Before your child can join in the fun with family and friends or at day camp this summer, she may need extra help learning to feel comfortable in the water. Experts recommend that it's important for school-age kids to know how to swim for safety reasons. Plus, the older a kid gets, the harder it can be for her to shake memories of feeling apprehensive at the pool. "Kids this age have the ability to listen and follow directions, so working with a skilled instructor -- or a patient parent -- can really increase a child's confidence in the water," says Lana Whitehead, founder of SwimKids USA, in Phoenix. Experts weigh in on the best tactics for conquering your child's water worries now.
Your child can have real fears about buoyancy and breathing, so it's crucial to take a gradual and loving approach. "He can begin by sitting on the edge of the pool with his feet dangling in," suggests Whitehead. Soon, he'll want to get into the water where he can stand. Next, gradually trickle some water over him, and encourage him to submerge his face. Then it's on to blowing bubbles. "Get in close with him and do big inhales and exhales at the surface of the water," suggests Whitehead. Practice these skills in the bathtub to reinforce what he learned.
Inevitably, some kids will cry about going in the water even after weeks of sitting poolside. "It's hard for parents to see their child work through that kind of fear," explains Emmalee Morse, an aquatics supervisor for Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Go ahead and carry your child into shallow water -- even if she's kicking and screaming. Hold her in front of you with your arms around her. Take a toy with you, sing songs, and do anything you can to distract her and help her feel safe, Morse says.
You may have bought your child floaties (also called water wings) for his arms to make him feel more comfortable, but experts advise against them. Not only can they give him a false sense of security, but they discourage proper form because they force his body to be vertical instead of horizontal in the water. If your child is used to floaties, taking them away might be tough. "Let him know that he's only allowed to sit on the pool steps and watch until he learns to swim without them," Whitehead says. Once he knows how to swim on his own, he can use blow-up rings or pool noodles for fun.
You can either teach your kid yourself or hire a swim instructor. "In lessons, kids focus on proper technique, and then Mom and Dad can focus on play," Morse says. If you pay for instruction, make sure there is a lifeguard on duty as well as safety equipment like a reaching pole and a ring buoy. Look for a swimming teacher who is certified by the Red Cross or another reputable program and is also trained in CPR. If you decide to teach your child yourself, keep the lesson time short. Matt Giovanisci, creator of Learn2Swim.org, reminds parents to make safety the top priority: If your child can't swim the length of the pool -- called the deep-water test -- you should be within arm's reach of him at all times.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Parents magazine.