It’s Okay to Fall In

Experimenting with crawling on a slope

Experimenting with crawling on a slope

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:

Approaching the water on his own terms (with Mom in the water)

Approaching the water on his own terms (with Mom in 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.

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Oops! There’s no wall there!

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 11.31.23 PMI 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?

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Cuddle and praise enthusiastically

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.

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He wanted to get up on the wall and explore some more…no harm done!

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.

4). PLAY

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.

ISR – Infant Self-Rescue

I taught swimming lessons for 6 years before moving to Texas. And I always got assigned the Level 1 class. That class has a reputation. It’s the one you can hear across the parking lot. They are the little 2-3 year olds who haven’t ever had a swimming lesson and are very timid when it comes to moving in the water. Before graduating to level 2, one of the things they had to learn was to flip over and float on their back, then continue to swim to the wall.

Bless their hearts, many of them tried their best, but it took them a long time to ever feel comfortable doing that. I came up with every trick I could think of, but progress in the floating department was slow.

And then, in a college child development class, I saw this video:

WHAT?!?! How did they do that?

It took me two years until I had a “guinea pig” (aka: 15 month old daughter) I could try it on. I made my own attempts, but my results were just about as successful as teaching the level 1 kids.

So we bit the bullet and signed her up for ISR lessons (the company that put out that video you just watched).

We had to be at her lesson for 10 minutes, 5 days a week.

We had to log everything she ate or drank, when she slept, and anything you could possibly know about a child.

The hardest part was listening to her cry because she wanted to play instead of practice floating on her back.

I have to admit, 3-4 weeks into it, I was about ready to stop lessons because I wasn’t seeing much progress. It was expensive, tedious to keep track of all the food, and really sad to hear all the fussing.

Then the next week, this is what happened:

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She did it! Again and again. She had to be able to rescue herself wearing her swimsuit, in full summer clothing, in fall clothing, and in a winter coat (the winter one was the most perilous to watch, but she did it beautifully!). After 5 weeks, she was able to save herself if she were to fall into a pool or other body of water.

Because she was 15 months, she was able to learn the SWIM-FLOAT-SWIM sequence. Babies as young as 6 months can be in ISR lessons, but they typically just learn the roll over to FLOAT.

These teachers really know what they are doing. Lessons are one-on-one. Every little movement they do or skill they have the child practice is all focused on one thing…


Would I do it all over again with another child? Definitely.

If you have a back yard pool or live near a body of water, this training could save your child’s life. 5 weeks to teach self-rescue. Is that worth it?

If you are planning a great vacation to the beach or a lake, this could be one more safeguard to keeping your precious little one safe.

The ISR motto is “Not one more child drowns.”  Read the success/rescue stories by parents who still have their child, thanks to their ISR lessons. 5 weeks. Is the life of your child worth it to you?

What About Floaties?

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Floaties seem to be a summertime staple. They have been around for generations and there are many different variations to fit your swimming style. But whenever I see floaties, I cringe.

This is why:

I took a deep water aerobics class. It was fun and a great workout. We wore special buoyancy belts that kept us floating at shoulder level in deep water to allow us to focus on movement rather than staying afloat.

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At the end of the class, I took off the belt and tossed it to the side of the pool. I went to casually sidestroke back, but felt like I was fighting to stay afloat. It was scary! I am a strong swimmer and can tread for a long period of time. Heck, I can haul a guy that’s twice my size across the pool, lifeguard style. But the altered buoyancy had tricked my brain into thinking I just naturally stay at shoulder level in the water. It took a minute to get oriented, but I suffered no lasting effects. So here’s my question:

If 45 minutes using a buoyancy belt can cancel out a lifetime of swim lessons and lifeguard training, what are flotation devices doing to children who have not experienced water in any other way?

Have you ever seen a “floatie-trained” kid jump into the deep end without his floaties? It gives you a heart attack They can’t even get their head back to the surface of the water and they panic. As well they should…they have never had to hold their head above the water without help. They don’t know what their natural buoyancy is because they’ve never been allowed to experience it.

Using floaties is a substitute (a poor substitute) for guided exploration in the water. As a swim lesson instructor, I noticed a vast difference between children in my class who had parents that actively swam with them and the children who had parents that liked to sit on the side with their feet in the water or chat with their friends while stealing glances to check on their kids.

I AM NOT HERE TO CRITICIZE PARENTING STYLES. I realize every family has their own dynamics and their own view of the water. If you are a parent who would rather socialize and not have to keep a close eye on your kids, by all means, put them in the puddle-jumpers and let them at it. It is better that they are safe.File0207

The biggest factor in your child learning to love the water and be safe is your personal attention and participation as their parent in the learning process. Yeah, it takes effort. You may find it boring. Or tedious. Or intimidating. But your personal involvement will make a big difference. No one knows your child better than you do. You know what they like and what they don’t like. You know if they are by nature a cautious observer or an enthusiastic thrill-seeker. You know the kinds of things that catch their interest. So you know the best way to teach that particular child about the water.

If you do not feel particularly comfortable in the water, you are not alone. The American Red Cross put out a survey and found that “more than half of Americans in 2014 (54%) either can’t swim or don’t have all of the basic swimming skills…that could save their life in the water.”

IMG_4900You may not feel comfortable teaching your child to swim, but you can still help him or her explore and experience the water with you, at a safe depth. (Another thing I hate about floaties…”floatie kids” don’t learn to gauge the depth of the water, or even care about it, because they have no need to find the shallow end or a wall, other than to get out, run to the deep end, and plunge in at a depth their parents would never let them play in without their beloved flotation devices.

There will be a future post about things you can do to help your child understand how to react to the water. Here is one example of something you can do. If you and your child are exploring in shallow water (where they can comfortably walk) chances are, they will at some point stumble, and fall completely under the water…DO NOT FREAK OUT. Even if you are panicking on the inside, calmly put their feet down on the ground, or gently move their submerged torso to a vertical position, and watch how quickly they go to stand up. They will likely not panic if you cheer “Good job! You got back up!” They get their cues from you. If you act like they almost died, they will feel like that next time. If you cheer on their safe behavior in the water, they will most likely make that their “norm.”

In summary:

Don’t put your kids in floaties. Put yourself in the pool. With your child. And play and explore with them. Who knows….they may just surprise you.




UPDATE: July 14th, 2014

Isaac is now taking ISR lessons. I caught a really good piece of advice that his teacher gave another mom.

She was teaching a little two year old boy to hold onto the wall. He kept putting his feet up to the wall before his hands, so he could not grab the wall and come up for air. She worked with him for a while to break the tendency, but he was still fighting it.

After the 10 minute lesson, the teacher asked the mom how the boy’s experience in the pool usually is. She said he loves the water. She is always in it with him, and “he has this floatie thing.”

The teacher cut her off right there, and said that is what was causing the problem. When kids float in floaties, they tend to recline a little and kick their feet forward (just like he had been doing while trying to hold onto the wall). It puts them in a bad position in the water (and she demonstrated so we could see).

Her advice? Go home and THROW YOUR FLOATIES AWAY. Floaties are completely contrary to learning how to swim and will impede any progress in learning to safely behave in the water.

WOW!!! There you go…ISR teacher for 18 years, Sheri Phillips, says to go throw your floaties away RIGHT NOW. Will you take the challenge?