Learning to swim can be such an invigorating and fun experience for children as they get to splash around and have more freedom in the water. And parents are starting to bring their children to swimming lessons at an earlier age than ever.
At the National Aquatic Centre, swimming instructor Lucy McDonnell teaches young children to swim on a daily basis.
“Classes last for 40 minutes and we take kids from 10 months onwards. They take in so much more; they are much more aware of their surroundings,” she explains. Each parent or carer gets into the pool with their child, while McDonnell acts as a facilitator.
“They are learning through play and it’s all about having fun. We have a structure and we have the same routine every week. We sing nursery rhymes during which the kids do the actions. The children are kicking their legs, splashing with their hands. We want them to get used to water on their heads, in their ears, on their faces.”
Water Babies is a baby swimming programme that Carol McNally brought to Ireland in 2009 together with her sister Therese. The concept behind Water Babies is that it teaches parents to teach their own baby to swim. Right now, Water Babies classes are run in 13 pools around Dublin, while another franchise has just started up in Galway.
During the swimming classes, up to 10 babies are in the water with their parent who holds them, explains Carol McNally.
“We’re teaching the parents techniques to teach their baby to swim. The emphasis is on water confidence and safety. We do underwater work with them. We teach them via a name and command how to hold their breath underwater,” she explains.
“We build and build until they are strong enough to swim on the surface of the water, which is between about three and three and a half years old.”
McNally recommends that children are introduced to swimming at less than 12 months.
“We want to build on a gag reflex that starts to reduce between about 10 and 12 months. It’s stronger in a baby so they don’t choke when they are feeding. That’s why we say to start them at less than 12 months. That way they will have a really great chance of learning how to hold their breath underwater quite quickly.”
She says that a lot of parents have come to Water Babies who aren’t confident in the water and are thus keen that their children are water confident.
“It’s very important that the parent remains happy, calm and relaxed with their child in the water. It’s such one-on-one time,” explains McNally.
“Many parents also find that becoming familiar with handling their baby in water and sharing such a special experience is excellent for their confidence too,” she adds.
With swimming, McDonnell says it is all about making children comfortable in the pool so that it becomes second nature for them. “Kicking is the most important thing for a child to learn. They get used to the environment; the sounds and smells of a pool.”
“It’s all about building up their confidence and their ability as they get older and stronger,” says McNally.
But how can swimming help children with their development? As well as helping with physical fitness, swimming is very good for co-ordination, says McDonnell. “As they are getting older they are using every muscle in the body.”
Adds McNally: “Despite the gentle structure of the lessons, each session provides a complete physical workout, strengthening your baby’s heart, lungs and respiratory system, which in turn aids development of the brain.”
With swimming, McDonnell says it’s the one sport that if you start children young and keep them in a regular routine, they do pick it up.
She also advocates that young children learn to open their eyes in the water without wearing goggles. “Sometimes parents put goggles on their children’s eyes too soon so they never learn to open their eyes in the water. I always think it is wise to get them swimming without goggles first.” For parents who are thinking of bringing their baby swimming McNally says they should first check the temperature of the water. “If it is less than 30 degrees we would recommend a wetsuit.
“Hold your child in your arms. Do gentle bounces with them. Introduce them slowly to the water and keep smiling at them. Sing them nursery rhymes. Don’t hold them up out of the water, instead let your baby feel the water around them.”
She says parents should also not give up on the first go if their baby doesn’t like the pool. “What we have found is sometimes it can take a couple of weeks for them to get used to the pool environment, which is very noisy. Some babies take a little longer to settle in.”