities that make us happy and we have happy memories from," says Swim Ireland's Sarah Keane.
"Teaching a child to swim really is a gift for life."