Sunday 15 September 2019

Deep demand for baby swim business

Sisters Carol and Therese McNally beat the recession by bringing the award-winning Water Babies class to Ireland, writes Joanna Kiernan

Water Babies: Six-month-old Zoe O’Hanlon holds hands with her sister, three-year-old Ailbhe. Photo: Sarah Holden.
Water Babies: Six-month-old Zoe O’Hanlon holds hands with her sister, three-year-old Ailbhe. Photo: Sarah Holden.
Carol and Therese McNally. Photo: Sarah Holden

Over the last five years, sisters Carol and Therese McNally have introduced a very special type of baby swimming class to Ireland, specifically designed to develop children’s water skills and improve their physical, mental and emotional development.

The journey began when Carol spotted a leaflet for Water Babies — a programme founded by British man Paul Thompson in 2002 — during a family visit to the UK.

“I thought it looked amazing,” Carol explains. “I was a swimming teacher already — teaching from four year olds to late teens, but even though I was well experienced, I really didn’t know what to do with the babies. I had heard you could dunk them and they were pretty good, but I wasn’t sure.”

Carol got in touch with the Water Babies head office, which is based in Devon, and asked to buy the franchise and bring the programme to Ireland.

In 2009, Carol and her sister Therese, who had since come on board, jumped in the deep end and launched the hugely popular global franchise on this island with the help of a small business loan.

Their company has grown steadily ever since, to become Ireland’s largest baby and toddler swimming company, teaching approximately 2,500 babies in over 40 pools around the country each week.

“It’s wonderful to watch the babies in the water, they have a very natural affinity to water because they have spent nine months in the womb,” Carol explains. “When I teach the first class and I tell them that the most common reaction, when the babies go under the water, is that there is no reaction at all, none of the parents believe me until we do it,” she laughs.

“Babies have a very natural breath hold under the water. Most of them, when they come up, will just blink,” Carol adds. “From the beginning, the babies go underwater and we teach through word association, but it’s also working off some very basic natural reflexes that they have. One is the gag reflex, which is very strong when they are young because it’s all tied into breastfeeding; so it cuts off the lungs so that they can’t inhale any water or milk. That kicks in if any water touches the inside of their mouth or even the outside of the cheek area. But this reflex decreases when they get to around 10 months, so that’s why we like to get them as early as possible.”

Carol and Therese are now the proud owners of the largest and fastest growing of all the Water Babies franchises in both the UK and Ireland. But then the sisters had huge motivation to make the business a success and a fast one at that.

“Therese had just had her second child around that time, so she was on maternity leave and made the decision not to go back to work, but I stayed in work for another six months at the start,” Carol explains. “My husband wasn’t employed and Therese’s husband was in the building industry, which went through the floor around the same time. So we had to get the business to a point where it could support two families as quick as possible.”

Thankfully, once the word spread, the demand for their classes grew rapidly.

“We were really overwhelmed with the amount of interest. From the first phone call it just started to snowball,” says Carol. “It was a huge relief. We started out teaching about 170 babies in our first term and it doubled then the next term. I was able to come out of work sooner than we had anticipated, such was the demand, and since then we have been constantly trying to keep up.”

Carol and Therese currently run classes across Leinster and though they would like to expand further in time, they are concentrating on meeting the huge demand in this area for now.

“We would like to expand further, but we are still trying to keep up with the demand in just Dublin even,” Carol explains.

Recruiting and training enough teachers to meet the needs of their ever-expanding business is one obstacle to expansion which they are currently attempting to address. Yet, Carol says they are happy to take their time and ensure they employ the right people for this highly specialised work.

The Water Babies programme, which is the only baby swimming class with a recognised diploma for teachers, trains babies from a very early stage to get to the side, hold on or swim, a skill which has saved several pupils’ lives after they have fallen into water elsewhere.

“Our biggest challenge is recruiting the right teachers and getting them trained up, because we want them to be very well qualified before they begin,” Carol explains.

Many venues have welcomed the classes.

“For Water Babies we have to operate in pools which are 30 degrees or warmer,” Carol explains. “So the types of pools we want to have our classes in are the likes of hotel pools, special needs pools or school pools, which are generally heated and are warmer.” 

“Thankfully, we found many hotels were interested in talking to us because they could see us as an additional revenue stream in what was a tough time and it was the same for some of the other pools which we approached as well.”

At the end of each term, all Water Babies participants will be ready for their first ever underwater photo shoot, an element of the course which has proved so popular that Therese and Carol have had to invest in a special underwater photography studio to meet the demand.

“Our courses are run in 10-week terms, so when you start as a beginner you have the opportunity to go at the end of term and get your child’s photograph taken under water,” says Carol. “In the 10 weeks running up to that we have to make sure that they are OK to go under the water for a couple of seconds while they get their photograph taken. The results are just incredible.”

Carol and Therese now employ 15 Water Babies instructors and have five administrative staff in their offices who look after bookings and organise the photo shoots. They also sell a range of baby swimming accessories, including ‘Happy Nappies’ which can be worn in the pool.

“What we are trying to do is to teach the parents to teach their babies how to swim,” Carol says.

“We take them in when they are babies and we teach them until they are four or five years old, when they are ready for mainstream classes. Generally, at that point they are swimming without arm bands and absolutely love being under the water,” Carol adds. “It’s natural for them.” 

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