Learning to swim, and learning how best to learn how to swim

I don’t write anything about swimming for a while, and then two posts come along at once! For a few weeks now, I’ve been reflecting on how Andrew’s and my swimming sessions are going. He loves the water, that is clear to see, and he has great fun splashing about, chasing toys and other children. I’ve been trying to do some specific exercises with him that I found on a great website called uSwim. In theory these look great, gradually building up to letting your child swim unaided in the water. But I’ve been finding with Andrew that he’s simply too distracted by being interested in everything else going on in and around the pool. He rarely looks directly at me for more than a few seconds, even when I try and keep his attention with singing or talking. This means it’s incredibly difficult to set up a situation in which I can count to three with him looking at me, and then let go. He’s pretty good at holding his breath, and doesn’t mind being let go of for a few seconds, but I don’t feel like we’re making much progress, because he would rather just go off on his own to chase the toy that he’s got his eye on, than do things on my terms when I say it’s time to go under. He tries to wriggle away from me, and he’s confident to do so, but he doesn’t have the strength or skill yet to swim completely on his own – he just flounders for a few seconds before I scoop him up out of the water again.

My glamourous assistant modelling his arm bands - I know it looks a bit odd with his nappy on and not trunks, but I don't have enough hands to take a picture at the pool whilst carrying all our kit, so home photos will have to do for now until I can enlist the help of a willing grandparent photographer!

So…. I had a scout about online, and got Mum to ask a friend who has kids and is a keen swimmer, for advice on buoyancy aids for toddlers. I had thought, and again came across this advice, that it was best to not use buoyancy aids at all. But as I’ve just explained, I don’t think in Andrew’s case that this is working. Some suggested a woggle/noodle float – a long thin tube-shaped float that you can wrap around them, or get them to hold onto. I’ve tried that as they have them in our local pool to use for free, but again Andrew is interested for a short while, before he exchanges his interest for another exciting toy/float/person across the pool. In the end, all things seemed to be pointing towards the Delphin System arm floats.

The Delphin System: 1 red, 1 yellow and 1 green disc on each arm, clipped together to make the arm bands

These are like traditional inflatable arm bands, in that they fit onto the upper arm and give buoyancy in the same place. However, they don’t need any blowing up and deflating each trip to the pool (I’m not very good at generating enough puff for those kind of things at the best of times, let alone when I’m having to keep an eye on an active toddler!), and they can’t be punctured by sharp objects. Instead they are made of a lightweight material similar to what kickboards or those big floats you see during splash sessions in pools are made of. They are shaped like thin discs, with a hole just below centre for the arm to go through, and a blue foamy bit in the hole which adjusts to the size of arm – they are apparently suitable for ages 1-12 years. The discs clip together so that you can have more than one on each arm; the idea is you start with 3 discs on each arm, and gradually take them away one at a time over the course of your child learning to swim. It’s supposed to build confidence and allow you to easily adjust the buoyancy as they get stronger and more skilled at swimming.

Being cheeky and trying to hide from the camera around the back of the table, giggling about it to himself at the same time!

So that’s the theory, but how do they work in practice? I decided to take the plunge (financially) and buy a set with some money that Andrew had been given as a present. From my Googling around, the cheapest I found was £26.39 (including postage and packing) for a set of 6 discs from SOS Swim Shop. On Tuesday we had our first trip to the pool with them, and I was very impressed! For the first time in a while, Andrew was much less frustrated and we had no whinging about the fact that he wanted to go his own way – this time he could do as he pleased. It took a little while for him to get used to the buoyancy effect and how he should move to go with it and not resist it, and I think that will take a bit longer to get completely right, but overall he reacted very well. He figured out that his head needs to stay above the water, or he needs to hold his breath if it goes under slightly. He was best when swimming on his front towards me or a target object, and I encouraged him to kick his legs to keep the forward motion. Again, this will take some practice to get right, but for a first attempt it went well. Of course I didn’t just let him go completely unsupervised, but I found my hands were much more free to encourage him and help direct his body in the best way, like using a finger to push his tummy upwards to get him onto his front rather than upright in the water so he could move forwards.

Mummy, this isn't the right time to have arm bands on - are you mad? We're not at the swimming pool! By the way, the blue circles you see on the left-hand arm band are how the discs clip together - they slot into indents in the adjacent disc, like you can see on the right-hand arm band.

As the weeks go by, I’ll try to put some updates on here as to how we’re doing. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has the problems that I’ve mentioned with their young toddler getting distracted in the swimming pool. All the discussion I found online whilst researching buoyancy aids seemed to be from parents with older pre-school-age-ish kids, and distraction didn’t seem to be the main issue, but rather gaining confidence in the water – we don’t have that problem, probably because he’s been swimming since just 6 weeks old. Please let me know if you found this post useful and/or interesting. I’d love to hear from anyone who shares my love of taking a toddler swimming!

A year in the swimming pool

Supporting him under the chest but letting his legs and arms move freely

It’s almost a year since I took Andrew swimming for the first time. He was just 6 weeks old, and loved it! I think at one point there was some advice floating around that you shouldn’t take a baby swimming before he/she had had their first three lots of vaccinations. But the latest NHS guidelines are that you can take them whenever you like. In fact, in my opinion, the earlier the better, because they haven’t lost their newborn natural instinct for water when they’re still just a few weeks old. As I wasn’t blogging back then, I didn’t write about our swimming trips together. Now they’ve become so part of our weekly routine that I almost don’t think about them as something interesting to write about, even though we both have so much fun and really enjoy them. So here’s a round up of Andrew’s first year in the pool, with particular emphasis on his first ever swim. All the photos were kindly taken by Grandma when he was 9 months old (until then I’d only been on my own with him so couldn’t take pictures). In a follow-up post (when I get round to writing it) I’ll share some tips on how to have a fun trip to the pool, some ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, what not to forget etc.

He loves the watering can at the pool - he tries to 'catch' the stream of water as it comes out

I remember our first swim like it was yesterday. It was quite an effort to get everything together and go at just the right time between feeds (naps weren’t his strong point so we weren’t too restricted by that), but it was all worth it when we got there. Back in those days I could lay him down on the fold-down changing table in the cubicle, knowing that he wouldn’t go anywhere. I got changed first, so he wouldn’t get cold waiting for me, and then got him into his little trunks. He was just about big enough by then to fit in the smallest size of Boots brand swim nappies which were on offer at the time so worked out the cheapest, and I’d bought a cool little pair of swimming shorts for him that were a bit big for his non-existent bottom (now he’s walking that has definitely muscled up!) Then I wrapped him in a towel, and, after I quickly got into my swim costume myself, took on the actually very difficult task of carrying a tiny baby, a rucksack, a nappy change bag, my handbag and a towel to the locker. That was nothing compared to juggling them all whilst trying to put the coin in the locker. We survived it though, and then headed through to the pool.

About to chase the toy octopus, just after I'd thrown it away from us

It was fairly busy in the small pool, but there was still plenty of room to get in gently down the shallow steps at the side. I introduced him to the water slowly, by sitting down on a step, holding him in one arm and using the other arm to pour water gently onto his skin with a cupped hand. After a few minutes of that, I eased us down into the water a bit more, so that he was completely immersed except for his head. He wasn’t at all phased by it, and was very happy for me to walk around and pull him through the water with me. Of course I was supporting him a lot, especially his head which was still floppy then. He was fascinated by everything that was going on – all the other boys and girls, the lifeguards walking round in bright yellow t-shirts, and the brightly-coloured bath toys like ducks and octopuses that were floating around. Incidentally, the staff at the pool have written a different name on each toy – so there’s Vinny the duck, Alice the octopus and Olly the bear etc. Not that he was really old enough to do much with these himself, but his little eyes and ears were clearly soaking it all up like a sponge. As he was so at ease in the water, I even tried splashing some water around him, and he loved that. It was just about the time when he was starting to smile, and I got lots of smiles and splashing that day. We only stayed in for about 15 minutes, because I didn’t want to risk him getting too cold, though the pool always feels lovely and warm to me, but you can’t tell what a baby’s perception of it is. As we got out, I wrapped him up in the towel again, and then we headed back to the changing cubicles to get dry and dressed. This time I sorted him first, as I can cope with the temperature and still being in a wet costume for a while. He fell asleep on the way home and napped well that afternoon. I soon discovered that swimming was a way to wear him out and guarantee a good nap.

Is it the float or the octopus I'm going for, Mummy?

After that first week, we’ve been swimming more or less every week until now, and I have no intention of stopping this. It’s interesting to look back and see how he’s slowly developed his swimming over time, just like he’s developed in other areas (like moving on land, eating, babbling etc.). At first it was just a case of me holding him and walking around the pool, just like I would on land, supporting him quite a lot. I would use one hand to splash him gently, or play with a toy for him to watch, but generally it was a gentle introduction to the concept of swimming in the water himself.

Heading over to the wall to have a go at jumping in and mummy catching him

As he gained strength from all those growing muscles, he became more able to support himself, so I was able to give him less support, little by little. I went from full arms holding him to just holding him with two hands (or sometimes just one) underneath his chest as he is front down in he water (he much prefers ‘front-crawl’ to ‘backstroke’!) When he was about 5 or 6 months old, I started doing brief dunkings, where I would count to three, and on three I would lift him out of the water and then down again so that his head went under for a second, and then lift him up again. He has clearly learned what this means, because now when I start counting, he’s already jigging up and down in my hands, smiling and laughing ready for the dunk; when he comes out he has a lovely look on his face too, clearly enjoyment. I should say that I’m not a swimming teacher myself, though I’ve done a lot of swimming (competitive and leisure), so I feel confident that I know my and his limits at each stage, and we’ve worked up to this over several months, little by little. Every parent and baby pair is different, so I can’t say that what’s right for us is right for everyone. If you don’t feel confident letting your baby go under or only holding them loosely, DON’T DO IT!!

Chasing the toy octopus! Lots of splashing, but getting the idea that he can move forward by kicking his legs and moving his arms

I came across a great website called uSwim. It gives lots of info and advice on how to teach your baby to swim. Of course it’s Australian – they are so into their swimming over there, and also getting kids into swimming from a very early age. With the help of the videos and ‘lesson plans’ on the website, I’ve been trying particular techniques with Andrew. I haven’t bothered being as strict as sticking precisely to a lesson plan, mainly because he is still so interested in everything else going on that keeping his attention for specific things at specific times is nearly impossible. Instead we ‘go with the flow’ and see what happens.

Nearly got the octopus, just in time before the wall got in the way!

So far from uSwim we’ve been doing quite a few ‘front floats‘, some ‘back floats‘ (though as I said before he’s less keen on backstroke swimming), hanging onto the wall whilst mummy lets go and lets him feel the buoyancy of the water (he’s got amazingly strong arms), jumping from the side in a sitting position into the water, sitting on a float and jumping off it into the water, and a fair amount of singing and general splashing. Oh and I can’t forget his favourite, the toy chase, which does what it says on the tin: I throw a toy like a rubber duck a little way away from us, and he loves to swim and get it, admittedly with me giving some support underneath his chest, but he has got a good idea that moving his arms and kicking his legs in a ‘baby-stroke’ kind of fashion does get him somewhere slowly.

About to go for a dunk!

As he gets even stronger, I’m looking forward to seeing his swimming ability develop even more. The main thing for us is that we both find it so fun, and that’s what I’d always hope is the case for him. I don’t want to force him to do something just because I like it, but so far he has convinced me that he loves being in the water just like his mummy. Watch this space for more updates on what we’re doing in our weekly swims.

All worn out after a fun swim. Off to the shower!