Drown-proofing babies

It’s an unfortunate phrase, drown-proofing. Proofing is something you do to objects, not humans, and even then it’s not infallible, as proved by the wet patches my waterproof coat leaves on my shoulders. But it’s a phrase associated with a controversial method of teaching babies to self-save.

To be fair to the Infant Swimming Resources (ISR), I’m not sure drown-proofing is a phrase they use themselves. I hope that they’d agree that you can’t, by any method, make a human-being incapable of drowning. But it’s a phrase that the media has grasped to mixed reception as it seeps into the UK from America where it started.

I’m going to say one more positive thing to be fair to ISR. It is born from a very understandable desire; to reduce the number of children, especially infants, who die from drowning each year in the US, and subsequently, the UK. And, if you only focus on results and only watch the positive videos, you might believe it works.

But ISR techniques are as extreme as they are lacking. While they work to an extent, they concentrate on such a narrow tranche of infant swimming, water confidence and safety, that their effectiveness is equally narrow. The techniques used to reach the point where a baby can flip on to their back and ‘float’ are more like drills, and research can only speculate on how stressful this is for babies.

This is why a group of baby swimming experts, including all major baby swim schools and the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) have come together to produce a statement against these extreme methods of teaching life-saving. Describing it as ‘unethical’, the report includes research from anthropology, aquatic, child development and baby swimming experts, and is very compelling, worthwhile reading.

I find the videos distressing. In this one, for example, the baby shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for something in the water, rather taught to stay away from it. Once she is on her back, she’s not relaxed and floating, she’s clearly unhappy. This one is actually heart-breaking. As a baby swimming teacher for eight years, I would never, ever, ever, submerge a distressed child, let alone repeatedly.

These methods are unethical, and more importantly, unnecessary. One of my colleagues taught an 8-month-old called George in gentle, fun Water Babies classes, who slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, and before his dad could grab him, had righted himself and held on to the side of the bath. I taught a 15-month-old called Sam who fell in a pool on holiday, and turned and grabbed the side immediately. There are many more like their stories here.

As an absolute contrast, the Birthlight movement, and the swim schools which have been inspired by it, is about using gentle methods to engage with a baby’s natural reflexes and affinity with water. It’s a holistic technique, looking at health, well-being, development, strengthening, co-ordination, cognitive development, confidence, early swimming skills and safety.

“Conditioning (forcing) a baby or toddler to float relies on extreme traumatic methods and sadly no amount of praise will compensate for the memory of inflicted pain – it just gets pushed into the recesses of our brain, where it is recorded,” says Birthlight founder and medical anthropologist Dr Francoise Freedman. “While some children will escape unscathed, for others, the trauma may resurface in later years and cause a fear of the water. And because we do not know who is at risk, we have to question if it is worth doing; and the simple answer is no, based on scientific evidence and statistics.”

What effect could the stress of these extreme drown-proofing techniques have on babies? While occasional surges of the stress hormone, cortisol, is thought to be beneficial, frequently elevated levels in infancy from a stressful environment are associated with permanent negative effects on brain development. By contrast, gentle supported movement, skin-on-skin contact between baby and parent, and plenty of loving praise has a hugely positive impact on both brain development and stress responses.

That is certainly reflected by what I see in my classes. As I explained in this blog about why we swim babies under water, by respecting a baby’s choice about whether or not they go under, we develop a confidence that, along with parental vigilance, is the best way to protect our children from drowning.

“We are fully aware of the distress to children the self-rescue technique can cause and regard it as an aggressive, unproven method to make babies ‘drown-proof’. Parents who choose this method are well-intentioned, but have unfortunately been misguided,” says Water Babies co-founder, Paul Thompson. “We practise a much gentler, nurturing and holistic approach that enables little ones to develop physically, emotionally and cognitively at an appropriate rate. We have had clients come to Water Babies having used the self-rescue technique and in many cases the children are petrified of water. Instead, we teach safety, but also encourage children to enjoy the sheer fun of swimming with their family for the long-term.”

I’ve been teaching baby swimming for almost eight years, and been a part of classes with my own three children. My children, and those I’ve taught, have spent most of their lessons smiling and laughing, bonding with their parents, and, if I’m doing my job right, learning without really knowing it. What I want is confident, water-lovers, not drown-proofed children.

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My three children aged 2, 6 and 8 years old, happy and confident in water.

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