Babies go through many learning phases, and the learning process involves baby experiencing what works and what doesn’t. Learning a new skill takes exploration, practice, experimentation, and mistakes.
When a baby learns to crawl, there are quite a few faceplants involved. When baby learns to walk, there are even more ways to tumble. Whether it be running, riding a bike, climbing, or swimming, a child inevitably falls and experiences all the scrapes, bumps, and bruises that go with it. A wise parent learns that letting their child fall is the best way to let them learn for themselves. This concept has a wide application and profound meaning in many aspects of parenthood, but we will stick to the swimming application for right now.
Many parents who are good at letting their children explore and learn from trial and error may not feel comfortable giving baby the same freedom around the water. It is a different element. It carries different elements of risk. A parent may not feel comfortable around the water and not know how to help their child explore safely.
So here are some tips for letting baby safely explore the water:
1). Follow baby’s cues.
If baby is interested in it, then make it the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen. Let baby show you what he’s discovering. It might be that swishing his hand through the water feels interesting, that crawling up the pool stairs is fun because it reminds him of the stairs at home, that pouring out a cup of water 20-50 times at different heights makes different splashes, or smacking the water with both fists makes a fun splash and Mom makes a funny face. If he’s laughing, then LAUGH! It doesn’t have to be long. 2 minutes. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. As long as you are engaged in what baby is doing, he will feel interested and secure.
2.) Present new things and let baby set the pace.
I am not one to promote the antiquated method of “toss your kid in the pool until he can swim.”
It is true that a baby needs to be put in new, unfamiliar, and sometimes uncomfortable positions in order to learn. Whenever introducing a new skill (such as going under the water, floating on the back, jumping in the pool, etc) I try it once, hug and praise lavishly for the effort, and watch for baby’s reaction. If baby wails and wails, then we will probably not try it again for a few days, or weeks. But if the experience was not shocking to baby, then it might be something to try again. I try not to repeat a skill over and over. I might do it three times in a row, then go on to something else. Unless baby wants to keep doing it again and again. Then we will go until he starts losing interest.
Whatever water skill you are working on, remember to watch baby’s cues. If he is disinterested or afraid, then go on to something else. You want his relationship with water to be a positive one.
3.) Allow for mistakes. Keep your response in check.
For a toddler, walking in the baby pool can be very exciting. They get to practice their walking skill with a new element. Just like on land, there are going to be falls and mistakes. HOW YOU ACT WILL DETERMINE HOW THEY FEEL.
Have you ever seen the mom (or been the mom) who panics, freaks out, and yanks their child up out of the water when they stumble and briefly go under? The kid is terrified, cries, and feels hesitant about walking around or exploring afterward. That child is missing out on learning to act when something goes wrong. The “freak out” behavior comes from an innate REACTION. It is rarely thought-out and something we just automatically do.
I have to admit, when my child falls in the pool, I still feel like the panicked mom. But the key to helping your child learn is to count to 3. A child will be okay for 3 seconds on his own. RESPOND to what is happening rather than reacting. This will help your child understand where he is and how to respond.
If a crawling baby happens to tumble over the pool edge, it will help him learn if you respond in a constructive way. Fight the urge to scream and plunge into the water to lift baby high out of the water. Take a split-second moment to RESPOND. What can you do in 3 seconds?
Grab baby’s arms and direct them to the pool wall. He will likely cling to it and pull up for air. Or put your hands on either side of baby’s torso to guide him up to the surface in a motion like he was swimming on purpose anyway. Or gently pick him up and hold him close. Whatever you do, lavishly praise baby for remaining so calm and being so brave. Even if baby is upset or crying, he will be okay in a few minutes. YOUR RESPONSE IS CRITICAL.
Another situation that happens when a child is walking in shallow water: they stumble and their head goes under. Again, moms, resist the urge to flail and grab them out of the water. Count to 3. See what they are doing. Many kids freeze because they don’t know what to do. My first response is to grab their ankles and put their feet on the bottom of the pool. Every time I have tried this, they stand up. And smile. It is like the punchline of a joke. “Oh! I can stand up here!” And make sure you praise them for being so smart and figuring it out and being brave. If they feel proud, they will feel confident, and confidence is a good thing to have when you are learning to navigate in the water.
Make the water fun. Get out a couple of toys. Sing nursery rhymes as you do motions in the water. Play games. Give underwater high fives. When a child has fun in the water, he will often initiate and invent new ways to play in the water. That kind of exploration builds confidence. You might get sick of singing “Wheels on the Bus” or “Humpty Dumpty”
20 times, but you might find a little relief in remembering that your child will probably remember those moments with you for a long time. Enjoy your child and play with them, building lasting memories and great water skills.
I’d love to hear how you respond to “oops” moments in the pool, or your favorite ways to play in the water.