An estimated five to 10 million infants and preschoolers participate in formal aquatic instruction programs throughout the United States. Programs for the littlest water bugs focus on getting them comfortable in the water as well as helping parents become aware of basic safety measures (for instance, whenever infants or toddlers are in or around water, an adult should be within arm's reach, providing "touch supervision"). But when your child hits the age of four, he is developmentally ready to undergo formal swimming lessons. And every child should learn how to swim to reduce the risk of drowning.
"The best approach is to make everything about water fun and positive," says Caroline Kaczor, aquatics and health director at Sportime NY. "Take baby steps," she suggests. "At bath time, start small by getting your child to pour cups of water on his or her head. Let your child lead the operation depending on her comfort level."
But what if your son or daughter isn't so eager to get wet? Whether due to fear of the water or a simple aversion to feeling cold, some youngsters just don't want to get in the pool to learn. Remember that, as Kaczor reiterates, "It's best not to force anything if the child is fearful." But there are always measures parents can take to ease their child's transition from non-swimmer to willing participant. To help you, we asked local experts in Fairfield County, CT - including swimming instructors and aquatics directors - for their advice.
Ask the Experts:
How can I encourage my child to learn how to swim if she is completely uninterested or afraid?
"I have had many children arrive for the first day of lessons terrified of water due to past experiences, including one 6-year old little girl who had a near-drowning when she was 2. The choice to swim or not to swim cannot be left up to a child. Parents have to understand that drowning is a silent killer, and whether they own a swimming pool or not, learning how to survive in the water is as necessary as wearing a seatbelt in an automobile. We use a method known as ISR, which teaches kids how to survive if they were to end up in the water alone.
In the beginning of lessons, a child may fuss at first, because he or she is in a new environment. However, as the skills increase in the water, the fussing will decrease and the child will become both competent and confident with their swimming ability. Each lesson should be uniquely tailored to a child's needs based on comprehensive assessment and continual monitoring of health and skill attainment. Every child learns at his or her own pace
An instructor should try to establish a relationship with a child before he or she ever gets into the pool. Even for parents, it is helpful to relate to your children on their level. If a 3- or 4-year-old has on a Nemo bathing suit, try relating to them as Dory, say, or any other character that might make them feel comfortable in general, and hence in the water.
Other important elements include good communication, eye contact and pacing the lessons to meet and honor the child's emotional needs. It is important as an instructor and a parent to respond to a child's needs in the water. Fear is a learned behavior; a child can take on whatever mood or emotion a child sees his parent expressing. Negative feelings exuded from a parent affect a child negatively. During lessons, parents needs to be their child's cheerleader. It takes positive reinforcement and encouragement from the parent during lessons."
-Dena Blum-Rothman, certified ISR instructor, Infant Swimming Resource, Stamford
"Talking to children about pool safety and rules is a must. The intention of this talk should be to insure they are safe at all times, not to scare them. Tell them the pool is a privilege, something that is fun when it is used correctly. Tell them that they will only be able to use the pool if they follow these rules.
The most important rule for a child is to never be near a pool without an undistracted adult swimmer certified in CPR within touch. That is still the most important rule for a child even after they know how to swim.
Parents want their children to be able to swim as early as possible so that their fears about injuries that can come from not being able to swim can be minimized. So what does the parent do whose child refuses to learn?
All children have different personalities which will cause them to act differently around the water. Regardless of parenting, some kids will want to jump right in and others will be frightened at the sight of water. Take my kids, for example. All three boys were given the same parenting and swimming opportunities. However, my middle son was afraid of the water from what seems like birth. The worst thing a parent can do is become visibly frustrated or disappointed in the child. That may be how you are feeling, but to show any sign of this can be detrimental to a child's success. Even talking about it to a friend can be dangerous (because they hear and sense everything, of course). Also steer clear of showing your own fear. Children imitate adults, and if an adult is scared of the water, or doesn't know how to swim, it's more likely that his or her child will follow in those footsteps. So educate yourself before getting your child to take the plunge.
Help scared children get acclimated. Make sure they are in a comfortable environment-a warm pool, for instance, and one that is shallow enough so they can walk around first with head above water. Go at a time that is not too crowded or loud, and that is good for your child. Try to avoid times that he may be hungry, tired or over-stimulated. Try goggles.
Make it a "fun" experience. Stressing them out with group lessons when they are scared may intensify their fear. Instead, bring them to the local pool on your own. If they don't want to get in-fine, no problem. Let them sit there and watch you have all the fun. But don't make it too obvious what you are doing. Don't get disappointed if they don't get in the first few times, but be persistent in going.
Bring some of your child's friends and their parents to the pool with you, especially friends who aren't timid around water. Your child just might want to keep up with them enough to forget about their fears. Just make sure your child doesn't try too hard to keep up. That's great that their friend will jump off the high dive, but make sure your child takes it slow so as not to add any real reason to their fear."
-Jacquie Tumminia, senior director of aquatics & competitive swimming, Westport Weston Family Y, Westport
"Trust is extremely important. If you say that you'll be there to catch your child, show him continually that you will catch him when he says he needs you. Most of the children I've worked with who were fearful or uncomfortable about swimming began to enjoy the pool experience while sitting on the first couple of steps. Let children play with underwater dive toys in the shallow water from the safety of the steps, where they feel comfortable and in control of the situation. When you're little, that pool can look extremely daunting! Practice kicking, putting her face in the water (even if it's just a little bit at a time) and reaching underwater for toys. The more at ease the child is near the water, the more likely she will have the desire to learn how to swim."
-Caroline Kaczor, aquatics and health director, Sportime NY, with locations in Westchester, Manhattan, and throughout Long Island
Also see more advice from experts in your area.