By Sharolyn Leithold
Sharolyn LeitholdWe all wonder “at what age should I teach my child to swim?” On the long list of things we must do for our kids “before they turn 5,” swimming is important. You may be surprised to find out that you can start water training your child as early as a few months old. They won’t be able to swim when they are so young because they don’t have the necessary motor skills, but there are many things we can do right now to prepare them for the swimming they will learn when they are a little older.

It is crucial that they learn skills, such as being comfortable with water on their faces, floating on their back, blowing bubbles and holding their breath under water. Babies and toddlers can learn to do these things in the bathtub!

One of the biggest obstacles in teaching a child to swim is dealing with water in their eyes. A child’s reaction to this begins, not in a pool, but in the bathtub. When the child doesn’t like getting water in his or her face, I have to question their early hair washing experiences. The reality is that the child learned this from somewhere. Most of us don’t even realize the negative signals we are sending to our children, in reaction to everyday events.

Do you look scared when they choke on water? Do you frown or apologize when they get their face wet? Do you speak about water negatively with regard to your past experiences? Your kids are listening and learning. Usually, when I meet a terrified student there is a terrified parent right behind them. They feel your energy. The first thing I tell my students’ parents is not to make a worried face if they get water in their eyes and try to divert their attention to something else rather than focusing on the child’s negative reaction.

If you have a nanny wash their hair, please have this talk with her. You may be confident, but she may not have the same experiences as you and may inadvertently be sending the wrong signal to your child.

I am always happy and joyful with my students. If they suck up water accidentally, I just tip them upside down and say “wheee, pour it out!” and they forget all about it.

When you wash their hair, use clean water at first and make a game out of pouring water over their heads. Not enough to make them choke up, just enough to run down their face and feel the water on their skin. If you SMILE while you do this, they won’t think it’s something to worry about.

I love goggles. In the pool it takes the “rubbing eyes” out of the equation and makes it so much more fun for kids to be able to see things like the toys I place under the water. They are distracted by the toys and don’t realize that they are holding their breath. Start with goggles in the bathtub. Tell them it’s to prevent the shampoo from getting in their eyes. When you rinse their hair say “Whee!” so they think it’s fun.

They have to learn to hold their breath when water comes near their face. “One, two, three, Under!” is my cue when rinsing a child’s head. After the word “under”, blow on their face (this sets an automatic reaction to hold breath in babies) then let the water come for no more than a second or two. They will learn this cue and will hold their breath. When we hit the pool, this is a task that is already mastered. Never surprise a child. They are happier when they know what is coming.

The key to early swimming is for a child to be able to put their face in the water. It is extremely difficult to swim with your head up and the child gets the wrong impression that swimming is difficult. Again, that’s why I love goggles. Besides, they protect the child’s delicate eyes from harsh chlorine.

When is your child pool safe? Realistically, no one is pool safe, adults included. Anyone can fall, hit their head, take in water, or someone could accidentally jump on someone else in the pool, but when a child knows how to breathe while swimming and can swim the length of the pool without getting tired, then I would consider them confident in the pool and relatively “pool safe”. The next part of this question is, “How many lessons will it take for my child to swim?” I have to say, every child is different. I have taken fearful 5 year olds and had them swimming and breathing by our second lesson. Others, take a little longer, depending on their personal history in the water. I have also taught several kids who were traumatized by other instructors who used the “shove the kid underwater method.” These poor children are terrified. Making these children love the water is my specialty. I enjoy watching them gain confidence as they overcome such a huge fear. They may take a few more lessons (but not always) and since I practice a “total comfort and happiness” method of operation, they are free to have fun and move forward at their own pace. I usually have kids swimming in 10 lessons or less. 5 lessons in many cases.

I feel that if you have a pool, use it. Your child will be most comfortable at home and he will know his surroundings and his own pool. While many children are happy in a group environment and love the fun and competition to see who can do the next skill the best, others are uncomfortable in a group and may feel pressure to do something before they are ready. This may cause a child to withdraw. These kids do well in a private environment where they can get all of the attention. Later, it may be possible for them to enter a group when they are more confident and less fearful. Whichever environment is best for your child, the most important thing is to make swimming fun!

Sharolyn Leithold has been teaching children to swim for the past 18 years. She trained as synchronized swimmer and is also a personal trainer and athletic conditioning coach. She is married with three children and lives in Los Angeles.