Eliya! Ready! Go!” I commanded firmly and she was under. My 8-week-old baby, who could barely hold her head up, on only her second lesson was being dunked underwater by her very own mother.
It seems a somewhat bizarre and maybe cruel thing to do to a child so small. Yet since I had first heard, years ago, that babies naturally hold their breath underwater and can be ‘thrown’ in the deep end to no ill effect, I was determined that my baby would learn to swim as soon as she could, the number of swimming pools in Harare posing serious danger to those who can’t stay afloat.
Of course, I didn’t actually throw her in at the deep end. I found one of Harare’s few swimming classes with a heated pool. In the very first lesson, Eliya was dipped completely under water. And, what do you know, she didn’t take in any water, held her breath and was pretty unperturbed. From there she has gone from strength to strength.
At this age, when they can’t even crawl, learning swimming strokes is not the main intention of the lessons. Rather, they are taught to hold their breath underwater – building on their natural gag reflex that is strongest under the age of six months; to roll onto their backs; and to float without any help. “It’s all about knowing that your baby will, in good time, be able to turn around and hold on instinctively,” says Kim Grantham who runs Splish Splash Academy. “They can then make their way to a safe place to climb out.”
The swimming lessons won’t drown proof a child – that is impossible. But, if a baby falls into a pool, then this training will help them to self-rescue. Little ones always need to have adult supervision when swimming in a pool – and the adult should know how to swim too.
Getting children into the pool when they are very young is something that Dr Harvey Bennett has been pioneering with his Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) programme since 1966. While he believes that fences, nets and supervision are all important elements towards preventing drowning, “ISR’s core conviction is that the child is the most important part of a drowning prevention strategy.”
A swimmer herself since the tender age of three, Kim agrees. “The youngest I will take a baby is from new born,” she says. “It is their natural environment [think of the womb!], so the transition is much calmer. Our babies at a young age are not clingy, which sets toddlers back in the pool environment at a later stage.” She also says that there are other advantages: it’s a great form of exercise which promotes a good sleep pattern, a healthy appetite, a strong core, promotes good balance in later stages, hand eye coordination and increased rate of brain development due to the programme developing each week teaching the babies something new every time.
There is no legal criteria necessary here in Zimbabwe for the setting up of a swimming school, so if you are thinking of getting your children into the water, you need to be happy that the person training them has the right expertise. For me, I know that Kim has trained in the UK with the highly acclaimed Water Babies Swim School and has first aid training on baby resuscitation, just in case.
And when will Eliya be able to swim? A child going to regular swimming lessons from a very young age of about two months should be swimming by the age of two. But, says Kim, this is all dependent on how much work the parents are doing with their children outside of the lessons and, of course, each child has a different learning ability
If you want to find out more on baby swimming, visit www.infantswim.com or www.waterbabies.co.uk. Or go to www.facebook.com/SplishSplashSwimAcademy to sign up.