Google ‘can my baby swim underwater’ and you’ll find all sorts of conflicting articles. All sorts of terms get thrown around: mammalian dive reflex, bradycardic response… I’ve found the top baby-swimming myths in Googleland and sunk them right here.
Myth #1: Your baby uses the mammalian dive reflex
An actual qualified swim instructor is quoted on a parenting site as saying: “Until about 6 months the mammalian dive reflex will stop water from getting into a baby’s lungs.” This gem is probably baby swimming’s most ubiquitous piece of misinformation.
The mammalian dive reflex has nothing to do with baby swimming, unless you’re a seal or you’re cutting a hole in the ice to make a pool. This amazing, incredibly important reflex kicks in when anyone is plunged into cold water. The heart slows (bradycardic reponse), capillaries in your extremities close (vasoconstriction) and your blood flow shifts to prioritise circulating oxygenated blood to your vital organs and counter a drop in blood pressure from a slowed heart rate.
It’s fascinating, really, and incredibly clever. It’s probably left over from a time in human evolution when we lived in the water; aquatic mammals have it (hence the name). That it’s much stronger in babies is true; drowned children have in fact been ‘brought back to life’ because of it, and medics simulate the reflex by artificially cooling the blood to help treat coma patients.
None of this sounds very relevant to a half-hour swimming lesson in a hydro-pool, though. It’s true that parts of the dive reflex come into play when a baby is gently swum underwater, such a slight slowing of their heart rate, but this reflex is an extreme response to an extreme situation.
Read about the mechanisms of swimming underwater here.
Myth #2 If you put a baby underwater, they can inhale it
Clearly, if a baby (or anyone, for that matter) is under water for too long, their oxygen-deprived body will make a last-ditched attempt at gasping for air, and will inhale water. It’s called drowning, and you can read about it here.
When you’re in an ordinary pool situation, your baby may well cough and splutter, and will certainly hold their breath responsively, but they won’t inhale it. It’s not remotely like how Australian baby swimming company Aquatots describes: “Without waiting until your baby is conditioned to submerge by placing them underwater their air way will be open and the water that enters the mouth will go straight into the stomach and lungs.”
This is completely incorrect. Your baby, conditioned or not, will reflexively close their airway under water. As soon as water hits the back of the mouth and the taste-buds on their voice box, which is higher up than an adult’s, detect it, the flappy bit (epiglottis) over the windpipe seals shut. If it didn’t, they’d be at risk of drowning while feeding if you think about it, and that’s ultimately what this survival reflex is for.
They also have two more nifty little reflexes, the swallow and gag reflexes. They send that mouthful of water one of two ways, down to baby’s stomach or back out of their mouth. A mouthful of swallowed water is harmless, and so long as you don’t submerge your baby too many times and the water’s not salty, all it means is wetter nappies than usual later on.
Myth #3 Babies will let you know when they’re cold
I’ve seen babies ‘shivering’ in the warmest pools. But this shivering actually doesn’t have anything to do with temperature, it’s cause by tensing muscles with excitement and anticipation, and it can also be caused by apprehension (think knocking knees).
Babies aren’t able to regulate their temperature. They have something called brown fat around their necks, shoulders, backs and bottoms that insulates them and actually generates heat – read more here. But while they don’t feel the cold like adults do, spending half-an-hour in cold water can cause their body temperature to drop.
When a baby’s cold, they probably won’t cry. Quite the opposite, they can go very quiet or just whimper a bit. The real tell-tale signs are blueness in their hands, feet and lips. As a general rule, if the pool’s cooler than 32 degrees centigrade and your baby weighs less than 12lbs, you should probably not swim. If your baby’s bigger, then watch them, try not to stay in for longer than half an hour, and wrap them up warmly afterwards.
Myth #4 You need to wait until your baby’s been immunised
Remember getting your polio drops on a sugar cube as a child? Back in the day, polio was a ‘live’ immunisation meaning that in order to develop immunity, you’re given some of the pathogens that cause the disease.
That’s not the case any more. And with chlorine knocking out 99.9% of nasties, a well-maintained pool is probably less germ-ridden than, say, soft play. Watch out for tummy bugs, though. If you or your baby has had sickness or diarrhoea, give it 48 hours after the last episode before swimming.
Myth #5 My baby could dry-drown a week after swimming
This is one of the media’s worst cases of misrepresenting medical fact. If you, your child or anyone else nearly drowned then they may have inhaled water. In this case, you will have to stay vigilant for the next 72 hours, and the hospital will likely keep them in for observation.
If your baby has done a handful of gentle, controlled submersions in their lesson, they are at no risk. Quite the opposite; by teaching them to stay comfortable and relaxed under water and introducing water safety from a young age, you are significantly reducing the chance of drowning. Read more about it here.
Myth #5 Submerging my baby is mean
My goodness, it feels counter-intuitive to dunk your baby! It goes against every parental instinct to willingly plunge your helpless newborn under the water, no matter how briefly.
Of course it would be terribly presumptive to say they all love it, but it’s certainly not mean. Babies’ affinity with water is strong. They grew in it in the womb, and there’s a strong evolutionary hangover that draws humankind to the water. As such, it’s imperative to teach your baby water safety. To make sure that when they reach the developmental stage where fears creep in, water isn’t one of them.
There are gentle ways that are backed by extensive research, development and training in aquatics and child development, none more so than Water Babies. There are more haphazard methods that piggyback off the likes of Water Babies, and there are downright harsh and cruel ways like those used in America that I explain here.
But so long as you’re relaxed and happy, your baby picks up that vibe and will be so too. If they do cry it could mean they’re not feeling up for it today. Developmental leaps, teething, tiredness and illness can all put your baby off-kilter, but that’s more about whatever’s going on than not liking swimming.
For sensible information about:
- taking your baby swimming yourself, read babycentre.co.uk‘s article (babycenter.com is bunkum) or Olympian Rebecca Adlington’s post on Mother & Baby
- baby swimming in general and finding an excellent class in a warm, private pool near you, check out Water Babies