12 Myths about Taking a Baby Swimming
To hear most parents (and paediatricians) talk, taking a baby swimming is akin to setting them adrift in the ocean on a shabby raft. Yet in other parts of the world, the first thing new parents do is sign up for baby swimming lessons. What gives? Where’s the truth between these two extremes?
This discomfort with taking a baby swimming is a cultural superstition, says Prateeksha Ahuja, an AUSTSWIM-certified infant swimming teacher in Mumbai. Which is understandable; it’s widely accepted as fact that few adult Indians can swim. Why would we ask when can babies go swimming, when we ourselves don’t feel comfortable in the water?
We can’t solve the larger problem, but we can clear up some misconceptions. With a little research and the help of Ahuja, here are the most common myths about taking a baby swimming.
Myth #1: Swimming isn’t safe for such a small baby.
Babies are far more comfortable in water than on solid ground (they’ve just spent nine months in a liquid environment, after all). In fact, they demonstrate an innate imitation of swimming motions (though they do not actually know how to swim, so keep a tight grip). Up to around 6 months, a swimming baby also instinctively holds her breath if submerged. Infant swimming can capitalize on these natural reflexes before babies ‘unlearn’ them.
In many ways, Ahuja says, swimming can prevent injuries. Swimming is a low-impact medium, which allows babies to explore their senses and stretch their muscles without scraping hands and knees as they might while crawling on the ground.
Myth #2: If water goes in the baby’s ears, she’ll get an infection.
Water in the ear doesn’t automatically cause an ear infection. Even if it did, the human ear has natural defenses that actively clean and prevent an infection. While it’s true that narrower ear canals – like those of children – can more easily trap water, an infection like Swimmer’s Ear doesn’t necessarily follow.
Dry your baby’s face and ears after swimming as you would your own, says Ahuja, and he’ll be fine.
Myth #3: Babies are so young, they will forget what they’ve learned.
Babies actually remember a lot more than we give them credit for. Their brains are like little sponges, picking up and retaining knowledge and skills – particularly motor skills, like those required for walking, running and swimming.
Far from forgetting, when a baby swims consistently in the first few months of life, the actions become muscle memory, says Ahuja – that is, knowledge of how to perform an action (like walking) that is so ingrained it is practically effortless.
Myth #4: It’s better to wait until the child is older and can understand instructions.
Traditionally, this was the rule everywhere in the world. But in the US and Australia, expert organisations like the Red Cross and the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association promote swimming for infants as young as 4 months (as long as the baby can hold up her head on her own).
There are some advantages to starting this early, aside from the muscle memory and instinctive reflexes mentioned above. Babies are more fearless and malleable than toddlers, who are at the developmental stage where they are learning to exert their will (often forcefully). Fears and anxieties emerge around this age, too. All of this makes the focus of the class much more on helping toddlers learn to manage their behaviour, and less on helping them learn to swim, Ahuja says.
Myth #5: Taking a baby swimming causes colds.
The fact is nothing causes a cold except for rhinovirus – which is passed via the sneezes, coughs and exhalations of a cold sufferer, not via pool water. Swimming causes no illnesses. In fact, Ahuja says, it expands lung capacity and strengthens the cardiovascular system, arguably making babies healthier and boosting their immunity.
Myth #6: Chlorine will damage the baby’s skin.
Chlorine can be a skin irritant, yes. But the chlorine used to disinfect pools is safely diluted, and in a baby pool, where baby swim lessons tend to be held, even less chlorine is used than in large public pools, Ahuja says.
At one to two short sessions a week (most baby swim classes are only 30 minutes) the exposure is about as minimal as it gets. But if you’re still worried, a quick soap-and-water shower with the little one before and after jumping in can help, and baby lotion can prevent any dry skin.
Myth #7: Babies will swallow the pool water and get sick.
A properly maintained baby pool will be chlorinated in order to kill any bacteria that finds its way in — even in the middle of the monsoon. So, any pool water swallowed should be sterile. Sure, you wouldn’t want to use it as your full-time drinking water, but in the tiny amounts a baby can consume, it’s harmless.
“Kids eat all kinds of crap,” Ahuja says. “Shoes, crayons, sand, chalk, cloth, remotes — anything they can get their hands on. Why will pool water get them sick?”
Myth #8: Babies shouldn’t swim in the winter.
Obviously, no one should swim until they turn blue from cold, Ahuja says. Babies do prefer warmer water temperatures; they’ll be happiest in water that’s close to 30 degrees. But that doesn’t mean they’re in danger of hypothermia in water that’s, say, 26 degrees. Most commercial pools, if properly maintained, will be in this temperature range (26 to 30 degrees).
Use your best judgment — if you’re cold in the water even after you move around for a few minutes, your baby definitely will be, too. If you find the water pleasant, your baby will be just fine after moving around a bit. And you can always hold your baby close to you in the pool to share body heat, if you think she needs warming up.
Myth #9: If a baby has a cold, he can’t swim.
For minor respiratory ailments, swimming can have a positive effect. Light exercise in general can clear congestion and boost energy levels – swimming comes with the added bonus of breathing moist air and clearing the sinuses, Ahuja says.
Myth #10: Swimming outdoors will make a baby tan.
Baby’s skin is sensitive, it’s true. But with the right sunblock to protect his skin from UV rays, there is nothing to worry about.
In fact, the health benefits of swimming outside outweigh any tan, Ahuja says. In a country with a Vitamin D epidemic among both rich and poor, swimming exposes kids regularly to the sunlight they need to grow healthily.
Myth #11: If I can’t swim, I can’t take my baby to a swim class.
In proper baby swimming lessons, a parent and a licensed instructor are in the pool at all times. But these classes would be held in the shallows, where parents only have to stand in place. Adult swimming skills aren’t needed, Ahuja says.
Myth #12: It’s all fun and games, but no learning.
Play has an important role in early learning. There is much research to suggest it impacts brain architecture and organisation, fostering a higher degree of adaptive behaviour.
Swimming also builds motor skills that affect balance, strength and coordination. This is a kind of learning that is lifelong and can’t be taught in a classroom. Finally, baby swimming lessons lay the groundwork for a potentially life-saving skill: swimming.