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!

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On a level

From time to time I meet a baby who has a big impact on me. Harry has mild cerebral palsy, which isn’t the first thing you notice about him, but it’s there. When he swims with me, I’m really struck by the fact that swimming is a great leveller, and what joy he gets from swimming.

Harry’s a very cute, cheeky 3 1/2 year old. He’s got curly brown hair, dark eyes with a twinkle that makes him look like he’s in on a very funny joke. He loves swimming, and has mild cerebral palsy. And that’s how you see Harry, with cerebral palsy low down on the list.

In the water, the physical manifestation of cerebral palsy, or any physical or motor delay or disability, is much harder to spot than on land. The water fully supports the body, allowing a full range of movement. This means that a child who can’t stand unaided, for example, can kick just a freely as a child who’s able to walk and run.

This makes the water a wonderful leveller. I can’t think of any other physical activity where a child with cerebral palsy could participate alongside more able-bodied children. And this is so good for their confidence and self-esteem, and for their parents too.

I once taught a boy with Downs Syndrome whose dad said that swimming “helped his social interaction with other children. Physically he is behind, but I have found myself surprised with how well he is progressing as the course goes on, and more importantly how much he enjoys it.”

Harry’s mum does have to give him a bit more support with certain activities such as standing on the side and jumping in, but there’s nothing he can’t do. And that’s the important bit. Watching his confidence grow with his ability is an absolute joy.

The other, rather incredible side is physical ability. The warm water has a few magical qualities that help people with conditions like cerebral palsy get stronger, more coordinated, more flexible and have a great cardio-vascular workout.

While it manifests differently from person to person, cerebral palsy often causes motor malfunction characterised by muscle stiffness. The warmth of the pool helps relax the muscles, while the weightless from the water’s buoyancy alleviates the stress caused by gravity. In this rather lovely state, you add the resistance of the water, and you can move freely, without risk of falling over, to exercise, strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.

An old school friend of mine is highly specialised Paediatric Physiotherapist. When I asked her what she thought about swimming for children with cerebral palsy, I was quite taken aback by how emphatically she encourages swimming. “It gives them the opportunity to strengthen muscles, increase range of movement, move the two sides of the body work symmetrically and exercise the heart and lungs to a degree that may not be possible on land,” she said.

That symmetry of movement is also significant. Swimming helps developing brains make important connections and integrate primitive and postural reflexes – a process that can be inhibited by physical conditions like cerebral palsy. This movement helps overcome learning and developmental delays and challenges including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum Disorders and cerebral palsy.

In the last 2 1/2 years, I’ve seen Harry become more and more physically able. He now wears leg braces, and has recently had Botox treatment in his leg to help him plant his feet properly. On Tuesday, he walked into the pool room for his lesson, which made my heart soar.

While I become attached to all the children I teach, watching a child grow and develop beyond a limitation is inspirational, be it nervousness, prematurity, or physical or learning challenges. It makes me want to learn more about aqua therapy, and to spread the word: if your baby has a condition, if they were premature, or they’re just a bit delayed in reaching their milestones, look up Water Babies, call them, talk it over and go swimming!

Harry starts school in September. I’m going to miss him! I hope that by being his swimming teacher, I have helped him through his early years. He has helped inspire my understanding of how swimming helps babies with extra needs.

To find out more about aqua therapy for children and adults with cerebral palsy, click here.

Water Babies is a UK-wide swim school (and beyond the UK) with years of experience teaching babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers with extra needs. To find your nearest classes, click here.

Swim for life #babyswimmingThursday

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…