Important information

Sound advice from professionals

Enid Whelan is the Chairlady of the Professional Baby Swimming Teachers Association and has specialised in teaching infants for the past 19 years and have presented teaching courses to many existing swimming teachers. The following are excerpts taken from letters that she had written to the magazines: “Your Baby”, January 2002 and “Living and Loving”, January 2001:

What to look out for

Parents should investigate and make thorough inquiries before enrolling their children in a swimming school. It is essential that the teacher is legitimately and adequately qualified to teach a specific age group. Parents are advised to request proof of qualification. A well-established school with references should be your priority. I’d like to stress that anyone undertaking swimming classes should be trained in First Aid Level One. Classes should not be overcrowded and lessons should be well organised and of adequate duration for the need of a particular age group. Water temperature should be between 28 and 32 degrees for the under 3 year olds and the pool enclosed or protected from the elements. A well furnished dressing room is an advantage. Look before you leap! The swimming teacher should provide opportunities for your child’s social, intellectual and emotional growth as well as swimming instruction. She should abound with patience. The most important aspects to consider are water safety, awareness and respect as well as discipline and enjoyment in and around water.  

Realistic expectations

After enrolling their child in a swimming school, parents often expect him / her, regardless of age, to be able to perfect a certain stroke during a given time. What is a realistic expectation you as parent should have? The dictionary defines swimming as “to move along in water by means of movements of the body, especially the arms and legs”. Very young children cannot perfect a swimming stroke, or “master” the complex skills of swimming, until such time as they are developmentally ready and have reasonable co-ordination - but they can “swim” at an early age. They can also float independently at a very early age. With all the contact that we, as South Africans, have with water, it is absolutely essential that all children learn to swim even before they learn to walk. This is a life-saving responsibility and a commitment that every parent should undertake and is not negotiable.

When to start swimming

Some people believe that after nine months in a fluid environment babies are born without fear of water an able to swim, so that the sooner you introduce them to the water, the better. Babies naturally move their arms and legs about when they are put in water shortly after birth and there are specific methods for teaching very small babies to learn to swim by which some spectacular results have been achieved. However, on health grounds, it is not advisable to start going swimming too early. Babies should not be taken to a public swimming pool until three weeks after their first immunization. The three weeks give the vaccine time to be absorbed into the body. Psychologically, it is best if a baby is used to going in the big bath at home before being taken to the pool. For many babies, 4 - 5 months can be the ideal age to start going to the pool. By about 6 months, they are usually starting to sit up and will try to do this in the water as well as out of it. By 8 - 9 months they are often becoming more fearful both of water and strange environments. In general, the older a child is when she first starts going swimming, the more apprehensive she is likely to be. However, there is no point in going swimming early if you do not feel that you are both ready for it.

First time in the pool!

Go on a day when you have plenty of time and both you and your child are on good form. Don't go when your child is tired or hungry, or for an hour after a meal or feed. Remember that your main aim is simply to get your child to enjoy herself in the water. A child who is confronted with swimming lessons may feel out of sorts at first: it may be due to the new environment, the pool or the new teacher. A young child may find it frightening to hang in the water without feeling firm ground underfoot. Give your child time to adjust. Lots of encouragement and praise from the parent is of the utmost importance. Even if your child manages to dangle her feet in the water for the first lesson, it should be seen as progress and this deserves recognition!  

What can I expect of my young child?

Don't become too complacent about your child's ability - supervision is always necessary when young children are in the water. Do not rush your child through the stages of learning to swim or to start teaching him to do the proper strokes too soon. Always remember that your main aim is for your child to enjoy the water. But how long will it take until your child will be able to actually swim? This depends on the child's personality and innate ability. Some children who are slow starters end up being the best of swimmers in the end! Children of 2 - 3 years need more lessons than those between 3 - 5 years of age. Some children are able to jump in the deep end of the pool and swim after only 16 lessons while many children can only manage this after 32 lessons.

Nervous children!

Don't force your child in the pool if he is nervous. Continue to watch from the poolside and rather walk around and point out other children enjoying themselves. Do not compare your child unfavourably with others. Encourage him/her to sit on the edge and dangle his/her feet in the water. If the child continues to be frightened, it may be best to give up the idea of swimming for a few months, before trying again.  

When to start strokes

Children vary in the rate at which they learn to swim just as they do in other aspects of development. Children do not have the strength to swim on the surface of the water until they are about 3 years old. Then they may be able to do a dog paddle type of stroke on their front and swim on their back with their arms out to the side. Before a child starts to learn the major strokes, he should be able to swim at least 10 meters on his own. A child is ready for strokes when he can glide and float smoothly in the water. Some children may be able to start strokes as early as age 4 or 5, though this is unusual for a child to have the strength or comprehension level to do them properly before he is 6 or 7.

Winter swimming

Parents are convinced that their child will catch cold or the flu from being in the pool and getting wet during the winter. When these same swimmers return early in the spring, we are often told that they still caught colds or the flu during the winter months. Not only do these swimmers miss out on the benefits of winter swimming, but in most cases, their skills noticeably regress.

Ask your doctor. Getting colds and flu from exposure to cold air during the winter is just an old wives’ tale. There is no scientific evidence that this is a factor. Colds and flu are generally transmitted by casual contact with an infected person. There is a greater change that they will catch a cold or flu from a sibling (or from you) than from swimming. One rule of thumb to follow: if your child is sick, keep him/her home to minimize exposure to others. This common sense rule applies ANY time of year, not just in winter.

What are the benefits of winter swimming? Plenty! 

  • Children who swim through the winter increase their skill.
  • Physical fitness is increased, and children who swim year round actually tend to be healthier than their non-swimming counterparts.
  • The deep breathing that occurs in swimming helps keep the lungs clear of accumulated mucous, reducing the chance of respiratory problems. In fact, swimming is a preferred exercise for asthmatics because of the warm, moist environment we maintain. The type of deep breathing that occurs in swimming helps to pump the cerebrospinal fluid through the body, assisting the body in maintaining a high intake of oxygen to the brain and the blood.
  • The body’s internal cleaning system is governed by the lymph system. Lymph is a milky liquid that transports toxins from the cells to the blood, which, in turn, releases them out of the body through the lungs, kidneys, intestines, and skin. There is twice as much lymph in the body as there is blood, and it is transported through the body by the action of muscles instead of the heart. Thus, movement of the muscles is imperative to a healthy body. 
  • And how do we move our muscles? Exercise. Research has shown that when we enjoy ourselves, the brain produces very powerful biochemical called endorphins, which are the strongest painkillers known to mankind. Not only do endorphins ease pain, they boost the immune system, which is a vital part of staying healthy during the cold, winter months.

So, parents, here’s the prescription for a happy, healthy child this winter:

  • Keep them home when they are sick.
  • Dress them warm by layering when it’s cold outside.  Keep those hats on, because 70% of the body’s heat is lost through the top of the head.  Several layers will insulate better than one big, thick layer.  If they are shivering in the pool, relax. The water is a warm 30 degrees.  Young children shiver because of their low volume of insulation-better known as body fat.
  • Feed them a nutritionally sound diet-really push those fruits and vegetables! ( Citrus ).
  • Keep them physically active! Winter swimmers do not contract diseases as often as the general population. The incidence of infectious diseases affecting the upper respiratory tract is 40% lower among winter swimmers when compared to a control group. Short term exposure of the whole body to cold water produces oxidative stress, which makes winter swimmers develop improved ant-oxidative protection.

Preparing the young child for swimming lessons

The first step towards learning to swim if feeling at ease in the water and it is well worth planning ahead to ensure that your child's first experience of swimming is a happy one. During infancy, a child should be introduced to total bodily immersion in water, with the object of waterproofing and not just bathing. The parent needs to develop within the young child, a mental condition that accepts water as a completely natural part of his life. The child then quickly learns to adjust in water as easily and effectively as playing on the playground or in the park, with an instinctive and relaxed sense of mastery. The following are activities/exercises you can do with a young child in order to prepare them for swimming lessons.

Exercises for babies

Fill the bathtub with pleasantly warm water and place a few floating toys in it. Get into the bath with the baby and while supporting the child on your lap, let him splash and get his face wet. With cupped hands or sponge, trickle water over the baby's head and ears. Gradually include the eyes and increase the amount of water. For an older child, warm showers accompanied by a parent, will serve the same purpose. Holding the baby under his arms, facing you, dunk him up and down in the water playfully. As soon as it becomes obvious that he likes water on his face, submerge him very briefly. He will instinctively hold his breath under water - this is a natural survival reflex. Remember, that in playing with the baby at this stage, his head should either be clear of the water so that he can breathe without effort, or totally submerged, nose and mouth. Never submerge the mouth alone as he may then attempt to breathe through his nose and suck up water. Encourage leg-kicking and arm movements supported on the mother's hands and include dunking as fun. If the baby is upset by it, remove him from the water, dry him with warm towels and affectionately cuddle him. Be generous with kindness and praise.

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