Twin life

Water babies

Since we’ve been spending some time in the pool this week, while we bake in the French heat (and shiver at the thought of returning to winter, albeit a mild Auckland winter), I thought I’d write about babies, toddlers, and swimming.

Baby swimming lessons have become hugely popular in recent years, and the general attitude among many parents seems to be that it’s never too early to get your little ones into the water. However, for twin parents this is yet another area of life where things are vastly more complicated, because it’s hardly like you can just hang onto one baby and leave the other one to drift away: in most circumstances you need to have one adult per child in the pool until they’ve turned three.

Some twin families can manage this by scoring much-coveted weekend swimming lesson slots and having both parents on hand to participate. Others rope in a willing local grandparent. Sadly, these two options weren’t any good for us. We did have the chance to possibly sort out weekday lessons that Tristan could have joined, as there’s a pool in his office building and another one a short drive away, but we decided against it during the first couple of years.

Our main reason for choosing not to prioritise swimming lessons early on was that we didn’t fully agree with the emphasis placed on this for babies and toddlers. Increasingly it is being presented as a key skill, as if a preschooler who hasn’t been to swimming lessons will be at a significant disadvantage. Take this language from the website of a very popular swimming school in our area:

Toddlers swimming classes focus on basic water skills, safety and growing their enjoyment of the water. Your child needs to develop these key life skills at an early age to enable them to remain safe in and around water as well as swim and survive.

I don’t dispute that water safety is essential, and I do count swimming as a key life skill, particularly if you live in a country where a lot of recreational activities involve the water, but do my young children really need to develop those skills before they’re at school? I’m not convinced. When I was growing up swimming lessons for really young children were not a ‘thing’ at all, and pretty much all of us learned to swim at school. Given that no young child should be unsupervised around water, I’m not sure why there is now such an expectation that younger children should develop skills necessary to remain safe in the water, swim, and survive.

I also wonder whether there’s a risk of some degree of parental complacency if people believe that their young children have been equipped with skills to cope with water, when in reality I’m guessing that many children (and many adults), if in a dangerous situation around water, may be more likely to panic than to remember whatever skills they’ve learned in 30 minute lessons.

That’s not to say that I fail to recognise the many benefits of swimming lessons for young children: it’s good fun, for starters, and, when children have passed the age of three and can be in the water with the instructor and without their parents, it can provide a great opportunity for them to have their first experience of listening to a non-parent teaching them something and then following instructions. I just reject the idea that it’s essential.

And my cynical side can’t help but notice that, while teaching this ‘essential’ skill, swimming schools are making a decent living: the school that I quoted above charge $17.50 per child for a 30 minute toddler lesson with four children. And you’re committing to a series of lessons, so it’s not as if this is an occasional activity.

The rhetoric around swimming lessons for babies (from the same swimming school as I quoted above) also warrants some scrutiny. The following quotes discuss the series of lessons provided for babies aged from three months to 36 months, at $14 a lesson for a fixed block of 11 30-minute lessons, with nine babies per lesson.

The [school name] babies swimming lessons focus on getting your baby comfortable in the water and teaching them basic co-ordination as well as early awareness and survive skills.

Really? Survival skills, for babies that are three months old? From what I can gather, this claim is predicated on the belief that babies who have had swimming lessons will roll onto their backs and float if they find themselves in trouble in the water, but – as per my earlier comments – I wonder whether a small child, freaking out in the water, would have the presence of mind to actually do that. I can definitely understand the benefits of getting babies comfortable with being in the water, but I think you could also achieve that in the bath at home.

Baby swimming lessons are a great opportunity to strengthen gross & fine motor skills, enhance co-ordination & balance, provide positive encouragement, help develop social skills, improve cognitive development…

I’ve done a bit of hunting for research to underpin these claims, and found this information that does suggest some actual science can reinforce the positives of swimming lessons for little ones. A specific piece of research cited via that link talks about the benefits for three to five year olds who swim, so that might be a good age to start.

…and because you’re in the pool with them, it’s a great bonding experience for you and your child.

Everything you do with your child has the potential to be a great bonding experience with your child. You don’t need to spend $14 a pop to bond.

The takeaway message in all of this, for twin parents who struggle with being able to manage baby swimming lessons? It sounds like a lot of the benefits actually kick in for older preschoolers, which – conveniently – is also the age when the kids can get into the pool without you. Winning all round!

Hattie and Joe had their first swimming lessons in August 2015, when they were just past two and a half. There was high excitement on the first day, largely because they were having lessons with their beloved friends Harry and Matilda:

Although they were under three, the lessons were held in a special shallow pool and I could stay out of the pool. Both kids did very well on their first day, with Hattie slightly more brave than Joe:

We continued with lessons for another four months, and it was amazing to see how Hattie almost caught up with her friends in terms of confidence and ability, even though they’d been having lessons for a couple of years longer. We eventually ended the lessons for two reasons: they were moved from the shallow indoor pool to the instructor’s home pool, which was deep and freaked out my two a bit; and I had a parting of the ways with the instructor herself. Despite me constantly assuring her that my only motivation was that Hattie and Joe would enjoy being in the water and learn at their own pace, she became really impatient with Joe’s progress, which culminated in one lesson where she gave him a very hard time – hassling him for what she perceived as him not trying, telling him that he was wasting her time and my money, etc. He wasn’t even three at the time, and her attitude was inappropriate and bloody ridiculous.

Now that the kids are three I would like to take them elsewhere for lessons, but my uni schedule just doesn’t allow it. Hopefully we can fit in a term of lessons after my exams in October. In the meantime, we had a lot of beach trips last summer, and Hattie and Joe are loving their time in the pool during this holiday. In the future we certainly hope that they’ll both be competent and confident in the water, particularly as our suburb has an amazing surf-lifesaving club with activities for children from the age of six or seven. However, we think we’ve still got plenty of time.

Here’s an update post, written after ten months of lessons.

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4 thoughts on “Water babies

  1. None of my kids had lessons until they were 3. I don’t think it did them any harm. I can see why you parted ways with that instructor – I would have done the same.

  2. As someone who has taught baby swimming lessons (many years ago!) do no feel guilty for not spending the money – in my opinion they’re a waste of time and I HATED teaching them. Parents seem to be easily fooled into thinking that their < 2 year old child is learning valuable life saving skills… No, if your baby / toddler falls into a pool, it will drown, not roll over or doggy paddle to the side. Confidence is key, if they are happy in the water they will learn to swim easily enough and having gone to those baby lessons is not an indicator of later ability, they're not any kind of 'head start'. I found 3-4-year-olds the best (and most fun) age to teach actual swimming skills. Much like so many other areas of toddlers lives it should be about play and having fun, not an underlying sense of a need to achieve anything. Rant done 🙂

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