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Baby / pre-school swimming - a super activity

By Jo Wilson

Birthlight Baby Swimming & Aqua Yoga teacher

Little Splashers

Parents have so much choice when it comes to activities and socialising with their baby, from massage, yoga, music, signing and sensory development classes, to name but a few.  However, during the first few months babies actually need very few structured activities; being close to their parent, having a secure emotional base and the space to explore their natural environment is far more important.  When and what activities to join is a personal choice for the parent and one usually based upon their values. Swimming offers many physical, emotional and social benefits, it’s so all encompassing.  But, the cherry on the cake so to speak, is that swimming is a life skill.  One of our parents once stated ‘puppets and parachutes won’t save my baby’s life’.  Being confident and comfortable in the water remains an important part of growing up. If swimming is introduced during a baby’s first year of life, they will become more adapted to the environment and retain a love of water, as the brain is more pliable, ready to receive and wire experiences.

Wonderful Water

Water is both a natural and therapeutic environment, having spent the last 9 months in the amitotic fluids in the womb.  Water provides a gravity free medium which allows babies to explore a wider range of movements than when they are on dry land.  For example; three dimensional movements like stretching out their arms and legs at the same time.  This can be a thrilling experience for babies as they learn to explore how to move their bodies beyond the normal stages of development.  Unconscious movements in the form of reflex actions are practiced by babies, until their bodies learn control and their brains can translate these actions into conscious voluntary movements.  What better way for babies to learn muscle and movement control than in a supported environment where a baby can feel relaxed and nurtured by their parent? Movement is the basis of learning; it is literally the ‘brains food’, as it transports vital nutrients, water and oxygen to the brain.  It is really important for babies to be in a relaxed state to create strong neurological pathways; swimming together for example will release feel good hormones such as ‘oxytocin’ and endorphins into the brain.  Whilst stress will have the opposite effect for a baby and can create negative connections.  Repeated stress on a baby’s brain can have implications for a baby’s development, later on in life.

It is a delight for both parent and baby to experience the amphibian kicking reflex.  During the reflex stage the baby propels themselves using whole body movement patterns i.e. reflexion and extension of the whole body.  The body enjoys a flurry of early movements that are unconscious until the lower level brain has made the sufficient connections. For a baby, learning where their legs are in relation to their body and how to use their legs is the first stage of creating a conscious action.  This might seem a strange statement to make, but babies aren’t born the sense of proprioception i.e. a natural awareness of themselves. This reflex action lasts for approximately 9 months, during this time babies can learn to strengthen their kicking actions to create a smooth transition to when their brains and bodies are ready for voluntary controlled movements.

Two techniques swimming teachers use are; manual movements combined with word association.  Fun games can be played, such as supporting a baby’s head on the parents shoulder, whilst kicking a big beach ball and gently moving their legs up and down and saying the words ‘kick, kick, kick’.  Learning to swim through the parent is also important, as babies are able to imitate a parents movement patterns and create connections with a secure emotional base.

It is fascinating to watch and observe the leg and arm actions of a baby with unconscious movements and of those with full control of their body actions.  Toddlers tend to have a more ‘cycle’ action to their kick and they splash their hands both together.  You can see that the brain hasn’t quiet made the connections needed for alternating patterns; the body is moving as one and not as separate co-ordinated limb actions.  Gentle swim techniques can be applied at the toddler stage and then refined when both the body and the brain is ready to learn and absorb.  For example: ‘the good toes, naughty toes fun game’, to create an awareness of their feet in relation to their legs and a superior swim position.

Natural Multi-Sensory Environment

Water is a natural multi-sensory environment, both the internal senses of proprioception and the vestibular system are stimulated combined with exploration of the five external senses; touch, smell, hearing, sight and even taste through bubble blowing.  Observation and translating a baby’s cues are important to provide the right level and pace of stimulation.  It is important to allow a baby to develop in their own time frame and not give them activities and exercises firstly that are beyond their bodies, but ones that also don’t over stimulate their brains.  The water provides hundreds and thousands of touch receptors which literally ‘ignite’ a babies brain and nerve connections.  Whilst for some babies this can be a wonderful experience, for the sensitive baby or for a baby that becomes quickly tired or hungry in the pool, the water and pool environment may provide over stimulation. A distraction tool like a watering can might be welcomed for some babies, whilst for others this will just be another external stimulus that could heighten a baby’s distress. Periods of dynamic activities combined with periods of calm and rest is therefore needed.  

Tummy Time

Modern support devices like car seats, bumbo chairs and baby bouncers together with the back to back sleep campaign has led to more babies not having the same level of tummy time experience as previous generations.  Tummy time is important for babies to be able to strengthen their neck, back and gain core strength. This might seem such a simple postural position, but it has profound implication on a baby’s developing brain and later motor movements and co-ordination such as crawling. It also gives babies a different view of the world.  Babies need to learn how to use their heads in an upright support position and learn how to turn them in response to what’s happening around them.  In the water the prone tummy time position allows babies to freely explore and more importantly, enjoy this position. We use swim moves called ‘surfs’ where babies are balanced on a parents hands or ‘raft time’ with their tummy’s on a floating mat, which encourages socialising with other babies, reaching and grasping for toys.

Movement and Flow

Babies enjoyed the natural flow of movement in their mother’s womb; and then once born into the outside world they can feel a little static.  Modern baby carry devices and fixed screens like TVs and IPods can hinder children’s natural development.  Babies enjoy rocking, swaying and supported cradle actions that gentle stimulate a babies internal vestibular, balance system. Babies are born with an immature vestibular system which needs to be strengthened through experiencing different types of movement patterns, whether it is fast or slow, left or right sways or forward and back rocking motions.  But, a word of caution should be applied to strong dynamic movements that over stimulate a baby’s vestibular system, as these can have the opposite effect and create negative effects.  This is the same as with strong postural reflexes, such as the righting reflex that kicks into play at about 4-5 months of age. As the head gives the orientation of the body, if a baby doesn’t feel supported in that position they will naturally want to sit up and not enjoy swimming on their backs, like they once did as a little baby.  But, this should not hinder a baby’s enjoyment in the water, swim moves should be taught with respect and allow parents to tune into their baby’s cues and be guided by what baby feels comfortable with.

Watching carefully when a baby has had enough is important.  Some swimming devices like woggles are great in providing additional support and allow babies even as young as 12-18 months to freely propel themselves around the pool.  But, if baby doesn’t feel secure on them, they can quickly distrust them and hinder their progress. But with love, praise and good teaching practices they can come round and this phase can be short lived to become independent swimmers.  The message should be just to slow down, rather than to stop altogether.  At Little Splashers we have a delightful program called ‘woggle wobbles’, which allows the parent and child to explore floating devices at home and at the pool, together in new ways.

Many birthlight families have also found the enjoyment of birthlight baby yoga classes and have been happy to find them so complimentary to swimming. The progression from reflex to voluntary movement is supported on every baby's developmental journey  Fun with parents and friends encourages communication and social interaction. Yoga is also an opportunity for parents to bond with their baby in a relaxed and nurturing environment.

The Future

More scientific research that is UK based would be welcomed to quantify the benefits of early swimming on a baby’s and child’s development.   An understanding of how the brain and body works together will enable swimming tutors to challenge traditional swim practices and design new holds and swim moves to enable more efficient and effective swimming for baby’s and pre-schoolers.  Safe practices should be at the forefront of every swim school.  

With social media becoming more popular, parents and swim schools alike have access to swim images and videos from across the globe.  Practices like ‘Infant Self Rescue’ may look like a fabulous swim technique, whereby a baby can rotate themselves from a face down prone position to their back and call for help.  But, we only see the final edited video and have no knowledge of how effective this practice is, how long it took the baby to achieve this and the trauma on the baby’s brain.  Techniques like this take repeated daily practice and are not welcomed by UK swim schools.  Too often than not, swim schools focus on the ‘baby holds and moves’ as they find the 2-4 years age groups challenging.   New swim programs that introduce effective early swim strokes and technique are needed.

So it is a balance of education for parents, on what are the best swim schools and safe practices, together with training for swim schools to update their knowledge base and skills.


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