When Should Children Start Swim Lessons?
Is your little one eyeing the pool in the backyard or getting excited every time you pass the lively public pool? Have you taken them into the water recently to let them splash around and wondered if they’re old enough to learn how to swim? Are you looking at swimming instructors and wondering how to find the best one?
We’ve collected everything you need to know in this handy guide, from when to start swimming lessons to the benefits of learning early and how to help your child overcome a fear of water.
What Age to Start Swim Lessons
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), your child can start swimming lessons as young as 1. Most children are ready to begin lessons by 4 years old. By this age, they can often learn skills like:
- Reaching an exit
- Treading water
By 5 or 6 years old, children can typically start learning basic swimming strokes like the front crawl.
Every child is unique and reaches developmental milestones in their own time. While some children may be ready to start swimming at a certain age, others may need more time. However, if it seems like your child is ready, it’s probably safe for them to start.
Benefits of Early Swimming Lessons
One of the most significant benefits of teaching children to swim at an early age is safety. Data from the AAP shows that swim lessons may lower the risk of drowning for children between 1 and 4 years old. Children who go through swimming lessons learn basic water survival skills and know what to do if they fall in the water.
Without the muscle control to hold their heads up out of the water, babies under 1 year old can’t take lessons yet. But they can still have fun in the pool with an adult! Starting your child in the water young can help them see it as normal, preventing them from developing a fear of water. Once they reach the age to start swimming, they’ll have built the confidence to take the plunge.
Early swimming lessons also offer physical and social benefits for children.
Let’s take a look at some of the physical benefits of early swimming lessons:
- Builds muscle: Swimming is a full-body activity that helps develop muscles and promote muscle control.
- Improves sleeping patterns and appetite: The combination of physical activity and maintaining body temperature means your child will use a lot of energy in the water. Along with boosting their appetite, swimming is a great way to encourage healthy sleeping patterns.
- Boosts brain development: Children who start swimming at a young age have a cognitive advantage. The feeling of resistance as they move through the water helps children develop their proprioception, the sense of where their bodies are in space. Improving this sense lets them get better at using both sides of their body at once, an activity that stimulates brain development. Along with advancing their motor skills, swimming can also improve future skills in reading, language development and spatial awareness.
Early swimming lessons also offer children social benefits:
- Quality time between babies and caregivers: Taking your baby into the pool gives you extra one-on-one bonding time as they learn how to splash and have fun.
- Practice working with an instructor: Swim lessons give children extra practice listening and following instructions, helping them make an easy transition to school later.
- Socialization with other children: Group swimming lessons give children a chance to socialize with other kids their age and make new friends.
How to Tell When Your Child Is Ready for Swim Lessons
Your child may be ready to start swim lessons when they:
- Like to blow bubbles in the water
- Can get their face wet without swallowing water
- Can float in the water without support from an adult
- Like to kick their legs and splash in the water
If those behaviors fit your child, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can they follow instructions? It’s crucial to listen to the swim instructor and follow their instructions.
- Are they comfortable around strangers or large groups? If your child enjoys big groups and meeting new people, they’re probably suited for a group swimming class. Children who are shyer or have sensory sensitivities might be more comfortable with private swimming lessons.
- Are they interested in the water and swimming? It’s essential for your child to be comfortable in the water and interested in learning to swim before beginning lessons.
While there are certainly benefits to learning to swim early, the best age for swim lessons ultimately depends on your child. You can judge when to start swimming lessons by their physical and emotional development and how comfortable they are in the water.
What to Do if Your Child Is Afraid of Swimming
If your child is afraid of swimming, your first step is to try to figure out why. It’s common for young children to develop a fear of water — usually when they’re around 2 years old — for many different reasons.
Many young children have only experienced smaller areas of water, like the bathtub or a kiddie pool in the backyard. Seeing a large pool or lake may be their first encounter with how enormous water can be. Suddenly, water is potentially dangerous. Without the experience to determine how dangerous it might be, they only know they’re afraid.
Your child may have had a genuinely scary or uncomfortable experience with water, from slipping in the bathtub to getting water in their eyes or up their nose. A negative experience like this can reinforce a preexisting fear. It may even be enough to establish a new fear of water in a child who previously enjoyed it.
Children prone to sensory overload may also develop a fear of water. Their fear may stem from the feel of the water itself or surrounding sensory input like the smell of chlorine, the feeling of sand or the noise at a pool or beach.
Once you’ve worked out the root of your child’s fear, you can try to help them through it.
Consider Your Approach
When you and your child are ready to work through their fear of swimming, stay calm and pay close attention to their feelings and reactions. Children often pick up on and echo how the adults around them feel. If you’re nervous or frustrated, they might start feeling that way, too. On the other hand, if you’re happy and excited, it can be easier for your child to relax.
Here are a few considerations for creating an environment where your child will feel comfortable facing their fears:
- Start small: Before introducing your child to swimming pools, try getting them comfortable with the water at home first. A small, shallow kiddie pool can give them the chance to play by splashing and blowing bubbles, teaching them that water can be fun. When they’re ready, the bathtub is an excellent place for them to practice dunking their head beneath the surface.
- Let them make the first move: If your child seems more uncertain than afraid, they may just need a more gradual approach. In this case, it’s important to ensure they don’t feel rushed. Try sitting quietly near the water’s edge with them to help them get used to the surroundings. When they’re relaxed, bring out some water toys — like floatable balls or boats — for them to play with there or in the water.
- Let them learn by example: Your child may feel more comfortable in the water once they see other people enjoying it. Watching other children their age splashing and playing can be especially effective in helping them overcome their fears.
- Choose a swim class that fits them: Does your child enjoy group activities, or would they do better with one-on-one lessons? Are they excited about seeing their instructor, or do they need a different teaching method? Try to choose a class that suits your child and check in with them about how they like it. A positive experience can help establish a lifelong love of swimming.
Help Them Overcome Their Fear
Beyond creating a comfortable environment, you can also try some direct, practical approaches to help your child overcome their fear of swimming:
- Move at their pace: Some children need extra time for a slower, more gradual approach. Let them set their own pace, even if that means they take a long time. Showing them that you respect their decision will help them feel safe so they can keep taking the next step forward.
- Get in the water with them: In addition to following water safety standards — the AAP says an adult should stay within arm’s reach whenever infants and toddlers are in the water — you can help your child feel more secure by going in with them. You can carry them or hold their hand as you step in together. They’ll know you’re still close, even after you let go and let them swim on their own.
- Make it fun: Brightly colored goggles, pool noodles, snorkels — some fun equipment can make swimming feel like an adventure while giving your child tools to help them feel safe. Introducing pool games that incorporate what they’ve learned in class can help them see swim class as a gateway to new ways to play.
- Talk things through: The best way to understand your child’s fear is to ask about it. Whether or not they can explain it, asking them and listening to their answer may help them feel better. Talk with them about why they’re afraid and answer their questions as fully as you can.
- Try counseling: If your child’s fear seems particularly intense and you haven’t been able to help them past it, consider scheduling a couple of sessions with a child psychologist. They’ll have the tools and training to help.
If nothing you’ve tried has helped your child overcome their fear of swimming, your best move is to let the matter go. They may decide they want to try again in the future!
Swim Lesson Safety Tips
Once your child reaches the age to start swimming lessons, understanding water safety becomes more vital than ever. Follow these tips to ensure they stay safe in the water:
- Make sure there’s constant adult supervision within reach while your child is swimming.
- Learn how to recognize signs of distress in the water so that you can react quickly.
- Children just learning to swim should start in a supervised pool before swimming in an ocean or lake.
- Ensure they follow safety rules like not running around a pool.
- Teach them how to use flotation devices so they know what to do in an emergency.
- Don’t use air-filled swimming aids like floaties, as they can deflate without warning.
- Enroll them in formal swim lessons.
3 Things to Look for in Swimming Lessons
When you’re ready to start looking for a swim class, you may find several options in your area. However, not all swimming lessons are the same — you’ll need to find the best fit for your child. To help you narrow it down, here are things to look for while making your decision.
1. Qualified Instructors
Organizations like the Red Cross, YMCA and SwimAmerica offer nationally recognized learn-to-swim curricula — look for instructors who have received training and certification through such a program.
You’ll also want to ensure they have their CPR, first aid and lifeguard certifications. You can also confirm that lifeguards with these safety certifications will be on duty during the lessons.
2. Well-Rounded Focus
Finding a program that teaches more than the basic mechanics of swimming is helpful. As you research, look for swim lessons that emphasize:
- Enjoying the water: You want your child to see their swimming lessons as fun rather than a chore. Read through online reviews and talk to the instructor so you can get a sense of their teaching style. Look for instructors who have experience teaching children and know how to encourage and connect with them.
- Developing foundational skills: While learning different swim strokes can be helpful, young children’s swim lessons should prioritize water survival skills. Look for programs that include lessons on things like holding their breath, resurfacing from underwater, floating and getting out of the water on their own.
- Teaching children water safety: Ensure the lessons teach and explain water safety habits like only swimming with adult supervision and choosing safe places to swim. They should also cover the basics of what to do if they or someone else is struggling in the water.
3. Sit-In Options for Caregivers
Sometimes you need to see a lesson firsthand to get a sense of whether or not it will work for your child. Ask the instructor if you can sit in on a class while you’re making your decision. While you watch, take note of the following:
- Do the children spend more time swimming or idle?
- Does the instructor’s teaching style seem like one your child would do well with?
- How much one-on-one attention do the children get during the lesson?
- Are there any other caregivers there watching?
Most instructors are happy to let caregivers watch their children during their lessons. If there are other guardians there, you can take the opportunity to ask about the class from their point of view.
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