Baby swimming is a big deal, and has grown in popularity in the last few years. But it’s not new. It’s been widely appreciated for years that if you swim from a very young age, it has a positive effect on your swimming ability, water safety, health and development.
The fact that some adults can’t swim, that there aren’t the facilities to make swimming accessible to all, is a source of great consternation to me. We live on a small island in a world that’s surface is 80% water. We develop in fluid in the womb, are born with reflexes to swim, and it’s such an all-round form of exercise with many benefits. Yet a survey by the ASA in March 2015 showed that more than 1 in 5 adults in the UK can’t swim.
All mammals have this amazing, reflexive response to being plunged into very cold water, called the Mammalian Dive Reflex. This response has three parts: as the water hits the mouth, the larynx closes so water is swallowed rather than entering the lungs (laryngeal reflex). The blood vessels in the extremities close (called vascular constriction), so that oxygenated blood is concentrated around the vital organs. At the same time, the heart-rate slows (known as the bradycardic response) so that the blood pressure doesn’t drop dangerously low.
This response is seen in aquatic mammals like otters and seals, but also in human infants and children. In his Reith lecture in 2014 broadcast on Radio 4, Dr Atul Gawande described an extraordinary case of the three year old girl, who went through ice and was submerged for half an hour before her parents could rescue her and was resuscitated fully with no long term damage.
Of course baby swimming classes don’t rely on this extreme reflex, and they swim in much warmer water. But they do capitalise on the laryngeal reflex, plus the baby’s natural affinity with water and instinct to ‘swim’ with their arms and legs, to gently introduce them to swimming.
By swimming from under a year old, babies work through the developmental stage around 12 months old where they would grow cautious or even afraid of water, to lay strong foundations for life-long swimming and water safety skills.
Those reflexes, as described by baby swimming experts Water Babies, means babies can safely, under the care of experts, be swum under water from birth. The benefits are huge, and go way beyond swimming and water safety, including improved fine and gross motor skills, coordination, brain development, confidence, behaviour, bonding with parents – all of which I will go into in more depth at some point.
Lots of research has gone into the benefits of baby swimming. Françoise Freedman, founder of the Birthlight movement, spend years with indigenous Amazonian families observing the way they gently and playfully introduced their babies to water.
“Birthlight believes that a life long love of water and enjoyment of swimming are best generated by a confident and loving handling of babies in water, by swimming with babies and by imparting gentle progressive methods towards unaided swimming, without ever resorting to forceful conditioning,” says Freedman. “The sooner a child discovers the freedom of buoyancy and underwater swimming, the more relaxed and independent he or she will be in water.”
Based on this foundation, Water Babies continues to research and develop baby and toddler aquatics, teaching little ones and their carers through a carefully structured programme. I was casually submerged by my mother from 5 months old, but through Water Babies, my own children have become fantastic little swimmers, my youngest (pictured at around 5 months old) being able to swim 5m on his front and 10m on his back, unaided, at the age of 3 years.
I find the science and research behind baby swimming fascinating. I also believe that it’s pretty much the only activity you can do with your child that could potentially save their lives.
Water Babies is a fantastic organisation, and there’s no beating the quality of their classes. But any swimming is better than no swimming – so long as it’s safe. If you’re confident taking your baby yourself, Francoise Freedman’s book, also called Water Babies, is good guide to what to do in the water. If you’re looking at other swim schools (of which there are many, though not all of equal quality), check they follow the BSI’s accreditation scheme first.
Happily, the incidences of drowning in 0-4 year olds has dropped by 25% (WAID stats) in the last few years, which corresponds to an increased uptake in baby swimming. All we need now is better facilities and more school swimming, but that’s another story…