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Water babies

zev_poolIt’s been a hot summer here in Boston, and we’ve been spending a lot of time in the water. My older kids are both good swimmers, but my son is just starting to figure it out. He’ll be two in less than a month, and even just over the course of a few weekends this summer, his level of comfort in the water has improved dramatically. He is kicking, paddling, blowing bubbles and jumping in. My sister, watching me clutch him tightly in the pool this past weekend, encouraged me to let go. “He’s ready,” she told me. But I wasn’t.

Curious, I started doing some research. Can babies learn to swim? On YouTube they can, and the videos are both amazing and terrifying. But I wondered, are these floating phenomenons an anomaly? Could my kid do it too?

The journal Child: Care, Health and Development published a study last summer showing that children who learned to swim as babies had better balance and coordination at the age of 5 than a control group of children who didn’t learn to swim as babies. This research supports the idea that it’s a good idea to get babies into the water right from the beginning.

I once read a book by Robert Bradley, the founder of the Bradley Method of childbirth, and in the introduction he points out (and I’m paraphrasing here) that humans are one of the only mammals who cannot instinctively swim. He reasons that fear is a massive obstacle for us (and he applies the same logic to explain why we need so many interventions during childbirth). So it makes sense that babies, who haven’t yet developed any fear of water, would be primed to learn to swim.

Then I remembered something else. One day, when I was pregnant with my son, I watched a father dunk his baby repeatedly in the pool at our health club. The dad was a competitive swimmer, and he explained that babies naturally hold their breath under water. It’s called the mammalian dive reflex, and it’s present in babies from around 0-12 months. Another point in their favor.

So clearly babies can learn to swim. But how? Do I really just let go and see what happens? Eeep.

As it turns out, there’s a whole movement around teaching babies survival swim skills. Basically, this means that even a toddler can be taught to float on his back and call for help if he falls into a pool. One of the organizations certifying swim instructors is Infant Swimming Resource or ISR. Dr. Harvey Barnett founded ISR in 1966 at age 18 after a neighbor’s child drowned. Since then, he and his instructors have taught over 160,000 babies to swim, and there are 768 documented cases of babies who used ISR techniques to save themselves from drowning. It’s very powerful stuff, and I would love to try it.

To find a local instructor teaching ISR classes, visit Remember – no swim lessons can ever take the place of supervision. Always watch your children when they are in the water – even if they are good swimmers.

Have you taught your baby to swim? How did you do it?


  1. My parents were living overseas in a tropical location when I was born. My mom says that the only thing she did all day was lay by the pool, and that didn’t change when I was born. She remembers laying me on the top step of the pool steps and sitting beside me, initially. As a newborn my mother would allow me to float. At 8 months she claims that I was swimming/”crawling” in the water! I’ve always thought my mom was a young mom who wasn’t thinking about safety, but this article prooves that she was ahead of her time!

  2. I started swimming weekly with my daughter at 6 months. Now at 21 months, she can swim the length of the pool without a kickboard or a floaty. Friends always are amazed (and comment on how strong her little leg muscles are), but for me, it’s also been a beautiful bonding experience. I love that she can swim, but I love even more that it’s something we share – an adventure we’ve been on together.

    And boy howdy, I do hope she gets some good benefits like better balance! Amazing!

  3. My daughter turned two last week – July 9th – and I have been amazed at her comfort level in the pool! The first few days in June I said one, two, three and then put her under the water. She swallowed the pool the first few times but quickly knew when I said three that she better hold her breath! My next step was to teach her to stand up in the baby pool if she fell over because at first she just kind of sank and didn’t know to stand up. After she accomplished this which only took a few days it was like she wanted to keep up with her brothers and she had no fear of the water. This is when I got concerned and researched online toddler survival swimming and I found just what the above blog says about teaching infants and toddlers to float on their backs. I couldn’t find a course timeline and there are no certified intructors or programs in my area so I just decided whenever she jumped in the water to me in the pool that I would start to flip her over on her back so she would come to understand that she could breathe that way. Now when she jumps in from the side she kicks her feet and she automatically flips over by herself and her little mouth comes right up to the surface of the pool. She even prefers to be on her back when I am holding her so now I occassionally let go so she can practice a full backfloat. She loves kicking her feet both on her belly and on her back. I can’t believe it is still just July as I wonder what in the world she will be doing at the end of the summer!! All of this being said — I feel like she has a chance if she falls into a the pool at least until I get there or the lifeguard gets there but I watch her like a hawk and never let her get near a pool without me. Nothing can substitute supervision but it has been a fun adventure for us in the pool this summer!

  4. We have a family home on the Delaware River in NE Pennsylvania (Pocono area) and all of us kids (4 generations and counting) are tossed in the water as young as possible. I was given my start at 3mo, my mom would just hold me normally, but letting my feet get wet, then my legs and arms, and so on.
    Now, my son is 16mo and LOVES the water – since May we’ve had him in the river, and he already is putting his face in, as well as splashing and kicking. The kicking thing, IMHO, is a reflex – just transferring to water what he does on land (in his sleep). He’s also getting used to supported floating but isnt used to the water going in his ears yet.

  5. My daughter is the exact same age as your youngest. We too have been spending a LOT of time in the pool this summer and she is getting more and more comfortable. I’m a (retired – ha) competitive swimmer and ex lifeguard and EMT. I’m VERY tempted to let her go just inches away from the wall as she paddles toward it, but I’m more afraid of CAUSING her to be afraid so yet, I hang on. What I did decide though is that when the summer ends, we’ll be signing her up for lessons at the local YMCA and continuing through the winter. She loves it so much and next summer, she’ll surely be ready and she won’t have had 8-months away from water to develop any kind of fear.

  6. It’s actually easier to teach babies the smaller they are. I swam before I could walk, because back in the 70s, baby swim classes didn’t mandate an entry age of at least 6 months. Curse you, liability! My folks had one of the first underwater camera set-ups (because they were photography buffs), and there’s pics of me swimming underwater where I must be around 9 months old.

    Anyway, the boy has been going to swim class since 5 months. (Ok, I fibbed a little to get him in, but he turned 6 months over the course of the class.) At 17 months, he doesn’t yet swim exactly, but he’s finally got the idea, and I think it’s just a few more months before he can follow through on execution.

    We’ve really enjoyed the parent-tot swim classes at BU, if you’re interested in where to do it locally.

  7. My daugther is 2 1/2 years old and looooves the pool, and swimming, or pretending to swim πŸ™‚ and she is getting quite good at it actually…I do confess that I was nervous at first but was careful in not showing her any fear, but I am very “strict” with the rules, always stay with me and if I say something or bann something its “the law” obey or we go home….
    Just bought a wonderful new thing though the other day that took the edge off for me and added some extra fun for my daughter and that is the swimfin, have you heard about it?
    Of course I’m always right next to her just like with any other “swimming aid” but I really like this one….and to have a shark bathing cap as well is the cream on top

  8. we lived in miami beach over 30 years ago for about a year and a half.jonathan was a year old and we had a pool.There was a local swim instructor named Blondie who taught all the kids using survival swimming sponsored by the red cross.She would throw him in the water and yell “get the wall”-these private lessons were never more than 15 minutes at a time because there was so much screaming but it worked! He became a great swimmer and I have wonderful videos of him at that age swimming laps(with floaties) across the pool with my mom.

  9. I really really really do not like swimming, but didn’t want to pass that on to my son. We started weekly Mommy and Me Swim at the Y when he was 1 and now he is 2 and can swim all over with his back bubble. I want him to love and be safe around the water.

  10. Both my kids started swim lessons around 12 months – though they were in the water before that. The most amazing lesson either of my kids had was a two week class about baby survival, like you mention in the post. It was AMAZING. After 2 weeks, my 18 month old (at the time) could get from the middle of the pool to the side fully clothed. I even had to drop him off the end of the diving board, but he would roll to his back and float or work his way to the edge. I was terrified, but the instructor was very serious and would chant things like, “Save your life! Get to the side of the pool! Roll on your back!”

    The AAP just lowered the recommended age to start lessons this year from 3 to 1.

  11. I actually looked into swim lessons for my daughter already, and she’s only 3 months old! I want to get her started as soon as possible. In our area, your child needs to be 3 years old for swim lessons. Even ISR requires her to be at least 6 months, and the nearest location for that is 20 miles away. So, maybe next year for the ISR, and a couple more years after that for true swim lessons. We won’t be installing a pool in our yard for a few more years anyway.

  12. Just read an article that freaked me out as well as taught me something.. about drowning happening right in front of your face b/c you dont realize that the person IS DROWNING AS YOU WATCH. Specifically that yelling out or flailing are secondary responses and a lot of the time do not even happen. This is a MUST READ for everyone.

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