Water babies

Make sure your swimming pool remains a shiny, happy place for you and your little ones
By Nick Dall

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I started taking each of my daughters to swimming lessons when they were about six months old. The older one is now nearly four and she can swim one length of our pool and dive to the bottom to fetch a plastic squid. The younger one turned one a couple of months ago and she can float on her back without me holding her. They both love the water.
 
No such thing as 'drown-proof'
Swimming school has been a great way for me to bond with my girls (although stripping off on a cold July morning isn’t much fun) and it has made us, as a family, feel a lot more comfortable at home and on holiday. The lessons are fun, and are as much about teaching parents as they are about teaching babies. After a few years of “school” I know how to hold a baby in the water, and I’m well aware of what they should and shouldn’t be able to do. What’s more, I’m really good at singing “Horsey, horsey don’t you stop”.
 
My daughter’s teacher, Jane Millar, has been teaching swimming to infants and toddlers for over 20 years, and is a pioneer in the field. “Babies spend nine months in water during pregnancy and should be reintroduced to it as soon, after birth, as possible,” explains Millar. “They can learn to float before they can crawl, and those that have been to lessons will be cautious, self-reliant and confident. But they will never be drown-proof.”
 
Safety first
If my youngest fell into our pool, I don’t think she would panic. Hopefully she’d float on her back and call for help; she may even find the side and “monkey walk” to the step. But my daughters wouldn’t ever get near enough to the pool to fall in… Our pool is fenced and the gate has two latches, one of which is secured with a combination lock. And anyone who ever opens it knows that it must be closed immediately.
  1. Make sure your pool is hard to get to. Put up a fence.
  2. Ensure the gate closes automatically or fit a buzzer that lets you know when it’s open. Use a safety net for good measure. Ensure that everyone who’s regularly at your house is well aware of the consequences of leaving the gate open or the safety net off.
  3. Never let your children out of your sight. Chasing after a toddler is exhausting, but the alternative is unbearable. Children can drown in a few centimetres of water, so your pool is by no means the only danger.
  4. Have a plan in place in case the unthinkable happens, and discuss it with everyone who may need to implement it: Who to call, how to do CPR, where to go…
Teaching babies to love the water is a wonderful thing, but it’s up to the adults in your household to make sure it stays this way. Many drownings happen at parties when there are supposedly plenty of adults keeping an eye on things. Never assume that “someone else will see”, and be aware that drowning isn’t a noisy, spluttery affair. The drowning victim – whatever their age – usually slips under the water without flailing their arms or screaming for help.
 
Born to swim?
There’s a common misconception that babies are born with the ability to swim. It is true that babies hold their breath under water and that “the heart slows down and blood is shifted away from the periphery muscles to conserve oxygen for the brain and heart” (the so-called bradycardic response), but it is rather ambitious to expect someone that can’t even sit to be able to swim. That said, the diving reflex does mean that babies love going under water, but it’s up to you to bring them back to the surface.
 
Find a teacher
Find a teacher who is registered with Swimming South Africa and has the “Learn to Swim” qualification: swimsa.org
 
Wardrobe check
  • A one-piece cozzie that zips up at the back
  • Disposable nappies (rinse and reuse)
  • Waterproof suncream
  • Most babies don’t need earplugs, goggles or a swimming cap, but those with grommets should use earplugs (good luck keeping them in).
  • Fancy flotation devices put babies in unnatural positions and foster a false sense of security. Your baby can hold on to you or the side of the pool or play on the step. If you must accessorise, opt for old-fashioned armbands or a pool noodle.
Facts
  • Nine out of 10 children who drown are under some sort of supervision at the time.
  • Drowning is responsible for more deaths among children aged one to four years old than any other cause (except congenital anomalies).
  • 31% of total drownings in South Africa are children under nine years old.
  • 21% of total drownings in SA happen at home.
  • For every child that dies from drowning, five are left with permanent brain damage.
Contacts
  • National Ambulance Emergency: 10 177 (112 from a cellphone)
  • ER24 Ambulance: 084 124
  • Netcare 911 Ambulance: 082 911
  • For first-aid courses contact St John: 021 461 8420

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