Motor skills that help human adults enjoy sport and fitness begin in infancy. In the first two years of life, many of the primitive and postural reflexes that cause babies to move involuntarily are integrated and replaced by voluntary movements. In water, new babies’ salamander-like movements that create an illusion of swimming continue to be developed over time through experience and practice.The progression to unaided swimming has age-related patterns yet it is unique for each child. In water, mastery of the body in space is not hampered by gravity; the physical sense of self and security in space expands as infants connect, separate and reconnect with a loving parent. When elective rather than imposed, the experience of submersion enriches babies’ feeling of being in the world with a powerful blend of movement, sensory integration and focused intimacy with accompanying parents.
Birthlight has been at the ‘gentle’ end of the baby swimming spectrum from the start, rejecting the teaching of swimming through conditioning, even of the non-violent kind.
A passion for applying the findings from neuroscience about the importance of a loving bond for optimal conditions of learning and brain growth in the first two years of life has been a leading inspiration. With attention to detail, interactive practices were developed to ‘open the gap’ in a fun and secure way between parent and baby in water. Our motto ‘do not hold them (the babies), let them hold you’ echoed the way in which Amazonian parents and older children encourage little ones to hold on while crossing rivers. ‘Swimming with babies’ rather than walking in shallow pools with them, helps babies feel motion in water. Most often, this is pleasurable, because babies love movement in connection and movement is a great part of how they get to understand the world around them. If parents swim with babies, sooner or later, babies fall off and go under. Usually this is no big drama when they can be picked up gently. This contrasts sharply with deliberate practices of submersion, even those done with careful use of warning verbal cues (‘one, two, three, go’) or physical cues (lift or face blowing).
After campaigning against the violence done to babies in underwater photoshoots aiming at getting trophy images of illusory early swimming, Birthlight moved resolutely towards enhancing a loving communication between parents and their babies in water. Rather than showing parents how to ‘teach their babies to swim’, the goal shifted to one of ‘Water Parenting’, observing baby cues and learning from the babies how best to support them for enjoying moving in water together. Mouthing the water, which most babies do spontaneously, introduces the transition from the ‘gag reflex’ to the ‘diving response’ with babies’ involvement as they watch parents blow bubbles and even go under opposite them.
Observation, imitation and reproduction are the foundations of elective submersion, when the infant chooses whether or not to go under. Promoting this readiness to submerge in many different ways matters for freedom of movement and body balance in water. Toddlers start propelling themselves in water in quite a few different ways, with and without buoyancy aids. When they are happy to submerge, their bodies are far more streamlined than when they struggle to keep their heads above water. Formal swimming lessons at age 3 to 4 now start with body alignment, face in the water. For toddlers who have been free to explore the underwater world, this is a doddle.
On pool beaches or steps where babies can crawl and stand at the same time as they learn to walk on land, exploration inevitably takes them under. Learning to right themselves in shallow water and to turn to grab the edge after jumping in are key water survival skills, learnt through play with parents.
Swimming is already programmed in the natural joy of free movement that infants experience in water. This is why we need not fuss about submersion. It’s not something that’s necessary or even very important in baby swimming. It’s just something that’s likely to happen. From the closeness of the ‘cradle hold’ to daring seat balances, from the safety of the ‘little harbour’ created by mum or dad’s arms to take off in the big water, progressive practices allow babies to feel in control and confident with their bodies. We do not really teach our babies anything. We allow, support, make space, perhaps encourage, always love and reassure and comfort in case of distress. In this way, water teaches us parenting.
Technique, achievement and excellence in performance in the transition from holds to aided and unaided swimming imply elective submersion. The radiant face of a tot who manages to swim a few meters into his or her parent’s open arms is a joyful sight. But getting a timid infant to jump from the pool wall without holding to his or her parent’s 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 amazing fast-growing brains by imposing a dogmatic swing of the pendulum from forceful submersions to a ban on submersion.
At Birthlight, we are happy to be associated with STA (Swimming Teachers Association, UK and international -ISTA) and ASSA (Australian Swim Schools Association) because of their double focus on saving lives and creating an enjoyment of swimming for life. Our focus on ‘nurture’, supporting parents to help their babies feel at home in water, is close to the technical objectives of psychomotricity as experience-based learning through relational experiences in a suitable environment. In this sense, the early aquatic education that teachers provide enhance water parenting and baby swimming together. Submersion is not a matter of ‘whether… or’ but rather one of ‘how best’.
Dr Françoise Freedman
Dr Françoise Freedman received the prestigious Virginia Hunt Award from the World Aquatic Babies & Children (WABC) in 2009 for her contribution to early swimming.