My baby swimming journey - Francoise Freedman

Francoise baby swimmingMy baby-swimming journey (interwoven with all the Birthlight Aquatic tutors and teachers as well as with my children and many dear parents and babies).

Baby swimming has now reached a peak of popularity that was impossible to imagine when I was developing a gentle approach to water parenting classes in Cambridge in the 1980s.  After spending two years living with Amazonian people and with a desire to share my love of swimming I experimented with introducing my first child to water aged three days and was reprimanded for swimming laps in backstroke with her on my front aged two weeks. The expected age for starting swimming then was five years.  As a swimmer-mother, I was attracted by the Russian pioneer Tjarkovsky’s passion for water and babies in water.  But the freedom of swimming toddlers pictured in books and films about his method came at a cost of violent conditioning that seemed terribly wrong to me as a mother and as a person.  So I set out to achieve the same results with ease and happy relaxed ways for parents and babies together.  

To me, water and feeling relaxed go together, and this starts with the first baby bath, the first entry in a warm pool.  It has been a wonderful journey to discover that not only gentle methods work extremely well but also that they are best for enhancing the physical, mental and psychological development of babies. In the last two decades research in infant psychology and brain development has advanced at an unprecedented pace.  We have access to a better understanding of how babies learn and grow and how different learning environments produce neuronal pathways that actually ‘shape’ babies’ brain configuration.  The current developing research area of epigenetics probes deeper into the interface between inherited genetic traits and environment.  The good news is that creating positive environments in which babies feel loved and nurtured has the potential to create cascades of long-ranging effects in children’s lives!

We can only ever teach when there is readiness, communication and ease.  Otherwise, we use forceful conditioning.  Babies are very malleable and we can bypass their resistance and screams through a process that infant psychologists call ‘habituation’.  After repeated exposure to something that initially caused babies distress, they stop protesting and quietly submit in compliance.  But this is DANGEROUS!  By doing this, we have compromised communication, shutting off babies’ trust that we can perceive and understand their signals. We are going on a single sided journey of ‘do it my way, I am the adult, parent, teacher, the one with authority to make you feel competent or inadequate, so do it...! ’  A lot of babies may not be affected; they might even emerge as stronger and performing better.  They even learn to enjoy it because of loving to achieve or getting the rewards of pleasing parent and teacher.  But the more sensitive babies may suffer adverse consequences in important ways that we are only just beginning to understand, at the roots of their self-esteem and ability to trust others, two foundations of human wellbeing and happiness.  

Baby Swimming training

In order to work with babies’ readiness, we need observation.  And because we are thrown at the deep end as parents (and baby swimming teachers) in experimenting with babies without a lot of previous experience with their kind, we need readiness too in order to observe and respond appropriately to babies’ cues.  AND, just as importantly, to parents’ cues.  We really have three clients to look after: the baby, the parent and the parent-baby pair as an interactive unit. Multiply this by 8! We are dealing with a crowd and need serious shortcuts to address all the different needs collectively –in order to create a happy learning environment- and individually, to offer individual attention and nurture.  How is it possible to acquire such complex interpersonal sensitivity without years of teaching experience? At Birthlight we have a passion for translating research findings into simple practices that help teachers in the water relate more directly, efficiently and positively with parent-baby pairs. Ideally, babies start their introduction to water in the womb when feeling the relaxed aquanatal moves of their mums.  But whatever the age of babies on their first water class, it is important for teachers to know how to assess which practices are going to work best for them.  The understanding of cues, reflexes, body language, use of voice and word choice are all part of teachers’ equipment, just as important as the floating aids we may use.

baby swimming underwater

In all our practices, the element of communication is dominant: is the parent learning from the baby and responding to what the baby is trying to say? Rapidly, babies feel understood, beam to the parents and the parents start feeling on top of the world. We have then created an expanding spiral of enjoyable learning and a love of being together in water. Swimming is already programmed in the natural joy of free movement that the little ones experience.  This is why submersion is introduced in a relaxed way as part of flowing moves. The more spontaneously it is done as part of the supported confidence to move freely that babies have gained from the ‘relaxed holds’ and their extensions, the more babies find the self-propelling moves that can save lives if they fall in water. Rather than water-training babies by repeated submersions or sustained back-floating we encourage them to move freely in the water, each in their own way and at their own pace. In this way, water teaches us parenting.  

family swim

The paramount lesson of the water is respect. Even a shallow pool reminds us that as much as we can feel at home in the water, we need to adapt to this element to float and breathe.  Babies encouraged to move freely and surface to breathe at their own pace will not be foolhardy in water because they have experienced their limitations directly without the false security of buoyancy aids. Gentle ways are conducive to respect, in contrast with drown proofing methods that induce the perception that water is to be feared and dominated.  How many swimming teachers need to correct faulty body balance developed from this attitude in older students.

Personally, I love technique, achievement and excellence in performance.  The radiant face of a tot who manages to swim a few meters into his or her parent’s open arms is a joy.  But getting a timid baby to jump from the pool wall without holding a parent’s little finger can also be a triumph.  Helping parents to unlock their babies’ potential in an active, body-based dialogue with them in water, with total acceptance, is magical.  Let’s not miss out by dumbing down these brainy creatures by pretending to control them when really they can best unlock parenting skills and also our potential as swimming teachers…

Toddlers swimming

The STA parent and child course derived from Birthlight has touched many people’s lives and it has set up a happy foundation for early swimming and water safety skills in the many parts of the world. As baby swim schools and trainings have proliferated, babies who swim independently still make news but most parents have realized that their time in the pool with little ones has a special quality that no land-based activity can equal. The Birthlight Advanced course offers further techniques and moves that liberate parents from drown proofing babies or teaching them to swim while making these goals achievable. For Amazon rainforest people, swimming is an essential skill that is transferred in two stages and two forms: first, babies and toddlers enjoy being moved in shallow water around their parents at bath time and this has been the inspiration of the ‘relaxed hold’ practices we teach. Then children rather than parents are put in charge of getting little ones to independent swimming. Children are mostly patient and responsible but also very direct using dynamic modeling and minimal support that their younger siblings enjoy and respond to. Watching them has been an inspiration for the Birthlight moves to facilitate transitions from holds to independent swimming.

Françoise Freedman


Birthlight’s pioneering techniques are at the forefront of international approaches to baby swimming. Françoise received the prestigious Virginia Hunt Award in 2009 for her contributions to early swimming and together with other birthlight tutors she continues to innovate to in promoting a life long enjoyment of swimming from an early start.

Why not train with Birthlight to teach baby swimming - aqua baby courses

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You can read about Françoise's Aqua Yoga: aquatiic connection


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