Special thanks to Rob McKay, author of Diaper Dolphins
and one of the foremost experts in infant-toddler swimming, for much of the information shared below.
Potentially life-saving skills will be taught when the child has had adequate training with the pre-requisites. These skills are only taught when the child is comfortable and ready. The technical maneuvers are never taught prematurely or inappropriately introduced. The progression to the mastery of the safety skills includes water adjustment, blowing bubbles, kicking, getting comfortable with having water poured on face, facial immersion, and elementary swimming movements both underwater and at the surface.
There are two basic safety skills we teach through the progression of exercises and activities we work on every class.
The first safety skill teaches a toddler to enter the water, turnaround, and grab the side of the pool. This is the most practical method of self-rescue for infant/toddlers as the majority of accidents occur near the edge of the pool or other bodies of water.
The second safety skills teaches the infant/toddler enter the water and swim limited distances to safety, using a variety of practical techniques of moving through the water. We teach a basic underwater swim which progresses to a underwater swim with a "pop-up" or "roll-over" to achieve the breath, and we also teach a paddling stroke for those not comfortable swimming underwater.
These skills all take a lot of practice but can be successfully mastered if you pursue continued, qualified instruction. So at what age can they do what? Well that does depend on how much practice they've had, but if they stick with the program we have found the following to be fairly accurate:
We have found that by eight (8) months, a baby can begin to learn to hold his/her breath and be comfortable enough in the water that in the case of an accidental water entry, it may buy the parent a few valuable extra seconds. At nineteen (19) months, a toddler who has had significant practice time can begin to learn to return to the side of the pool. By twenty-four (24 )months, this skill could be executed with ease.
The American Academy of Pediatrics stated that children are not developmentally ready to learn to swim until they are 4 years old. I would agree that this may be true in the absence of professional instruction. However, it is our experience that two year-olds, who have received professional instruction, can safely enter the water and return back to the side of the pool without assistance. Wouldn't you feel more at ease if your child was developing those lifesaving skills? In addition, I have known numerous three year olds who can perform backstroke and freestyle with side breathing and are extremely competent in the water. It is our professional opinion that there is NO REASON to put off teaching your child potentially life-saving skills.
Our most honest answer . . . YESTERDAY! Thousands of child-centered programs around the world, bares witness to the fact the infants and toddlers can "swim". Some people who are unaware, think that you must swim freestyle to be swimming. If you ask most experienced "baby friendly" swimming teachers, they will tell you that swimming is "harmonious movement through the water."
The AAP is also concerned about water intoxication, which can be an issue when babies are taught with forced, premature, repeated submersions; forced back floating or where children are crying or gagging. However, if an infant/toddler is taught in a gentle, gradual child-paced curriculum, following safe teaching guidelines, there is no reason for concern.
The AAP's biggest concern is that parents will become complacent once their children can perform safety skills. Children are naturally attracted to the water. Not knowing how to swim has never stopped a child from drowning. The complacency argument could be applied to any safety measure. i.e. This infers that if a parent has taught his child not to go in the street, that they will no longer watch their child in the yard. Responsible, well informed parents will take all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their children, especially where water is concerned.(ie. supervision, barriers, pool safety fencing, infant-child CPR and "child-centered" swimming lessons). Do all infants and toddlers love to swim?
I wish they did. Unfortunately, some babies are very cautious about everything. Some are frightened of new situations or strangers. Others are extremely uncomfortable with water on their face. Often, this child's parent is also adverse to water on their face. Parents need to be relaxed, transferring calmness to their baby. Positive, proactive parenting, consistent practice and very gradual introduction to water on the face (above the surface) all combine for success. A frightened infant or toddler can be creatively redirected to comfort through playing games, singing songs and appealing to their vivid imagination. A positive group class situation greatly helps to ease the fears of most children. Focus on what your child can do and be patient. Eventually, through a trusting and secure learning environment, play and perseverance, a tolerance for water on the face will be developed. Do not submerge children until they are relaxed and adjusted to water poured on their face. This can take time, but it's worth the effort. Your child will appreciate it.
We have observed that the optimal age to start babies is between six months and 12 months old. At this stage the majority of infants are ripe in the water. They are comfortable and the water feels natural. These young babies still seem to have a memory of the fluid environment in the womb. However, a window of opportunity for smooth learning still exits up to approximately 18 months old (especially for water adjustment and initial submersions). Between 19 months to 24 months toddlers can begin to enter the "challenging two's" phase. It's easier to teach water adjustment and breath control before this stage begins. However, it's never too late when utilizing a creative and interactive curriculum. The group class structure works miracles and motivates children to participate with their peers at any age.
At the infant-toddler level, we strategically use a progressive floatation device for toddlers ages 19 mos. and older but do not use it exclusively. I personally think the proper use of particular floatation devices can catapult learning and even promote the development of better fundamentals in terms of body position and kicking. Much of my graduate work in physical education focused on motor skill acquisition. The power of practice time, the positive effect of kinesthetic cues on children, and the ability to practice with proper technique always surfaces when working with infants and toddlers in the pool. While we certainly aren't giving the children technical instruction at this age, the fact that when they're using the proper progressive buoyancy device their ability to practice skills more effectively is dramatically increased. They learn to maneuver their bodies through the water independently of parents and teachers and therefore master their balance in the water and "feel" how to do it. In addition, quality practice time is significantly increased and practice is the "mother of all skills."
With regards to developing a "false sense of security," I think it's important that children learn the difference between swimming with and without the progressive floatation device so THEY KNOW THEY ARE DEPENDANT ON US. However again, responsible, well informed parents will take all necessary precautions to ensure the safety of their children and enforce "touch supervision" at all times when non-swimmers are in or around the water.
No. However, a baby's swimming abilities can become "rusty" if you are unable to refresh their skills at least once a week. What we have observed is that for each month your child is not in the pool, it takes approximately 1 to 2 days to return to their previous level. For example, if you take a 5-month break from swimming, when you first return to the water it may appear that your child is starting from scratch. However, somewhere between the 5th and 10th lesson, you will be amazed at how their swimming abilities begin to return (as long as their lesson experience the previous year was a positive one). Cautious children or those returning from aggressive teaching methods can take much longer. Don't be surprised if children who endured forceful lessons the previous year will not even go near the water. Patience, a supportive atmosphere and a positive attitude on the part of the parent allows the returning student to regain their skills more rapidly.