Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Water-Babies

Aqua tots


Babies as young as three months old can be taught how to swim.

THERE’s a book entitled The Water-Babies written in the style of Victorian-era novels by Reverend Charles Kingsley, about a young chimney sweep who is transformed into a water baby when he dies. I’ve forgotten most of the story but what I do remember is the cover picture which had cute naked babies swimming around underwater.

What’s amazing is that it’s entirely possible to have babies that young swimming on their own (at least for a short distance). I witnessed this at a private pool in Petaling Jaya, where a group of babies and toddlers ranging in age from five months to three years old were bobbing in and out of the water quite comfortably, accompanied by their parents.
Innate quality: Experts will tell you that babies up to six months old are natural swimmers, thanks to their diving reflex.
It all started with a group of mothers eight years ago who were concerned about the high risk of children drowning. Compounded by the fact that one-third of all drowning victims involve children below the age of 10 (as reported by the Life Saving Society Malaysia), these resolute mothers set out to educate their own children and equip them with rudimentary swimming skills.
“My main objective was to get my children to be able to kick, blow bubbles and feel confident underwater so that they could be safe in the water. My daughter (now four years old) was 11 weeks when I first took her out to the pool where we lived (then, in a condominium),” says Margaret Wing, who runs her own public relations agency. Her son, now eight years old, could easily complete a lap or two while holding his breath underwater from a very young age.
“What’s important is that you don’t panic or transfer fear to your children. Applaud them when they willingly put their head under (with supervision). When babies are comfortable in water, they instinctively know how to lift their heads above water or at least hold their breath long enough for the parent to quickly reach out and grab them out,” adds Wing.
Since there aren’t any classes in Malaysia that cater to children that young, Wing and her friends decided to hold informal lessons and teach their children themselves.
“At that young age, babies don’t really understand instructions from a swimming coach anyway. By teaching them to swim at that young age, you’re also bonding with your kids and tapping their natural diving reflex before they lose it. Swimming will also help with co-ordination and increase their lung capacity for air.”
Experts will tell you that babies up to six months old are natural swimmers, thanks to their diving reflex. Just like when adults block their air passage during swallowing, babies can naturally block their throats so they don’t swallow water. They can move their arms and legs, and this explains why babies sometimes swim with their mouths open.
Margaret Wing: ‘The whole idea is to create awareness.
Much of the information on teaching techniques was gleaned from the Internet and books like Water Babies by Françoise Barbira Freedman and The Parent Child and Preschool Aquatic Proper Manual.
Wing and her friends also sang nursery rhymes, instilling learning through play techniques while in the water. The babies were encouraged to achieve simple milestones such as getting used to being in the water by six months old, jumping in and letting go of the parent by eight months, and swimming short lengths by 12 months.
“The whole idea of this ‘programme’ is to create awareness. You never know when an accident might happen and a child gets pushed in,” she says. Wing isn’t continuing with her baby sessions any more as her own children are too old for the group but she hopes other parents are encouraged to start their own swim teams.
Chan Yee Send has two children, age four and two years old, in Wing’s swimming group. She read up on the subject on her own and started her children when they were just three months old.
“At home, I would sprinkle water on my children’s heads in the bath tub and teach them how to hold their breath when they were a few months old. I always have a smile ready when they come out of the water so they’re assured everything’s fine,” explains Chan.
“All it takes is just 15 to 30 minutes per session in the pool at regular intervals. When they were older, I went to the pool at the condo where I live.
“Many parents leave their children with their maids to watch over them so it defeats the purpose if you’re thinking of bonding with your children.
“I’m trying to get a small swimming group going at my place, but it’s not easy as Malaysian parents tend to be more reserved and don’t quite grasp the concept of learning through play.”
For New Zealanders Jono and Lina Snell, their son Isaac, who is 28 months old, already knew the basics by the time they came to Malaysia over a year ago.
“Back home, it was very common for parents to send their children as young as 10 weeks old to the local pool (which is heated). It costs NZ$150 (RM277) for 10 lessons at 30 minutes each.
“By the second lesson, the babies are already taught how to swim through hoops. Here, there’s no such programme available for such small children so we joined Margaret’s group to keep Isaac’s interest going,” says Jono.