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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Why under water?

The iconic Nirvana Nevermind album cover is probably the best known picture of a baby under water. For fans, it evoked the alternative, anti-corporate cool that was embodied by Nirvana, but for band leader Kurt Cobain, it was about the simple beauty of babies being in water.

Nevermind was released in 1991 at a time when water births were starting to grow more popular. Water births and baby swimming go hand-in-hand, both extolling the theory that babies’ natural affinity and reflexes in water can benefit them in a number of quite extraordinary ways.

 

Originally, Kurt Cobain said that he wanted a photo of a water birth for his album cover because it looked cool. Under water photos of babies do look amazing, but baby swimming isn’t about following a trend or taking cool photos (although my house is full of underwater snaps of my children!). There are many well researched and documented reasons why people have been swimming babies under water for centuries.

 

 

 

Human babies’ affinity with water is as old as humans themselves. Some evolutionists theorise that being in water played a huge part in the way we’ve evolved (read more – it’s fascinating!). Françoise Freedman, founded the Birthlight movement based on the gentle parenting style of Peruvian Amazonian tribes who lived by, around and in water from birth. Today, Freedman’s philosophy 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.” is the foundation of baby swim school Water Babies.

 

 

 

You see, when babies are born they have no natural fear of water. In fact, the opposite is true. That they have a strong affinity with water is obvious when you think about it: they have lived and grown in fluid inside the womb for nine months. Born with a set of reflexes that have the job of getting them through birth and surviving immediately afterwards, they hold their breath when fluid hits the back of their throats to safely feed. They also have a swim reflex, where they move their legs and arms in a swimming motion.

By taking your baby to a warm pool as soon as possible after birth, you can help them grow and develop. Because the water supports them entirely, and gives them a kind of weightlessness, they can move in a way that not only strengthens their muscles, improves co-ordination, but also helps their developing brain make important connections through that movement as explained in this blog. On the flip-side, lack of movement, or restricted movement contributes to developmental delays, so you can completely see why movement is so important.

When I see a new baby class in their first lesson, I notice that many babies have stiffness or restricted movements. Some babies object to being held in certain positions, perhaps because they have discomfort from either the way they were squished inutero, or by the birth itself. A group of fellow teachers had a very interesting talk from an osteopath who told us that when suspended in water, with a full range of movement, you can see stiffness that he believes explains problems like colic. It’s very gratifying to watch a baby grow, develop and move to become stronger as they move freely in the water.

Other than free, unfettered movement, swimming under water is important for water confidence and safety. Drowning is too often a result of panic, when a victim reacts to being unexpectedly plunged under water. Most drowning accidents happen when people fall into water, as opposed to when they’re swimming. By gently and regularly swimming your baby under water, you’re taking that natural affinity and lack of fear and teaching them how to control their breath so they’ll always stay calm when submerged.

Even when babies go through phases of what we call the wobbles, which often occur around that time fear of water could kick in if they hadn’t swum regularly, it doesn’t impact on that positivity that has surrounded them in the pool all their lives. I taught one fifteen month old who fell into a pool on holiday and calmly turned around and grabbed the side, even though he was going through a bit of a clingy phase in lessons.

His wobble was quite typical for his age: separation anxiety as he took a developmental leap in his sense of self; not an actual fear of water. But, this phase is when fears and worries start to creep in – you may notice night terrors, fear of strangers, or spiders, or toys with big eyes. If you don’t have a regular swimming habit where you’re used to bobbing under the water’s surface from time to time, fear of water can be one of them.

So gently swimming under water is an enjoyable, fun part of baby swimming lessons. We do it for safety, and to help little ones get the most from their time in the water. It’s never forced, it’s never prolonged or designed to stress or test the baby; in fact, in Water Babies classes, we use word association that essentially asks the baby’s permission to swim them under water – and many times have I seen them say no through a shout, grimace or shake of the head! On these occasions we leave it until another time.

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Betty, aged 3, just as happy under water as on the surface!

 

Myths about drowning

Summer weather, and everyone takes to the water to cool down. But beware! There’s a danger that you might not know about…

That danger is click-bait articles that give alarming misinformation about drowning and put people off teaching their children to swim. Opening with sentences like the one with which I began this post, they are designed to attract readers, often to the cost of quality and fact.

You may have read these articles. There’s one doing the rounds at the moment (from a notorious ‘fake news’ site) about a four-year-old who died “1 week after swimming”, and claims: “The boy’s lungs were filled with water and he had fallen victim to so-called dry drowning.” This is alarming: we take our children swimming, and most people don’t know the facts about drowning, dry, secondary or otherwise.

Drowning is a very real and very serious danger, that much is true. In the UK, around 60 children drown each summer, and it’s the second leading cause of death and injury in children, those aged one to four-years-old being the most vulnerable. The best defence against drowning is vigilance, but accidents can happen with even the most attentive parents. That is why knowledge and learning swimming and safety skills from as young as possible is so important.

The type of drowning of which most of us are aware is where, having been submerged for an extended period of time, the victim blacks out, reflexively tries to take a breath and inhales water. In some rare cases, the epiglottis which covers the wind pipe, doesn’t open, and the victim asphyxiates under water. This is sometimes called dry drowning (though not by medics) because the person has drowned under water without actually inhaling any.

If the victim was rescued during a drowning accident, they’d need to be monitored for 72 hours afterwards because there is a small chance they had inhaled water, and a small amount of fluid in the lungs can cause a pneumonia-like infection. But this only happens after a near-drowning accident, or where someone has panicked under the water. The key phrase here is ‘near-drowning accident’.

We all have a set of reflexes that protect our lungs. When water hits the back of our throats, the epiglottis closes, sealing shut the windpipe. Water in our throat, and the tube that connects the throat to the windpipe (the larynx), can trigger a cough reflex, where air is forced out of our lungs to clear away the water. That can also trigger the gag reflex and make us throw up, or, more often, the swallow reflex so we simply swallow the water into our stomachs.

In my eight years teaching swimming, I have seen so many children go under water and come up coughing and spluttering because these brilliant reflexes are doing their job. I try to stop myself using the phrase “the water went down the wrong way” because it’s not true; it can only go one of two ways – into their stomach or back out of the mouth or nose.

To enter the danger zone, they’d need to be under water for an extended period of time (how long depends on the individual and the situation). And they’d also need to either panic or pass out – in other words, the situation would have to be out of control. The wonderful thing about swimming lessons is that children learn water confidence, safety skills and swimming skills in a carefully controlled environment.

Babies have no sense of fear with water; having grown in it for nine months, they have an innate affinity with it. The reflexes I talked about earlier are even stronger in babies. By introducing young babies to water, including gentle, controlled submersions, those innate reflexes can become learned behaviour. From a water safety point of view, not just teaching safety skills like turning and holding on to the side, but guarding against panic by making sure they’re always confident and comfortable in water.

I taught a boy called Sam who fell into a pool on holiday when he was 15 months old. His mum was right next to him, but before she got to him, he had turned round and held on to the side. Another baby, George, slipped out of his dad’s hands in the bath, but he calmly righted himself and held on to the side, and he was only eight months old.

What worries me about the articles that spread worry among parents is that they might discourage people from teaching their children to swim. By the time they leave primary school, children should be able to swim 25 metres because if they can swim this distance, chances are they’re strong enough swimmers to get themselves out of trouble.

The Amateur Swimmers Association (ASA) says that one in three children will leave primary school unable to swim. That’s 200,000 children leaving UK schools this summer who would be in big trouble if they fell into deep water. That’s quite a scary statistic, and a much more realistic contribution towards drowning accidents than misinformed notions of secondary drowning.

So how can you protect your children? Be vigilant when it comes to children and water. Remember that it doesn’t take much time or much water for things to get serious. And teach your children to swim. Start in babyhood if you can, choose a swim school if you can, or just take them yourself and teach them confidence and water safety.

Find lessons near you on this website

Find out about baby swimming.

Hold me!

Don’t rush it. Don’t wish it away. Don’t hurry it up. You hear these kind of phrases a lot when you have young children, mainly from old women whose glasses are distinctly rose-tinted. But they have a point when it comes to swimming.

With my older children, I measured their first lessons in the pool without me as progress. I watched from the side as they got in the pool with other small children and a teacher, and felt pleased with myself for taking this next big step. A bit like sleeping in a big bed by themselves, or taking themselves to the loo; it felt right.

But it was a mistake. My eldest, aged just three, and in expensive, private lessons where the teacher had just him and one another child, repeatedly nearly drowned himself, until the teacher told me he was ‘unteachable’. Well, dur, he’s three; he can’t be expected stay at the side for five minutes awaiting instructions.

My second was closer to four, and in council-led classes of eight other pre-schoolers. In a half-hour lesson, she ‘swam’ about four widths, suspended at the water’s surface by armbands that restricted the lovely pulling arms she’d mastered over the time she spent in the water with me in her Water Babies classes.

Now I’m a swimming teacher, I see it again and again. Strong, confident little swimmers who leave me and join mainstream classes and regress; struggling to follow instructions, limited by armbands, confidence and independence knocked.

Small children need to be held up by a parent. Not just physically having someone they love and trust to help them get the right body position and catch them when they jump in, but emotionally they are still so young, and only just starting to make their way in the world.

And why wish away that chance? Before long, they’ll be swimming on their own, and your time will be over. Yes, you may not exactly relish putting on your costume, but once in a pool with your baby, toddler or pre-school, there’s nothing more fun or satisfying than helping your own child learn to swim. The laughs, the skin-on-skin; it’s all immensely bonding.

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It aggrieves me that swim schools encourage classes for preschoolers and younger where the parent is absent. In my opinion, they do it for one reason alone: to make money. Rather than simply explain the many reasons why it’s better for small children to swim with their parents, they take their cash and let the children flounder.

Having a parent with them means learning far more than just swimming. Water is an incredible, sensory world that needs to be explored through singing, games, jumping, diving, splashing, playing. Just as you wouldn’t expect a three or four-year-old to sit at a desk and study all day, nor would expect them to swim width after width. Children learn through play, and that applies to swimming too.

Just as you read with your baby to give them early communication and pre-reading skills, exploring water together gives them important pre-swimming skills. At the stage, before they’re four or five-years-old, it’s about learning buoyancy, balance and streamlining.

It’s a question of safety too. Children should be supervised on a one-to-one basis. That supervision cannot and should never be substituted by flotation devices! Arm-bands are awful; giving a false sense of buoyancy, restricting arm movement, not allowing children to learn a good swimming position. That false sense of buoyancy is deadly: how can children be expected to learn how to kick up to the water’s surface, turn around and hold on? It’s unlikely they’d have on their armbands if they fell into the garden pond.

I’m still in the water with my third child, who’s just over four. That boy can jump, dive, swim on his front and back and enjoys nothing more than fetching sinkers from the bottom of the pool. He has the distinct advantage over his older siblings that I’m now a swimming teacher, and I can recognise that joining lessons where he swaps me for a piece of foam would be a disaster.

So what should you do? If you can find a swim school where you get in with your child, then go for it. Otherwise, the best thing you can do is take them yourself. It doesn’t matter what you do in the water, but avoid arm-bands and let them play and explore on their own terms. Remember that children learn through play, imitation and encouragement, and that they respond to you better than anyone else.

Not drowning

One of the main reasons to learn to swim is safety. I get quite militant about this. We live on a small island in world with a surface 80% covered in water. We teach our children how to cross the road and not talk to strangers, and we should teach them all to swim.

In the UK, drowning is number three on the list of young child-killers (ONS statistics, 2014). That’s after congenital abnormalities and flu, and not being run over or abducted by strangers.

But drowning doesn’t make very good headlines, and there seems to be a lack of impetus to get children swimming from a young age. To me, this just doesn’t make sense when being able to swim, and both parents and children having good water safety awareness could potentially save a life.

Unfortunately, the only stories that seem to get circulated are ones that use scary terms like dry drowning and secondary drowning. This story, rather worryingly published by Medical News Today in the USA (though I would contest that the author’s PhD was in anything medical), uses the term ‘dry drowning’ completely incorrectly, and gives parents the fear about letting their children swim.

Little Johnny sadly died from the symptoms of what is sometimes referred to as secondary drowning (although the medical profession is trying to stop both these phrases being used because they’re misleading). This is where someone has got into trouble in the water; either stayed under too long, or panicked and gasped for air, and water has entered the lungs so the lining has become inflamed and permeable. Other bodily fluids can then enter the lungs, causing asphyxiation.

When you go under water, a couple of things happen. Firstly, you hold your breath. If water gets in your throat, your voice box closes up, effectively plugging your lungs. This handy little reflex is called a laryngospasm, and along with the cough reflex and swallow reflex, your body does a pretty good job of stopping water from getting into your lungs.

If you stay under the water too long, the dropping oxygen levels in your body will make you try to breathe and your laryngospasm subside, so your lungs take on water. If you were rescued at this point, you’d probably have trouble breathing and be taken to hospital to be monitored for up to 72 hours.

In around 10-20% of cases, there’s no attempt to take a breath, and the laryngospasm remains, causing the victim to die of asphyxiation without any liquid actually entering the lungs. This is what’s sometimes called dry drowning.

In babies, the voice box is much higher, which is why they have higher voices. It’s also why little babies can go under water without purposefully holding their breath – that laryngospasm happens straight away, so there’s no risk of water entering their lungs.

By starting swimming when your baby is little, you can take advantage of this reflex to do a few things: make sure they don’t develop a fear of going under water because they’re used to it; teach them how to purposefully hold their breath; teach them how to kick to the surface, turn around and hold the side or a floating object, roll on to their backs and right themselves; teach baby and parents how to behave in and around the water, and help them understand their abilities and limitations.

This last point is so important. I recently taught a water safety session to a Beaver-Scout group, so children aged between six and eight years old. Before the session we asked the parents if their children could swim, to which nearly all said they could. But at least four parents were wrong, and their children could barely swim at all.

Many children drown because they either fall into water or are left in water unsupervised, including the bath at home. Holiday pools in private rentals and villas are another big danger area. I wonder if the parents of those children at the Beavers session would have left their children to play unsupervised in a pool on holiday.

By contrast, I taught a little boy called Sam, who was going through what we call a ‘water wobble’. At 15 months old, he was clingy and wary in the water. But he had been swimming since he was four months old, and this was a natural developmental stage. He was away for a couple of weeks on holiday with his family. When they came back, his mum told me that Sam had fallen in the villa pool. She was with him, but in the time it took her to stand up, he had turned and was holding on to the pool side. Would he have panicked had he not been swimming for most of his life?

The main message from the Royal Life Saving Society is that through awareness of water safety, many drowning accidents can be prevented. From Water Babies comes the message start young, and learn together.

But it’s never too late to learn. To find out about swimming lessons for children and adults, visit the ASA Go Swimming website.

 

 

Water to water

How young were you when you first went swimming? I was about 5 months old when my mum dipped me under water. I have no doubt that those were the foundations of my love of water. My own water babies were younger still: 9 weeks, 11 weeks and 10 weeks respectively. The youngest baby I know of was just 31 hours and 46 minutes old!

It helped that his dad was a Water Babies teacher, and that the hospital where he was born by c-section had it’s own hydrotherapy pool, but still a day old seems very young for your first swimming lesson! But Phoenix Elwell was relaxed and happy in the water. Well, naturally! Just 32 hours before that, a watery world was all he’d known.

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Phoenix Elwell, aged 1 day, with his dad

The idea is that little babies who have spent 9 months protected by the amniotic fluid surrounding them in their mother’s womb, have a natural affinity with water. If you swim with your baby from a very young age, that affinity won’t be replaced by fear of water, which can happen otherwise. This concept has been explored in for almost a century, but there have also been counter-arguments.

In the UK from the 1960s, the polio vaccine was a live vaccine given orally – on a sugar cube, as I remember. Because that vaccine was live, it wasn’t safe for babies to swim before their vaccinations. In 2004, that changed when the polio stopped being a live vaccine. The swimming advice changed too, though some healthcare workers still cite the old advice. Just to be clear, you do not have to wait until after vaccinations to take your baby swimming. If you don’t believe me, here’s word from the Department of Health.

Another concern is that swimming pools contain bacteria. Of course, this is true. While chlorine kills most pathogens, it doesn’t kill them all. But then nor does your sterilising solution, and the finger you put in your baby’s mouth to soothe his crying is full of bacteria, as is the air. Going swimming is no more likely to make your baby ill than anything else you do.

And the benefits of swimming from a very young age far outweigh any risks. By gently introducing your baby to water, you will make sure that he stays happy and relaxed in water. That doesn’t just bode well for a life enjoying the water, but could potentially save his life, as the shock and panic for the uninitiated of being plunged underwater is the causes of drowning.

Water births have grown in popularity over recent years. Not just labouring in water, but giving birth in water too. Most hospitals have birthing pools, and you can also hire a pool at home. The benefits for mother and baby are supposed to be huge, and the risks minimal. You can find out more from this balanced article by the NCT.

I didn’t quite make the pool for any of my births, but I did take my babies to a gorgeous, hydrotherapy pool from a very young age. To me, it follows that the support of the water, which allows your baby to move, stretch, kick in a way they can’t on dry land, is wonderful for physical and cognitive development.

I also found it extremely bonding. I found the transition to motherhood a bit of shocker. My ideas of being a parent weren’t quite the same as the reality. R wasn’t a tricky baby, he was just a baby, and I felt for those first three or four months, that all I did was service him to stop him from crying.

My second baby came quite soon after R, and that was even harder. B was always in the pram or in a sling so I could deal with R’s needs too. She had reflux and got her first teeth at 14 weeks. She also suffer from dramatic nosebleeds and respiratory problems. I felt like I was under water for the first 6 months of her life, barely breaking the surface for air. In retrospect, I think I may have been verging on post-natal depression.

But our swimming sessions were heaven. With R, it was time when I could communicate with him, focus on him and play with him. With B, it was special time with her, where we could be together just us two. With C, my bonus third, it was special time with him while his siblings were at school. There was nothing that matched it in terms of mother-baby groups, or time to bond.

I love seeing tiny babies in the water. Water Babies start babies under a year old, but I would go further and say that under 6 months old is ideal, as babies can start to develop separation or stranger anxiety as young as 8 months, and it’s good for your teacher to be able to swim with your baby too.

If your baby is really teeny tiny, you should find a private hydrotherapy pool. The temperature is bath-like, and chlorine levels can be lower because fewer people use the pool, and strict shower first rules are in place. If your baby is under 12 weeks or 12lbs, they should swim in water that’s warmer that 32 degrees.

Read more about the benefits of baby swimming here. To find Water Babies classes near you look here. If you’re looking at other swim schools, make sure they follow the code of practice for safety here.

Safe swimming #guestblog

My first guest blog is by my favourite girl in the whole wide world. I started Water Babies with her when she was just 9 weeks old, now 8 years old, she’s pretty good in the water! See what Betty has to say about swimming…

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Betty aged 3 just as comfortable under water as above

“I love swimming! I like front crawl, back crawl and breast stroke the most. My mum taught me how to stay safe in the water and now I’ll tell you…

DROWNING

(1)If someone is drowning talk them into the side.

(2) If someone is drowning throw something for them to hold and then talk them into the side.

(3) If someone is drowning get something long and hold one end then throw it out so they can hold the other and you can pull them in.

WHEN AROUND WATER ALWAYS OBEY SIGNS!

Keep swimming!”

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Loving our massive paddling pool!

Like a true water baby, Betty loves any kind of swimming, water slides, the sea, body boarding, even spending hours in our unheated paddling pool.

I once read a fatuous argument against teaching swimming that said that most people who drowned were trying to swim or play in water; that if you didn’t go in water, you wouldn’t drown.

Clearly if you existed somewhere without water, the Sahara, for example, it would be quite hard to drown. But seeing as water is a life force, and the earth’s surface is 80% H2O, it’s better to learn to swim and stay safe around water.

I’m glad Betty enjoyed the water safety part of her swimming lesson, learning pool rules, how to tread water and call for help, how to find a branch or buoyancy aid to help someone in trouble.

I’d never be complacent, but it’s good to know that your child is safe and sensible in the water!