Paul Thompson, founder of Water Babies, explains the benefits of swimming with your baby…
Did you know that babies have the natural ability to swim? This is due to two intelligent baby swimming reflexes: the swimming reflex and the dive reflex. The former means baby will move their arms and legs in a swimming motion when supported in the water while tummy-side down; the latter means your baby can hold their breath and open their eyes when underwater.
These reflexes are strongest in the first six months of life. And the NHS advises you can take your baby swimming any time before and after their immunisations – so it’s never too soon to get them in the pool, as long as the water’s warm enough (above 30˚C for a baby older than 12 weeks or heavier than 12lbs, and 32˚C if they’re younger or smaller).
Baby swimming originally evolved out of a desire to ensure they were safe and confident in water. However, the exercises used to teach this confidence – gentle rocking, reaching for objects, kicking movements and learning to respond to commands – also provide stimulation for your baby’s brain.
In the first year of their life, the brain develops more rapidly than at any other time, and swimming with your baby can have an extremely positive effect on this development – even more reason to take to the water with your little one as early as possible.
Development of motor skills
Babies love the repetitive movement of bouncing and splishing and splashing in the pool, and this movement provides fantastic stimulation for the vestibular system, which allows us to sense motion and to balance.
As this system matures, it will help a baby to keep their head upright, pull themselves up onto their feet, balance, and eventually walk.
Chasing after bright and colourful toys in the pool, and grasping them to bring them closer for a good old chew, is a great exercise for enhancing hand-eye coordination. The cross-lateral movement of reaching out is the same one used in crawling. This teaches both sides of the brain to work together, not only helping to coordinate physical movements but also strengthening nerve pathways between the two sides, helping the brain store and retrieve information more effectively – all great for learning!
One study recently carried out in Iceland (where baby swimming is extremely popular in the country’s thermal pools) concluded that, when tested at the age of four, children who had attended baby swimming lessons from a young age showed significantly better balance than their peers. Their ball skills and dexterity were also tested, with the early water babies achieving better results.
It‘s not only motor skills which are benefited by baby swimming; physically it is wonderful for your baby, and the only form of exercise they can do literally from birth. Just half an hour in the pool can provide a complete work-out for them (and you!) and parents often comment that their little ones eat and sleep better on the days they go swimming.
Babies can exercise many more muscles in the water than they can on land, and amazingly can swim short distances unaided from when they are tiny. Sessions in the pool are great for strengthening arm, leg and neck muscles, and are superb for tiny lungs and cardiovascular fitness.
Swimming will not only make your baby fitter and stronger, you will also notice the difference in their physical ability on land, where regular swimmers have often been shown to crawl and walk earlier than their non-swimming peers.
As babies learn how to manoeuvre in the water on their own, their independence and self-confidence blossoms, and they enjoy being in the pool more and more. Where they might be very dependant on you in the early days, a few months on, a baby will happily swim a short distance between you and the instructor, or splash off the poolside and into the water all by themselves.
The confidence and self-esteem involved in learning to swim will often then be transferred into other aspects of their life. For a toddler, the thrill of grasping a new skill in their lesson, or achieving something they have been working up to for a while, will be evident in their ear-to-ear grins – and may also give them the confidence to try new things and increase their interest in learning in general.
Last, but certainly not least, is the benefit of all the fun you and your baby can have together in the pool, and just how much they’ll love it. So enjoying a swim every week, with all these added benefits, is surely conducive to a dip!