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Here’s why your child should learn to swim at an early age.

Before being born, we spend nine months marinating in a watery womb. Submersion in water is a nostalgic reminder of our first blissful abode. Yet we are no more amphibious than frogs are human. Swimming does not come naturally, which is why children must learn to swim as early as possible. In South Africa, drowning is the second highest accidental cause of death in the 0-14 age group.

It may be mostly a matter of sink or swim, but learning the strokes is not all about keeping your head above water.

Tanya Fryer, a swimming instructor in Johannesburg says: “Swimming lessons exercise the left and right sides of the brain. It increases concentration, alertness and even problem-solving skills. Hand-eye co-ordination is developed and the cardio-vascular system is improved.”

Read more about why you should keep your child swimming all-year round.

When to first take the plunge

Experts are divided as to when children should first take the plunge. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that formal swimming lessons do not begin until children are at least four years old, when they are considered to be “developmentally ready”.

Britt Stott of Aquabats swim school in Green Point believes that age three is the most appropriate age to start. “Living in a country with long hot summers, it is a necessity for a child to be water safe and learn to swim,” she says.

According to Enid Whelan, chairperson of the Professional Baby Swimming Teachers Association, an early introduction can prevent aquaphobia, which is more likely to develop as a child grows older.

Use bath time as a prelude to swimming lessons

Fryer suggests using bath time as an opportunity to initiate newborns. “Hold baby on his back, keep him close to your chest, in the hook of your neck, so that he can hear your heartbeat and you can whisper in his ear. Or hold baby by the chin with one hand and push his tummy upwards with the other. Always block ears with thumb and ring finger,” she advises.

Infant and aquatic toddler programmes are a prelude to swimming lessons. While they are not an effective drowning prevention strategy, the skills taught may save your child’s life.

“Through familiarising the child with submersion by means of verbal, physical and visual cues prior to submersion, anxiety will be eliminated, confidence developed and breath control learned,” explains Whelan. “This may prevent fear and panic when in and around water thus reducing their chances of drowning.”

Find valuable advice on water safety here

Water safety and stress relief

Swim instructor Britt emphasises that swimming is “an excellent stress release, as the water has a calming effect on most children.” Britt also believes that it’s important for the children to learn to respect the water and become aware of the risks of not being water safe. It’s something that can stand them in good stead whenever they’re around water, whether it’s a swimming pool, a dam or the ocean.

Arlene Williams, a passionate proponent of Water Safety Awareness and a qualified swimming teacher says, “As summer arrives parents rush out to get their children magically swimming and drown-proofed in ten days. But think about this: learning to swim requires learning to listen, to reason, to build self-confidence, to blow bubbles for breathing, to move limbs at different rhythms, and then to co-ordinate all these individual skills. It’s a long-term commitment.”

Read more about sun and water safety

Choosing a good swimming school

When choosing a swimming school, the Professional Baby Swimming Teachers Association in South Africa recommends:

  • When looking for a suitably qualified swimming instructor, inquire as to their qualifications. Visit the swimming school prior to enrolling your child and meet the instructor.
  • Watch a class in which your child would participate and observe the method being used, class management, whether or not the instructor teaches age-appropriate skills.
  • Look out for the temperament and patience of the teacher and how she handles difficult situations.
  • Take note of the number of pupils in a class. (This should not exceed 4-6 in baby classes and 6-8 in classes for children from 6 years up).
  • Inspect the facilities available. Are there ample and convenient changing facilities and toilets?
  • Inspect the clarity and hygiene of the pool. Is it tested regularly by the local health department or laboratory for the presence of bacteria and E.Coli?
  • Checking that the pool is appropriately heated. (Water temperatures should be at least 32-30 degrees for babies of six months to 12 months. From 12 months up the child can go into water of 28 degrees.)

Tamara Rothbart

Please always be with your child when swimming and beware of secondary drowning