Baby Swimming Basics: Safety Tips and Fun Tricks for Parents

While formal swim lessons should be reserved for children age 1 and older, there are ways to introduce your baby to the water. Here, several experts offer tips and tricks to ensure a safe and happy swim season.

Grandmother with baby granddaughter in pool
Photo: Getty

Splashing in the shallow end is divine, but mere inches of water can be dangerous. Children 12 to 36 months of age have the highest risk of drowning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). That said, there's plenty you can do to protect your child. Here's everything you need to know about infant swimming and some water safety basics.

Why Is Water Safety Important?

Baby swim lessons are not recommended until after baby's first birthday because, according to the AAP, there is currently no evidence that infant swim programs can lower their drowning risk. But you can feel free to introduce your child to an outdoor swimming pool on your own, if they are at least 1 month old. When you do, rather than rely on one of the strategies below, follow several, or all. Layering on safeguards ensures no slip-ups.

Water Safety Tips for Babies

Stay near. "Always be close enough to lay a hand on your child," explains Jeffrey Weiss, M.D., lead author of an AAP policy statement on drowning prevention. Keep them within arm's reach, and be vigilant. Babies can drown in very little water.

Beware inflatable pools. It's easy for a tot to lean over and tumble headfirst into these soft-sided water spots. Supervise carefully, empty smaller pools after use, and fence off large dunking pools.

Hit the books. Parents should have CPR and basic water-safety training, advises Connie Harvey, manager of aquatics technical development at the American Red Cross Preparedness and Health and Safety Services. Get trained through the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross.

Skip the floaties. Both the AAP and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise against air-filled swim aids. They give a false sense of security and can easily be punctured or deflate.

Fence it in. Make sure your home swimming pool is surrounded by four-sided fencing that is at least 4 feet high and has a childproof gate, says Dr. Weiss.

Hold off on lessons until 12 months. The AAP does not recommend formal water safety programs for children younger than 1 year of age.

Teaching Tips to Help Baby Learn to Swim—and Get Comfortable In/With the Water

Start in the bathtub. It's an easy and convenient way to get your baby accustomed to the water. Hop in with them to create a safe and fun environment. You can also get them used to the feeling of water on their head by filling a cup and gently pouring it over their hair, letting it cascade over their face too.

Time it right. Even a newborn can take a dip but make sure not to wet their face, says Dr. Weiss says. You can begin introducing your baby to the water as early as you feel comfortable, as long as their belly button or circumcision has healed. The younger a child is when they start, the more comfortable they'll likely to be in the pool. Always check with your pediatrician before you start, though.

Make it fun. "Body language says it all," says Lars Merseburg, a founder of Imagine Swimming School, in New York City. If you're relaxed, smiling, and making eye contact, your baby will learn that the water is a safe, fun place to be. While you're in the water, sing songs or play games, such as motorboat, to keep your little one entertained.

Check the temperature. Be sure the water is more bathtime than brrr (at least 83 degrees). If the water at your pool is cooler, you can still take your baby in, but you may need to get out every 10 minutes or so to warm up. Pay attention to lip, finger, and toe color and, if it turns purplish, take baby out of the pool.

Set the mood. Stake out a calm, shallow area of the pool, and make sure baby's rested. "If swim time interferes with their nap schedule, you can count on tears," says Merseburg.

Don't be pushy. If your baby looks scared or is screaming and crying, it is best to ease off. "Take your little one out of the water, tell them it's okay, and try later," advises Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician in New York City. Some babies take to the water immediately; others are more hesitant. It's important to follow your baby's cues, and not push them to try anything they're not ready for.

Go slow. When you first introduce your baby to the water, you'll want to go slow. Hold your child securely in your arms and use a cup to wet their skin. This will help them adjust to the temperature. Next, ease them in gradually by dipping their feet and the rest of his body — but go no further than chin-deep. Babies head should be above water at all times.

Water Games for Babies

The four fun games below will entertain—and instruct—your bambino.

Motorboat legs

Dangle your baby's feet in the water and gently pull them around. The benefit? They'll start kicking and get used to the feeling of water resistance.

Follow the leader

Babies like to mimic their parents. It's normal and natural. So dip your toes in the water or dunk your nose. Your actions may cause your little tadpole to try new things.

First stroke

Do you want to get your little one moving? Place a rubber duckie just out of their reach and coax them to grab it and pull it toward them, as you hold them from behind of course. As with motorboat legs, this teaches your child a vital swim move: stroke-like motions.

Tummy time

Lay baby on their belly on a foam mat and slowly move it back and forth. This will give them an opportunity to strengthen their back and neck and while helping them feel secure with floating.

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