Most infant swimming classes are for babies six months old and over, and there is good reason for that, says Cheryl Wu, M.D., a Manhattan-based pediatrician. "By six months of age, a lot of babies have enough truncal (upper body) strength and tone to sit up by themselves briefly. Because most parents hold their babies either upright or flat (in the 'Superman' position) while in the water, babies have to be strong enough to keep their heads lifted for a prolonged period of time without tiring out." Also by this time, a baby's legs have developed the strength to start kicking, an important part of swimming.
But it's important to keep in mind that baby swim classes are more about going over the basic safety rules of swimming -- and having fun with Mom and Dad -- than learning how to swim. "Under the age of four, children aren't developmentally ready to learn to swim," says Rick Weiermiller, M.D., a pediatrician affiliated with Beaumont Hospitals in Michigan. "A child needs to be able to listen to an instructor for the whole lesson and follow directions to truly learn how to swim."
Still, a parent-and-child swim class does have its benefits. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that providing very young children with swimming lessons appears to have a protective effect against drowning and does not increase a child's risk of drowning.
It's always a good idea to consult with your pediatrician if you're not sure whether an activity is suitable for your child. Parents of children with tubes in their ears should speak to the doctor first about any precautions needed to avoid possible ear infections. "As for the safety of chlorine for babies, unless the child will be in water for a really long time, the length of a class is generally okay for a six-month-old. But some infants may have very sensitive skin that doesn't tolerate chlorine well. In general, just rinse the baby off after class to wash away the residue," says Dr. Wu.
Your local YMCA is a good place to start; it offers parent-and-child classes, as well as child-only classes for older kids. Some health clubs offer swim classes for members and their kids. And many swimming school chains around the country offer classes for kids of all ages. Ask friends and family members for recommendations, and the Internet for options.
And don't forget to call your town's parks department. Many have after-school and summer classes for families in the area.
"With the little ones, age 6 weeks to 3-year-olds, look for a program that is progressive, yet loving," says Jennifer Hill, owner of The Swim Center in Georgia. "A program should encourage parents and educate them about how to hold their babies in the water. They should see the parents as an extension of the learning process and teach them how to continue this education at home and on vacations."
It's also important that there be no more than 10 infants per certified instructor; this ensures that you and your child get the attention you need. Make sure it's a clean facility -- and be sure to check out those locker rooms, where you and your little one will be changing (and possible showering) before and after classes and using the restrooms. The water temperature in the pool should be between 86 and 92 degrees, and there should be a lifeguard on duty at all times.
Baby and toddler swim classes are more focused on fun than on form, so expect to sing lots of songs and engage in activities that help your child get comfortable in the water. But eventually your little one will to learn how to sit on the ledge and even jump off into your arms when ready; slide into the water, then reach back to the ledge with his hand to hold on (this is an important lesson to learn should he accidentally fall in); how to dog paddle with your help; float on his back with your help; and blow bubbles on the water's surface, which will help him control his breathing when he learns to put his head in and under the water when he's older.
"Children in this age group need constant repetition and it doesn't matter if it comes from a certified instructor, or from a parent who has had hands-on instruction from that instructor in the water to teach them how to handle their children," says Hill.
It's important to be sure that there is one certified instructor for every 10 babies in the class, as well as a lifeguard on duty at all times. But even with those individuals around, it's crucial that you never leave your baby's side during class, and not simply rely on flotation devices to keep her safe. "Drowning can happen in seconds and may not always include a cry for help," explains Denise Dowd, M.D., emergency room physician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. "Constant supervision is key to preventing a drowning accident, especially 'touch supervision,' an approach that calls for a 1:1 ratio of adults to young children that ensures they are within arm's reach of each other."
You also want to avoid submerging your baby's head at this point. Although she will learn to blow bubbles above water, she won't properly learn to hold her breath until she's older.
Don't be worried if your baby doesn't love the class at first -- she'll get there. "Most kids go through a three-phase adjustment: hating it, tolerating it and then loving it," says Hill. "Each child is different in how quickly he progresses through these phases, but I have never seen a child not reach the final phase, unless, of course, his mom or dad pulled him out during phase one and didn't give it a chance."
Hill says that it's best to remove yourself from the vicinity of the pool if your child gets really upset, but within a couple of classes you'll see him actually enjoying the lessons. "When the kids are crying at first, it is most difficult on the parents and they feel tempted to pull the child out -- maybe because they feel they are doing emotional harm or physical damage to the child by making them suffer through, or sometimes because they're just embarrassed in front of the other parents when they have the only child crying, but don't be tempted to pull your child out!"
Hill recommends preparing your baby for the pool in the tub first, and even after lessons have started, you can continue teaching some basic lessons during bath time. "From the very first baths as an infant, parents should say '1-2-3' and pour small cups of water over the baby's head," she explains. "Eventually, the volume can increase. It follows Pavlov's law, where the dog associates the verbal cue of the bell with dinnertime. It won't take long for a child to associate 1-2-3 with what is coming next."
Hill also says that 2-to 4-year-olds are ready to learn how to float on their backs in the bathtub. "It's a great way to rinse the shampoo out of the hair!" she says.
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.