Baby Swimming: The Importance of Listening

Underwater activities appear in the majority of baby and toddler swimming lessons, to a lesser or greater extent. As a critical component to learning water confidence and swimming, safe and enjoyable submersions should always be delivered in the same way.

Trainee baby swimming teachers learn about the importance of the gag reflex on their training courses and it is what we all use to aid us in the early months to allow babies to naturally go underwater without having to voluntary prepare for it. They also learn the importance of verbal and physical signalling, so that voluntary breath-holding can take place when a child is accustomed to the submersion activity.

What does differ from teacher-to-teacher is how this knowledge is then applied when delivering lessons, and whether the teacher ‘listens’ to the baby after the signal is given. Some teachers continue to submerge despite baby giving negative signals, which is potentially dangerous as well as damaging to water confidence. At the other end of the scale, some teachers refuse to do any adult-led submersions and prefer to work on key skills such as kicking and reaching – then, when the child is old enough to initiate their own submersions they encourage them by letting go of the wall or even off parent. Other teachers do something in the middle, which is encouraging underwater swims from early on but only when baby is happy. The subject of which is the best approach is debated around the world and an agreement on whether submersions should take place is never reached. However, what is universally agreed is that if submersions take place, you must use a signal.

Consistent signals prepare the baby for what is about to happen. It does not take long for baby to understand the relationship between the signal and the submersion, as seen in babies as young as three months old. Once the signal is understood, it gives teachers a perfect opportunity to listen to the needs of that baby – and if baby’s reaction is not recognised correctly, it can make the difference between them loving or hating swimming.

There are many ways for a baby to react negatively to a submersion signal: shaking their head, crying, or even going tense with fear. If any of these are seen, or if they have hiccups, a good baby swimming teacher should not take them underwater. If teachers have worked hard to use a signal consistently and developed understanding, it is therefore important to make sure that we do not ignore their reaction to this. It is easy to miss or even ignore the warning signs, then submerge a baby and have them resurface distressed.

A baby swimming teacher should use their knowledge and experience to listen and look at a baby’s body language to understand how they are feeling. Babies communicate through body language as they do not have the vocabulary to describe how they are feeling. Their facial expressions such as big eyes, sad face, tense body, clinging to an adult, crying are all common ways of a baby showing their unease or distress about something. By listening and watching these reactions a baby swimming teacher can then adapt their lesson or a particular practice to help relax and reassure the baby. Whilst the class are practicing submerging, the unsure baby made practice gentle water testing or practices to improve their confidence rather than being forced to submerge. Submersion will happen when the baby is ready.

Successfully teaching babies to swim isn’t just about imparting knowledge and correcting faults; it’s also about building trust between the teacher, baby and the adult. It can take an age to build confidence but seconds for it to be crushed. Look, listen and think – does this child want to go under? If they don’t, then don’t do it!

Always listen, never force…..and promote a love of swimming, for life.

Swimming Teaching
Ali Beckman

Ali Beckman

STA President

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