Watching baby grin and giggle as she splashes around in water is one of the cutest sights around, but it’s a good idea to wait until baby is about 6 months old before bringing her into the pool—and even longer to formally teach her how to swim.
It’s not unhealthy to expose baby to chlorine before 6 months, but baby should be holding his head up properly before you take him into the water. That way, he’ll be sturdier and you can have a firmer, more assured grasp on him. Plus, that’s about the age when baby will start being able to splash and kick and really enjoy being in the pool.
Some parents believe the earlier you take your child to swimming lessons, the better a swimmer she’ll become. And to some extent, that may be true: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says children ages 1 to 4 who’ve had formal swimming lessons may be less likely to drown, and those over age 4 should definitely learn to swim. But there’s no hard evidence that formal swimming lessons or classes teaching water-survival skills for babies under 1 offer any safety value—the AAP sees those programs as just an opportunity to have fun and continue bonding with your child. So go ahead, take the class. Enjoy splashing with baby and meeting other new moms—but don’t expect baby to be the next Michael Phelps because of it.
As for how baby will act in the water, he might love it, or he might be that screaming baby who has to leave the class, so be mentally prepared for anything. If he likes taking a bath, that’s a good indication he might like swimming too. But a really cold pool or a really large class could be uncomfortable or overwhelming. So consider taking a trial class to see how it goes, and be patient. It might take baby time to get used to it.
To keep tears to a minimum, give her plenty of time to get acclimated to the water. Holding baby securely, start out with slow, gentle motions, like bouncing up and down together or swaying from side to side. Once she’s more comfortable with her surroundings, explain and demonstrate some fun, basic skills, like blowing bubbles and splashing—then ask her to copy you. Be sure to give plenty of praise for even the smallest accomplishment.
Hold off introducing floaties or other floatation devices until baby is at least 3 or 4, and don’t use them at all when you’re teaching him how to swim. (They give kids a false sense of security.) Instead, let your preschooler play with the floaties for 5 to 10 minutes at a time with you next to him; it’s a perfect opportunity to teach floating, kicking and arm strokes.
Experts: Alanna Levine, MD, pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York; and Miguel Pagan, director of aquatics at the 14th Street Y in New York City.
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